Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Rabbi Ariel Stone, of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Portland, Oregon. Rabbi Stone is the recipient of the City of Portland’s 2018 Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award. She has a long history of working for justice in the Portland area. She has also written a book about Jewish spirituality titled, Because All Is One. Her forthcoming book is titled, The Alef-Bet of Death: Dying as a Jew.
Rabbi Stone and I talked about Hanukkah, Jewish views of the Bible, the Talmud and the Mishna, Jewish views of justice, and how we can work together to defeat the growing rise of anti-Semitism.
The transcript of the conversation will be available soon. You can watch the video below.
The conversation about Hanukkah was especially important from the perspective of mimetic theory, which claims that people are imitative. We are especially imitative when it comes to violence.
Hanukkah remembers the Maccabean rebellion against the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucids controlled Jerusalem. They tried to take over the Jerusalem Temple and install their god in the Temple. The Maccabees didn’t like this, and so they led a violent rebellion against the Seleucids. The Maccabees defeated the Seleucids, reentered the Temple, and wanted to celebrate a festival called Sukkot.
That festival lasts eight days, but they only had enough oil for one day. Today, if you ask any Jew about Hanukkah, they will tell you the miracle is that the candles remained lit for eight days.
But originally, the miracle was primarily thought to be the violent conquest against the Seleucid Empire. This changed in the first century when the Roman Empire controlled Jerusalem. There were Jews who thought, “Let’s be like the Maccabees, who violently pushed back their oppressors, let’s fight against the Romans! God will be with us!”
Those who fought against the Roman Empire lost three wars. The Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis re-taught the story of Hanukkah. They began to teach that the real story of Hanukkah is how God created a miracle that allowed the light to shine despite only having enough oil for one day.
“In so doing,” says Rabbi Stone, “they took the emphasis off the guerilla army overcoming the great odds. And in so doing, they taught the Jewish people that sometimes you can’t fight against superior odds. Sometimes you have to duck and cover. And that, once we went into exile, allowed us to survive living in hostile societies. Because we learned that you don’t have to fight back and die. Sometimes it’s okay if you just figure out how to live and maintain your customs and traditions and history. And believe that one day things are going to get better.”
The Gospel writers claim that Jesus made the same point about violence against the Roman Empire. Jesus constantly counseled against violence. Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are thoroughly Jewish and in the air of first century Judaism.
For some Christians, this might seem to dilute Jesus, but I find this enriching. Jesus was a Jew and he was formed by the God of Judaism. Violence and nonviolence have been options within Judaism and within the Hebrew scriptures. For example, the book of Daniel was written during the same time as the Macabbean rebellion, but Daniel advised nonviolence in the face of persecution. When it comes to violence and nonviolence, Jesus, Daniel, and many
Transcript of “To Shine A Light: Conversation with Rabbi Ariel Stone”
ADAM ERICKSEN: Welcome to Clackamas United Church of Christ as we like to say here in the UCC, no matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here. And tonight, I am so excited because we have Rabbi Ariel Stone with us. Everybody give it up for Rabbi Ariel Stone. Thank you for being here.
RABBI ARIEL STONE: My pleasure.
ADAM ERICKSEN: Awesome. We decided we will just make this really conversational, like two old friends hanging out, having a conversation about Judaism and the present state of the world. So I have about 9, 10 questions, I asked Rabbi Stone… I don’t know, we started this conversation, ten, no, like a month, a month and a half ago, over email, just asking you to come. And that was just after Pittsburgh happened. We were all, I don’t know, devastated, struck by it, wondering what we could do, and so we just got this sign and we said, we stand with our Jewish friends. And I was like we have to do so much more than just put a message up upon sign. And so, I wanted to reach out to you, and little did I know that you are the recipient of the 2018 City of Portland Human Rights Life Time award winner.
It's kind of big deal, nicely done. So it’s just an honor to have you here. I have these questions but, I wanted to ask you, kind of to tell us about yourself and where you are from and your synagogue, Congregation Shir Tikvah. And what do those words mean and how did you become the Rabbi there and that kind of thing.
RABBI ARIEL STONE: In Jewish tradition, when you are trying to say a lot in a few minutes, you say "on one foot." Which is a little bit like saying in a nutshell. The "on one foot" idea comes from an old story in which someone came to a rabbi once upon a time and said tell me all of Judaism in the time while I can stand on one foot. And the Rabbi said, "Do not do to someone else that which is hateful to you". That’s the kernel of it all the rest is commentary. Go and study it.
And so I will start, sort of indirectly, answering your question by saying that it’s wonderful for me to be here because, I believe, at the root of it, all of are here human beings first, and the all rest is commentary. All the rest is what town did you grow up in, what did your parents teach you about which way to walk or which way to make your favorite food, and so much of it narrows down our sense of who we are into a specific. Even among Jews, there are many different subcultures, with different specifics. So some Jews on Passover, won’t eat rice and for other Jews, it’s a basic foodstuff.
So it depends on where you come from and what you are used to. I am from the south. I grew up with grits. I grew up with a drawl. I grew up in one of the most intensely, awfully segregated cities in the United States, Orlando, Florida. If you don’t know about why so many African American in our country move north, in what’s called the great migration, go find the book called The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s where I learned more specifics about why people left my hometown, and I don’t blame them, I would have left, too. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t all that easy to be a Jew there. The nice thing about being Jewish for some of us is that, although there are Jews of color, a lot of us are light-skinned enough that we can pass. And so imagine our surprise after 40, 50, 60 years of thinking we pretty much managed to blend in when it turns out that we... our privilege in the society is conditional.
