Tag Archives: jewish

Vayeira: We Reflect God, and God Reflects Us

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, holds many well known and central stories of the Jewish people. The angels visiting Avraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Binding of Yitzhak, are all in this one division of Genesis. Literal tomes have been written on each segment of each of the stories that comprise this portion. Usually, we talk about what we can learn from the behaviors of the characters in these stories. Avraham and Sarah’s hospitality for the angels, Avraham’s bravery in arguing for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah, the many difficulties of the binding of Yitzhak – much ink has been spilled using these stories as examples for our own behavior.

Our sages of the past saw that these stories all have a very strong theme in common: God’s relationship to humankind. The human characters interact directly with divine beings, be they angels or God. This is a real rarity in the narratives of the Tanakh, and I’d imagine it was for this reason that our classical interpreters of the text focused on this so intently. Rashi, arguably the most important interpreter of Jewish sacred text, who lived in the first and second century of the second millennium CE in France, focused his interpretation of the story of Avraham’s hospitality towards the strangers (who turn out to be angels of God) on the way that God and the angels reacted to this behavior. His conclusions are quite striking.

In this story, three strangers are walking through the desert when Avraham spots them, runs over to them, and invites them to his tent to relax and eat. Lo and behold, these three strangers turn out to be messengers of God. According to Rashi, the angels and God saw Avraham’s behavior, and their immediate response was to mimic it. In Rashi’s understanding, God later mimics Avraham’s sending of water to them via a messenger, when God sends water via a miracle to the Israelites in the desert much later in the Exodus story.

If we assume that the writers of these texts were trying to reveal a truth about our place in the world and our relationship to God through a story, and that Rashi was also attempting to accomplish the same, we can come away with a very interesting and complex understanding of our relationship to the divine. Most conceptions of the divine are extraordinarily hierarchical. Divinity is above, and we are below. We are at the mercy of God or gods, mere mortals living out small lives. If, instead, we see the relationship carrying some mutuality, as it is apparent that Rashi did, the hierarchy gets turned on its Rashi isn’t just pointing out some similarities between Avraham’s hospitality and God’s. In his interpretation, Rashi is showing us something much more intrinsic to our relationship to the divine. Not only are we reliant upon the divine for what we need (for example, during this visit to Avraham, the angels announce the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah, and the imminent arrival of the new baby Yitzhak), but the divine reflects our own actions back to us. Avraham, consistently cited by those who came after him as the lifeline to God, affected the continuity of his offspring, and ultimately the successful formation of the people of Israel, by displaying his magnanimity to the angels. God reflected this behavior back to the Israelites by gifting them with water in their time of need, while wandering the desert during the formative stage of the newly free Israelite people.

Instead of looking at this text as a mythological narrative simply attempting to explain the roots of chosenness of the Jewish people, which this miraculous birth is so often cited as, maybe we should try to apply these lessons in our own lives. Throughout our liturgy and our history, and actually throughout the rest of the Tanakh from this point on, it has been the tradition to invoke God’s special relationship with Avraham whenever seeking something from God. Traditionally, the deeply troubling story of the binding of Yitzhak is even recited during Jewish morning worship as a way to attempt to convince God of our worth, based entirely on Avraham’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Maybe, instead of just citing Avraham’s deeds as rationale for our own worth, we should instead look at what the story is trying to tell us about his deeds, and why they are special at all.

Rashi’s interpretation of the story hints to us that human actions of kindness reverberate throughout time. By citing this one instance of Avraham’s kindness as the impetus behind God having provided the Israelites, the many generations later grandchildren of Avraham, with the miraculous water that sustained them in the desert, Rashi is telling us that our own acts are similarly important. Were it not for Avraham’s kindness, the Israelites never would have made it into the Promised Land, and we wouldn’t be here to discuss the outcomes. God’s reflection of Avraham’s behavior was the linchpin on which the Israelites’ future hung. By using this example to pattern our own behavior, by viewing our actions as reverberating throughout history as the mutual relationship between us and God, forged initially by Avraham and renewed by every one of us, we can be guided by our tradition towards lives of great meaning. Each action we take can be viewed as having endless consequences based on the value of our works. Rashi and our Torah beseech us to view Avraham not only as the pillar of righteousness that our tradition rests upon, but also as the exemplar for us all to follow to build our own lives into similar pillars of righteousness for the generations to come.

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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 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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