“There are no Jewish answers to Jewish questions,” insists Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.
The assertion seems a bit puzzling, coming from the man who has been hailed by the New York Jewish Week as “America’s rabbi,” a bestselling author of more than 15 books, including his comprehensive “Code of Jewish Ethics,” which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2007.
His statement hangs in the air for a few seconds, and then Telushkin pointedly explains: “There are Jewish answers to universal questions.”
What Jewish teachings have to offer, said the rabbi, is enlightenment and guidance to the world at large, and the world at large is primed to benefit from them.
Aptly, when Telushkin comes to Pittsburgh on May 10, his talk entitled “The Twenty-First Century: A Moral Vision, One Day at a Time,” will be held not at a synagogue or another Jewish venue, but at the Upper St. Clair High School Theater, and open to the public. His appearance, held in honor of Rabbi Mark Mahler’s upcoming retirement after 38 years of service to Temple Emanuel of South Hills, promises to have wide appeal.
Speaking by phone prior to his arrival in Pittsburgh, Telushkin gives a nod to Charles Dickens’ Classic, “A Tale of Two Cities,” when describing the state of Judaism in the 21st century.
The reason the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is so popular, Telushkin said, “is because it’s so universally and continuously applicable. In one sense, it is the best of times in the Jewish community, in that the world is willing to listen to our message, I think, more than ever before. There is an openness in America to making a Jewish message known.”
He contrasted the circumstances of American Jews in the early 20th century with those of the Jews today.
“When Jews started coming over to the United States in large numbers, European Jews in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, Jews were very concerned with preserving our identity, which obviously still is an issue,” he said. “But the world wasn’t really all that interested. But there is now, I would argue, a greater interest. There is a reaching out and a search and a thirst, and I think that Jews can take advantage of that.”
There are “great Jewish teachings,” he said, that can improve the state of 21st- century society.
“We want to find a more civilized way of communicating,” he noted as an example, and Judaism has an answer to that: the prohibition against lashon hara (“evil tongue”).
While a lot of Jews are familiar with the term lashon hara, most people don’t know that by definition, lashon hara is a statement that is true, he pointed out.
“But the fact that something is true doesn’t mean that everybody else has the right to know it,” Telushkin explained. “There are times when you have the right to say something negative or critical about a person, if people need the information. But very often, people will do it when it’s not necessary.”
Of course, he added, if a statement is false and negative, “it’s an even more serious thing — it’s slanderous. But here, I want people, before they say something, to ask themselves the following questions: ‘Is it true? And even if it’s true, is it fair and is it necessary?’”
During his talks, he said, he often inquires whether audience members can think of an episode in their own life “that you would be very embarrassed if other people knew about it?”
“Basically, everybody raises their hand except for people who have very bad memories or very boring lives,” he said. “And if somebody spread that information about us, we would be very angry. Even if it’s true, nobody else has the right to know it.”
People should refrain from talking about others, even when it comes to public figures, Telushkin advised.
“It doesn’t mean [public figures] should be protected from criticism, but we can’t go around denying any level of privacy to people,” he said.
Another Jewish teaching with universal application, he said, is the “most famous law in the Torah, the law of love your neighbor as yourself.”
“So, what’s the explicit commandment?” he asked. “The explicit commandment is to love your neighbor. But what’s the implicit commandment? The implicit commandment is to love yourself. In other words, I think the Torah is really recognizing there the importance of self-esteem.”
People tend to be at their best when they have a good sense of self-esteem, he said, but it is crucial that self-esteem be based on the right qualities, and parents have a responsibility to their children to make them feel good about doing good.
“Parents should reserve the highest praise for their children for when their children do kind acts,” Telushkin said. “Children normally get their highest praise for one of four things: for their academic achievements, their athletic accomplishments, their cultural achievements — like piano playing — and in terms of their looks.
“Kids need compliments,” he added. “But, I would argue that when parents reserve the highest praise for their children’s kindness, you develop a generation of people who think the most of themselves when they are being kind. And that’s why we have the capacity to have such a transformative effect. Their sense of self-esteem will derive from their goodness.”
Telushkin will more thoroughly examine Judaism’s “moral vision” and its applicability to contemporary times at the talk, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available for a “meet and greet” with Telushkin prior to the start of the program and the rabbi will be signing books following the presentation. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.