Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, has been in the news recently. Well, he’s often in the news, but two recent articles come to mind.
First, there is “Bloomberg Plans a $50 Million Challenge to the N.R.A.” (New York Times, April 15, 2014), mostly about his plans for financing gun control. At the end, the article takes a different turn, remarking that “His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72.” Then:
Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”
Presumably, the grinning mayor was being somewhat tongue in cheek, emphasizing his achievement more than proclaiming anything about the deity.
The second article is, “Bloomberg, in Israel, Wins a $1 Million Prize, and Then Gives It Back” (New York Times, May 22, 2014). With Jay Leno as the host, Mayor Bloomberg won the Genesis Prize honoring achievements that demonstrate “Jewish values.” Bloomberg then gave away his winnings in the form of establishing a competition among entrepreneurs, Jewish or not, whose ideas stem from “Jewish values.”
All of which raises the questions: what are Jewish values? And is working on behalf of social causes—surely one such value—an automatic pass at the “heaven interview"? —at least as Mayor Bloomberg put it, “if there is a God.” (Humor about God —not poking fun at him, but more at us humans —tends to be a Jewish value as well.)
Writers have often commented on, expounded, and advocated for Jewish values. Most of those values are rooted in the classic Jewish text, the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Tikkun olam, “repair of the world,” or social action? Look no further than the Hebrew prophets. “Let justice roll down like waters,” says the prophet Amos. Kibbud av va’em, honor of parents? “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you,” right there in Exodus 20:12. And so on with almost everything considered a “Jewish value.”
The presupposition of the Tanakh about where all these values derive from is that, yes Mr. Bloomberg, there is a God. Without the God of the Bible, changing a light bulb, or not changing it and sitting in the dark, could be values on a par with showing honor to parents. With God, on the other hand, we know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what is and isn’t important.
One fundamental Jewish value is not often mentioned: teshuvah (repentance for sin), and not just on Yom Kippur. From the prophet Isaiah:
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.1
Working for gun safety and for reducing obesity are noble goals, but human sin and evil taints the best deeds. Doing these things may help others, but they don’t get us a “heaven interview pass,” in the former mayor’s business world metaphor. In Isaiah’s terms, all that great stuff is — as far as a relationship with God is concerned —like something the dry cleaner charges extra for.
So what’s a nice Jewish boy like Michael Bloomberg to do? Or the rest of us for that matter? Watch for the next blog post on “Jewish Values in the New Testament,” or, “The Day God Said, ‘Keinahora!’ “
1 Isaiah 64:6 in English versions; 64:5 in the Hebrew.