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A Quaker-Jewish Perspective on Ethics and Halachah

Robert Kirchner

Topics addressed: theological grounding of ethics, relation to halachah, comparison of Jewish and Quaker approaches.

1. What is Havayah?

I begin by attempting to formulate a personal understanding (coherent, I hope) of ethics and its relation to theology. I’m not a trained philosopher nor a theologian; perhaps my thoughts on these topics are obvious and/or easily discredited. Indulge me please as I try to work this out for myself.

Studying organic gardening triggered a mystical response in me. Soil, I learned, is not an inert substance: it’s a living community, a complex ecosystem of growing and decaying vegetation, arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, as well as sand, silt, clay, water and air. The soil fauna and microbes constantly break down dead vegetation, making the nutrients within it available to the living plants, while feeding themselves other fauna, and storing extra nutrients in the form of humus. I felt radical amazement at how these billions of microbes in a foot of topsoil have richly interdependent relationships, with each other and with the plants and microorganisms that grow among them, permitting them to thrive, and how all of life, including us, emerges from this dense symbiotic network, cycling nutrients and energy among living things, as one organism dies, and another grows from its remains.

So what can we call this web of rich interdependence, these relations of parts to each other and to the whole? I want an word that not only objectively describes the phenomenon, but also recognizes and does justice to the radical amazement that it provokes. I want to call this phenomenon ‘love’. If we understand love not primarily as an emotion, but as actions of caring for another, of mutual aid, I don’t think it is at all far-fetched to say that the soil food web, including both living things and inorganic materials, massively exhibits love.

Now, let’s move from microcosm to macrocosm, from a bit of soil to the whole universe. I understand God, or (to use a friendlier term) Havayah1, to be the sacredness immanent within the universe. She could also characterized as the אחד2 of the universe. And just as in a bit of soil, the relation of all the parts to one another, and to the underlying אחד, is also massive love, now on a macrocosmic scale.

‘God is love’: so says a certain first-century Jewish text, 1 John 4:7 (though this text was excluded from the canon of Rabbinic Judaism). I don’t know whether there are comparable statements within the Rabbinic canon, or in subsequent Jewish literature. I do recall Rabbi Arthur Green asserting that love is the fundamental value underlying Judaism, notwithstanding the common misconception that this idea that Christianity has exclusive ownership of this idea, and that Jews are thereby preempted from saying the same thing.

2. Havayah and ethics.

There are at least two distinct senses in which we use the terms ‘good’ and its opposite, ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. ‘Good and bad’ can refer to things that I like or don’t like, respectively, or that humans collectively like or don’t like in general. A comfortable chair is good; stomach cancer is bad. Good and bad, in this usage, have nothing to do with ethics. In this sense, we can say that Havayah creates both good and evil, as in Isaiah 45: 7, for She is what underlies reality — all of reality — whether we like it or not.

In the realm of human ethics, however, my starting place is Hannah Arendt’s observation, ‘the banality of evil’. That is, evil (in the ethical sense) is fundamentally a manifestation of prosaic human stupidity, a failure of imagination, a lack of emotional intelligence, that prevents human moral agents from apprehending their connection to others, of thereby feeling compassion for their suffering, or of giving sufficient attention to the consequences of their actions (or inactions) toward others. Conversely, good (in the ethical sense) is action (or inaction) toward others which is fully informed by and imbued with an attitude of love. Love, awareness of connection, action that accords with such awareness — these are the very essence of Havayah. When humans, in our banality, act in ways that are contrary to love, we are living at cross-purposes to Havayah, to the spirit of the universe Herself, we are denying the sacred, cutting ourselves off from Her. I thus ground my ethics firmly in my theology, but without appealing to a personal God who issues commandments, nor punishments nor rewards therefor.

3. Ethics, halachah3, and Quaker testimonies.

However, merely saying, ‘act in accordance with love’, is insufficient practical guidance in many cases. Our limited human intelligence, our lack of awareness of others’ needs, our failure to consider complex consequences of our actions, may all result in harm rather than aid. Moreover, the demands of compassion toward others must be balanced against the need to care for ourselves, not to mention our finite attentions. For all these reasons, our individual capacity to do good, in actual practice, may be significantly enhanced when the principle of love is supplemented with the collective wisdom of a community, developed over time, as to how to apply that principle in specific cases, or even broad classes of cases. Hence the utility of notions such as halachah and Torah.

It occurs to me that Quakers have a somewhat analogous notion, the Testimonies. These are broad principles or values – formulated variously as

  • Simplicity
  • Truth
  • Equality
  • Peace

(acronym STEP), or

  • Simplicity
  • Peace
  • Integrity
  • Community
  • Equality,
  • (and more recently, Sustainability)

(acronym SPICE(S)).