So growing up in the south, I knew a little bit about hierarchy and a little bit about discrimination. I guess I could say that I did grow up with a certain sense of my difference in some pretty clear ways. In the south, one of the basic food group is pork and since Jews don’t eat it, you are constantly feeling different, even though you were meant to feel altogether every time the school had a picnic. So you want your kids to go to the same school so that everybody can know each other, because one of the things that really hurts us is when we don’t know each other. And so when I went to school in a number of places; I went to school first in Atlanta, Georgia, more of the same, more so. But then I was in school in Jerusalem and in New York. I have worked in Ukraine. I have worked in obviously also Portland Oregon. I have been fascinated by the ways in which larger cities, and I am going to now count Portland in it because with enough will we can do this. Larger cities with diverse populations that actually reach out to each other and say tell me your story, and I will tell you mine, are so much better off than when we stay in our little-gated communities, in our comfort zone.
In Israel, a wall has been built which is supposed to be a security wall between the Israeli state, which is more or less defined, and the Palestine state which is going to happen. For the time being, it’s a long time aborning, but it’s going to happen. Interestingly enough, the wall that was created sort of kind of defined it. But what has happened because of that wall is that Israeli and Palestinians know each other less and that makes making peace harder.
I am so happy to be able to here, just in case you never met a Jew before, or just in case you never met a Rabbi before or just in case you met a Jew but didn’t really feel like you could say could you tell me more about you. I am here tonight to thank you for your support, to tell you that I have run a long road from little ole Orlando Florida to get all the way out here, and I am very grateful to be here. Very grateful for all the things l learned along the on my way. My congregation is the only east side congregation, so thank God, at least I didn’t have to cross over the river. It could have been worse. We are the only eastside Jewish congregation and most people think, and including the Jews think that all the Jews are on the west side. You know the Jewish community center is over there, several synagogues are over there. Well you know, you just have to look and people you don’t expect are actually your neighbors.
So my congregation which was started in 2002 has 180 families, give or take. And we are very proudly an open and affirming congregation, which welcomes people of all backgrounds, of all diverse genders, and identifications and no matter where you come from if it’s the Jewish path you want to follow, you are welcome with us. And we have a gloriously rainbow coalition kind of congregation. I have been there for -my goodness- 15 or 16 years now, which shocks me, because I have never been that long in any one place. But, I feel like Portland is a really wonderful place, it’s got a lot of potential. It reminds me a little bit of Orlando in terms of its background which is pretty solidly discriminatory. But I like trying to, let’s put it this way, in Oregon, there aren’t that many people, I can be a bigger fish, I can splash more, I can feel like am making more of an effect in the work I want to do which is to try to meet everybody as human beings. So am very glad to be able to be here and to answer questions and to hopefully help us all to get to know each other better.
ADAM ERICKSEN: I am going to give you, -this isn’t fair of me- you talked about, like standing on one foot, right, and many of these questions I feel just, yes, just not fair because they would... they are like a course that we should be having.
You have a YouTube video that you didn’t know was up, but then I saw it and I sent it to you. And I said this is so fantastic. And one of the things that I really love about that video is that you talk about the Jewish path, which you mentioned. And one of the things that often happens in inter-religious dialogue is that we end up just talking about what works, what makes us similar. I am like, that’s great, but it's not deep enough for me. So in that video, you talk about the Jewish path, specifically Jewish path to being a Rabbi and what is it that Judaism has to offer, and if you go deeper into your tradition, you’re stronger. What is it about Judaism that when you go down the path, makes you stronger so that when you reach out your hands, you have a strong hand to help people?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: So you can’t introduce yourself to someone else until you know who you are. And so this is a variation of that idea. So, one of the really strong influences in the 20th century in the United States has been this pressure on all of us to find what we have in common and to celebrate just that. And on some very animal level, that’s where we all feel safest, when we are all know that we are the same. There's a very deep-seated fear of being different, in a way that will make everybody else push you away. I actually heard once that, and I don’t think that’s true, but I think it’s fascinating, that the fear of public speaking is somehow related to the fact that in the ancient world if you are apart from everybody else, standing in front of everybody else, the only reason was because they were about to either stone you to death or put you on an ice floe and send you away. It was never good to be separate from the rest of the group.
So there is a real strong sense that we all want to have something in common with each other and to feel secure in that. And it makes it really hard for us to actually be different. If you look at some of the most brilliant campaigns in marketing, they assure you, that you are going to be unique if you buy the very same sneakers as 200 million other people. Or the same jeans, or whatever it is, that’s how you going to be you. So one of the interesting things about being part of a minority is that you are forced into a sense of well, who are you? Everyone else says you are different, well how do you define that? How you are different, how are you similar? And it takes some doing to get over the sense of fear that you are being pointed out as different and start to live in the power of that. And I will give you an interesting example out of totally left field.
