Shatnez Testing: Finding the Thread of Kindness in a Tangle of Human Experience

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2016-09-15 – Saturday I’ll be bar mitzvah five times over. I’m 65.

My bar mitzvah Torah portion (parsha) was Ki Tetze (כי תצא – Deut. 21:10 – 25:19—read this year on September 17). As a kid, I was disappointed with this parsha. There was no stirring story. I, a mere boy, was expected to become a man while chanting a hodge-podge of moral rules. Some are sweet, some are horrifying, some are just confusing—in no particular order.

Somehow I extracted a thread of a theme: Thou shalt be kind.

As I said, the laws of kindness are thoroughly mixed with who-knows-what in these deuteronomic passages. Among them are labor laws and business ethics and the mitzvah of charity—together with laws about marriage to captives of war, levirate marriage, and shatnez, a prohibition against mixing two fibers (linen and wool) in a single garment.

In the very midst of a very mixed up set of verses, we’re told to be wary of mixing!

I was indeed mixed up, but it made an impression. The impression was that, from the mix of life, I needed to look for the path of kindness. In the years since my bar mitzvah, the level of my religious observance has risen and fallen—mostly fallen—but the core message that I took from my bar mitzvah parsha has remained.

Sixty-five years is a long time. I’ll save you from doing the math. I was a child of the sixties. My bar mitzvah was August 22, 1964. My teenage years were years of huge transformation in this country. My generation didn’t trust anyone over 30. We rejected the establishment. And we’re still rejecting it (though we never achieve it).

In 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young inverted the prayer of my youth, the Shema, by taking the passage “teach your children” (v’shinantam l’vanecha) and transforming it into “teach your parents,” substituting felt love for taught values. And so, in the four bar mitzvah cycles since I was a child, we have stopped teaching the children—about kindness.

Because it’s messy. The rules of kindness from my parsha (and from other parshas) are twisted and mixed in our holy books with ritual and superstition. The nonsense taints the sublime. They are all up for debate.

When I was a kid we were taught—not just in religious school, but in public school—to act with respect and kindness. To be sure, the respect and kindness did not extend to everyone. But the principles were ingrained. We learned to say yes, sir and no, ma’am. We learned to open doors for people and let them go first. We learned to offer help. We learned to share. They didn’t call it political correctness in those days. They called it politeness. And morality.

It seems that my generation was the end of this. Since the beginning of our country—before my time–moral education was entangled with religion. In the sixties, that way of looking at things fell out of favor, and no one was interested in finding a common thread. Liberals balked at rules of etiquette, saying they stifled their true expressions of love and respect or that they were patriarchal or microagressions. Conservatives worried that teaching rules of love and respect might inevitably lead to their use (God forbid). And I’m not just talking about sex.

Without a common vision, we just stopped teaching kindness altogether. And the result? The Age of Aquarius never dawned. No harmony or understanding. Falsehood and derision abound. Our children and our children’s children were never taught.

Oh, there have been a few attempts to revive the practice, but today our schools teach facts. Facts are utilitarian. They help us win globalization, whatever that means. Even more important, facts are easy to test. There is no multiple-choice test for respect and kindness. The result for our society is apparent.

I may sound like the proverbial old guy who has grown from liberalism to conservatism. I am not—at least not in a political sense. Call me liberal or conservative, my values derive from an insistence on finding a thread of kindness that is twisted in the tangle of human experience. That is the message I have drawn from my bar mitzvah parsha for more than half a century. The 12-year-old me would have never guessed.

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