Tag Archives: drash

Faith and Grace in Judaism

This weeks Torah portion, Tazriah-Metzorah, continues the theme of structure that pervades the Priestly literature. An obsession with order is the central concern of all of these pieces of ritual legislation, and this week we dive into purity associated with bodies. The priests are commanded to diagnose and treat a couple of different skin conditions, along with similar conditions afflicting buildings, and how to deal with all kinds of other fun things like genital discharge and menstruation. As I wrote last year, this was my bar mitzvah torah portion. It’s not much easier to write about now than it was then.

Mining meaning from Torah portions is really an act of faith. Judaism often balks at the topic of faith, but in my opinion, faith is a huge portion of our religion. For Christians, faith in Christ as the eternal savior and redeemer is central. For Jews, though, faith is an entirely different construct. Faith in God has been tough for us since the get go. Heck, one of the etymologies for Israel is to struggle with God. To struggle with the concept of God is inherent to the religion. Faith is not focused in the supernatural for Jews. We learned long ago that we don’t really understand and certainly can’t control whatever supernatural powers are out there. Faith in tradition is our cornerstone.

Faith in tradition doesn’t mean that one must believe that our texts are handed down from on high. In fact, I believe that does us a disservice. Our texts were never something to be accepted as directly perfect revelation for simple, easy human understanding. They are to be read, poured over, debated, critiqued. They are to be put through the cognitive grinder in an attempt to distill them, and that takes a lot of work and devotion. In fact, faith in the texts is only really upheld by the grace of their abilities to withstand the tests of time and to continue to transmit meaning to those who attempt to distill it.

Delving into Jewish text, be it Torah, Tanach, Talmud,Midrash, or even a Siddur, is actually very much like the ritual prescribed in this weeks portion.

Leviticus 14:

God said to Moses, “This is to be the law concerning the person afflicted with tzara‘at (a skin disease) on the day of his purification. He is to be brought to the cohen, and the cohen is to go outside the camp and examine him there. If he sees that the tzara‘at sores have been healed in the afflicted person, then the cohen will order that two living clean birds be taken for the one to be purified, along with cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop leaves. The cohen is to order one of the birds slaughtered in a clay pot over running water. As for the live bird, he is to take it with the cedar-wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird slaughtered over running water, and sprinkle the person to be purified from the tzara‘at seven times. Next he is to set the live bird free in an open field. He who is to be purified must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water. Then he will be clean; and after that, he may enter the camp; but he must live outside his tent for seven days. 9

It is kind of a troubling ritual, especially for the two birds. But in a way it’s also quite beautiful. One bird is sacrificed, and the other acts as a kind of  homeopathic magical surrogate for the person recovering from the skin disease. Faith in sacrificing the one bird, while setting the other bird free, carrying a magical concoction on with it, is quite similar to faith in these ancient texts to help clarify the still entirely confounding world thousands of years on.

As one devotes his or her time, ultimately our most precious commodity as it is the quantifiable measurement of our lives, to studying these texts, one sacrifices all other possible uses of the time with faith that the tradition will help to free us from whatever bindings we are being tied down by. These bindings may be simple human limitations, such as needing a framework for which to understand our lives, or just the limiting nature of our current, disenchanted material reality. The time spent reading our tradition’s stories and writings is not just an act of sacrifice and devotion to God, it is an act of sacrifice and devotion to the composers, compilers, editors, translators, and interpreters that came before us. We bathe our minds and spirits in these texts and traditions in hope of being set free. May it be that we, like the bird allowed to live on anointed by the sacrifice of its friend, are set free by the sacrifices of those who approached our tradition with faith in its grace to help guide our lives, and transmitted their findings to us in the faith that we would continue the process.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

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?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

What Does Your Donkey See?

We often think of the Torah as being only told from the perspective of Moses, who is held by many traditions to be the sole author of the book. This week, though, the focus of the Torah shifts away from the Israelites and Moses to a completely different character. We’re given a totally different kind of fable, focused entirely on God’s interaction with non-Israelites. Balaam, an Ammonite prophet, is summoned by the Balak, the king of the Moabites for which this Torah portion is named (Num 22:2-25:9), to help him with his Israelite infestation. In fact, Balak describes this huge migratory group of Israelites as insects as he sends his best advisors and prophets to ask Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Balaam attempts to say no, as God informs him immediately that he will fail in any attempt to curse the Israelites, but Balak and his messengers will not take no for an answer.

