Monthly Archives: May 2012

The U.N. vs. The Torah

Last week, I was talking to a couple of friends when one of them asked, “What do you think is a human right?”

Considering the fact that my wife has studied human rights pretty extensively, and I’ve had many conversations about human rights with her and other people, I figured I’d immediately have at least one answer. Actually sitting down and trying to think it through in the span of a quick moment I realized that there’s a reason we haven’t established an effective human rights system for the world. Sure, the UN and the Hague and all those other international groups try pretty hard. In fact, in case you haven’t been paying attention, The Hague has finally started prosecuting and convicting people. In spite of their possible good intentions and attempts, though, the world has still not fully accepted the documents claiming universal status. On top of that, many people claiming to accept them don’t uphold them anyway.

So my answer to my friends ended up being a series of statements immediately discounted by the next statement. I’ve heard many people claim all kinds of things as human rights, from individual survival to Wi-Fi, but I’m still not certain we can pin down in simple, clear, 10 commandments-like language a list of human rights that everyone in the world would respect. Too many entities pull the “cultural imperialism” card in response to the attempts of outside regulation. Although many of these entities use this card as a get out of jail free card for wild abuses of their populations for personal gain, there is definitely a sliver of truth to the claim. This doesn’t mean that individuals shouldn’t be protected against tyrannical leaders, but if we just simply boil it down to the individual we are missing some of the point.

If I were to try to just free hand draft a list that I think most people would come up with, I’d throw out there that all human beings have a right to clean water, food, housing and exercising one’s happiness, but it’s really just not that simple. What about someone whose happiness is only fulfilled by wearing other people’s skins like a costume? Is a person who continually attempts to do so worthy of a share of the limited resources society has? Even in the most individualistic society focused on making space for people with all sorts of varying tastes and desires, we’ve got to draw a line somewhere. There are just too many exceptions and specific cases that undermine an easy, pithy statement of human rights. People have known this for a long time. In fact, it’s arguable that the huge amount of specific laws in the Torah is one of the earliest attempts at clearing this problem up. As a human rights document, though, I don’t think it stands the test of thousands of years in all instances.

In last week’s Torah portion, Emor (Lev 21:1-24:23) a pretty serious line of this nature is drawn. An Israelite and a half-Israelite, half-Egyptian get in a fight, which ends when the half-Israelite, half-Egyptian blasphemes the Name of God.  I’m sure there’s a huge amount of Midrashic literature written on what went on during the fight, and why the blasphemy was pronounced, but the Torah itself glosses over the fight entirely. All that matters here is that the name of God was blasphemed for what appears to be the first time, as no one knows what to do about it.

God’s answer to Moses is a strange ritual. The congregation is supposed to take the blasphemer out of the camp, everyone who was in earshot of the blasphemy are supposed to lay their hands on the blasphemer’s head, and then the entire congregation is supposed to stone the blasphemer to death.

This ritual of laying hands on the individual’s head appears over and over again throughout the Torah, but most of the time it is a priest, or many priests, putting their hands on the heads of sacrificial animals before they are offered to God.  I’m sure someone somewhere has written a dissertation on that topic, but it’s not particularly pertinent here. What is more pertinent is the fact that immediately after God delivers the command to stone the blasphemer to death comes a list of legislation, including the death penalty to individuals who kill others, the famous “eye for an eye” law, and a differentiation between killing people’s animals which demands restitution, and killing the actual person which, again, is deserving of death. It is then stated explicitly that all of these laws apply equally to native and non-native people residing with the Israelites.

So what we ultimately have here is a declaration that the blaspheming of God’s Name is an equal sin to the killing of another human. For those that don’t know, it is actually impossible to blaspheme God’s Name now, so don’t worry about your goddamns. The correct pronunciation of God’s Name was lost long ago, which is why I keep capitalizing Name – by Name I mean the ineffable Name that was used only by the chosen few High Priests of the Temple.

Returning to the point here, what does this say about human rights and values in the Israelite camp? As I said last week, God in the Tanach is ultimately the ordering principle of the universe, and we are seeing this in action on the micro level here. By attributing this legislation to God, and attributing ultimate value to the use of God’s Name, what we’re actually seeing here is the protection of the ordering principle of this new society. These people were, not long ago in the narrative, a nation of slaves under the foot of a ruthless pharaoh, oppressed again and again. Now, with their freedom, they’re much like that guy in Shawshank Redemption that wanted to go back to jail. A zealousness surrounding their ordering principle, the one that that is keeping them from fully losing their goddamn minds out there in the desert, makes perfect sense. Maybe Moses knew this, or maybe he did have some kind of direct channel to the ordering principle that let him “hear” the necessary order for the moment for each given situation. Regardless, these kinds of values, depending upon the society, are necessary glue holding the fabric of otherwise chaotic societies together.

