The Ins and Outs of Hoopoes and Bovines

This weeks Torah portion, Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), is all about defining in and out. Starting with a depiction of the first major cultic sacrifice, which leads to God appearing to the whole of Israel, the portion tailspins into the death of Aaron’s sons as punishment for their having offered an unsuitable sacrifice of incense. God forbids the family of the dead any mourning. This scene is immediately followed by the prohibition of alcohol to any of the priests while in the Tabernacle (no sacrificing while drunk!), and the categorizing of animals into pure or impure (kosher or unkosher).

So we’ve got some pretty clear in grouping and out grouping. Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, are certainly out. But what did they do wrong? The text is really ambiguous. They are accused of having offered God “alien fire.” There are plenty of theories on what this means, but none of them help to clarify our main concern here, which is what is it that makes one part of the in-group.

If we assume that the breaking up of the Torah portions was done with distinct purpose and thematically, the idea that a couple of people in the high priesthood stepping slightly, and possibly only mistakenly, out of line could be so immediately dangerous says a lot about the rest of the portion. Offering something unacceptable or simply not commanded as deadly, grouped together portion-wise with the laying out of the laws of purity of animals might give us a hint at a deeper meaning behind the relation of these two segments. If we are explicitly told here which animals are to be eaten, which animals are not to be eaten, and which animals cause impurity, we may be able to derive a boundary for ourselves based on the qualities that makes these animals kosher or unkosher.

Most of the things that are impure are animals that will eat other things within their same category. Four pawed animals often eat other four pawed animals, birds of prey often eat other birds. Things in the sea without scales and fins are also often carnivorous within their own category.  And we all know that pigs will eat anything. Their corpses are treated similarly to that of human corpses by the law, too. So their status can then be seen as similar to us. This animal that has a relationship where it consumes other animals makes them in some way akin to us.

Mary Douglas has pointed out that the animals considered clean are generally ones that are domesticated by humans as food sources, or are closely related to these animals. In this case, we see their purpose within the world as being their identifier. So let us combine these qualities:  animals whose actual purpose is feeding us are to be eaten, while those who function is eating other animals are not.

Relationships between eater and eaten are actually interesting when you think about it. Why is it that something is appetizing? How can one account for what one has a taste for? It’s certainly not just that the nutritional value is high. There are plenty of things that I crave to eat that aren’t good for me. And I don’t ever seem to crave something I’ve never tried before. In a way, purpose is similar. How does one figure out one’s purpose? By trying things out, and finding what speaks to you. Many humans have this luxury, but it is arguable that animals do not. Despite what those conniving, tricky folks at Pixar might have us believe, I have the sneaking suspicion that animals don’t really have an issue with a sense of purpose in life. So if an animal’s purpose is decided for it, and the animals whose purpose is service are the kosher ones according to the Torah, then the Torah-described kosher ones of humanity must also be those whose purpose is service.

This then makes a  case for the Jew as one whose innate purpose is service. That isn’t to say that those outside of Judaism don’t serve a purpose, it is simply a different one, and one of much greater freedom. There’s nothing wrong with a cougar or a hoopoe. They’re very beautiful animals that have purposes within their own biomes. Should one of these hoopoes decide that a life of service to humanity through the Jewish covenant with God is a beautiful thing, I don’t see what the hoopoe shouldn’t be allowed to join in as well. We Jews, though, like the sheep, goat, bovine, are born into service. We don’t have a choice. Some of us are even born outside of Jewish families and find our way into service as Jews later. What kind of service are we born into? We are born into the service of God, according to the Torah. But as Abraham was promised at the moment Jews point to as the beginning of the everlasting covenant between us and God, we are to be a blessing to all of the nations.  And as our prophets told us even before the destruction of the first Temple, it is not that God wants us to make sacrifices, which today is akin to the prayer services and the ritual mitzvot, it is that God wants us to deal with humanity in a righteous way. So our purpose carries us even outside of our biome, into the realm of the universal, as a people meant to bless the world with righteousness.