These Testimonies are still highly general, far from the specificity of typical halachic rules. But each Testimony derives from concrete actions that early Quakers felt ‘led by the Spirit’ (i.e. commanded by God) to take, contrary to contemporary social norms and laws. The Testimony of Peace is a generalization of Friends’4 early collective leading to refuse to participate in warfare; and that decision has been reaffirmed by every subsequent generation of Quakers. Similarly, the Testimony of Equality is a generalization of Friends’ early refusal to show deference to their social ‘betters’, and their recognition that women could minister as well as men; and this Testimony was reaffirmed and extended further when we came to oppose slavery and accompanying theories of racial superiority. So each of these Testimonies has a kernel of historic specificity, of concrete application, which still obtains, as well as a penumbra of extensions.

Quakers, like other mystical movements, emphasize personal direct experience of God. But in discerning how we should act in the world, Friends’ focus on individual experience is tempered by our collective decision-making process. An individual may experience a ‘leading’ to do something, but if it somehow reflects on Friends generally or requires support from other Friends, the leading must be ‘tested’ by the whole Meeting. If the Meeting ‘unites’ with the leading, it becomes part of Quaker practice, perhaps just for that local Meeting; or if other Meetings adopt it as well, the practice may come to be adopted among Quakers more broadly. These decisions are recorded in minutes of the Meeting. In practice, Friends rarely consult minutes from more than a few years ago, and tend to rely more on the memories of long-term members. Friends do not study past decisions the way Jews study the Talmud. Perhaps we ought to.

I don’t have much further to say about halachah at this point, being still largely ignorant of the field. But I am encouraged by this discovery of certain parallels between halachah and Quaker practice, and this motivates me to learn more about it.

These parallels should not be overstated, though. One obvious difference is that Quaker decisions are reached by the whole Meeting, whereas halachic decision-making, Orthodox or Reform, is restricted to those with specialized training, the rabbis.

I close with a lament that both Reform Judaism and Liberal Quakerism, in modern times, have largely abdicated the field to individualism. At a time when our communities urgently need to be collectively discussing and strategizing about how to resist and overcome capitalist injustice and environmental disaster, we are instead left more or less to our own devices; the surrounding culture insists, and we have acquiesced, that it is a matter of individual choice how we earn our livelihoods, how we get our food, how we travel, etc., though all of these ‘personal’ decisions have huge collective impacts. I value personal autonomy – I don’t wish to move to an arrangement where every personal decision needs to be approved by a committee – but we can’t effectively challenge the status quo so long as we each make all of our decisions in isolation.

1Havayah (הויה) means ‘existence’ in Hebrew. It is sometimes used in liberal Jewish circles as an alternative to Adonai, to refer to God. The word is etymologically related to the ineffable Biblical name of God, it is a permutation of the same four Hebrew letters, and it is of feminine gender.

2Eḥad, ‘one’.

3Halachah (הלכה) means Jewish law, literally ‘[way of] walking’.

4I use ‘Quaker’ and ‘Friend’ interchangeably.

Interfaith During COVID-19

By Naz Qureshi 

I was speaking to an older employee of mine this morning who advised me regretfully that she had been looking forward to Easter services and because of the pandemic , unfortunately would have to miss them. I asked her what denomination of Christianity she belonged to and informed her there were several online Church services taking place. She advised me that she was Catholic and within minutes I sent her a link with all the upcoming Catholic services in the city. She is aware that I am a Muslim, and was touched, saying that was very kind. I wished her well and felt good about being able to provide my employee with a way to participate in her worship because it meant so much to her to do so; to connect with the Divine Oneness the way she knew how to. Suddenly, I noticed the music I had playing in the background. It was a contemporary Jewish religious singer that a Jewish friend had emailed me that very morning. It was sent as a token of light in these times of isolation and uncertainty. While I understood none of the Hebrew words, it was that small act of kindness that had touched me and I was listening to it in that very moment while I worked. In that tiny, precious moment, the ‘paying it forward’, those small acts of consideration came full circle. I leaned back in my chair and I smiled at the realization of how blessed I was to not only witness, but be an active participant in the children of Abraham giving and receiving in harmony to one another.

The Quaker on the Roof

by Robert Kirchner

In my own way, I am, I suppose, sort of a one-man interfaith dialogue – a state of affairs that has .come about largely through my involvement in a Scriptural Reasoning Group.

