The Holiness of Moral Imagination
As I was on the phone with one of my rabbinic mentors the other day debriefing the Poway shooting, I cried. I was processing my complex feelings about the current timeframe we find ourselves in, where I feel pulled between determined, militant hope and a life-sapping despair. ‘You look tired’, she said, and I knew she was right.
When I assess the strange contents of my life, I realize that they are even stranger upon close examination. On a micro-level, I’ve found happiness here and Iowa City – as well as this community – has fulfilled all her promises. I love being a Rabbi. I love living in the Midwest. I’m starting to put down roots and, miracle of miracles, even starting to make friends! I love my unfolding connections to the wider community and the respect and relevance with which my rabbinic work is received. And I love my synagogue and your thoughtful kindness, your intelligence and your values.
And then I zoom out. I look at the challenges we face: as the Jewish community, as a nation and as a global species and I find myself at a loss for words. I think many of us can slot in the challenges, obstacles and threats that we face.
So yes, I am tired. We are tired. Many of us feel worn down by the news cycle and the reality that is unfolding before our eyes.
I contemplate the kind of Torah that we can learn together – the kind of Torah that empowers you to walk critically and lovingly with the Jewish tradition.
I often make a point of stating that the Torah is not political. The wisdom of our tradition and the Divine Will transcend politics. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Torah is mute on issues of injustice. On the contrary: it is obsessed with issues of justice and we see that so clearly in Parashat Kedoshim. At the same time, the Torah is wary of the inept, self-serving partisanism that is crippling contemporary politics across the globe and the pity-yet-profound verses of Kedoshim invite us to ‘think across the aisle’ at every turn.
This doesn’t mean that we as individuals cannot hold political views and philosophies. As a private individual, I certainly do. To pretend otherwise would be intellectually dishonest. Yet, when I read the texts of our tradition and their ability to hold makhloket, sacred disagreement, and to represent the interests of different social actors, I am struck by their compassionate wisdom and how it pushes us to think beyond our own moral and analytical universe.
Perhaps the weariness we feel comes from a type of moral impotence. There is a moral injury at the heart of our frustration with the world as it is. How can we even begin our pursuit for justice when we lack clarity of vision and purpose, or the ability to absorb nuance without compromising our passion?
In short, we are tired because our age is one profoundly lacking in moral imagination.
Thankfully, Kedoshim can give us that.
I want you to take a minute and imagine the world (or this country, or your local community) as you believe it should be. What are your moral priorities? What injustices need the most urgent rectification? How do you envision social relationships – both with those who are close to us as well as further removed? What is the kind of world you would like to bequeath to your children and grandchildren? What is the dream that your soul dreams?
On one level, it seems preposterous to be so Utopian. The pragmatists among us may argue that what we need are actions, legislation, policy. Yet, an enslaved people, newly liberated, completely unfamiliar with statesmanship or community-building could do exactly that: deploy moral imagination. Not untethered from the concerns of reality but deeply rooted in them, and steadily anchored in radical empathy.
Here’s a new exercise: out of all the verses that we have read today, you’re your Chumash and choose two opposing verses: one that speaks most to your personal moral sensibilities and one that you find most difficult or alienating.
Now, try and harmonize them. Flip your sensibilities: re-read the verses. Critique the one you love; justify the one you disagree with. Try and see the other perspective. Bring to both your moral imagination.
A particular verse that I have struggled with is ‘you shall not favor the rich or the poor’. As a private individual with political proclivities, the verse makes me bristle. How can this verse orient itself towards redistributive justice? If we create a power analysis of the wealthy versus the poor, then shouldn’t we redress the assumed power imbalance in favor of the poor? I’ve leveraged those critiques at that verse for years. Still, reaching into my soul, and into my understanding of God and how I view the sanctity of Revelation (even if it is a humanistic, progressive type of Revelation), it is my ‘mussar’, my moral practice, to challenge my own thinking.
‘Tehiyihu kedoshim’ – ‘you shall be holy’.
That is the charge at the beginning of the Parashah. Rashi states that this verse was revealed and spoken to in front of the whole assembly, a mini-re-enactment of the Ten Commandments. This teaches us that we should help carry each other’s burdens, be attentive to each other when we feel tired or dejected, rejoice in each other’s triumphs and blessings but moreover: build the kind of community where we allow deep questioning and broad imagining. When we are in pain over what we see in the world, it is not compelling to turn away from that world, but it is compelling for us to turn to each other. Holiness is eternal; it is transcendent – it allows us to soar. May we always find comfort, consolation and counsel in our sacred tradition.