Friday, May 29, 2015

Much Obliged


From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Much Obliged

Edward Sapir was a Jewish anthropologist and a pioneer in the field of linguistics. He was particularly concerned with the ways in which different languages give us different ways of looking at, thinking about, and understanding the world. Ever hear about how Eskimos have a dozen different words for snow? The point is that they notice differences between different types of snow, because their vocabulary leads them to pay attention to those differences. For us, with only one word for snow, we tend to ignore the differences most of the time.

In a class discussion on this topic some time ago, a Japanese student explained that it is impossible to say in the Japanese language that my boyfriend drove me home. She explained that you either have to say that my boyfriend did me the favor of driving me home, or that my boyfriend was obligated to drive me home. In their language, action cannot be described in a neutral manner, divorced from social relationships. In this way, according to Sapir, the language that people speak influences the kind of culture that they have.

The Italians have a saying, traduttore, tradittore, a play on words which roughly translates to translator, traitor, or, the translator is a traitor. The idea is that something is always lost in the translation, and that's why, to be truly fluent in another language, you have to think in that other language, you have to see the world through the lens of that other language.

This comes up in reference to the Hebrew word tzedakah, which we translate to mean charity. And maybe that's not an act of treason, but it does betray a different meaning attached to similar types of action. The word charity can be traced back to the Latin caritas, which means dear, and is associated with love and caring. Tzedakah, on the other hand, has the root meaning of justice and righteousness. Simply put, charity means doing a favor. Tzedakah means keeping a moral obligation. These are differences, and they are differences that make a difference.

Nowadays, the language of love and caring comes easy to us. Some of what we love and care about may be for our own gratification, as foodies, fashionistas, or fans. Some of it may be for the sake of others, for various causes we have embraced and chosen to support. And, after all, as Americans, and as Jews, we are a giving and generous people, a caring people. We are fluent in that language.

But are we also fluent in the language of obligation? Or is it, like Yiddish, a language that was native to older generations, but one that we don't really speak anymore, one in which we only know a few words and phrases? We may hear about legal and financial obligations, but are they actions we take out of a positive sense of justice, of doing the right thing, or are they something that must be fulfilled to avoid negative consequences? Of course, there are family obligations as well, but do we see them as a blessing or a burden? Do we perform them as acts of righteousness, or out of a sense of guilt?

And how do we think about our obligations as citizens of the United States, and members of our local communities?

And even more so, how do we think about our obligations to our synagogue? Our congregation? Our Jewish community? To the Jewish people? To our religion and our tradition? Is it enough that whatever support we give is given as an act of charity? There certainly ought to be a sense of love and caring that we feel. I know I feel it. I hope you do too.

But is it enough that whatever support we give is given as a favor? Admittedly, everything we do now, we do out of choice, not out of necessity, in order to protect ourselves as a people in exile, and survive as strangers in a strange land. Everything we do now, in a sense, we do as a favor. And that means that it is easy enough for us not to do anything, not to attend services and events, not to get involved in our social action and educational activities, not to donate time, money, or resources. It is easy enough for us not to send our children to religious school, not to have them become b'nai mitzvah and confirmands, not to maintain membership in a synagogue, not hold onto our Jewish identity, not to pass on our traditions.

For most of us, the language of obligation is at best a second language, not our mother tongue. And the challenge is to learn to be fluent in that second language, to go beyond thinking of our obligations as just doing others a favor, as acts of charity. The challenge is to understand our obligations as actions we perform because we want and need to fulfill fulfilling our responsibilities, as members of Adas Emuno, as members of the Jewish community, as members of a people and part of a four thousand year old history.

Can we speak the language of obligation, more so can we think in the language of obligation, so that we understand it not as a matter of putting ourselves out, or even extending ourselves on behalf of others, but as a matter of being true to ourselves, being true to who we truly are?

In the English language, the old fashioned, colloquial expression, much obliged, is generally translated as thank you, but in addition to gratitude it also carries the subtle connotation of saying, I am in your debt. It is a great example of the language of obligation. It represents a way of looking at the world that includes accepting responsibility for each other. We owe it to each other, as members of our congregation and community, to support and maintain our congregation and community.

We owe a debt to the generations who came before us, a debt to keep faith in the face of all that they sacrificed for us. How much of the life and lifestyle that we enjoy today, in which we have the privilege to make choices and grant favors whenever we care to, how much of that is built on all that they accomplished, all that they sacrificed? How much did we earn ourselves, without any assistance from those who came before us?

We are much obliged for the blessings and benefits and beauty of our tradition, our heritage, our culture and our covenant. It is a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, except by keeping faith with the future, by preserving and sustaining what we have inherited, and not depriving the generations that follow us of their own responsibilities to the past and to the future.

We need to teach the language of obligation, and to do that we need to speak it ourselves. And speaking that language includes giving Adas Emuno your support, involvement, and commitment. Without it, we won't survive. And with it, we are, without a doubt, much obliged.

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