This may be pie-in-the-sky idealism about what Judaism means, but we are talking about religion and mythology here, so idealism fits. One of the greatest concerns today in Reform Judaism is also the issue of who is in and who is out, as can be seen in this exchange between two rabbinical students about intermarriage.   At one point, these two rabbinical students start talking about  “ultimate concerns” in regards to Jewish theology when discussing intermarriage, but neither broach the subject of what the ultimate concern of the Jew should be. Maybe with a little more focus on an idealistic ultimate concern as being our defining factor, the ultimate litmus test of our in-group would simply be commitment to our mission to be a blessing to all nations through our covenant.

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The Boundaries of Purity and Pollution

toxic

This week’s Torah portion, Tsav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) is a continuation of last week’s focus on the cult of sacrifice in ancient Israelite religion. Last week, we were given the basic rundown of the sacrificial cult, the bare-bones outline of the form of worship. This week, some of the nitty-gritty is laid out. There is quite a bit of repetition of the sacrifice ritual itself, but this sets apart the new information in stark contrast. Ultimately, the new focus is on what is actually done with the offerings.

In my experience, most people just assume that sacrifices are something that has to be painful; a practice of depriving one’s self for some sort of repentance or greater good. Some of the sacrificial ritual described here is certainly this, but it also has a much greater function.

According to Mary Douglas, having a structure of culturally delimited pollutants and methods of purifying one’s self once polluted helps to maintain boundaries that aid in general social cohesion. To set up boundaries for social cohesion means to provide maintenance for a national or social identity, and to therefore define an in-group or out-group. This fits closely with the actual meaning of the Hebrew word that is often translated at “sacrifice.” The Hebrew word korban (קרבן) is related not necessarily to the idea of sacrifice as we have it in Western culture, but more to drawing close, or being in the midst of something. The qualities of pollution and purity found in relation to sacrifice here are really about whether one is fit to draw close to God or not, and if one draws close without being fit, the legislation is crystal clear: this individual is exiled. If one is fitly purified, one may actually come close enough to share a meal with God, as is found in Lev. 7:12-21. It is easily noted by any human being that sharing food is one of our primary ways of showing camaraderie, and delimiting who is inside of a group and who is outside.

So here we see the meaning of ancient Israelite sacrifice – camaraderie with God, and maintenance of cultural boundaries of pollution and purity as the method of maintaining social cohesion. Regardless of any suspicion one may hold of the priesthood (and there is a lot of suspicion to be held!) let us skip over that question, and view them as maintainers of social cohesion via these rituals. Assuming the best intentions of the Priesthood, the rituals can then be read as having twofold meaning.

One, this document is a method of maintaining social cohesion and social boundaries for a self-determining culture. According to this, the establishment of the Priestly cult would be a way of keeping the people together as one. Secondly, this ritual form was a way for people to draw close to God.

Although the priesthood and the power structure at the Temple in Jerusalem went through many upheavals, it is safe to assume that the structure of sacrifice held the same role throughout the Second Temple period. Many breakaway sects of Judaism who concluded that the Priesthood was indeed corrupt called this into question late in the game, though. The Pharisees were the most notable of these groups.

The Pharisees’ reaction to the Priesthood of their time was not just a simple dismissal – it was instead an adoption of the laws of purity that the Priesthood held to. Rather than doing away with the system and ideas of pollution and purity altogether, the Pharisees decided that all Jews should live lives of utmost purity, being a nation of Priests according to Exodus 19:6, and draw close to God in their own way, which was focused on study, practice of the religious laws now termed halacha, and prayer. This non-sacrifice centered approach (they still offered sacrifices at the Temple when it stood, though) allowed them to survive as a practicing group well after the destruction of the Temple.

This reaction to the need for in-group boundary maintenance, along with methods of drawing close to God, was established close to 2000 years ago. In the intervening period, mainstream Jewish approaches to God have changed very little. Reform Judaism changed it a bit in its own way, by focusing on the ethical commandments, doing away with the ritual commandments, and centralizing prayer as something done communally in the vernacular. This shift is often looked at as a specifically Modernist attempt to move away from the primitiveness of symbolic garb and action. But let us take a step back and look at it from a different direction.