And this was the crux of my inability to answer my friends’ question. The question was later contextualized within the confines of being stuck on a desert island with a bunch of people where you had to establish law, which, funnily, mirrors the situation of the Israelites in the desert in a very real way. Again, this was a people recently freed from 430 years of slavery, suddenly finding itself wandering in the desert behind some guy claiming to speak to the pillar of smoke and fire that led them all. It’s really not that different than Lost. In either of these instances, what is more valuable: Keeping the newly cobbled society together or preserving the individual human lives that make up the society?

It is far beyond members of the liberal West to claim that blasphemy is worthy of death, and I think that’s great for us. But should we be so quick to claim our sense of individual entitlements and the individual human life as the trump card of all value for everyone? Is the threat of an entire culture coming unglued a big enough issue to deserve death? I think this example from Emor serves to point out the deepest issue in our idea of human rights. How do we strike a balance between the survival and rights of the individual, and the survival of the disparate cultures? It is quite clear that they are interdependent on the deepest level. Without a people to carry them, societies and cultures simply cease to exist, and without a society and culture, individuals face the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short life in total chaos. This question of balance, I think, is one of the deepest and most profound of our times. Unfortunately, many of the people that claim that Western liberalism and international human rights undermine their culture and society also claim to have a direct channel to the higher order, a god, or a Truth. I do hope that we can find some middle ground without having to have a guy talking to a giant smoke and fire monster show us the way.


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A Timely Man

Last week’s double portion of Torah was Acharei/Kedoshim. This double portion is the beginning of the Holiness Code, the section of Leviticus that legislates the ins and outs of ritual purity for the Israelite camp. This stuff can be quite interesting, as the lines of purity and impurity are drawn very starkly. This impurity, too, is contagious – coming into another Israelite that had contracted ritual impurity gave the contactee the same impurity. One can imagine some kind of ancient OCD taking hold of these Israelites fearing possible impurity, and constantly making the sacrifices necessary to cleanse themselves of these missteps.

One of the most interesting parts of the parshat, though, comes before the holiness code begins. In chapter 16 of Leviticus, there is a segment laying out the ritual central to what was the Yom Kippur of the time. This ritual involved two goats. One was to become a sacrifice to God, the other was to be marked for Azazel. There is a lot of debate over who or what Azazel was. Although it’s relatively interesting, I think most people would accept that whatever Azazel is, it is not God. In fact, it might not be too big of a leap from the context to state that it is the opposite of whatever God is. But Azazel is only one of the strange mysteries involved in this ritual.

The part that is of the most interest to me is the man who is supposed to deal with this whole ritual. Ish iti, usually translated as “the designated man,” is an interesting individual in this whole performative drama. Aaron, the high priest, would lay his hands on the goat set for Azazel and confess the sins of the entire people of Israel, and then this “designated man” would be tasked to walk the goat out into the wilderness. The man would then come back, be ritually cleansed, and rejoin the camp. But who was this designated man? And why did he need to lead the goat out?

I think this ritual is interesting for many reasons. The ish iti is central to it, but little is said about him. I’m going to attempt to not bore anyone who has enough kindness in their heart to have read this far with too much Hebrew grammar the word “iti” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. It clearly comes from the word “eit,” which has to do with time and timing, and has the suffix “i” which is similar to the English suffix “-ish” or “-ly.” So, Robert Alter translates ish iti as “the timely man.” This doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out what the hell this guy was, though.

It seems strange that in a section of the Torah so deeply laden with specificity that the ritual laid out as arguably the most important of the year would have such a clear loose end. Maybe it wasn’t important who he was? Was it just some guy that got chosen at random from the camp? I don’t think so. I think that the use of the word “iti” here, as the use of any hapax usually does, points to it having a pretty special meaning.

