Tag Archives: judaism

Long Division, or, Happy 5774!

Image

Rosh haShanah, the Jewish New Year, ended tonight with the beginning of Shabbat. Although there are many meanings behind Rosh haShanah, the one most often cited is that of the commemoration of the creation of the universe. From the get-go, from Genesis 1, we see that God created by dividing. Dark from light, night from day, eventually woman from man, the unraveling of Biblical creation was a series of separations. The ability of God to create through division that is pictured in Genesis is quite different from the human attempts at mimicry, and quite different from the spectrum of light and dark, night and day, male and female, that we actually see in our world. In Judaism today, the mehitza is one of the most central and controversial forms of separation.

The mehitza is a clear symbol of separation in traditional Judaism. Reform Judaism did away with it long ago, as did Conservative Judaism, but even the most progressive of Orthodox synagogues will still have one. Gender separation has been a big talking point in Jerusalem lately as the Women of the Wall have gained critical mass. One of my colleagues and friends here has pointed out something very interesting about the Women of the Wall movement. They aren’t asking for desegregation. They are asking for separate but equal status.

Separate but equal comes with some serious social baggage in the American parlance, but in this situation it is a different concept. When we look at the mehitza, or the concept of gender separation as a symbolic, ritual method of signifying holiness, Western Liberal bias against segregation of any kind runs into a non-rational roadblock. In fact, this is a prominent locus of the inner conflict of progressive Judaism. Attempting to adapt a tradition so defined by its use of separation and division to the Enlightenment values of equality and universalism is a real challenge, and one we haven’t really dealt with head on. Instead, we attempt to circumvent the challenge by focusing on other aspects of the tradition, while eschewing the traditions most clearly representing this separation of categories, such as keeping kosher, wearing symbols that separate us as Jews from the rest of humanity, and the abstentions of Shabbat that would keep us from participating in non-Jewish society.

The issue of division, and clear, contrasted separate parts, is one that has arisen throughout my experience so far in Jerusalem. What is my Judaism and that of the school I am attending? Or of those whom I am attending school with? Or of the city I am residing in? Is the identity that I have formed throughout my life ending, and a new identity of future rabbi beginning? Due to the centrality of these questions in the future that I am hurtling towards this Rosh haShanah has taken on much greater significance than it has in the past.

This evening in Jerusalem I went to an egalitarian Orthodox community for Shabbat, one which is quite interestingly very popular amongst my classmates. I’ve been a few times before and every time the mehitza has been a distraction for me. Not only is it alien for me to be praying amongst only men, but the nature of something being hidden purposely from me, even if it is only by a translucent cloth barrier, calls my attention to it. Simultaneously, the effect of the separated singing, with voices eventually blending in the shared air, has a distinctily different effect than both genders singing together. I’m no expert at acoustics, but the different tones divided by location caused the eventual mixture to be not only more discordant, but jarring. Although this may not have been the intention there is also a sense of competition between the two sides. Inevitably, and usually only momentarily, the two sides would reach a balance and meet perfectly. The outcome is beautiful and brilliant. This is the nature of the conflict between unity and division. The contrast of disunity with unity only highlights the beauty of the eventual combination. A perfect medium is a beautiful thing, but at what cost do we divide in the first place?

The nature of our material reality makes it impossible for us to divide cleanly. Our lives are made up of a spectrum of grays, not the divisions attempted by those who would have things be pure and impure, kosher and unkosher, holy and unholy. But we must divide. To remember our lives, we divide our experiences by dates, times, as relative to one another, as formative or not. The most sacred moments in our Jewish lives mark divisions: being named at 8 days as a division from nascent being to full humanity, becoming bar or bat mitzvah as a division between irresponsibility and full responsibility, marriage as a commitment to blurring the division between yourself and another while dividing the new pair from the rest of the community, and the rituals of death, the most clear divider of all. These lifecycle events are things often outside of our control. At a certain point a baby must be considered human. Around puberty it is fair to start making a young adult responsible for themselves. Although marriage is not for everyone, for those who find meaning in it marriage is something beyond rationality – a desire to form a link to another person so beloved that you feel you must continue forward as one. And you know how the saying goes: death and taxes. The perception of these things being out of our control make them much easier to swallow.

Another commandment that is at first glance beyond rationality is that of the blowing of the shofar on Rosh haShanah, an act of marking the division of the inevitable new year. Another of my friends and colleagues at rabbinical school recently pointed out that the Hebrew root for the word “shofar” (שפר) tends to be related to the goodness of something, or to the action of making something better (לשפר). Alongside this, breaking the word up into a prefix along with a word can also mean that which divides ([ש-פר[ר). If we combine these multiple meanings of the word shofar, and look at them in light of the creation of the universe in Genesis which is also being celebrated on Rosh haShanah, our tradition gives us an excellent guideline for how best to create through division.

God’s reaction after dividing each piece of our universe is to reflect on this creation and to say, “this is very good.” Division was done for the sake of creating a better reality. The shofar beckons is to do the same. We must continue moving forward, and the shofar proclaims this loud and clear: The New Year is here! But hidden within the very name of the shofar is the true intention – to separate from the past by improving, by finding the good and doing more of it. Rosh haShanah gives us the chance to separate and our own lives each year, and to take forward with us that which is good. When we are done with this year, I hope we are all able to say “this is very good.”