I had lived in Ukraine right after the fall of the Soviet Union. The average citizen of the Soviet Union was now a former Soviet citizen. Their whole basis for their identity had just collapsed. I was there working with the Jewish community which was just beginning to redevelop itself because to be religious in the Soviet Union was not acceptable. Specific Jewish practices were against the law. You could go to jail for teaching someone Hebrew. Difference was illegal on some level. Everyone was supposed to be Soviet. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Jews at least had a fallback identity, so did the Hussars, so did anybody else who was a distinct people within the Soviet empire. The thing about a specific identity is that it can enrich everything you do. Jews who are deeply Jewish in their practice only seem weird from the outside. On the inside, everything we are doing makes sense to us and is woven into everything else and gives us one whole beautiful way to look at the whole world and how to deal with everything that happens to us.
Yeah, from the outside, it may look strange. Why do you not eat certain things? But other things that we do are not that unusual. We pray on a certain day, you pray on a certain day. We actually, surprise, traditional Jews pray every day, but yes, we pray differently on our Sabbath, what we call in Hebrew Shabbat. If you use the word Sabbath, you are translating it into English, from the Hebrew. By the way, hallelujah is also a Hebrew word. Praise God. So we have a lot in common here because in a way, no matter where Christians have gone, we are the mother ship. So it’s kind of fun for us to look at you and say, look at where they have gone. That’s really a good idea, I like that. You know what I love is that UCC came up with this marvelous slogan a couple of years ago, God is still speaking, comma. I like that; it’s so Jewish, and it’s so great.
One other thing we share is an idea that revelation is still an unfolding. The thing I love best about my understanding of Judaism and as a Rabbi, I get to dig in a lot and share this with a lot of people and it’s a delight for me. For Jews, Mount Sinai is only the beginning and revelation is like a rose, which starts as a bud and begins to open, and the more it opens, the more you see the beauty and the many petals. And the more it opens, the more you see things you never saw, at the beginning because you can only see them over time. So revelation is not a truth you learn at the beginning any more than life is a truth that you have at the beginning. Over the course of your life, over the course of a people's life, over the course of religious tradition, it develops and get deeper and more beautiful and just continues to open and get more complex.
So the ongoing journey of exploration of the delight in the things you are discovering, recognizing that somehow you knew the seat of it but now it’s this whole thing, it never ends. The ways Jews get into this, even though I believe that’s a commonality, the ways Jews get into it is our particular take. Everyone with their own tradition has a discrete, specific path. It’s no more or less innocuous or, I should say, the opposite way it’s no more or less significant than you deciding what you going to wear on some given day, possibly, or the language you grew up speaking. Those things are specifics, you can’t wear all colors every day, and you have to make a choice. Right, in the same way, you feet on one path. There are many mountains, they all reach for the sky. We each happen to be on our own mountain of religious tradition. They are all beautiful, and they are all good.
ADAM ERICKSEN: Does this term, I don't know, you may know who came up with it, but it's "religious envy". And there are times when I am in the presence of another religious person, leader, whoever, and am like oh my, that’s awesome, that’s cool, that’s really cool. So thank you for that, that was awesome.
We want to do this, in December because we both have a tradition of lighting up the darkness that is in December. You have Hanukkah and we have advent and Christmas. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about Hanukkah where that comes from and why it is significant for you?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: Hanukkah, the word Hanukkah comes from the word dedication. And, therefore the holiday is actually really all about the fact that during the Greek occupation... you remember Alexander the Great, you remember how he took over the world and then he died bang, young. And his three generals kind of divvy up the world. So Israel, is in the middle third. And so, the Jewish people are occupied by this great Greek civilization and they make Jerusalem into a polis. It’s really fascinating actually. And frankly, the average Jew thinks that the Greek culture is pretty cool. It’s not a whole lot different from being part of American culture. You can go anywhere in the world and people are wearing American t-shirts and aping American ideas and American culture because it’s so cool. Maybe a little less now than in the last 20 years. But, it's generally been true for a long time, American culture is pervasive in the world and in the ancient world it was Greek culture, Roman culture, Egyptian culture that exactly the same effect.
So the Greek empire encompasses this entire area of what’s called the Ancient Near East. Among them is the Jewish state, the Jewish kingdom. And the Jews, some of them, are really enjoying Greek culture to the extent that they are throwing off all kinds of distinctive Jewish practices and adopting the Greek way of being. They are learning to speak Greek. They are learning to look down on their fellow Jews and say if you don’t speak Greek, you are not cool. They are learning to love the Greek equivalent of the BLT. They are learning to speak Zeus and Aphrodite, all the cool things the Greeks are doing. Some men are having their circumcision reversed. You heard me because they want to wrestle naked in the gymnasium with the other Greeks. I'm telling you if you think about the lengths that we will go to be in the cool culture, it’s very often somewhat painful.
So the story of Hanukkah fascinatingly enough is actually mostly about Jews having a tremendously acrimonious dispute amongst themselves about how Greek can you be before you are not a Jew anymore. So for Jews in the United States, today, it’s not at all without its resonance because there are Jews who are very happy being American. I can’t remember what the article was about… oh I do remember what the article was about, it there was something in the New York Times about being Jewish and meaning. The New York Times is like way too full of Jewish stuff, it’s weird. And then there were some responses in the letter section the following week; one of them was "Well, you seem to think everything Jew has to have some connection to Jewish religion, am here to tell you, I have none and am a perfectly good Jew being an American, I don’t even need to call myself a Jewish American, am just an American." There are Jews who have completely convinced that they can just blend in and be happy. We'll see about that.