This leads to Balaam saddling up his trusty donkey which he rides out to the mountain above the Israelites. As he ventures forth to cast his hex on the unwitting Israelite masses, he is confronted by an angel of God who is brandishing a sword which stops the donkey in its tracks. Unfortunately for Balaam, this angel is visible only to the donkey. Balaam beats his donkey three times, trying to get it to continue forward towards the angel, and eventually God makes the donkey speak to Balaam. They have a very interesting conversation:

Num. 22:28 The donkey said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

Num. 22:29 Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”

Num. 22:30 The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

The most striking part of this exchange is that Balaam is apparently unfazed by the fact that his donkey is suddenly speaking to him. This animal that he has trusted as his mode of transportation for however long has all of a sudden both decided to stop carrying him, and to begin speaking. The message that the donkey conveys is central to the entire portion. Balaam sees the donkey behaving strangely, and instead of trusting the animal he has been riding for quite a long time, he believes she has all of a sudden decided to stop obeying him.

I think that many parts of our lives that we take for granted often get relegated to the role of Balaam’s donkey. Most of us have aspects of our lives, be they our body functioning healthily, our family supporting us, or our minds being able to process and effectively solve problems, that we just assume will work the same as they always have. But when something goes wrong, or they don’t do exactly what we expect, we either lose it completely or keep trying to force the issue. We see this theme expanded all the more when Balak forces the issue with Balaam.

Balaam attempts  to dodge out of the task assigned to him by Balak since the beginning of the story, as he knows that God will not curse the Israelites. But Balak refuses to take his word for it. One would assume that if you were hiring someone for their prophetic prowess you would accept it when they told you that the deity you’re asking them to gain favor with is telling them no. Instead, Balak assumes that with enough bribery, Balaam will just do it. So, similar to Balaam striking his donkey three times, Balak pushes Balaam to curse the Israelites three times from on top of a mountain overlooking their camp. Each time, Balaam shouts more pronounced and powerful blessing over the Israelites in place of the curse. After the third time, they both give up and walk away.

So what are we to learn from this fable-like story? Although the most simple reading is that God has power over every nation, not just the Israelites, and this is how he exercises it to the Israelites’ advantage, that could have been conveyed in a much simpler way. I think that this is simply a universal story, as all fables are supposed to be, pointing out a pretty simple truth. Balaam, when confronted with a change in the behavior of a usually consistent and reliable facet of his life, becomes angry and violent. He implicitly assumes that the donkey is misbehaving for the sake of misbehaving. Similarly, Balak implicitly assumes that Balaam is attempting to avoid doing the job he is being tasked because he wants to. Instead of either of these men assuming that their employee has good reason to be behaving in a way not exactly to his liking, they both leap to the conclusion that their subordinate is being insubordinate.

This lesson can be applied to many things in our lives. Sure, it acts pretty analogously to work environments where we might have similar interactions with people. But it also works with other factors in our lives that slip out of our control. Sometimes even our most powerful desires and efforts for something to work a certain way, or for an event to unfold in a specific manner, will be stymied by forces unknown to us. Our otherwise reliable resources and methods sometimes simply stop dead in their tracks, refuse to continue forward, or even cause the exact opposite of what we intend. It is our instinctual reaction to get angry, or to keep trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Well, one wise old Jew once said that this endless recursion into the same behavior expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And I’m pretty sure getting angry and reacting violently like Balaam did is borderline insane too. So what would have been a better reaction? Had either Balaam or Balak stopped to think about what they were asking of their subordinate, or maybe considered that the individual refusing to do the task may have very good reason to not do it, they could have avoided some pretty deep embarrassment.

