One thing that is bound to get a wry smile or raised eyebrow from a rabbi is someone’s impassioned appeal on behalf of a political position because of “Jewish values.” The problem with this phrase is that it is so ambiguous as to convey no specific or significant information whatsoever.
I have heard people declare with utmost confidence that Judaism supports everything from the right to choose abortion to the right to bear arms based on “Jewish values.” In the discussion, that person will recite a particular verse, Talmudic ruling or Midrashic teaching to support her or his position.
But most serious students of Judaism know that verses from the Tanach mean what our Sages interpret them to mean, that Talmudic rulings are the result of argumentation and discourse, that Midrashic insights are often matched with contradictory ones in the same volume. So are there any values we can claim to speak to all of us as Jews?
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us some guidance: “This is the ritual of the sacrifice of well-being, that one may offer to God: If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer it together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. This offering with cakes, of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being.”
Gratitude is a core Jewish value. This can be affirmed by all Jews, no matter what expression of Judaism they practice or profess. This value is so profoundly ingrained in Jewish thought that the thanksgiving offering is named by the Sages as the only sacrifice that will continue into Messianic times: “R. Pinchas, R. Levi and R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Nachman of Gllia: In the time to come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving will not be annulled, and all prayers will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving will not be annulled.”
For Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat reminding us that Pesach is right around the corner, I hope that we can set aside our powerful and authentic disagreements about Jewish values supporting our positions on everything from Israel to gun control to abortion. I hope and pray we affirm that gratitude is the profoundly transcendent Jewish value that should move our hearts at this season of our liberation.
For what are you thankful? It is our task to name it and claim it. If you are thankful for someone in your life, tell them. If you are thankful to God for your blessings, thank God!
If you are thankful for our people, despite trouble and tsuris, give thanks!
Gratitude — it’s the Jewish value we can all agree on.
Happy Shabbat Hagadol! PJC
Rabbi James A. Gibson is the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.