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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Pithy graduation exhortation

This morning, at the graduation-day prayer service organized by the Notre Dame Law School Class of 2012, one of the readings was from Micah:  "[D]o justice and [] love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Best wishes and congratulations to all the new law-school graduates!

Posted by Rick Garnett on May 19, 2012 at 11:17 AM in Rick Garnett | Permalink


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Jeff, I'll look up the Kushner volume...and I appreciate the illustration. Best wishes.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 20, 2012 3:25:26 PM

Patrick, I know how voracious a reader you are. I recommend a book that strongly influenced my knowledge and view of the role of midrash: Lawrence Kushner's "River of Light." The idea is that you take a line of text and fill in the spaces between the words with a story (a "drash"). There is much midrash in the Talmud and other post-Biblical Jewish writing. The story of Abraham breaking the idols is midrash, for example. Another example is a famous midrash on the meaning of the text in the Akedah story - the binding of Isaac, when God says "Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love..." The midrash is that Abraham kept playing dumb, responding first "but I have two sons," then "but I favor them both," then "but why Isaac?". What Kushner talks about is our continuing ability to make up our own midrash through which the meaning of the text evolves and applies to each of us.

In fact I can make one up here for the Micah text, filling in the gaps between the words in the text. When my daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, my son was six. His sister was in the hospital learning the insulin regimen, and her mom was with her. My job that evening was to take him to the club swim meet, as he was a member of the team and expected to swim. He resisted with six year old inertia, made more intense by the dislocation due to his sister's situation. I thought to myself - the answer here is TO DO JUSTLY. I need to be firm with him; now isn't the time for excuse-making. He needs to fulfill his commitment to the team. When we got to the meet, however, the coach had entered him in both the 25 meter free style (i.e., the dog paddle he had just mastered) and the 25 meter backstroke, even though it was clear to me he might not make it across the pool in the latter. He got frightened and didn't want to do, and I thought to myself, the answer here is TO LOVE MERCY. That is, his fears now were justified, and it was pushing too hard to ask him to swim that race. I have long since wondered how I decided there was a difference in the two situations, and can only conclude that one's obligation is TO WALK HUMBLY WITH GOD: that is, take cognition of the mysterious ability we have to intuit differences in gray areas, and to act upon them.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 20, 2012 2:50:20 PM

Many thanks for the clarification Jeff.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 20, 2012 2:16:15 PM

Patrick, you are insightful and provocative as always in not letting me be sloppy!

First, as a famous Jewish thinker, Woody Allen, says: "Don't knock masturbation; it's sex with somebody I love."

Second, I read the "do justice" as being more activist than merely "acting justly." it's certainly acceptable for people to seek to "do justice" in an activist sense (which often gets a liberal political spin), but Jews weren't just activists, they were shoemakers, blacksmiths, dairy farmers, rag merchants, diamond brokers (and general counsels to big chemical companies, like me). So "act or do justly" means to me the inward focus on taking responsibility for doing the right thing, no matter how mundane that might be - how you conduct your business, how you treat your children, how you act as a citizen. Moreover, the entire line highlights the antinomy of what it means to do the right thing - the balance between acting justly and acting mercifully, and that accommodating the two is one of the deepest mysteries of human moral judgment - hence your actions (i.e., the metaphoric walking) should approximate what the only consistent resolver of antinomies - God - might do. And humbly, since it is presumptuous to think you know what God thinks.

Repairing the world, or tikkun olam, has its source in the Lurianic myth about the creation of the universe - the breaking of the glass, and restoring the shards. The Kabbalistic tradition is not fundamental, nor are its texts, and even so, there's no Jewish dogma; we all are entitled to fill in our own midrash, or meaning in the interstices of the texts. Having said that, my Hebrew isn't good enough to know if there's one correct translation to Micah - but I set a pretty mundane bar for what it is one needs to do to fulfill an obligation (if one exists) to repair the world.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 20, 2012 1:37:09 PM

Jeff, perhaps I’ve misunderstood you or am being obtuse, but I would have thought “focusing internally in terms of doing or acting justly” sans the “outward implication of doing justice” is about as fruitful or self-centered (in a solipsistic sense) as masturbation. I suppose it must be a rather different tradition, therefore, that speaks of _tikkun olam_ as “repairing the world” with justice, pursued with humility, and tempered by mercy. We may not want to go as far as Levinas and identify this as the very meaning of (the?) religion itself, but at least for several Jewish traditions (and of course speaking from the vantage point of a non-Jew), it strikes as something very close to the heart and mind of it (cf. Jer. 22:16).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 20, 2012 7:55:44 AM

Rick, I stand corrected. Just looked at my 1985 Jewish Publication Society version. It's just like the New American, except it says "walk modestly."

This is a change from my original source, the 1955 JPS version, which said "to do justly, and to love mercy" which is almost like what I said the first time - I liked the idea of focusing internally in terms of doing or acting justly, rather than the outward implication of doing justice.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 20, 2012 6:36:06 AM

Jeff, it's the "New American.". I like the Jewish translation better, I admit.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | May 19, 2012 11:02:46 PM

Rick, is that the Douay Bible version?

In most Jewish translations, it comes out "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly..." Which is a little different.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | May 19, 2012 4:54:18 PM

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