As I wrote about last week, Isaac Luria was a great kabbalist in the 16th Century who formulated the idea that there are sparks of holiness hidden within the shells, or klipot, of our mundane reality. In order for us to better the world, we must raise these sparks of holiness from their klipot through the practice of both the commandments of God, and also acts of loving-kindness or compassion in our day-to-day life, which is referred to in Lurianic thought as tikkun olam, or repairing the world. So according to Lurianic mysticism, the conception of pollution is no longer about maintaining personal purity to allow us to draw closer to God. Instead, God is all around us, hidden within the mundane moments of everyday life. Our requirement is to help to diffuse the pollution through our actions, as opposed to diffusing the pollution around ourselves through ritual sacrifice.

This approach to communing with God, through acts of loving kindness, was picked up by Martin Buber, a 19th century philosopher who believed that our greatest experience with God can come through acts of pure, non-instrumental relation. To put it more plainly, when you approach someone or something in a moment, without considering what this someone or something looks like, can be described as, or can do for you, you are approaching it in non-instrumental (I-Thou) relation. This conception of pure relation is a pragmatic manner of looking at Lurianic kabbalah. You are not judging this someone or something by its klipah, you are looking beyond into its holy spark.

This new basis for drawing close to God certainly creates a method of communing with the divine in every day life. If we are able to view our interactions as sacred and holy in this way, then we are constantly interacting with divinity, and every choice we make draws us closer or pushes us farther away. The great quandary that is now raised by this new approach, though, is the issue boundary maintenance. As Liberal Judaism progresses, it has continually struggled with the issue of boundary maintenance. In Torah portion Shemini, I will focus more on the issue of boundary maintenance in our world today, especially in regards to Liberal Judaism. As it stands, though, this method of drawing close to God, of viewing our interactions as chances for the experience of divinity in and of itself, is a life- and world- changing approach to spirituality. The next time you are confronted with a decision of how to treat someone or something, or how to look at a circumstance you are in, consider the divine implications of raising the holy sparks out of every interaction. Through this constant attempt at drawing close to God, our lives gain immediate purpose, and are renewed with a sense of wonderment in the actual miracle of every day life.

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Gateways to God

ImageLast week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26), begins the record of the Priestly vocation in ancient Israelite religion.  Most scholars agree that the entirety of Leviticus was written well after any stage of roving worship, and that the language of Leviticus that prescribes cultic activity based around the mishkan, the travelling abode of God, was written down by the priesthood during the period of the cult being centered in Jerusalem.

This Torah portion recounts the most common of ritual sacrifices of the time. Each sacrifice either requires a domesticated animal or domesticated crops. The individual wishing to make this offering was required to bring it to the altar found in front of the mishkan, where he would have to lay his hands on the head of the sacrifice, and then slaughter the sacrifice for the priests. Then, depending upon the specific sacrifice, the priests would take the blood, either spread it on the altar or scatter it around the altar, and remove specific fat and organs from the sacrifice. If it is an offering of grain, it is prepared as a specific unleavened bread product. The sacrifice is then burnt, its smoke rising as a pleasing odor to God.

It’s a complex, detailed, and messy business. At the time, these rituals were the gateway between God and the people of Israel. But the book of Leviticus stands on its own today, its Priestly writers lost in the mist of history.  We are left to decode it, and to understand its underlying values, the spirit it is holding within.

Lurianic Kabbalah tells us that our world is full of empty shells, called klipot, waiting to be opened to reveal their internal holy spark. The shells act as a barrier between humanity and the Divine.  To call the rites of Leviticus klipot is surely heresy in some circles, but as we live in a world without a mishkan and without a strong connection to the ritual praxis of the Levites, we are entirely disconnected from spiritual content of these sacrifices. A shell certainly exists around them, especially if we take seriously the reality implicit to the rituals of their being a gateway between humanity and God. With the destruction of the Temples, this gateway was closed.

Rabbinic Judaism attempted to use prayer in place of sacrifice, creating an analogous structure in the prayer service to that of the sacrifice service. Part of the traditional Jewish prayer service is a recounting of portions of Leviticus, followed by a prayer that God will accept the recounting as if it were an actual sacrifice. The early Rabbis’ splitting and reinterpreting of the sacrificial cult via language is a brilliant method of dealing with the very clear problem of how to reopen this gateway to God. Words, in that time, were seen as miraculously powerful. Magic still existed in the minds of the public, and words were able to change and shape reality in incredible ways.