Let’s start with the fact that I am Jewish on my father’s side, though he and my mother were atheist, and so I was raised without any religious affiliation. I had a hunger for a spiritual community though, and I explored a range of religions on my own in my early adulthood, from fundamentalist Christianity to Wicca. My wife is Mennonite, and from her I absorbed Sermon-on-the-Mount values of non-violence and radical social justice. But my earlier experiences left a bad taste in my mouth regarding (what I thought was) Christianity, so I was not comfortable with many Christian beliefs, nor with typical Protestant styles of worship.

About 10 years ago, though, I found a spiritual home with the Quakers. Quakerism began in 17th century England as a radical-mystical Christian movement, but the emphasis has always been on right action and process, not on assent to a particular creed. Most Quakers nowadays still identify as Christian, but some do not. And Quakers’ silent worship style is closer to Zen meditation than to a Protestant church service. We are united not by our belief, but by our shared experience of God’s spirit in worship. Here it seemed was a religious tradition that I could learn and grow from, while still being my authentic self.

But throughout my religious journey, the Jewish part of me never quite gave up. In spite of my lack of involvement with it growing up, I have had a lifelong interest in Judaism, and in Jewish culture and history, mostly through reading. In university, I took several semesters of modern Hebrew, and a course in Jewish law. Spiritually, I am a bit like an adoptee, with a wonderful, solid relationship with my adoptive parents (the Quakers), but nevertheless feeling a need to connect with my biological family. At various points in my life I thought about deepening my connection to the Jewish community, but something always held me back.

First, the violent, patriarchal character of God as presented in the Hebrew Bible I found morally repugnant. In particular, the divinely sanctioned genocide of the Canaanites described in the Book of Joshua was not the sort of tradition I wanted to identify with. Second, I was put off by late-20th-century Judaism’s apparent commitment to political Zionism. I have no wish to see Israeli Jews ‘thrown into the sea’, but neither can I support the slow-motion genocide that the State of Israel has been inflicting on the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza, forcing them into open-air ghetto/prisons on near-starvation rations, mowed down by snipers if they protest. If that’s where modern Judaism is at, then no thanks, I’ll keep my distance.

In recent years, however, my perception of Judaism has altered. A growing number of Jews, in the diaspora and even in Israel itself, are as horrified by Israeli treatment of Palestinians as I am, and they’re not keeping quiet about it. Although old-guard Jewish organizations like B’nai B’rith still try to discredit and silence them, these post-Zionist Jews are no longer marginal within the Jewish community, particularly among the younger generation. It no longer seemed enough for me to express my own post-Zionist views from the sidelines: I felt led to jump into the fray and actively support other Jews challenging Israeli government oppression, in solidarity with Palestinians. So I joined Independent Jewish Voices Canada, an organization that does exactly that, as well as working for peace and justice generally, as an expression of Jewish values.

Secondly, although I’d rejected fundamentalist Christianity decades earlier, I was still seeing the Hebrew Bible through that lens, not through a Jewish lens, and this coloured my whole view of what Judaism is. Here’s where Scriptural Reasoning enters the story. The Edmonton group arose out of the efforts of one my wife’s Mennonite friends, Donna Entz, working to build bridges with the Muslim community. And I got dragged along, as I often do, as willing Quaker flotsam in the Mennonite wake. But through this group I got to know B, a learned Jewish attender, and from him I began to understand how Jews study their own sacred writings. First, there’s careful attention to details of wording in the Hebrew – details that are often missed in English translations. Then there’s elucidation of the text through comparison to thematically related texts elsewhere in the Bible, and commentary on these texts in the Talmud and collections of midrashim (rabbinic interpretation). The text is to be understood not just in terms of the surface meaning (p’shat) of the words, but their possible symbolic or allegorical meaning (remez), the meaning that emerges from comparison to other texts (deresh), and possibly mystical/esoteric meaning as well (sod). Most importantly, there’s no final definitive interpretation of anything: everything is perpetually up for debate. This intrigued me, and so with B I began attending Shabbat morning Torah studies at Edmonton’s Reform synagogue. And there I got to know the Rabbi – more on her later.

This new encounter with Judaism triggered further bouts of reading, and I learned that there are mystical traditions within Judaism that see God, not as the smite-thirsty character that appears in (p’shat readings of) Torah, but as immanent in the universe Itself, manifesting Itself in terms of feminine as well as masculine attributes, such as wisdom, beauty, compassion, and justice. Indeed, the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’ma (‘Hear O Israel’) asserts that God is one: that is to say, there is nothing else, and so everything that is – you, me, the rocks, the stars – we are all part of God, and God is within and around us. This is a theology that I as a Quaker can enthusiastically embrace. As we Quakers like to say, there is ‘that of God’ in every person – and, I would add, every animal, every plant, every molecule of animate and inanimate creation.