If we are to learn one thing from this portion, let it be that we must make our judgments slowly, listen to those around us carefully, and consider what those people or things that we have trusted in the past might be trying to tell us by behaving differently than expected. Sometimes these undesired behaviors are shielding us from a fate unseen, but much worse.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Beating a Dead Rock

This week’s Torah portion is called chukat, Numbers 19:1-21:1. It starts very abruptly (much like this blog post) informing the reader that what is to follow is a fixed commandment of the Torah, a rule of divine knowledge for the nation of Israel. Throughout this week I’ve been in an argument on reddit with a Chabadnik about the nature of the relationship between God and the Jews. It is generally understood that the Torah contains, amongst other things, contractual obligations between the Jewish people and God. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy mimics a contractual formula found throughout the ancient Near East used between larger nations who were going to become the rulers of smaller nations. My argument is that much like other contracts, our contractual relationship with God has changed throughout time, resting my proof on the fact that we simply can’t do most of the things we agreed to, as the Temple was destroyed. In my mind, the post-Temple shift is just one instance of our continually changing, developing (dare I say reforming?) relationship with God. The Chabad fellow, though, holds that we are still bound to the exact same covenant as before, but that the Oral Law, which he believes was handed down in an unbroken chain from God, to Moses, to many intermediaries, and eventually written down in the Talmud, is what lays out the practices required of us. It is my belief that the unbroken chain tradition is simply another example of certain religious and political leaders using their authority to proclaim their laws and beliefs as divine.

The Chabad fellow did make some interesting points. A big portion of our conversation, beyond the rifts in our theology, was the question of what it is that Chabad is doing right. They are poaching Jews from synagogues of all flavors all over the world. My home community in Tacoma, WA is one example of this. According to my mom, who still lives there, the Reform synagogue is struggling greatly, while the Chabad synagogue is flourishing. And there simply aren’t that many Jews to go around in ol’ Tacoma. So lets take it as a given that there’s something that Chabad is doing that Reform is not doing that is making Reform (and other) Jews head to Chabad. I’d bet that most of these people haven’t fully adopted the Orthodox strictures of Chabad, but they are at least relying upon to them for their ritual and communal needs.

So what is it? The Chabad fellow claims that people want things that are binding. In short, he’s saying that all of the people leaving Reform synagogues to go to Chabad want to be told, “These and these are the divine rules for the nation of Israel.” Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion has a piece of narrative that ends up being deeply related to this. The people of Israel, still wandering in the wilderness, run out of water and complain once again that they’d rather be dead and rather go back to Egypt, the whole shebang. But this time God tells Moses to go talk to a rock, and that it will flow freely with water. Moses and Aaron instead go and say in front of everyone, “You want us to give you water? Here. We’ll give you water,” then, instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits the rock. This angers God, and he says that Moses and Aaron will die before they reach the Promised Land. In fact, Aaron dies at the end of this Torah portion.

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses and Aaron claimed that they were going to make the water appear, and then Moses hit the rock instead of just speaking to it. As I’ve said before, it appears that God initially chose Moses because he didn’t want the power or the honor. Now we see Moses, the great prophet who speaks with God face to face, given the ultimate punishment for his moment’s hubris. In Moses’ rush to claim this power for himself, he didn’t follow God’s actual instructions of asking the rock for the water. Instead, he leaned upon the past commandment God gave in a different time, place, and circumstance in Exodus 17 where he was told to strike a rock to procure water. Maybe this points to the middle ground to the argument I was having with the fellow from Chabad.

We should not be so quick to rely wholly on our past understandings of God’s expectations of us. The original commandments from and contract with God may have been written in stone back at Sinai, but today, we have no trace of these stone tablets. The Oral Torah is a great treasury of thought, knowledge, and tradition, in the same way that the Written Torah (Tanach/Old Testament) is. But in the same way that the rabbis of the Oral Torah didn’t follow the exact word of the Written Torah, we today need not follow the exact word of either of these documents. Things change. Unfortunately for us, though, we don’t have a direct line to God like Moses did, so there is no way for us to claim a binding commandment from the mouth of God today.  But if we look at Moses’ relationship to the rock in this story, we see someone so caught up in the moment, so ready to do the great act and take the leadership role once again, so ready to quell the herd of whiners and gripers, that he didn’t even stop to think about what he was doing. He fell into the patterns of the past.

