Jewish Perspective & Hymn (31st WRC)

Introduction to Judaism (5 minute Opening Speech)

 

Who is God? Nature and Characteristics (Theme Speech)
Jewish Perspective by Dr. Allan Gould - Toronto
Author, Lecturer, Humourist, Speechwriter

 

Abstract of Theme Speech

A very famous anecdote found in the Jewish Talmud--which consists of over five dozen massive volumes of inspired rabbinical commentary and interpretations of verses from the Hebrew ("Old") Testament, or the Five Books of Moses (a/k/a the Torah), describes Hillel being approached by a man who wishes to mock the brilliant rabbi/scholar. "Teach me the entire meaning of God's Law while I stand on one foot," he insists. How insulting. Yet this giant of learning smiles and states, "Do not do to others what you would not wish them to do to you." He then continues, inspirationally, "All the rest is commentary. GO AND STUDY."

In the impossibly brief few minutes I have this morning, let me share just two tiny passages from our Talmud, which I shall comment on in depth on October 1st. When put together, these brief three selections from rabbinical commentaries, written down about two millennia ago, help capture what I admire and love about the Jewish faith.

a) "It was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua: The poor person (at the door) does more for the householder than the householder does for the poor person." (I shall study this and the others with our esteemed attendees).

b) Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught his son, "Be mindful of the honour of an old man who has forgotten his learning under duress. For it is said, 'both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark of the Covenant.'"

And that is it! Here I am, hardly an Orthodox Jew, or I would not have driven here on our Jewish Day of Rest, to this impressive conference. But I shall try--the Yiddish word is "chutzpah" or "outrageous nerve"--to match the revered Rabbi Hillel of 2,000 years ago, to capture this extraordinary faith of mine--which gave birth to the two other magnificent Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam--while all of you out there are essentially "standing on one foot"while I do so!

Look at the beauty of the first of these two brief rabbinic anecdotes from our Talmud: now, why on earth should a beggar at one's door do more for us middle-class or wealthy homeowners than we do for him? He took us away from our family dinner and bugged us, like a telemarketer--and we may be giving him our hard-earned cash! The rabbis left the answer open, but with study, it soon becomes clear: All we comparatively rich people have done is handed over a few bucks to the poor guy, so we have a good feeling of being generous. Big deal! But what has the beggar done? He has given us the chance to help out another of God's creatures; possibly saving him or his family from starvation or eviction from their hovel. He has given us the opportunity to fulfill one of the greatest "mitzvot"--the Hebrew word for "commandments from God"--that "good deed" being, to perform TZEDAKAH. Think about this, please: that Hebrew word means "RIGHTEOUSNESS," and it is NOT to be confused with "CHARITY." The problem with "charity" is that it comes from the Latin, meaning "LOVE." But what if I do not love this beggar, or even like him? What if he has AIDS or lung cancer, which I feel strongly he brought on himself, through unprotected sex or by smoking himself into deadly lung cancer? The concept of CHARITY, dear students of world religions, contains a risk of letting us off the hook! "I don't like this guy; I won't give him a penny!" I may think. But the Jewish concept of Tzedakah means that I HAVE NO CHOICE IN THIS MATTER! I CANNOT BE RIGHTEOUS, IN THE EYES OF GOD, IF I DO NOT GIVE MONEY TO THIS PERSON! As you see, the poor person at our door, or on that downtown street with his or her hand outstretched toward us, is doing FAR more for us than we could ever do for him! I may give him a few bucks, which hardly puts a dent in my financial well-being. But he just gave ME the chance to fulfill the holy act of Tzedakah--of being a righteous person; of fulfilling God's expectations of me--one of the most important of the 613 Commandments found in the Hebrew Testament. Islam, with its obsession with giving alms to the poor, borrowed this from Judaism, and we were proud to share the holy concept with them, and thrilled that they chose it as one of the pillars of their faith, as well.

The second little gem from the tens of thousands of pages of rabbinic insights and challenges to us humans, is my favourite, and I love to joke when I have taught this particular Talmudic passage in lectures I have had the honour of giving across North America, that an entire religion, or way of life, could be based on this handful of words alone.

Here are some of the questions I shall throw at you, and try to answer for you, and preferably with you, this morning: What is this ageing rabbi requesting here? Does he have Alzheimer's? What do you think he means when he talks about his "forgetting his learning." What does the rabbi mean by the phrase "under duress"? Why is he making this request to one of his sons? And what ARE these "tablets" he is referring to? Think back to what every Western child, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or any other major faith, has been taught, when they hear "Bible Stories"!

And what are these "shattered tablets"? What are the rabbis teaching us in this brief, two-line story? And what does it say about the Ancient Greeks, who arguably had the greatest of civilizations--and about us, or NOT about us, in the 21st century?

The Greeks, as historians have discovered, used to leave their sickly children and elderly, dying grandparents, on the sides of mountains, where they were often devoured by wolves. And how many of you are aware that the Nazis, during the 1930s, coined an expression, "LIFE UNWORTHY OF LIFE"-- using it as the reason for dragging blind children, crippled children, mentally-disturbed children--and adults--from their beds, and then threw them into crowded trucks, which had gasoline piped into their exhaust systems, killing them off by the dozens, every hour--in major hospitals across Germany. After all, these obviously useless men, women and children were taking up valuable beds, which would soon be needed by wounded soldiers coming home. That is right, dear people: German doctors--"do no harm" was their motto, please recall--saw themselves as doing the State's work, if not God's--by getting rid of all these expensive cripples. Who needs them? What a waste of money they were. The gassing of several million Jews, Poles, homosexuals and gypsies had been practised for a full decade like this, before the first state-organized gassing at the death camps began in the early 1940s. Life unworthy of life? Hardly a Jewish concept, as we see in this deeply moving, inspiring little exchange from the Jewish Talmud.


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