Unfortunately for most today, though, to enter into the real heart of the Jewish prayer structure is requires a great deal of study, a relatively high level of comfort with Hebrew, and an understanding of the meaning of the structure in relation to the Jewish understanding of connection to God. Many find prayer services meaningful without really understanding the background, but my experience has shown me that just as many, if not more, do not.

As Max Weber said, we have disenchanted our reality through industrialization, commodification, and materialization. Words have become nearly worthless. Any shmo such as myself can have a blog where his or her words are posted up for anyone in the world to read. In many ways, silence, the lack of language, has become far holier. In fact, to go back to the original topic, the sacrificial rituals according to Leviticus were completely silent, a far cry from the prayer services we attend today as Jews.

The first parashah of Leviticus is a statement of the general tools of the priesthood; an introduction to the basic procedures that will be expounded upon and specified in greater detail as they become more clearly elucidated. The general outline of sacrifice offered in this parashah gives me my tools to use to interpret it: The main players are the Priesthood, the objects of sacrifice, the methods of sacrifice, and the purpose of sacrifice. Please allow this d’var torah to be the same.  As we move forward into further portions, I will attempt to more greatly elucidate our situation today in relation to our own gateways to God, be it through prayer, silence, or attempting to peel away the klipot, the shells, surrounding these rituals to reveal the divine spark within.

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The Many Returns of the Jews

This week’s parsha, Nitzavim, is the beginning of the end of the Torah. As such, the focus is on warning the Israelites once again that unless they remain vigilant about their worship of God, and only God, they will be viciously torn from the land that (in the narrative of the Torah) they are just now being given. Let’s keep in mind that this text was probably composed right after the Northern Israelite Kingdom was sacked by the Assyrians, and in the midst of the Babylonian Empire’s rampage throughout the region, which was swiftly approaching Jerusalem’s gates. In short, the composers of Deuteronomy saw the exile coming, and were trying to figure out how to avoid it.

As history shows us, they failed. In this week’s Torah portion, though, they also seem to have known that they were going to. A few lines are devoted to a prophetic description of the post-exilic period, and God’s reaction to the people post-exile. The portion says that the exiles, who are being punished for their lack of loyalty to God, will one day see the error of their ways and return their focus of worship to God. Once they do this they are guaranteed to be returned to their land, and God will “circumcise their hearts.”Again we see the need for Israel to be made more sensitive to their God. We also must keep in mind that the heart was considered the center of thought, not emotion as we tend to think of it today, in the Israelite world. A heart circumcised by God would be one with its outer barrier removed. What can this mean other than the removal of the Israelites’  famed stiff necked-ness? Which, in my opinion, can only mean widespread direct communication with God. Now that we have been through not one, but two exiles and returns what does this mean for the Book of Deuteronomy and the nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with God and the land of Israel?

The idea of this text being an infallible word of God is clearly undermined by the historical realities that have occurred since its composition. In fact, what this very book prescribes to do with a prophet who makes a prediction that fails to come true would have us ignore Moses. So how should we treat this text?

In my estimation, the real impetus behind this prophecy is not to predict actual events and futures. Taking it to be a literal attempt at foreseeing an almost eschatological event which included a widespread communication with God is to assume that the people composing this text had more or less no connection to reality, when the rest of the text deals with some very real material. Instead, it might be worth giving them a little more credit by assuming that the writers were attempting to affect their readership in a particular way. Instilling hope in the readers (or listeners) of this text, may have actually been the direct cause of the steadfastness of the Jewish people in exile. A lingering and continual hope for return to the land of their forefathers was an undeniably central tenet of Judaism both in the first and second diaspora. There is no way that the Deuteronomic authors could have known that Cyrus the emperor of Persia would both conquer the Babylonian Empire and reestablish the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Even if one would like to ascribe greater knowledge of the future to the writers of Deuteronomy, though, one would have to accept that they made no mention of a second, even more horrific exile, along with a second, even stranger return to the land. And one would have to concede that it is pretty apparent that we Jews have still yet to have our hearts circumcised by God. So can we even apply this to ourselves today? Or should we just chalk this portion of Deuteronomy up to an ancient piece of well-meaning propaganda?