So maybe my Chabadnik friend isn’t right about what people want. Just relying upon age-old power structures probably isn’t the answer. Maybe what everyone really wants is something different, something that feels matched to their time and place, and definitely something authentic. Now, authenticity is a huge problem in and of itself, and one form of “authentic Judaism” isn’t something that I think exists. But I do think the feeling of authenticity comes with just the right mixture of knowledge and passion. Chabad definitely has both of those things down. It also has the youthful vigor of a movement just now finding its full stride. As an individual devoted to the Reform movement, I hope that we can find the rocks that we’re still hitting, and instead start speaking to them in a way that can renew our knowledge, passion and vigor to create a way of channeling God and Torah that matches our time, place, and needs as a movement.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Revolution Without Resolution

This week’s Torah portion is a doozie. Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) focused on yet another set of rebellions, but this one ends up a bit differently. Instead of God getting all angry and threatening violence, then Moses interceding on behalf of the rebels, Moses doesn’t intercede, and God opens up the ground which then swallows up half of the rebels and everyone associated with them, then sends out fire that engulfs the other half.

So what was different this time? This time, we see real, organized groups rebelling against the system with the distinct goal of gaining more power. The tribe of Reuben, one of the dissenting groups, is attempting to gain greater political power (as a side note, the tribe’s namesake was the first born son of Jacob, which adds another element to this as traditionally in the ancient Near East the firstborn got the greatest share of wealth). The other group, led by a priest named Korach, is challenging Aaron, the high priest, and the Cohenim, his sons.

Some scholars of the Bible think that this story is a later addition to the book of Numbers, and that it is possibly referencing an actual attempt by the group of priests named after Korach (of which Psalms 42-48, along with a few others, are attributed to) to usurp the priesthood during the First Temple period. This could then be seen as a piece of priestly propaganda, attempting to show that these Korachite priests come from a line of ne’er-do-wells.

Although I find this proposition pretty interesting, I think there’s something else to be said about this portion. We’re living in a time of many organized rebellions. The Arab Spring swept far beyond the borders of the Arab world to inspire people all over the planet. Although we’re just on the cusp now of seeing the fruits of the labor of the Egyptians, the one thing that is certain is that these rebellions have brought mass chaos to the region. Nothing has settled yet, and although it is wonderful that so many people are now free of dictators, it’s definitely too early to celebrate. I think that we can take a lesson from God’s reaction to the organized rebellions.

On many levels, I agree with the movements that have cropped up around the world. There is definitely a great disparity of power and resources in many countries, and I too would like to see something done about it. Unfortunately, I think that many of the mass movements of the past couple of years have put the cart before the horse. Disagreeing with the hierarchy ,and taking the time to look at it critically, is a venerable pursuit. Peaceful resistance and consistently questioning the wisdom of those in power are the tools of true freedom fighters. But attempting to usurp power and uproot the hierarchy without a cogent plan for change is an act that is just as likely to lead to more tyranny as it is to more freedom.

Korach and his followers, and the members of the tribe of Reuben, both demanded more power, and refused to respect the order of their society without a clear reason as to why. Neither group presented a plan as to what they would do differently were they in power.  A desire to destroy a social hierarchy without a plan for the new system to fill the void leaves everyone in the society deeply vulnerable. It is just as wise for critical thinking individuals to be suspicious of those attempting to gain power as it is to be suspicious of those already in power.

On this eve before the announcement of the new leader of Egypt, let us maintain our critical thought. It is clear that it was time for Mubarak to go, but it is unclear that the replacement will be any better. If the Occupy movement of America wants to actually accomplish anything, they had better keep their eye on the outcome of the Egyptian saga. The hope for a bright new future, unshackled from the chains of the past with truly benevolent leaders in real control of governments, is a great and beautiful one. But let us not forget that those who seek power are those to be most wary of.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jealousy and Control

This week I was given the opportunity to lead an adult Torah study class. This class meets weekly to go over the Torah portion of the week, and is usually led by a rabbi in the congregation, but every so often I’m asked to stand in for him. The group is made up predominantly of senior women, a few senior men, and a few middle-aged men and women. The rareness of my interaction with the senior crowd makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to lead the class sometimes, though, as it seems both impudent and imprudent to attempt to correct or guide people so obviously my superiors in age. It takes a certain finesse and a very light touch to reign conversations in or to focus the discussion back onto the text when it appears that the strand of discussion isn’t leading anywhere fruitful. This wasn’t needed at all when we got into the sotah ritual.