Additional reading led me to Finkelstein and Silberman’s (2001) The Bible Unearthed. The modern archaeological consensus is that the original Israelites were themselves Canaanites who abandoned the coastal cities upon the collapse of the Bronze Age Levantine civilizations, resettling in small egalitarian villages in the unpopulated highlands of Judea and Samaria. Perhaps their social position in those cities (which had been under Egyptian military control for much of that era) had been some of slavery, and this oral memory formed the nucleus of the Passover narrative. But the bloody conquest of Canaan described in Joshua through Kings is demonstrably fictional. Indeed, if my Passover conjecture is correct, then I find the actual history to be far more inspiring than the myth. A group of ex-slaves developed a culture with strong valorization of social justice and deep suspicion of the power of kings (cf. 1 Samuel 8) and their armies, values that resurface even more emphatically in the Prophets, in Talmud, and (dare I say it?) in the Gospels. Again, this is a spiritual heritage that I as a Quaker can enthusiastically embrace. The Canaanite conquest stories are to be understood, I believe, as a retrospective lamentation, written around the time of the Kingdom of Judah’s fall to the Babylonian Empire: if only we had completely removed these pagan nations, if only we had finished the job that Joshua started, there would have been no-one to lead us into temptation, to worship their idols for which we are now being punished.

So as I said, I began participating in Torah studies at the Reform synagogue. Then I began attending Friday evening Shabbat services as well. The Rabbi, I discovered, has a knack for taking what seems to be a dry Torah passage, or a formulaic prayer from the liturgy, and drawing layer upon layer of deep meaning out of it, like magic; I come away surprised and inspired and hungry to learn more. She accomplishes this regularly: I don’t entirely understand how she pulls it off. We Quakers have an anti-clerical bias, but I confess I’m somewhat in awe of this Rabbi’s gifts.

The term ‘Torah’ refers to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Torah is often translated as ‘the Law’, but the Hebrew word actually means ‘teaching’. Judaism has always insisted that there is an oral Torah as well as the written Torah. Oral Torah is often equated with the Mishnah, the nucleus of the Talmud. But in Reform Judaism, Torah is broader even than that. It is Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life, and like a living tree, it continues to grow new rings and put out new branches. Through Quakerism, I had come upon the quaint old term ‘Gospel Order’, which Quaker writer Lloyd Lee Wilson defines as ‘the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the creator.’ It speaks of an order inherent in the universe – as sweeping and inclusive as the notion of Dharma in Hindu and Buddhist teachings, or the Tao in Chinese traditions – that humans can align themselves with and cooperate with, if we choose to. I now understand Torah in this light: Torah is the continually evolving understanding of this natural order, as given specifically to the Jewish people. Christians and Muslims have the New Testament and Kor’an, respectively, as their specific understandings, grafted onto the Abrahamic rootstock. Other peoples have their own equally valid understandings and teachings. Hinduism, for example, has the Vedas and Upanishads, among other sacred writings. Indigenous peoples have their own ceremonies and unwritten teachings. But all life-affirming religious traditions, I believe, point toward the same God-given natural order.

All my life I’ve had a strong affinity to Judaism and Jewish culture, but my misconceptions had kept me at arm’s length from the organized religion. Now, thanks to Scriptural Reasoning, I have discovered a form of Judaism and a Jewish community that is in accord with my deepest spiritual values. So I joined Edmonton’s Reform Jewish synagogue. Inwardly, I already identify as Jewish, but because my mother was not Jewish, nor was I raised as a Jew, I have to formally convert to Judaism. But I see no incompatibility between being/becoming Jewish and remaining Quaker. I spoke to the Rabbi about this and she agreed. (Most rabbis, even within Reform Judaism, would not, I suspect, be so open-minded, and so I’m deeply grateful to her for this.) Now I’m taking conversion classes with the Rabbi, and in a year or so I will be able to formally convert, with the full support of my Quaker Meeting. I will be 100% Quaker and 100% Jewish.1 These two faith traditions dialogue away within me. With the Rabbi’s support, I’m organizing, among other things, a discussion series in the synagogue about peacemaking in Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, I continue to attend Scriptural Reasoning, which started me on this rich path.

1 To be clear though, I am not a ‘Messianic Jew.’ While I draw considerable inspiration from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t believe he was the Messiah, or rather, I believe that the Messiah is within each of us. So-called Messianic Judaism, in my experience, is just Evangelical Protestantism with a bit of Jewish packaging.