She was a candidate for conversion to Judaism. She was curious and motivated and spiritually adept.
She asked me to teach her some Talmud.
Teach me something good, she asked.
Teach me something that will define the essence of Judaism for me, she implored.
Oh, all right. If you insist….
I am going to teach you what I taught my inquisitive student. It is a section of the Mishnah, the classic code of rabbinic law, created in the second century of the Common Era.
This is from Berachot, the tractate of Mishnah that deals with blessings — the first tractate of the Mishnah.
From when does one recite Shema in the morning?
Yes, this is about when it is time to pray the morning service, but it is more than that.
It is really another way of asking the question:
When has the night ended, and when does the morning begin?
For us, that question would be a proverbial no brainer.
That would be at 12:01 am.
True, that is when the calendar day begins.
But, when does the night end, and when does the morning begin?
This is how some ancient sages answer that question.
Rabbi Eliezer says: When one can distinguish between sky-blue and leek-green.
Where would you see those kinds of colors?
By looking at the sea. When you can gaze into the sea, and see those kinds of colors clearly — that is when you know that there is sufficient light for you to be able to say the Shema in the morning, and you would know that the night has ended and the day has begun.
Rabbi Meir says: The day begins when one can distinguish between two similar animals, such as a wolf and a dog.
Can you see well enough to discern the difference between two very similar animals — a wolf and a dog?
A wolf and a dog look very similar.
This is about things, animals, and people that seem to resemble each other in some important ways, and yet really don’t resemble each other.
We call this “the narcissism of small differences.”
Sometimes, it seems that the most savage of ethnic wars are between two groups of people that the naked eye can barely tell apart.
With the naked eye, and without hearing a narrative, could you discern the difference between an Israeli of Mizrachi origin, and an Muslim or Christian Arab?
In northern Ireland: between a Catholic and a Protestant?
In Rwanda: could you have been able to discern the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi?
In the Balkans: between a Bosnian and a Serb?
On the far edges of eastern Europe: between a Russian and a Ukrainian?
And yet, Rabbi Meir says that you need to be able to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog.
The difference between a wolf and a dog is that a dog is domesticated — one of the first animals to have been domesticated, actually. A wolf is wild.
Or, the difference between the wolf and the dog is that, for thousands of years, human beings have made the efforts to tame dogs.
So, actually, the apparent difference between a wolf and a dog actually represents human efforts — human insertion into the intricacies of the animal kingdom.
Rabbi Akiva says: The day begins when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a donkey and a wild donkey.
Why? Because you won’t see that difference immediately.
At first glance, you will not see the difference between a donkey and a wild donkey. You need to take time with those two animals. You will not be able to make snap judgements.
That task of discernment is also about human effort. It requires patience.
Like, for example, art.
All art takes time.
So does Judaism, and all religion, and all matters of the spirit.
But, now, we come to the final passage of this wonderful teaching.
Acḥerim say: The day begins when you can see another person, who is merely an acquaintance, from a distance of four cubits and recognize them.
Who are acherim? It is an odd term to find here.
Acherim means: The others. Or, perhaps, the “Others” – those who have become Other, foreign, strangers, aliens, unwanted, the cast off, refugees….
Acherim say that the day begins when you can recognize the face of a friend.
- When you know that that person is not a stranger.
- When you know that that person is someone with whom you live in relationship.
- When you know that that person is someone toward whom you have an obligation.
One of the greatest Jewish thinkers in our time was the French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas.
Several weeks ago, I was visiting and teaching at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York. They have tzedakah containers in their lobby – receptacles where people can leave donations.
The synagogue adorned those tzedakah containers with one of my favorite quotes from Levinas.
“We come into the world already obligated by the mere gaze of the other. It is a gaze that demands from us a response.”
When do we know that we have an obligation to someone?
At the precise moment that we can see that person’s face.
The mere act of recognition — the molecule of the act of beginning to live in community — constitutes obligation.
So, Mishnah students: how do you know when to say the Shema, and when the morning has come?
Let us review the options.
- We start with the colors of the sea.
- And then, we go to the animal kingdom.
- But, finally, we land on the human experience.
I know that the night has ended, and that the morning has come, when I can see your face, and know you.
When you feel known.
When you feel seen.
It is that quality of being known, and being seen, that we all crave in our lives.
To paraphrase my teacher, the modern Orthodox sage, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who just celebrated his ninetieth birthday: The definition of modernity is this – that we have expanded the definition of those who are made in God’s image.
The evolving history of humanity – and of our nation – predicates itself on this: groups of people who were once unknown and unseen – are now known and seen.
In this country, one of the greatest changes in knowing and seeing has been this: We now know and see LGBTQ people, especially our young people. How did it happen? How did LGBTQ marriage become both legal and socially acceptable? When we opened our eyes, and we say that they are our children, our siblings, our parents, our clergy, our legislators. We ceased to think of them as “them,” and we came to think of them as “us.”
Herein lies one of the greatest dangers to our country – and yes, to the state of Florida: Those who would refuse to see, and stop seeing; and refuse to know, and to stop knowing, those groups whom we have fought to include in our social fabric.
So, back to the Mishnah.
Which opinion was right?
Does the night end, and the day begin, when you can see the different colors of the sea?
When you can see the difference between a dog and wolf?
When you can see the difference between a donkey and wild donkey?
Or, does the night end, and the day begin, when you can recognize the face of a friend?
Now comes the last line in this passage.
Rav Huna said: The halakha is in accordance with Acḥerim.
Remember Acherim? Acherim said that the day begins when you can see someone, and see in that person, the face of a friend.
That becomes halakha. That becomes Jewish law.
This is not an obscure question about day and night.
This is not a mere exercise in visual acuity.
This is Jewish social ethics 101.
The night ends when you can see someone’s face, and know that person for who they are.
Acherim got it right.
Shouldn’t we all?