Do you know this classic joke? There used to be a lot of them like this.
An Orthodox, a Conservative, and a Reform rabbi are each asked whether one is supposed to say a brochah over a lobster.
The Orthodox rabbi asks, "What is this...'lobster'...thing?" The Conservative rabbi says that some say no, some say yes. The Reform rabbi says, "What's a brochah?"
Here's another one:
What are the main differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism?
At an orthodox wedding, the mother of the bride is pregnant.
At a conservative wedding, the bride is pregnant.
At a reform wedding, the rabbi is pregnant.
And so it went.
Back in the olden days of the 20th Century, when I was growing up, we used to know that there were three kinds of Jews: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. And then we learned that there were other divisions among us: Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean and Oriental Jews from parts east and south of there, as well as Ashkenazic ones like us; Israeli Jews, who were different from North American Jews; and English and Australian Jews who spoke funny. As our horizons broadened we learned that there could be other types: Hasidic Jews, who were Orthodox but also something else again, and Reconstructionist Jews, who didn't believe we were the Chosen People, and even Renewal Jews, who seemed very touchy-feely. We even learned that there was something called Secular-Humanist Jews, who didn't believe in God but certainly believed that they were Jews and who got together in minyans to not pray.
But in recent years there has been a development of new forms of Jewish identity, or perhaps we might better call it semi-identity to complement the old stand-bys: Gastronomic Jews: I am Jewish because I eat bagels and lox. Checkbook Jews: I am Jewish because I give to Jewish causes. Aerobic Jews: I am Jewish because I work out at the J. Sensory Jews: I am Jewish because I feel Jewish. Committee Meeting Jews: I am Jewish because I am on the board of a Jewish organization. Cultural Jews: I am Jewish because I like Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and New York City. Also Political Jews: I am Jewish because I support AIPAC—or J Street, but not both. Post-Facto Jews: I was very Jewish in Detroit or New Jersey or Chicago or Cleveland but I already did that... And of course truly minimalist Jews: I am Just Jewish.
But of all the contemporary formulations of Jewish identity, my favorite is the one that puts this developing tendency into sharpest focus: Cardiac Jews: I am Jewish in my heart.
Now typically we members of the organized Jewish community are not too favorably disposed to Cardiac Jews. After all, if the only place you keep Shabbat or the holidays or your connection to Israel or other Jews is in your heart, you are not exactly actualizing your experience of our tradition so actively.
So much for the goodness of cardiac Judaism, I tended to think—at least until I read this week's Torah portion of Ekev.
You see, there is a puzzling passage in Ekev. It tells us to do something that is physically impossible—in Ekev we are instructed to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts... This is a new kind of berit milah, and one that smacks of flat out self-murder. Circumcise our hearts? How are we to do that, with a flint knife on the top of Mayan Temple? And how could that possibly relate to the moral commandments we have been given in this portion, which form the core of our Deuteronomic covenantal connection to the Ethical God?
Now, first, if we were to do that actual act, circumcising the heart, cut off a flap of the essential human organ, we would die, no matter how skilled the mohel. So it must be a metaphor. In fact, this passage defines the fact that the Torah was never meant to be read purely literally, and makes it very clear that Torah is and always was a teaching device to create and focus moral direction, not a simplistic piece of ancient lore intended to be taken literally.
No Jews really ever read the Torah purely literally.
So just what can this odd locution mean?
First, a word about the heart. To our Israelite ancestors and to many authors, poets, songwriters, and greeting card companies, the heart has always been considered to be the seat of human emotions. "I give you my heart" we say, or "I love you with all my heart." Sometimes we give the heart credit for more than just love; hatred too, can be located there. We are taught, "Do not hate another in your heart" and "he hardened his heart" and "She has a cold, cold heart."
The heart is also seen, at times, as the locus of knowledge, the place where our essential understanding is kept. We are in a presidential election campaign now. Long ago Arizona's Barry Goldwater ran for president with the slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right."
But of course this is all a metaphor. Modern science has taught us for generations now that the heart is really just a very fancy, very efficient pumping machine, and that our emotions, higher cognitive functions, and memory are all located a little higher in our anatomy, within your brains. Cogito ergo Sum, Descartes told is long ago: I think therefore I am. And generally speaking scientific research has always confirmed this. The heart is, essentially, the engine that drives the car but not the operator, a strong, stupid muscle-and-valve contraption that can even be replaced by an actual artificially built machine. In fact, you can take one heart out of one body and put it in another successfully, and they do this quite a lot about a mile from here at the U of A Sarver Heart Center.
The heart isn't the center of emotion or memory at all. All those old songs, poems and stories, and our Torah portion of Ekev, are all wrong about that.
Or are they?
There is some very interesting research that has been done on those folks who have successfully had heart transplant surgery. A guy named Dr. Paul Pearsall, a neuropsychiatrist on the faculty of several major universities, including doing work at the U of A heart transplant center, wrote 18 best-selling books among many other accomplishments before dying in 2007. He studied transplant patients, and found some unexpected results: the background of a new heart affects its recipient directly. That is, the feelings, preferences, even knowledge and personality of the original heart's owner begin to the change the recipient after the transplant.
One man began to yearn for spicy foods and to study Spanish before he knew that his donor had been Hispanic. Another found herself going repeatedly to the bank of a local stream for comfort—and learned later that this has been the donor's favorite place to sit, think, and write. A quiet, reserved, painfully shy man suddenly discovered new confidence and entered a career in public speaking—only to find out that the donor of his heart had been a TV newscaster. There are many stories like this in the book called "The Heart's Code." Dr. Pearsall goes on to explain the theory and science behind energy cardiology, an emerging field that is uncovering one of the most significant medical, social, and spiritual discoveries of our time. The heart is not just a pump; it conducts the cellular symphony that is the very essence of our being. The heart not only feels, as our ancestors believed, but also thinks and knows and cares.
Pearsall continues by theorizing that what is wrong with our own society is that it is run by our brains, not our hearts, and that this damages us on a personal and sociological level. If we learn to listen to the subtle energy and wisdom contained within our own hearts we can learn valuable lessons about love, work, prayer, healing, and even playing.
I believe that the Torah was on to this concept long ago, right here in Parshat Ekev. Circumcising the foreskin of our hearts means that in order to open our hearts to God, to holiness, to goodness, in order to learn just how to do what is that God asks, we must cut away a certain layer that exists there. We must remove the hard casing that we construct over our innate humanity, the armor of ego and self-interest and self-importance that can build up out of our insecurity, or even out of overconfidence—the arrogance of the eternal critic, for example, the cool hostility of the perpetual cynic—the snide pleasure of a circulator of Lashon HaRa—the self-righteous anger of the eternally injured. We must take our heads out of the equation for a bit, shut off the controlling negativity of the brain and let our hearts express the depth of feeling and empathy within them.
It is a kind of spiritual brit milah that Ekev teaches.
When we remove the hard casing around our hearts, when we perform this spiritual milah, we change ourselves for the better. For then we can open our hearts and feel, and know, that God is good, and desires good—that what God wants is something we can offer. That the various ways that Ekev advocates of exploring how to fulfill God's desires are really no more than a means to creating good in the world: one path, of kindness, ethics, and personal respect. This is the heart of the matter. This is the lesson of the heart.
On this Shabbat, and over the coming week, may we each learn to listen to our own hearts, to get our heads out of the way long enough to touch that holiness within us. And then we may become truly cardiac Jews—Jews in our heart, and in all other aspects of our lives.