Anyway, some Jews wanted to be all Greek all the time. Some Jews said, that way lies disaster, we will cease to exist. The Greek, I don’t know, overlord, the Greek border patrol, whoever it was, comes in and starts to try to lay down the law, and one of the things they did was to take over the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and install the Greek God. And the Jews who were more Jewish, not the Greek Jews, the Greek Jews are like cool, whatever. The more reactionary Jews, the more traditional Jews, were like over our dead body. So there ensued a guerilla war, the few Jews managed to completely flummox the Greek army. They drove them back to the extent they were able to recapture the temple. When they went in they found that everything has been basically trashed. They rededicated the temple. And because they couldn’t do it a few months earlier, they held the festival of Sukkot as soon as they got the temple cleaned up.
The festival Sukkot, which you call Tabernacles, last for 8 days. So Hanukkah lasts for 8 days. There is a coda to the story. If you talk to any Jew about Hanukkah, they will tell you it’s about the miracle of light, of oil that lasted for eight days. The original story is about Jews fighting and killing other Jews over the question of identity and continuity. Then, generations later when the Romans came and they were occupying Jerusalem and the Jewish kingdom, the young Jewish men who were always hotheads were saying, "just like our ancestors managed to push back the larger army of the Greeks, we are going to push back the larger army of the Romans, we will kick them out, God will be with us." The Jews lost three wars against Rome. According to, I don’t know if it was Josephus or somebody else, but according to one contemporary account so much Jewish blood was spilled in the third revolt against Rome that the Romans didn’t have to fertilize their vineyards for five years.
The temple was destroyed. And the rabbis, who at the time were a beginning, kind of just starting group of teachers, who are kind of taking over from the priests, because, listen, once the temple is destroyed the priest doesn’t have a power base. So the rabbis step in to fill a power gap and they say, you know what, let's regroup and let's study what to do next, and you know what, let’s get out of here. Let’s go down the hill to Yavne, let’s go to Tiberias, let’s leave Jerusalem and let's settle down for a while. And they retaught the story of Hanukkah. And we have their fingerprints all over it. They ask in the middle of at the Talmud, what’s Hanukkah? What a stupid question everyone knows what Hanukkah is. They say, no, you don’t know. What you don’t know is that the real story of Hanukkah is how God created a miracle when we were dedicating the temple. We were only had enough oil for one day that was kosher and God made it last for 8 days until we can find more.
And in so doing, when they told the story, they took the emphasis off the guerrilla army overcoming the great odds. And in so doing they taught the Jewish people that sometimes you can’t fight against superior odds, sometimes you have to duck and cover. And that actually once we went into exile allowed us to survive living in hostile societies. Because we had learned you know, how to fight back and die. Sometimes is ok if you just figure out how to live, and maintain your customs and your tradition and your history and believe that one-day things are going to get better.
ADAM ERICKSEN: I would just like to point out something that is not always been obvious, but should have been, that Jesus was a Jew living at around this time, and Jesus had the same, according to the gospel, the same idea, don’t fight against the Romans, go do something else. Yeah, I had never made that connection before. That’s awesome. Some of our people here know Judaism fairly well, and some don’t know it at all. So, some of these questions might be a little basic, some of them maybe not. But we have in Christianity different denominations, especially after the Protestant protest, reformation, does Judaism have something similar?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: Indeed. So in the pre-modern world, a little bit like the pre-reformation world, you basically have Jews more or less all recognizing each other, but there is a spectrum, right, human nature is a spectrum. What they didn’t do is call themselves groups. That’s a more modern awareness. What happened to Jews is that when we hit the modern world, and this happened actually with Napoleon of all people in France. Jews were asked, "if we let you out of the ghettos, will you be loyal citizens?" Now you might think, you put me in the ghetto, why will I be a loyal citizen, but the Jews just wanted to partake of the society, they said, yes we will, we sign up, we pay taxes, we go to war for you, just let us be equal citizens. And that set up a bit of an issue, because if you are going to be an equal citizen, you have to be equally available. You can’t go on the army and say, sorry I don’t fight on Shabbat; or sorry, I only eat kosher food.
That began to set up a bit of a problem. The problem gets worse, when you think about how modern society especially capitalist societies require you to be productive. If the majority of the population takes Sunday off, nobody cares if your day is Saturday, if there are only two of you. You got to go along here or you are not going to get the job. So in the United States and in Western Europe, Jews started having to make decisions about whether they were going to tip the balance in the direction of doing the best they could in the society and making as much money they could and being as well off as they could, assimilating as well as they could or sticking to their traditions and being poor. Till this day you can see the result of those decisions. You can go to certain areas in any larger city where there is a lot of Jews, and you can see some Jews who are very traditional and tend to not have much money. And you can see other Jews who are more assimilated and who are just like everybody else.
The real issue is an interesting one that you may be able to relate to if you ever worried about your grandchildren and their sense of identity. It’s been said that for Jews today, the question is not were your grandparents Jewish, it’s will your grandchildren be Jewish. If you are not doing enough, then what will they inherit? If you are not distinctive enough, what will they know? So it’s very interesting because you know, people are doing their best they can for their families and they find that the decisions the made when their kids were little have ramifications they couldn’t even imagine.