As we head into Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I think we should allow for the possibility of this text to be deeply meaningful and impactful today. Teshuvah, the Hebrew word for return, is referenced consistently throughout both this passage and Rosh Hashanah. It is often used throughout the Jewish world as “repentance” as well. The mixture of these two things, the idea of repenting and the idea of returning, are deeply interwoven in this parsha. This makes me wonder if we should even take the literal land of Israel as the desired goal of teshuvah in this passage. As it is relatively clear that living in the land of Israel didn’t actually create a more righteous, prosperous, or happy nation (just look at what happens narratively throughout the Tanach!), it appears that the real goal of the teshuvah would be the circumcision of the Israelites’ hearts.

This eschatological possibility is one that we should take to heart today. Instead of waiting for God to do this for us, though, we must do it ourselves. We must look back into the mists of time, relying upon the scraps passed forward to us from our ancestors to describe their highest goals and aspirations, but we mustn’t also take their hopes and aspirations forward as merely hopes and aspirations for our future. That would defeat the purpose of the transmission. We must, instead, attempt to enact these hopes and dreams for ourselves and our people by our own hands and hearts. The Zionists proved that it was possible to will one of our greatest dreams into reality in 1948, but I don’t know that we are any closer to the dream of our hearts being circumcised into sensitive instruments of morality and justice. Let us use this time of year, the Jewish New Year, to repent and return to the hopes and dreams of our ancestors. Before we deserve to live in a world where God will speak to our sensitized hearts and minds, we must first act the part. Shanah Tovah!

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The Wandering, Traumatized Aramean

In  this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, Moses regales the Israelites with a bit of legislation about the festivals requiring crop offerings at the Temple. In this legislation we find a line that came to my full attention relatively recently, as it has been preserved in our modern holiday of Passover. It is found in all of the Haggadot I have seen, and is more or less a mystery. It has been a mystery for millenia, as it refers to a collective ancestor of the Jewish people as something other than an Israelite.

Deuteronomy 26:5-9 says, “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt few in number and stayed. There he became a great, strong, populous nation. But the Egyptians treated us badly; they oppressed us and imposed harsh slavery on us. So we cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors. Adonai heard us and saw our misery, toil and oppression; and Adonai brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and a stretched-out arm, with great terror, and with signs and wonders.  Now he has brought us to this place and given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

There are a couple things that are very interesting about this passage. It is prescribed to be used consistently in ritual by the lines before it, so it is a formula that was expected to be memorized by everyone (or at least all the men) in ancient Israel. It is still deeply ingrained in our Jewish consciousness through the Passover ritual, as well. The language of the statement, starting out in past tense about an unnamed ancestor (my father was a wandering Aramean), moving quickly to first person past (the Egyptians treated us badly), then to first person present (Now he has brought us), you see the progression of the idea digging its way into individual reciter’s identity.

This in and of itself is interesting, but what is more important is the actual event described. It is a progression of traumas throughout time that the individual reciting the passage connects him/herself to as a basis of identity. The rabbis of old even reinterpreted the main line, “My father was a wandering Aramean” to mean “An Aramean destroyed my father,” which doesn’t really make much sense in context. Trauma, as a mediator of identity building, is a very powerful tool.

Trauma has been found to be a very powerful phenomenon in regards to identity creation. According to some theories, trauma is integral to many of the most dysfunctional and destructive identity constructions, and very possibly a major root cause of many mental illnesses, like post traumatic stress disorder. Heavy trauma is also generationally transmitted. I certainly don’t mean to equate Jewish identity with mental illness. On the other hand, if we look into many of the factors that go into contemporary secular Jewish identity, especially around Zionism, we often see the most important and central aspects of the identities being the most traumatic events of Jewish history.

The destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, the massacre are Masada, the manifold attacks on the Jewish people throughout history, all culminating in the Holocaust, are cited as central to both the maintenance of Jewish peoplehood as a symbol of the perseverance of the tradition, and to the need for Israel to exist as a Jewish state and haven as a bulwark against any other such disastrous developments. These traumatic events fall in the same tradition of the wandering Aramean, recounting national identity as a development out of persecution, slavery and near total destruction. As a young Jewish man who grew up in the United States, the traumas I have experienced personally in relation to my Judaism have been quite minor. The attempt, then, of my Jewish upbringing and education to instill this trauma relationship in me was a general failure. I always felt comfortable asserting and defending my Jewishness, and was always supported by my non-Jewish surroundings in doing so. In fact, the most hurtful attacks on my Jewish identity have often come from within the Jewish world, as my mother converted. The implication that someone such as myself, or a devout, deeply involved person who is Jewish by choice would not be considered “Jewish enough” appears to be a very trauma based reaction.

