Monthly Archives: August 2012

I’m Not My Neighbor’s Donkey’s Keeper!

This week’s portion, Ki Teitze, is a succinct list of basic ethical laws all seemingly focused on “rooting the evil out from Israel.” Much of the legislation found here is actually quite progressive for the time and place of its composition, but as always, we’ve got a few laws laid out that would be quite problematic for us today. In fact, they were even problematic for the rabbis who composed the Mishna.

One law states that a son who is rebellious, drunken, and gluttonous should be taken out of the city gates and stoned to death by the whole community. The rabbis of the Talmud interpret this very plainly written text as being a mere warning, and state that no such rebellious son has ever existed, or ever will. Similarly, this chapter of Deuteronomy gives a very plain and flat limitation of 40 lashes as a maximum corporal punishment. The rabbis, though, legislate 39, and even less for those who show signs of not being able to handle the beating (BT Makkot 22a).

Even earlier than the rabbis we have an inherent contradiction of one of the laws here. A very clear stricture against Moabites joining the people of Israel is laid out in Deut 23:4. With a little bit of close reading of our Jewish sources, we can see that the eponymous heroine of the book of Ruth is a Moabite who becomes an Israelite, and then goes on to be an ancestor of King David!

What we see here in the development of the Jewish tradition is a progressive humanization of relatively harsh law. This is a great trend to investigate and take into account when interpreting similar passages today. If we look at Judaism and the study and interpretation of Torah as a living, breathing, and continually developing tradition we must see this humanizing impulse as important and central to our own understanding of the laws.

On the other hand, the psychology behind some of these laws would be considered overly ethical today. Although upon first glance the law focused on one’s responsibility to one’s brother’s livestock seems very obvious and straightforward, if one actually considers the implication of the law, individual moral responsibility is being legislated to a very high degree. It is a fairly common practice today to look at moral and ethical standards, acknowledge that they exist in theory, and then continue acting as though they didn’t actually apply to real life. The lesson behind these very specific cases cited in Deuteronomy that often make people assume that they are either prehistoric nonsense or are not applicable due to their specificity, is that moral and communal ideals underly the cases, and were expected to be practiced by everyone.

In the case of the livestock a very high level moral principle is displayed. Not only are neighbors not allowed to merely ignore a lost, wandering animal, they are also required to safely secure it in their own home until that neighbor can come and get it. In this day and age of people at the highest level of society being unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions, this responsibility for a neighbor’s belonging could be considered almost revolutionary. How often do each and every one of us simply pretend not to see something happening with our neighbors? How often do we take the steps towards both acknowledging something happening and then doing something about it? As the rabbis of the Talmud did with the harsher laws of this passage, we should now do with the kindest.

The principle of communal responsibility for each other needs to gain new roots in this age of cultural atomization. If the writers of the book of Ruth could forgive the Moabites, can’t we hold ourselves to the ethical standards of communal living? If the rabbis living in Babylonia could find it in their hearts to withhold traditional forms of punishment, should we not find it in our hearts to practice traditional forms of community and personal responsibility?

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The Pattern of History

In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11,26-16,17), we are presented with some of the legal reforms that Deuteronomy is famous for. They aren’t described as such, as they are couched in the narrative of the Torah as having been given to the Israelites by Moses at the moment before he died. Scholars now believe that these shifts in the law were put in place by King Josiah. As interesting as ancient legal reform might be, let’s move on to the actual implications of the shift in the law. If looked at holistically, based on its place in the historical timeline and the Torah, the reforms laid out here give us an excellent point of perspective on a broad historical theme.

The goal of the reforms found here were centralization of religious practice around the Temple in Jerusalem, and the destruction of local places of worship scattered throughout the land of Israel. The Temple isn’t mentioned by name, but the reason is pretty clear: If the writers of Deuteronomy were attempting to project this document back in time, the Temple wasn’t to be built for hundreds of years. So the document instead states that local worship is no longer allowed, and that individuals are required to go to “the place where God chooses to place His name” for religious practices. There are two very important pieces of ancient Israelite culture that are revealed by this shift. Prior to the reforms, there must have once been a varied, local practice led by Levites, and meat was only eaten in the context of these practices. This portion does two things with these facets of Israelite life. It allows all Israelites to slaughter animals for eating outside of the religious realm, and it displaces the Levites from local religious leadership, instead grouping them in the category including the poor, the widowed, and the orphans. Quite a fall for the local priests.

What were the Levites doing that was such a challenge to the central leadership that it had to be legislated out of existence? The religious ceremonies led by the Levites are thought to have been based around what we now have as the book of Psalms. Over time this book was changed and eventually compiled from the many psalmic traditions of ancient Israel. This may be why we have different psalms attributed to different authors – they were used in different places and for different purposes.