So you have Jews that are more liberal, that’s how they call it. And I am not sure exactly what that used to mean because am not true anymore, that the more Jews looked like everybody else, they more left wing they tended to be. That’s absolutely not true anymore. But once upon a time, it was taken for granted that the more traditional you were, the more right-wing you were. Now there is a real shift in that.
One of the things that interesting for me in Portland is that we have Jews from across the spectrum and you can’t imagine, you can’t guess their politics. I think that’s a really interesting phenomenon. So, for that matter, I can’t guess yours, am just going to throw it up all out there. You are UCC. We actually, my congregation share space with the UCC church, so I think I know, you are pretty friendly. So, for example, there is a large reform congregation and, I guess a little bit predictably, their income is high enough, they tend to be somewhat conservative. It’s not a sine qua non, but apparently, there is a little bit of statistical correlation.
There is a very traditional group, the kind of people who wear the men all dressed in black and wear hats and you know, are pretty strict, or you think so, and the rabbi is a libertarian. I called him a couple of days after the election and he was devastated. Like wait, you are a traditional rabbi, you are for Hilary? But then he is a guy who also calls me rabbi. So one of the big divisions in Christianity and in Judaism is that if you got a female spiritual leader, you definitely on the one side of the spectrum that we probably going to call the left side. There are rabbis who are women in the middle of the spectrum now and they started to sneak on to the other side, just like I think in Christianity. The same is true with other groups that have been somewhat marginalized and nevertheless may also be speaking the word of God.
My congregation is independent, it’s not part of any movement. The movements are very much a result of modernity. And I believe we are in a postmodern world, where most people are not ideologically driven. They are driven by ethics; they are driven, partially, by where they are comfortable in other ways. Your shul, your synagogue or your church can’t be too far away or else you are not going to get there, it’s going to be too hard. You need a neighborhood place to pray and to be together with people who you can support and they can support you. You need a rabbi or a pastor that you can relate to and who can support you when you need it. And you need a critical mass. And in my congregation is all the rest of it is are you willing to learn something you don’t already know because, for me, that’s the joy. My spirituality is in learning, finding one more petal of that rose, as it opens.
ADAM ERICKSEN: That’s fantastic. I lived in Skokie, Illinois for a while, and very traditional Jews living there. And it was so, I don’t know, refreshing I think. Like I probably would not have anything political in common with these people, but they're walking in their hats and their payots. I was going to say sideburns, but that’s not right. Their payouts and I think they would just walk to the synagogue and back and there was something so refreshing and good about doing that. Like everybody is living in the same community and walking to the same synagogue and then walking home, it's good stuff. Community, yeah, it's good sense of community.
We Christians on this different sides of the spectrum and have different understandings of the bible and I am wondering if you can talk a little bit about the bible. It's different. So, one of the things I always struggle with is we are different and so the progressive inside of me, always like goes, ah when we call it the Old Testament, but it’s not the Tanakh. It’s not. We could call it the Hebrew Bible, but we put it in different orders, so it’s not that. We could call it the First Testament and the Second Testament. Right? But, anyway, could you tell us about your sacred scriptures and how you interpret them?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: So for us, the book is actually quite whole, it ends with Chronicles, which is a nice ending. The Christian order ends with Malachi, my messenger, which makes it look like something else needs to happen. So yeah, there is a little bit of rearranging it. You could say that’s absolutely legitimate in term of the people who rearrange it and that’s true. And that’s where we part ways. In Jewish tradition, here is a cool thing, that’s hard to grasp, even for some of my people. We don’t say it’s written in here and therefore it’s true. For Jews, the relationship we have with the revealed word of God in our scriptures is more complex than that. Because we have made, we have emphasized that the fact that God may speak, God may still be speaking, but it's human ears hearing and we are not really good at listening. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I go buy the mustard, my husband can’t find in the fridge, unless I tell him where it is. So what makes you think you can see, what makes you think you can hear, if what you are being told is something you never heard before?
So revelatory words are the most difficult to hear. Our traditions started as verbal traditions, oral traditions. By the time they got written down... have you ever played telephone? So here is the thing, I don’t know if you ever heard of Josephus. He was a historian, he wrote about the Jews, and the Jewish war, he wrote about a lot of interesting stuff. He wrote about being on Masada right before it was destroyed. He wrote, he very famously gave us the last speech of the leader of Masada. The funny thing is he wasn’t there. But what’s interesting about that for me is our version of history is not the traditional version. We have a scientific approach to history. We want to see the facts, we want to see proofs of what happened. That’s modern and we are totally sucked into this modern scientific bias. Our ancestors didn’t believe that history could be told by one person in one way and that was it. Well, the Greeks come up with this binary idea that one thing is the truth and everything else is false, but the Jews were around before that. We tell two stories of creation; we tell two stories of the flood, we tell at least three stories of the moment of meeting and of the covenant between God and the Jewish people and that’s just in the first five books.
So why would you tell more than one story, don’t you want to tell truth? Well, if you ever been part of a passionate group experience, you know that every single person will tell that story a little differently and it’s all true. So that leads to the great Jewish joke about a rabbi who had two people come in dispute before the rabbi, and the rabbi was supposed to judge and the rabbi listened to the first person and said you are right. And then listened to the second person who contradicted the first person and said you are right. And then the disciples said to the rabbi, "Rabbi, they are contradicting each other, how can they both be right?" The rabbi said, "You are right".