Now, of what relevance is this ritual to us today? We don’t do it anymore (some haredim do something similar, in which they ritually abuse a chicken to do away with their sins), and we have our own Yom Kippur rituals. But I am a firm believer that everything in the Torah is pointing to something worthwhile, even if it is something that is only worthwhile to disagree with. If we look at this ritual as the goat, which symbolizes the sum total of the sins of the Israelite people for the year, being led out into the wilderness, we are given three objects to work with: The goat, or the sins, the special man, and the wilderness.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the special individuals are always plunged into the wilderness. Adam, Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (with the entirety of the Israelite people!), just to name a few. The wilderness is a space that every great leader of the Israelite people had to venture through, usually in times of great trouble, to become the person they were bound to become. This theme is a clear key to heroism in the Tanach, but leads us down a very interesting path if investigated.

The wilderness, in many ways, represents disorder and chaos within the cosmology of the Hebrew Bible. It is the untamed place, the place where one can both encounter God, but also encounter great danger. It is the forge of greatness throughout the narrative of the Jewish people, a place of trial by fire. But this disorder and chaos, like Azazel, is actually the antithesis of the God of the Torah. The first thing we see in the Tanach is God creating the earth and the heavens, which is initially in a state of tohu va vohu, chaos and void of form. Then, through language, God orders the cosmos to his will, calling each piece good when it is in order. In spite of this ordering of the cosmos, chaos and disorder still exist in God’s creation. The nation of Israel is, in essence, supposed to be another ordering element within this creation. But this nation, too, needs individual humans deeply in touch with God, or order, to help face down the chaos and lead them towards a higher order.

The wilderness is then a testing ground for the special individual. Given this understanding of the relationship between order and chaos, and God and the wilderness, why then is the wilderness where both heroes go to be have their closest contact with God, and why is the goat of sin sent there as a way to purge the nation of Israel of their sin? God’s relationship to tohu va vohu at the beginning of Genesis helps us to understand this. Not only is chaos antithetical to God’s nature, but it is also the raw materials with which God can enact God’s will. Within these areas of chaos, God’s will can be seen most manifest because this is exactly where it can affect the most change. This is equally true of those heroes in our history who were given direct commissions by God. And maybe this is the key to the ish iti.

One of the questions the kids I teach ask most often is why God doesn’t speak directly to humanity like he did in the Tanach. Why aren’t there prophets? Why doesn’t God speak to them in the way that he did to Abraham and Moses? My usual answer is that we are just spoken to in different ways now, one of which is through the Torah. I think that the fact that we don’t need someone to walk the goat out into the wilderness to purge us of sin on Yom Kippur is relevant to this question. We no longer have the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant. We no longer have a priesthood, or a prophet to speak God’s word to us.

I think that it’s pretty clear given our current cultural circumstances that we’re not going to get an individual ish iti to come and purge us all of sin. During the Exodus the Israelites lived as one group wandering through the desert. Having one person tasked with this job for the physically collected nation made sense. Each individual within the nation could be present to witness the head priest perform the ritual over the individual goat, and watch the ish iti take the goat out into the wilderness. The far flung remnants of Israel today, present in almost every country in the world, are both deeply connected and deeply disconnected. We no longer have this kind of powerful top down organization to hold us together ritually. It is necessary that our interconnection be accepted as no longer physical, just as we no longer have a physical priesthood, Temple, or prophet. This lack of physicality leads to a much greater perception of chaos in our culture and lives. Without these physical guideposts to give us the clarity of order many struggle to find any relevance in our tradition at all.

A wise Jew once said that with great power comes great responsibility. In the wildly literate and self empowered society that we live in it is our responsibility to each be an ish iti. In this way the winding paths of history have flipped our entire cultural power structure on its head. Just like the singular ish iti who must venture out into the great impurity of the wilderness to cleanse the whole of Israel, we each take the risks and make the hard decisions which may sometimes miss their mark as we try to inject order into the chaos around us. Unlike the ish iti who had to cleanse himself to rejoin the community, we all join together on Yom Kippur to confess sins as a whole. On this day, we confess even those sins that we may not have committed personally. In this way, we cleanse ourselves as a whole community, mixing our impurity together and purging it through the liturgy and the ritual of the day.

I believe that this flipping of structure says a lot about the place of Judaism and religion today. In particular, the way we practice Yom Kippur stands as a symbol for the way we must accept our individual responsibility in our day to day lives. On our holiest of days we are one community again, and judged as such. On every other day, though, it is our job to be the ish iti, a product of our space and time, and one who must navigate the ever increasing chaos of our world as a figure attempting to locate and create peace and order for everyone.