These ceremonies led throughout the land of Israel by the local Levites might ring some bells with you: They lit incense, played music, sang Psalms, and, prior to the Deuteronomic Reform laid out in this Torah portion, were probably in charge of sacrificing animals for religious, communal feasts. When the Deuteronomic Reform hit, though, the religious authority of these rituals was removed. Secularity was to reign supreme everywhere outside of the Temple. Deuteronomy called for the total destruction of the places that Levites would have led these ceremonies, with the understanding that they were old Canaanite places of worship. They very well may have been. We know that today, when larger, hegemonic religions have spread throughout the world, they tend to adopt local sacred sites as the new sites for their religion. Why would it have been any different then? These local, dispersed practices were brought down with their sites, and all religious or cultic practice was relocated only to the Temple.

The picture I’m trying to paint here is the difference between pre-Deuteronomy and post-Deuteronomy Israelite religion. What was accomplished by these legislations was nothing less than civilization shaking. The entire focus of the Israelite nation became the Temple. A religious centralization, mixed with a demystification and destruction of local holy places, must have entirely changed the way that the Israelites related to their land. This also came in the wake of the displacement of the northern kingdom by the Neo-Assyrians, which basically left Jerusalem as the last surviving center of the Israelite world.

Is there anything that we can learn from these reforms then? Not long after the decree of King Josiah, the Babylonians came knocking at Jerusalem’s door. Having placed all religious importance upon the Temple, there was a great movement within the Israelites that led them to believe that Jerusalem and the Temple were invincible. A large subtext to the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah is a disagreement about this belief. Turned out the believers were wrong, and pretty much all of the holders of the ancient Israelite tradition were exiled to Babylon.

It would be easy to see this this as a warning against the dangers of extreme centralization, had the exiles from Jerusalem not somehow held on to the religion. This experience of exile, regarded universally in the Tanach as horribly traumatic, was the birthing place of the core that has allowed our religion to exist outside of centralized, national bounds for millenia. Most scholars believe that the portable tradition of the Torah was created as a reaction to the trauma, and this innovation is what has let us exist as a landless nation proudly carrying on the history of our people.

There is another great example of a very similar understanding of the nature of centralized power in the Jewish tradition: the Lurianic Kabbalah creation myth. The basic idea of the Lurianic creation of the cosmos is that God concentrated all of its divine energy into the creation of a series of layers of reality that descend in divine power from top to bottom. As God’s energy seeped through into the lower layers, these layers were no longer strong enough to contain this divine ray, and shattered. This misjudgment in the ability for our reality to contain the full power of divinity in a concentrated form led to our current state in the world today, where we must work to repair our reality through our own self-chosen actions. This sums up the theme of our weekly portion very well. Concentrating all of the most valued aspects of society in one spot is not that different from God attempting to concentrate the most distilled version of its power into a vessel that simply could not hold it. It leads to breakdown and dispersion.

The theme of concentration and then dispersion echoes throughout both Kabbalistic thought and Jewish history. The narrative of the Israelites in the Tanach has a pendulum like swing from central authority to dispersed local practices. By tracing this theme through history, we can gain some perspective on the state of our world today. As we watch some of the most powerful political and economic entities in human history struggle with containing and controlling concentrated authority, let us not fear the outcome too much. As a controversial Jew once said, a diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good under pressure. Only through this process of concentration and dispersion can we continue to develop and evolve as a species. Let us hope that the pressure we see and feel all around us today is readying itself for a great dispersal of new forms of more resilient and refined culture.

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You Didn’t Build That

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is yet another round of recapping with exhortations to the Israelites to heed God. There are a few verses that stand out, though, describing the relationship between God and the Israelites. If we’re considering this text to be an ancient person (or people’s) best attempt at explaining their experience of God, and one that should still be taken seriously, if not literally, there is one theme that appears throughout this portion. No matter how comfortable, powerful, or wealthy the Israelites get, they’ve got to keep one thing in mind: They didn’t build it.

This has been a theme ringing throughout American society recently as well. No matter how you feel about the politics being played out here, there is a certain truth to this theme that resonates universally. No matter where we are in life, to a great extent, we didn’t build it. We only get to our stations in life by standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. Surely some of us have much more help than others. I’ve certainly had more than my fair share. The key here, though, is to take a step back from our material existence, and look at the broader picture.

Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy has some very interesting theology that clarifies this for us. First, the Israelites are told that they were made to suffer in the desert not for fun, but because God was both testing them and teaching them. Their experience of hunger, of affliction, and of general chaos was all manifested by God, and their lives were extended and sustained by God as well. In fact, the relationship between Israel and God is compared to the relationship between a father and his son.