Life is not only complicated, but it’s also contradictory. If you ever felt two contradictory emotions at the same time, then you already know, you yourself are capable of being a whole human being who is internally contradictory. The story of an entire people how much more so. How can we come to understand that truth is adumbrated through human experience and it’s therefore always partial.
I had a teacher, may he rest in peace, who taught that difference between Jewish ethics and Christian ethics is the difference between believing the messiah has come and believing that the messiah is still on the way. The differences between Christian messianic ethics and the Jewish messy ethics, that’s the way he put it.
The issue for us is when it comes I will just give you an aside about Jesus since I brought it up. Jesus hits all the right notes, or at least, his followers hit all the right notes in terms of fulfilling the scripture. These are all the things a messiah is supposed to do. Except that nobody ever created an exam of what the messiah was supposed to do until Jesus’ followers came along. If you go back and you look at the story of Elisha, he fed a multitude with a couple of loaves and fishes; tell me another one. Elisha also raised the dead. So for me and for Jews, those things are interesting but they are not proving anything. For the Jewish people, it’s about sort of like the way starlings all fly together in the sky, kind of sorted together yet each one is separate. Jews are moving through history in that way with the sense of each one of us is holding on to a little piece of the truth in the way that each of us is part of a quilt, each of us is a square in a bigger quilt, you going to be awfully cold by yourself. Or one thread of the yarn in a bigger weave. It’s not about what I know, it’s about what all of us know and are willing to stake our lives on.
So, for us, we have the first five books that we keep in a special way because they are extra special for us. They have in it, the ten words that aren’t really ten commandments. If you go look, the first one is not a command. Ten words that were spoken or somehow understood at some point in the past, they sort of well up out of the past. After those first five books, we have another section called the prophets, and there is everybody in there, and all their adventures. Samuel, Samuel goes and finds our first king, that’s a kind of a mess, finds the second king, that’s a bigger mess; in some ways King David is a mess. He is not your fine upstanding person. Oh, that’s another thing I should mention about what the Jews have done with our scriptures. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, all those guys, all those women, all those people we hold up and we tell their stories, none of them are saints. It’s not a lives of the saints. These are people who struggle, these are people who screw up, and these are people who do things that are not good. And the power in reading their stories is not that they were such great people that we should emulate, God forbid, in some cases, but that we can recognize our own struggles in theirs. They saw their lives, as far as we can tell, as a struggle to understand, who they were supposed to be, how they were supposed to be, which is just a way of saying, what is God’s will. And we can relate to that because we don’t know what we are doing either.
The second section with the prophets starts with the historical stuff, or semi-historical, and gets into great things like Isaiah and Jeremiah. I am quoting Isaiah all the time downtown now, “Let righteousness well up this waters and justice.” So when Isaiah said like justice rode down like waters, he wasn’t thinking of about our gentle rain we get here, he was thinking about the flash flood you get in the Negev. I was living in Israel when a flash flood shot through the Negev one day and some stupid group of people who were hiking had parked their Jeep, in a dry river bed and when they found their Jeep, it was 10 miles down the road, upside down, full of mud. Because a flash flood had come through in the meantime. If you never looked at a flash flood on YouTube, I think they have them now. There is everything on YouTube now. So what Isaiah was saying is, let justice come and sweep everything that’s an obstacle in its path away and just trash it. Just get everything out of the way because we need justice. So you have those guys holding forth. And by the way, during their lifetimes, nobody liked them. So, if you hear people complaining about demonstrations in downtown Portland, just to quote, was it Pete Seeger, no it was Woody Guthrie who sang "just think about history." They threw Jeremiah down a well and now we quote him all the time and talk about how great his words are. I don’t want to be dead in order to have my words appreciated, but I do believe there is something to that.
The final section is what we call miscellaneous. It has Psalms in it, Proverbs, and poor Job, and Ruth, and Esther, who is quite something. If you look at Esther’s story, oh my goodness, oh my goodness. There is a reason why we are supposed to get tipsy the night we read that story. The Jews do every year, we get together we pass around a couple of bottles and we giggles, because when you get to the point the king holds out his scepter to the queen, and she comes forward and she touches it and he says, anything you want Esther. You can’t help but realize the Bible is not a G-rated document, it's human beings. Song of Songs, all that good stuff. we are whole human beings. In our Jewish scriptures is every experience you can possibly have. David and Jonathan, by the way, were lovers, and it’s quite possible Sara and Hagar were lovers, and even married and Abraham was just the sperm donor. We have been taught the story in a certain way, but there are lots of possibilities and human beings didn’t just start being interested in the last twenty years.
ADAM ERICKSEN: I imagine there may be some questions after that one, thank you. Let’s see, what are the Talmud and the Mishnah? Did I pronounce those correctly? I did, nice, awesome.
RABBI ARIEL STONE: Have you ever had an owner's manual for a car and you notice that you get a new car or another car and it’s got a different owner’s manual? Well, it’s the same four wheels, the same body, what’s the problem? Things keep changing, even if they are just little things, the owner's manual needs to change. In the same way, once you canonize a document, once you write stuff down, it gets static. Back in the days when everything was oral, the stories we told, the stories all of us told continued to be shaped by our experiences. But then, because of pressure, of you know, the Romans are coming, they are going to kill everybody, we better write these stuff down. For reasons like that things got written down. It was considered to be a real tragedy to have to write these things down because you lost something. When you no longer have a storyteller or instead you just have a text. It’s interesting because we think of the texts as being superior to memory, but it’s not. It’s only the surface of the story.