Judaism is famous for its insularity. This trend within Judaism can quite clearly be traced back to trauma. Most Jewish people would probably quickly offer the many traumas of our past as a rationale for this insularity. Upon further thought, though, this is not a rational or thoughtful mindset. A whole host of problems have plagued the Jewish community due to our insulation. Deep suspicions and distrust by our non-Jewish neighbors, along with the many Jewish genetic disorders, can be traced back to secretive and secluded behavior. Should we not take these things into account as well when choosing how we construct our Jewishness?

An interesting instance of this trauma based perseverance of tradition is found in the accounts of the crypto-Jewish of Latin America. Anthropologists found communities who used to light Shabbat candles in secret, hiding them in a bedroom or practicing the ritual covertly some other way. This inherent, deeply seated distrust is a hallmark of traumatic experience. Is it maybe time we look into our own conceptions of our Judaisms and really analyze where this distrust is coming from?

I am a Jew living in a social setting where it is no longer necessary to hide the candles in the bedroom. It is similarly no longer necessary to exclude people on the basis of fear, or to live with a sense of distrust of my surroundings. Although I live in New York now, most of my life has been spent in areas with a very small Jewish population. In fact, I identify more closely with the mythical wandering Aramean than I do with the many of the contemporary forms of Jewish identity. I have been a relatively transient individual, often an extreme minority as Jew in predominantly non-Jewish places. As I have come to engage more deeply with the texts, ideas, and foundations of Judaism, I have found that the least rich, interesting, and soulful pieces of our tradition are those focused on our persecution. The positive experiences I have had in the non-Jewish world, and the wonderful way I witness Judaism and the non-Jewish world able to interact, have led me to believe that the insularity, often bordering on xenophobia, in Judaism is only to our detriment. Funnily enough, the Arameans of the Tanach ended up being one of the sworn enemies of the Israelite people. While the heroes of the Israelite kingdom fought against the Arameans, they simultaneously had to go to the Temple and declare themselves Arameans during rituals.

Maybe we should take this fact to heart today. If one starts looking back, each piece of Jewish history is deeply influences by its host culture, which is clearly how so many different traditions have developed from so many different, widely dispersed Jewish communities. I think that the most poignant example exists in my refrigerator right now: Hummus. It’s a traditional Arab food, yet most Jews I know today consider part of our own culinary repertoire. If you go back about 100 years, you’d be hard pressed to find a Jew in the Western World eating hummus. Now, Sabra hummus, a product of Israel, exists in grocery stores across America. I think this hummus can represent the need for us to continue reflecting on our relationships with the outside world. If we can openly and happily adopt an Arabic food as part of our cultural gestalt, can we not openly and happily adopt those we deem outsiders as people worthy of at least the chance of full trust? With insiders like Bernie Madoff, I think that we should start allowing for our “Arameans” of today to be considered worthy of trust and camaraderie.

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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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Persecution Colored Glasses

This week’s portion Devarim (Deut. 1:1-3:22), is the first in the book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew . It is a recap of everything that has happened with the Israelites since leaving Egypt and landing on the east side of the Jordan River. A whole lot of it is Moses saying “Shame on you!” to the Israelites for constantly complaining and misbehaving. To highlight this, the haftarah portion is from the book of Isaiah (Is. 1:1-27). The entirety of it is God telling the Israelites through Isaiah that they’re pretty awful and miserable people, and that they’re going to be punished and kicked out of their land.

Putting these two things together, we see a historically based accusation against the Israelites for misbehaving and bringing misfortune upon themselves. In the Jewish calendar, this portion comes at a pretty appropriate time. Tisha b’Av, the holiday where Jews mourn basically every misfortune that has ever happened to us. The name of the holiday is actually just a date: the 9th day of Av, the fifth month.  The mourning is mainly focused on the destruction of the two temples, the first of which the portion of Isaiah here is alluding to, but we tend to throw it all in, claiming that both of the temples were destroyed on this day, that the expulsion from Spain happened on this day, that Hitler was born on this day, and on and on. If you check out the Wikipedia page I linked above, they’ve got a pretty good list of things that happened on Tisha b’Av. It’s just a crappy day for all of us, and we are supposed to fast and do all kinds of other difficult and painstaking things, like reading the book of Job.