The sotah ritual is a strange, archaic and seemingly magic-based practice that is alien to the Torah. To boil it down into a sentence, if a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating he can take his wife to the priests who will publicly shame her and make her drink a mixture of water and dirt from the Tabernacle floor as a trial by ordeal. According to the text if the woman is guilty she will become barren or possibly miscarry, and if she is innocent she will be made more fertile. I expected this topic to be wildly uncomfortable for me to discuss with a room of something like 20 women and two other men (the other men were conspicuously silent throughout), but instead it was just extremely interesting.

In particular, there was a dialogue going on between two of the women, one who must be in her 80s, and one who looked to be in her late 30s or early 40s. The woman in her 80s, a firebrand that always speaks very passionately about equality, individual rights and empowerment, and is always deeply concerned with empathy and morality, spoke about the nature of adultery. I’m still not quite certain that I fully understand what she was saying, but her point of view seemed to circle around the idea that individuals have a certain level of unrestrainable impulse that leads them to do things such as cheat, accuse each other of cheating, and punish each other for cheating. She appeared to be saying that humanity must accept these as realities, and deal with them as inevitable.

In a way, the middle-aged woman was agreeing with her. She described the ritual as being a sort of sublimation of male rage and desire to exert power over women. Although she was careful to say that the sotah was clearly not a positive practice (and the practice was done away with by the leadership of the Temple during the Second Temple Period) she believed that, similar to the older woman, there are certain men who cannot restrain their impulses, and that this ritual gave them an outlet to exercise their “power” rather than being openly violent towards their wives.

One of the other women pointed out that it seemed pretty insane that these ancient Israelite men would be so deeply concerned with such an issue when they were faced with so many other problems, like wandering in the desert without any kind of real stability.  This apparent irony led us to one of the greatest points that can be drawn from this awful ritual. It is entirely clear why this would be such a popular issue in the community, and I believe it is for the same reason that domestic violence happens so often in socioeconomic areas where people have the least control over their lives.

To spin all of the reflections and reactions these women had to the ritual into one thread, the act of men exerting power over women has been a consistent outlet for anxieties related to individual disempowerment throughout human history. When people feel deeply that have little to no control over their lives, but do not recognize it for what it is, they tend to clamp down on whatever it is that they do have control over. Tyrannical bosses, abusive partners or parents, anyone with a modicum of power over others can be seen to exhibit these tendencies. As the older woman in the class pointed out, this is an almost universal tendency in humanity: passions cause us to act irrationally, and often cruelly, when we are put into tenuous and difficult situations. As the younger woman in the class pointed out as well, this ritual may very well have been an attempt at a pressure release valve for men who had the tendency to sublimate their power and control issues into something more devastating than causing the public humiliation of having to drink water and dirt.

I think the authors, priests, or whoever decided to include this ritual in the Torah included it for this reason. It shows that a person inflamed by jealousy is bound to do some kind of damage. In fact, jealousy is often used in the Torah and the Tanach to explain God’s angry reaction to the Israelites, which often led to violence against the Israelites. We all know that we have done regrettable things based on false assumptions and deep-seated control issues. I honestly believe most neuroses stem from a perceived or very real lack of control over our lives, and the incredibly anxiety caused by the lack. The sotah as a construct for ritual release of these powerful forces has been, and surely should have been, done away with. Regardless, the basis for it is still important to remember. There is a great lesson we can take from such an archaic and unsettling practice: As a moment of reflection, the next time you feel the need to knock someone else down a peg through any means, including but not limited to public humiliation as seen in the sotah, consider what is driving your desire. Is it jealousy? Or is it a need to exert what little control you have? Either way, I doubt that the mixture of dirty water you are attempting to force someone else to drink will have any real effect at all.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,