The slow food movement launched a clever new Ad Campaign to heighten people’s awareness of the use of hormones and anti-biotics in the fattening and immunizing of factory farmed animals: “You eat what your food eats. Make sure its natural.”


The safe sex movement got this awareness going a few decades ago with spreading the idea that when you “sleep” with someone, you are sleeping with everyone they ever slept with.


The cleverness of these campaigns got me thinking. Does this extend to “You learn what your teacher has learned?” and, “You are learning with everyone your teacher has ever learned.”


In class today I recalled a learning I received from my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, some 30 years ago. As teachers go he was a master. It stemmed from his keen intellect and his compassion for his fellow human beings. My older sister at that time was completing her Social Work degree and she alerted me that Rabbi Soloveitchik was invited to address the faculty and her graduating class. I do not recall the topic of his talk but I have not forgotten the answer he gave to a question posed to him at the end.


It went something like this:


“Rabbi, you have portrayed Judaism as a religion of compassion and tolerance, but is it not Jewish law that if a child marries someone not Jewish the parents are required to sit Shiva (mourning for 7 days) as if the child died?”


I could be wrong about this, but as I listened to this woman ask the question to my teacher I sensed (and my guess is so did he) that her question was from a hurtful personal experience.


When I knew him, my teacher was in his late seventies. My father and grandfather, who had both studied with him, testified to his ferocity as a teacher—I was meeting a much mellowed man. True to the form I knew, Rabbi Soloveitchik answered the woman’s question in a slow and gentle manner.


“Yes, you are correct,” he acknowledged. “The law is that if one’s child intermarries outside the faith the parents rend their garments and sit the mandatory 7 days of shiva. This is a loss as profound as death.” Then he added the following: “Now when the parent(s) get up from shiva the very first thing they need to do is call their child and their new son or daughter in-law and invite them to their house.”


While his answer may not resonate with your own sensibilities (or mine now), it was a profound learning for me at age 19. It was my first formal lesson in holding opposites and learning about the importance of valuing relationship along with dogma. As in Fiddler on the Roof, each of us is a fiddler on our own roofs, often with one foot in one world and one foot in another—balancing our conflicting emotions and thoughts. In our own attempts to cross over the tight rope, it is our teachers (and in turn their teachers) that steady us until we are ready to let the balance pole down and find the learning within ourselves.


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