Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
My friend’s son got married recently to another man. I never knew that her son was gay. I was surprised when I heard about this from a mutual friend. When I met my friend shortly after learning about the wedding, I congratulated her, and then, after a bit of hesitation, I wished her a mazal tov.
A bit later I wondered if I did the right thing. What do you think?
Circumspect Congratulator in Old Tappan
Yes, you acted properly in extending your best wishes. I don’t think you are asking me if you were right to hesitate at first. If that would be your question, my answer would be that today by American values, there is no basis for hesitation. Gay marriage is sanctioned and legal and it is celebrated by the couple with their family and friends.
That said, on the other hand, in many Orthodox Jewish circles gay relations of any sort are not acceptable. If that is the source of your hesitation, I understand it, though I do not applaud it.
Based on the less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of gay marriage in traditional Jewish life, I’m guessing you wonder if a traditional Jewish formula of congratulations was in order. Let’s be clear. Mazal tov means good luck, or more specifically, “good sign” since the word mazal originally denoted an astrological sign.
Some rabbis in antiquity spoke against the belief that luck or astrology had any relevance to believing Jews. “Israel has no sign,” is one talmudic axiom. This is based on the notion that all individual and national fortune comes from God, not from the alignments of the stars and constellations. In this strict way of thinking, astrology, or mazal, verges on idolatry. Wishing someone mazal tov would not be proper in that case.
Yet we know from archaeology that astrology was countenanced in early rabbinic times. The great mosaic floor discovered in 1929 in the ancient synagogue at Bet Alpha in northern Israel, in the Jezreel Valley, near Bet Shean, depicts a zodiac wheel at its center, with vibrant illustrations of each sign, each mazal. Such depictions are found in many other synagogue structures of the early sixth century C.E. in Israel.
This shows us that astrological symbols and their accompanying beliefs were accepted at the places of Jewish worship in the classical rabbinic era. True, some scholars downplay the illustrations by saying they were merely calendrical or decorative, and Jews did not embrace astrology. But such dismissals seem unconvincing to most historians of Judaism.
In all, I understand your question about the appropriate use of mazal tov. And I guess those qualms were more rooted in your reticence about showing enthusiasm for gay marriage than in your caution about whether a Jew should accept astrology or luck as a factor in life.
I conclude that you did quite right to wish a mazal tov to the young man’s mother upon this event, with one small additional caveat. It seems to me that it is a very Jewish thing to assume that a mother gets congratulated on her son’s wedding. In other cultural settings, the proper expression of good will might very well be to direct the congratulations to the principal recipients, “Please wish your son and his partner mazal tov on their wedding.” Just keep that thought in mind for the next time around.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I was awarded a prestigious prize for my lifetime accomplishments in my field. At first I thought I’d ignore the whole thing. You see, I value my time and my privacy. Then I agreed to accept the award. Then I decided that I’m not going to the award ceremony event to pick it up. Now, I know that not many Jews have received this recognition. By not attending, will I be making a mistake?
Hesitant in Hibbing
Yes, by the standards of polite society you are erring. When an honor is offered to you or bestowed upon you, it is gracious and proper for you to accept it, unless truly extenuating circumstances prevent you from doing so.
That applies in all instances of public honors, great and small. If you go to synagogue and are offered an aliyah to the Torah, you should accept that, even if you do not seek or covet that token appreciation of you within your small community.
In the case of a prominent Jew, which it seems that you are, it is a Kiddush Hashem, a glorification of God, to represent your people in the larger world community and to graciously receive the recognition.
Having dealt with many high achievers in a variety of academic fields, I understand that along with the essential powerful gifts of their creativity, there often come prominent strong attributes of quirkiness and eccentricity.
I get it. To make radically new knowledge or to create original art, a person needs to be convinced that the shackles that bind society do not apply so much to him or to her.
Can you, such a person, suspend that core belief for long enough to accept courteously the accolades that you so rightly earned? I hope that you can. Yes, I believe it would be a mistake for you not to do that. And finally, I extend to you a mazal tov for receiving the award.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am despondent over the outcome of the recent presidential election. What solace can I find in the Jewish tradition for such malaise?
Melancholy in Manalapan
Often, I turn to the most comforting place in Tanach for consolation when I face despondency, to the timeless wisdom in the book of Kohelet.
I open the text at random and begin to read a few verses. Immediately I feel reassured that there is nothing new under the sun. Life has always been a hopeless striving after wind, an endless battle with vanity and emptiness.
My favorite verse in Tanach, Kohelet 1:15, tells us: “That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” I find it useful to me that this basic realism pre-empts my temptation to seek after unfounded progressive idealism.
Now please understand that my consultation with this biblical wisdom does not leave me feeling nihilistic. Quite the opposite. I feel like I am in the company of King Solomon and with many generations of frustrated seekers who somehow came to terms with the bleak realities of their circumstances and soldiered on to the next day, the next battle, the next setback, in the struggle for what they deem to be the good of humankind.
Now, you need to accept that in the world we live in there are good people and evil people. Perhaps the ratio is not what we want it to be. We’d like more good people and fewer evil ones. We’d like the good people to run the show. Often that is not the case.
You have to labor hard every day to go out and make it so. And to do that, you have to learn to identify and ignore the vanity. That is what Kohelet tells us.
In our day and age vanity is expressed in the constant swirling distractions of awful political rhetoric. Acknowledge that now, and get back to work.
Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books about Judaism, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org