God then reminds all of the Israelites that it is not by their merit that they were given anything, or their work that any of this is theirs. It has all been God’s will, and that should they abandon their relationship with God, all they have gained could be lost. The portion then leaves off with God telling the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of their hearts,” to be less stubborn, and to make sure that justice is at the core of their nation.

Let me combine all of this into something more easily digestible. To set the scene from which I’m reading it, let us assume for a moment that whoever wrote this text was trying to honestly and accurately represent their conception and experience of God. The God we have represented here is deeply concerned with the development of the Israelite people (who, in the timeline of the text, are just about to start governing themselves as a nation for the first time in their own land). This God is explaining that these people have had the long, toiling experience that they had in the desert as a learning experience. It wasn’t that they were being tortured, led astray, or punished for God’s amusement. They were being taught something. And what is it that they were being taught? Humbleness, compassion and justice.

It would be very, very easy to just say this is a bunch of pre-modern mumbo-jumbo, probably written by a bunch of guys in power attempting to control an illiterate population. This might, in fact, be true. I have enough faith in the text and the tradition to give it the benefit of the doubt, though. Hang in there with me. I know this is a lot of anthropomorphising of God for one sitting, but I’ll put it all in perspective shortly.

The ultimate kicker here, though, is this: In this text, no matter how many times there are human-like qualities attributed to God, we are never given a fully human God. And that’s the point. There isn’t some symbol, some icon, or some fully fleshed out archetype for the individual Israelites to worship or emulate. Instead, there are directives as to how to be a good person. God isn’t attempting to lead by example. God is attempting to empower through directive and experience. What we have here is someone attempting to describe their experience of a thoroughly pedagogical God.

Learning is the core of Judaism, and always has been. Here, we’re given a boiled down lesson on both the history of the Israelites, and the ways that the Israelites were supposed to act based on this history. As Jews, we are supposed to be today’s Am Yisrael, or nation of Israel. Therefore, the lessons that our predecessors were taught are supposed to have been transmitted to us, and we are supposed to build on them. We are not supposed to repeat history, or attempt to emulate any of the people of the Tanach. We are supposed to learn from them.

So this portion in particular is telling us something. God is repeatedly making sure that the Israelites understand that the land their about to receive, the homes and comfort that they will inherit, and the freedom that they have been gifted were not merely the fruits of their own labor. It was God’s work, given to them as the next step in their lesson in peoplehood. Would they succeed? Would they manage to incorporate the humbleness, compassion, and sense of responsibility that their God was attempting to impart upon them?

For a time, sure. But what we eventually see in the Tanach is that these teachings were tossed by the wayside, and the Israelites were left just as they were before – homeless and despondent. We can’t possibly know the exact historical details of any of this. In fact, our contemporary ancient history is deeply colored by the narrative of the Tanach, and the sources we have from the ancient Near East in regards to these moments in Israelite history are sadly lacking. What we do know, though, is that in our current age of great literacy and freedom of speech and thought, we can look at these lessons and stories from every angle.

Our world often feels like it’s on the verge of chaos. The economies of the West are all in crisis mode. The environment is doing some pretty crazy things, like giving North America the hottest year on record. There are constant rumblings of war or conflict. I’m sure that there are plenty of anxiety producing insecurities in your life that are boiling just below the surface. What this portion, Eikev, is telling us is that yes, we are all roaming the wilderness, just on the boundary of our Promised Land. We have been given lessons, not always easy, not always pleasant, on the way here. We didn’t build this. Anything we have, anything we’ve earned, was not solely our own accomplishment. So let us remember, with great humbleness and compassion, with circumcised hearts and un-stiffened necks, that just as we are struggling in the wilderness, so are those around us. Some of our neighbors may have it even worse than us — they may still, in fact, be all the way back in Egypt. So like the last segment of this portion adjures the Israelites, let us impress this compassion and humbleness upon our very hearts, keep them with us always, and teach them to our children so that they too may endure.

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Radical Prayer

In Parshah Vaetchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11) we’ve entered the meat of Deuteronomy. More recap of already established law and narrative. I think it’s exceptionally difficult to charge this material with anything interesting unless the reader has a sense of the historical context of the book.