Back in ancient times, messengers carried words to help them remember the text they memorized, an aide-mémoire, not the text of the message, but just prompts to help them remember the message. That’s what the scriptures were in the beginning. Once they got written down, they start immediately to go a little bit out of relevance. If the Torah is written for an audience of shepherds, what happens when you get urbanized? What happens when the command is you are supposed to bring the thanksgiving sacrifice of ta sheep, but you are not a shepherd, you are sandal maker, or you are a tanner. Should you bring a sandal? Is that the equivalent, or should you go buy a sheep? Is the correct thing to do? How do you know? So immediately you have start having an interpretive class of people, rabbis, who will help you figure out how to continues to do God's will, as recorded in the Torah, even though we no longer live in that way.
So that’s what I call job security and the first written down compendium of okay here's how you do it is called the Mishnah. And it’s not very big, it's six volumes, one volume of damages, one volume of ceremonies, one volume of... All the things you need in law to live in a society. But then it was written down and then things changed and we needed commentary on the Mishnah, so we could understand the Mishnah. And that’s the Talmud and its 66 volumes and it didn’t reach final form until the 1600s. Basically it was people writing notes, and then writing notes upon notes, writing notes upon notes, upon notes, upon notes, and so the books kept getting bigger. Bigger as everybody was sharing their notes all over Europe.
Finally, somebody printed it out and said enough already. But you know what happened after that? Somebody had to start writing a commentary on that. So the Mishnah is from about the year 500, the Talmud is at least a thousand years later reaching its final form. And today, we are still writing commentaries to continue answering the questions, that has been rising up ever since. So if the Mishnah says, your cup is kosher, if it is made of glass, not if it’s made of clay, it can contract impurity. You go to the Talmud, the Talmud says that in about 4 more paragraphs, because life has gotten more complicated and there are more kinds of material that we make cups out of. Then these days somebody is going to ask me if I put it in my dishwasher will that make it kosher? And the answer is I can tell you derived on the ancient principles what the modern answer will be. But it’s not because it’s in the ancient principles. I have to derive it. So this business of continuing to derive new judgments is a lot like American law. You have an original statement, then you have case laws, and precedence and then you keep having precedence because you keep having the cases. And it’s still going on. Oh my God, is it still going on.
ADAM ERICKSEN: I did my master's theses on Islam and when you talking about oral tradition, it reminds me of Islam. Some of the people that I was studying they were saying the point is to memorize and recite. So, God comes to Mohammed and says recite. And so, it is not like the physical book is important, but in order to get us to memorize and recite it. There is something really important about that because once you, like, recite it, for me, it’s like you can’t take the book and hit somebody over the head with it. There is something about it that just kind of, it's ephemeral, it’s like spirit, it’s out there. I don’t know if you have a response to that?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: I actually have a crazy response to that. There was a female rabbi in the Talmud. There were women teaching in the Talmud, as well as men, don’t let anyone tell you different. There was a woman who was teaching in the Talmud whose name was Bruriah. And she came across a student who was studying, reading silently, and she kicked him in the chins and he went "Ow" audibly, and she quoted him from the Psalms, "ordered in all your limbs." Which was her way of saying that it won’t be ordered if it isn’t in all your limbs, you have to act it out, you have to feel it, you have to speak it, it has to be in your bones. Your life can’t be in your head only, it has to be embodied. Things that matter to you are embodied. You are acting them out. They are in your bones. In biblical language, in the Psalms we have the sadness in the kidneys or the anger in the… different parts of it. If you look at Psalms, it’s amazing how embodied they are. Anger is in the nose, sadness is in the kidneys, thinking and feeling are in the heart, both of them. They didn’t know what the brain was for, a little bit like the Egyptians who taught it was waste matter.
ADAM ERICKSEN: Three questions and then we will open it up. At the bottom of your email, I noticed you have a quote that says "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live" (Deut. 16.20). Can you tell us about that, and then it says in 5779 Shir Tikvah seeks to one and do justice without and justice within. Justice has been meaningful to you throughout your lifetime. What does justice mean in the Jewish context and what is 5779?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: That’s the year. According to Jewish tradition, we are in the year 5779. What’s the Chinese year? They have another calendar with a different year. So there are lots of different ways counting, according to Jewish tradition, that’s exactly how long it’s been, since, well, I guess once upon a time, we believe, that it was since God created the world. But the average Jew does believe the dinosaur did exist. So most of us are okay with using that as a ritual way of counting, that we don’t have to have really mean something. So, it’s our way of counting our year, it’s our way of keeping track of spiritual times. Every year my congregation chooses a different theme to try to dig into and because of everything going on, obviously, justice is a big deal. But what we learned last year is really easy to go out there and march for justice and not be just, to each other. It’s much harder to practice justice on the micro level among us.
So this year, what I am, harping on is one of the most important values in Judaism is to assume the best of everyone. Never gossip, never talk about anybody, who isn’t in the room. How's that for a rule? And always assume the best of someone. So if someone is driving you crazy, all you are allowed to say is, "you know, that doesn’t seem like them, I wonder if they are okay." That’s a really interesting exercise to try on. It goes along with the Jewish teaching that nobody is demonized; everybody is just a hurting human being, and no matter how odious they are. I don’t think Jews invented that idea, or I don’t know maybe we did, but I know we share with a lot of other good people.