I’m a little ambivalent about the holiday. This is mainly because I feel that so much of my Jewish identity has been built up around these tragedies, even outside of the holiday. As a people, we tend to focus on all of the horrible, terrible things that have happened to us throughout history as one of the (maybe even the) defining characteristics of our peoplehood. Now, I am not here to discount the huge and long lasting impact of all of the terrible things that have been done to us as a people throughout our history. They have certainly been a continual trend, and continue to this day. To focus on them as the central locus of our identity, though, leaves us in a pretty difficult spot as a people.

Throughout my childhood, I can remember a few instances of us celebrating something good happening to the Jews. We received the Torah at Sinai, and we love to celebrate that. God led us out of Egypt, which we also love to celebrate. We also love to celebrate when we end the Torah cycle for the year. These three things, though, were a mystery to me as a child. As a Reform Jew, there’s always a strange and difficult tension about religious celebrations. A product of modernity, Reform Judaism pulled off a pretty strong disenchantment of our tradition. This is particularly confusing for children. I deal with this tension daily when school is in session. Kids always ask “Did this really happen?” or “Are we supposed to really believe this?” The party line for Reform Judaism on both questions is a definitive “No.” But I don’t say that. I ask them to think about it themselves, and I try to encourage them to develop their own opinion on the matter. Unfortunately, the only concrete things we do offer the kids about history tend to circulate around the historical persecution of the Jews, and the foundation of the modern state of Israel.

This was also true for me. What you end up with as a Reform Jew is often a general lack of clarity on what we are supposed to believe or think about our religion, but a definite clarity on most of history being a terrible place for Jews, with the exception of the modern state of Israel. Of course, you eventually find out that Israel can be a pretty terrible place for Jews too, especially due to the ever-looming war and carnage. As a child, though, it’s just a wonderful place of magic and mystery where everyone is a Jew and you are welcome because you are too!

Now, I’m not going to delve into my feelings about the place of the state of Israel in contemporary Judaism. It’s too complicated a subject to do justice in this post. I will say, though, that the foundation of being Jewish that is offered to most kids (which is basically a mixture of the constant persecution of Jews in the pre-Israel world, and the magic and glamor of the world with a Jewish state), is highly problematic. What you end up with is a general sense that the world is hostile for a Jew, which bleeds into your Jewish identity in the Diaspora as being something inherently negative. I can tell you that there is certainly some truth to this. I was referred to as “the Jew” in high school (I went to a highschool of about 2100 with a population of about 5 Jews), and have definitely experienced the whole stranger in a strange land thing. My home synagogue was vandalized a few times while I was growing up, too. So yes, anti-semitism exists still today, but like any other minority identity, to allow the tragedies and the persecution to be the center locus for identity only creates an identity dependent upon our persecutors.

To create a healthy and strong Jewish identity in a form of Judaism that does not create binding religious strictures on what it means to be a Jew, we need to focus both on the positive and wonderful things that have happened throughout our history along with the negative and horrible things. Throughout history we have flourished in many places, allowing for people like Rav, Rashi, Moses Maimonides, Moses de Leon, Spinoza, and many more to continue adding to our amazing religious, literary, and cultural tradition. We can also consider our existence in America a similarly positive experience. When we talk about the Diaspora, why do we never talk about this?

On this Tisha b’Av, let us mourn the things we have to mourn. They are certainly there, and there are certainly a lot of them. At the same time, let us not forget some of the wonders that have occurred in the Jewish Diaspora. We are not simply a collection of grievances against the persecutions of our past. We are also a collection of  wonderful experiences had throughout the world as Jews, that have continually added new, amazing, and positive aspects to our peoplehood. The world has not been only hostile to us. Maybe on Eser b’Av (the 10th of Av) we should celebrate our victories, our accomplishments, and the moments of peace and harmony we have experienced throughout our history.

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