Deuteronomy is more or less a contract between God and the Israelites. It recaps a lot of what happened previously between them simply because this is part of the contractual framework used very regularly throughout the ancient Near East at this time. The contract which openly states that this God is the one and only God, and that the Israelites swore fealty only to this God, was compiled in the face of the two major empires of the time (Assyria and Babylonia) baring down on the small nation of Judah. Assyria had already destroyed the Northern Kingdom, and this new book that rounds out the Torah was written in conjunction between the Northerners who had escaped the destruction, and the Judahites who were still hoping to survive in the face of the greatest powers of the era. Most scholars think that the canonization of Deuteronomy continued into the eventual exile into Babylon, and that the redactors and writers of this book, or their successors, also wrote much of the rest of the Tanach. They call these books the “Deuteronomistic History.” If nothing else, Deuteronomistic is a hell of a scrabble word.

This places Deuteronomy in a very interesting space, and actually ends up making Deuteronomy arguably the most important book of the Torah in regards to the core of Judaism (notice,we call it Judah-ism today). It’s by no means the most entertaining or engaging, but it holds the heart of Jewish thought. Nothing makes this more clear than this Parshah.

In Deut. 6:4-9, we find the core creed of Judaism, the Shema. It is supposed to be the first thing we say when we get up, the last thing we say when we go to sleep, and even the last thing we say in our lives. What I find so striking about it is that, in many ways, the basic meaning of it (monotheism) has become so prevalent throughout the world. Up until Christianity and Islam came to power monotheism was not a generally accepted belief. In comparison to the Romans, Greeks, or Mesopotamians that the ancient Jews lived amongst, monotheism might as well have been atheism. Reciting the Shema was often seen as public disrespect towards the gods of these other nations. If you think about it in reference to the fact that this prayer was composed to rebuke the polytheism of two of the greatest empires of all time, reciting it really was an act of defiance. In this day and age where monotheism is the most popular form of religion in the world it is hard to keep this in mind. If monotheism has become mainstream, though, is it then time to re-radicalize the Shema?

One of the most frequent questions I get when conversing with Orthodox Jews is “How is your approach different than Christianity’s?” Now, I’m pretty sure they’re at least partially just trying to push my buttons, but I do think it’s fair. When you boil down liberal Judaism and liberal Christianity, everything outside of the whole Jesus controversy starts to look a lot alike. The very nature of liberalism means that this should be the case, though. Unfortunately, once that road is paved, it’s much easier to just move on with the liberalism and without the Judaism or Christianity, and that’s one of the great fears and struggles of the Reform movement today. This is not only unfortunate for the religions, though. I am not one to argue that the irreligious or atheistic are inherently less moral than those who ascribe to one of the world’s traditions. I do think that what Western liberalism, which informs Reform Judaism, lacks on its own is guidance in determining personal values in life, and ways to orient and divide up time in a manner that helps to infuse life with meaning.

In Deuteronomy chapter 5, we’re given a restatement of the Ten Commandments. From the perspective of Judaism, these are just about as basic as it gets. Since we’ve already been talking about the Shema, let’s talk about Commandments one (There is only one God) and two (You may not worship idols). I’ve previously written about my conception of God, but let me try to lay it out simply (as one wise Jew once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”) The monotheistic God, in my opinion, transcends the God of the Bible, and can be described most basically as being the flow of meaning and purpose that pushes time forward.So what commandments one and two are saying is that the true power in our human universe is a singular force of value and meaning, and must not be confused with anything other than that which it is. Money, power, status, or anything else is merely a manifestation or human-created fetish of this force.

This is what the Shema is saying. Although we all have other things we find important, what we must always keep at the forefront of our mind is that this singular charge, this power and force of meaning and purpose behind creation, is the one object that should be placed above all. All else is interpretation attempting to explain the best way to integrate this understanding into your life. Like the great Rabbi Hillel said when asked to teach the Torah on one foot, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”

As I stated before, the Shema is the central creed of the Jewish religion, focused entirely on the fact that we have one, and only one, God. It is followed immediately by another prayer, both in the Torah and in Jewish liturgy, called the V’ahavtah, which is focused on loving God. The Torah is the most important and ancient Jewish record of our interactions with God. According to Hillel (arguably the greatest Rabbi of all time), the quickest way to summarize the Torah is to say “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So, I think that we can logically reason that what the shema is saying, then, is that our behavior, above all else, should be focused on empathy and kindness. Instead of focusing on predicting the future, or unravelling the past, the Shema asks us to live in the now, to hear, state, and know that the oneness of God is central, and that our purpose is found in lovingkindness. If we began our days and ended our days contemplating this, even just ever so briefly in the six words of this prayer, would this not reorient us in a way that might actually help shift the world we live in?

The Shema is a radical prayer, written in defiance of the greatest human forces on the planet. It not only outlived these forces by thousands of years, its basic meaning has become accepted worldwide. Maybe by re-charging this prayer with a new meaning, we can affect a similar change on our world today. Isn’t that the purpose of this whole Judaism thing?

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