ADAM ERICKSEN: Thank you. So, one of the things that’s happening in the United States is the growing rise of anti-Semitism, in the last, I don’t know, maybe three, four years, or two years, whatever. I was in a church in Lake Oswego for a while and there was a growing rise of anti-Semitism there, and that was like a year and a half, two years ago. How is your community dealing with this and what can people like us do to help?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: Thank you for that, thank you for asking. The anti-Semitism is beyond our ability to eradicate as Jews. Nobody can eradicate the discrimination against them. We need everybody else’s help. The average Jew is doing one of two things, they are either becoming less visible because they are trying really desperately to stay safe and keep their children safe or they are becoming more visible because by God if you going to be oppressed for being Jewish, you might as well be Jewish about it. So you see a certain seriousness about amongst some Jews that perhaps you didn’t see before. When I deal with an intermarried family now, who is talking now about becoming more Jewish, I ask them, to really think carefully about it, because you are making a choice which makes you more vulnerable and you need to be all in.
Jews are no strangers to anti-Semitism. The fact that it's currently getting worse is just a cyclical thing. If you know American history, you know it’s never been that far below the surface. There are people who like to argue that it goes away and comes back, I think it’s always there. It just takes different forms. I’ve taught college classes on anti-Semitism, it starts as Jew hatred, which is a religious based phenomenon, and then it becomes anti-Semitism, which is more political thing. You can tell a little bit by what Jews are accused of in each system.
So anti-Semitism is an interesting thing for Christians to consider to what extent is it a Christian invention, and to what extent, it is something that Christians simply jumped on because it was an available pony at the time when Christianity was trying to differentiate itself from Judaism. It doesn’t really matter which is true, the problem is we have got a mess here. One of the most important ways that Christians, can help Jews is to make sure that you yourselves are not harboring any anti-Semitic tendencies. So first we look within ourselves, that’s the hardest part, and then we try to do what’s considered to be the most difficult obligation of all of Judaism.
According to tradition, there are 613 laws in the Torah that Jews are supposed to follow. The one that is considered to be the hardest is "hocheyach tochiach et amitecha.” Which is means, "you must rebuke your neighbor, when your neighbor is doing wrong." Now, this flies in the face of all of us who would rather not confront each other. "You are not the boss of me," says the wrongdoer, when you say, "hey you don’t, stop littering or whatever." The reason is such a hard obligation to fulfill is because you are supposed to do it in a way that doesn’t make it worse. So if you go up to somebody and say, "knock it off, you idiot" then, they just hate you as well. That’s making it worse, that’s not making anything better. The really interesting question is "is it really possible to change hearts and minds", if so how? It’s a really difficult question when we live in a place where we are so often distant from each other, and we know what we already believe in, you can’t change me and I can’t change you, and a lot of people don’t believe it’s possible. But it must be possible for people to grow and say, oh, I use to think this, and now I think something else, and that something else is more loving. Or else, why are we here? If we don’t believe that people can learn to love and trust. So in a way to fight anti-Semitism right now is simply the fight for goodness for all people. And what we Jews know is that we can’t just fight for ourselves, we have to fight for every marginalized and targeted community. So I would say the best thing we can do to fight anti-Semitism is not allow any negativity towards any community and then we will all be lifted up.
ADAM ERICKSEN: Thank you. One of the things I know inside of me and it’s probably generally true about all of us, is that I am blind to all of the things that I have been formed by. And so, like I was in a bible study, and there is passage about, where Jesus says, and John the Baptist says that if you don’t follow this path, the stones will cry out. And there is the interpretation, where the stones are the gentiles, and the gentiles are going to come in, and am like teaching this, am like oh my God, that’s so anti-Semitic. And like I am in the process of teaching it, like this thing goes off in my head, I am like I have been taught this from the past, and here it is, coming out of me and part of it is that. And I need that other voice and friends to come up to me and rebuke me and people that I trust as you say. So that’s part of what’s so important about what you just said, you have been a friend to us.
You have two books coming out, so tell us about your first book, which is Because All Is One, and then, your next book coming out?
RABBI ARIEL STONE: In a very quick nutshell, on one foot, the first book is a study of Jewish mysticism and how certain insights from Jewish mysticism can help you live a more integrated and meaningful life. Now it takes me over 400 pages to do that, but that’s because it was my doctoral theses and everybody wants to get there doctoral theses out there. The second book which is about to come out is called the Alef Bet of Death. Alef Bet is the Jewish way of saying the alphabet, and it’s about how to die as a Jew. You may or may not know that after the bubonic plague, in Europe, a book called Ars Moriendi became popular which was the Christian art of dying. There is also a Buddhist how to die. But even though there are lots of Jewish teachings on dying, there was no book that brought them together, and so I am writing it. Because I had a congregant and close friend who when he was dying was very peevish that all these books for the people who going to be mourning but nothing for him. So I said, "Okay, Andy, I’ll create it", and he couldn’t wait for me, may he rest in peace. But I am dedicating this book to him and to the other people that taught me what I needed to know so that I could write it. So, that, God willing will come out sometime in 5779.
ADAM ERICKSEN: Thank you, awesome, everybody, Rabbi Ariel Stone.