Advertisements
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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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

Fraught With Background

This week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Masei (Num 30,2-36,13), begins by focusing on vows. Moses explains to the leaders of the various tribes that vows are serious business. There’s a bit of good, old fashioned anti-equality for women stuff in here, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is that there are clearly many different types of vows that people took back then, all of which were to be taken gravely seriously. We then get a chapter on the Israelites wiping out the Midianites, and a chapter on a couple of the tribes (Reuben and Gad) deciding that they were pretty much done with the trekking, and would rather rebuild the towns they had just destroyed in their violent rampage against the previous inhabitants and settle down east of the Jordan River. Moses doesn’t take too kindly to this, and tells them that if they don’t want God to go off on one of his violent rages, they’d better commit to helping their Israelite brethren conquer the rest of Canaan. They agree, and then the Israelites continue on their way until the end of the Book of Numbers.

One of the most interesting segments of this portion is one that isn’t really highlighted. We see Moses being pretty irascible. He lays down some strict legislation about vows, especially in relation to women, gets pretty mad at everyone for not killing all of the Midianite women (they were previously accused of having lured those good, God-fearing Israelite men into idolatry with their Midianite sexiness), and gives the leaders of Reuben and Gad a good, firm talking to without even consulting God on the issue. So what’s got Moses all in a tizzy? I think it’s probably that he had to send his entire nation against his wife’s people for coupling with their women.Tzipporah, and her father Jethro, are stated pretty clearly to be Midianite. Jethro is actually a Midianite priest, which must make the situation even more difficult. The mixture of guilt Moses must have felt for being hypocritical and also for massacring the home nation of his wife and father in law, who helped raise his children, must have been too much to bear.

So we’ve got a full-on family drama here. Adding to this is the fact that Moses and Tzipporah’s son, Eleazer, is the high priest overseeing the splitting up of the spoils of war against the Midianites. Earlier on in the Torah, Eleazer is said to have been living with his grandfather and mother while the beginning of the Exodus took place, so this Israelite high priest definitely experienced Midianite culture  as a child. Interestingly, we don’t see Tzipporah or Jethro mentioned in this segment at all. One would figure a Midianite priest would have something to say about all of this. Instead, we just see Moses and Eleazer coldly and calmly legislating the laws of war.

One would imagine this to be a pretty catastrophic event for the family, but it’s never mentioned as such. The drama continues unfolding as we step into the second portion of this week. We see Aaron die, and the continual movement of the Israelites towards their Promised Land, which ultimately means the continual movement of Moses towards his death. This week is the end of the book of Numbers. In many ways, it is the end of the narrative of the Torah. Deuteronomy is Moses’ last speech to the Israelites. So this is the end of the drama of Moses’ life.

Contextualizing it like this, it makes the vow portion at the beginning look a little like foreshadowing. Moses married his wife, but we get very little description of the proceedings. Moses had kids, but we see him interact very little with them. Moses had a father in law that advised him at times, but who was also a Midianite. What we mainly get about Moses throughout the Torah is his relationship with God, and his relationship with the Israelite people.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read on the beauty of the narrative of the Bible is Odysseus’ Scar by Eric Auerbach. Auerbach compares Greek myth and Biblical narrative to show one of the unique aspects of the Bible’s literary style: its pregnant silences. He uses one of the most dramatic and well known stories in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac, to show how the silence between Abraham and Isaac as Abraham walks his son up the mountain to sacrifice him creates an incredible tension in the narrative. I think we have something similar here at the end of the book of Numbers.

Throughout the Torah, we never see Moses really vowing anything to anyone. In fact, he has very little to say for himself in his life. God speaks through him, tells him what to say and do, and Moses just acts the puppet. He doesn’t get to be a real father to his sons, or a real husband to his wife. Instead, he is forced into the role of leader of a malcontent, thankless nation.

Before his role as prophet, before the burning bush, Moses was a stranger in a strange land. Moses fled Egypt for fear of being found out as a murderer. He ran to a land where he thought he would be safe, and through his good deeds and works, established a family for himself. The people he found there were welcoming, and they were Midianites. He never asked to be a prophet. He never for the role of midwife to the Israelite people, but he got it nonetheless. Along with this role, he got the job of wiping out the very people who provided solace for him when he most needed it.

Moses, as the last major step in the narrative of his life, is forced to undermine the one choice we ever really see him make in life – the choice to marry Tzipporah. He never gets to fully actualize this relationship, never gets to spend time with his family, and therefore never really gets to enjoy the fruits of making such a choice. He is instead robbed of the one vow he ostensibly did make in life — that of his marriage. And in his reticence, and his focus on his son Eleazar as the one he chose to help him with the destruction of the Midianites, we see his final chance to choose his family over his role as leader of the Israelites slip away.

We all have similar choices to make, but few of us have as serious of a life calling as Moses. As we age and grow into our careers, our families, our hobbies, and our passions we choose daily which pieces of our lives define us most; which pieces get the most focus, the most time, and the most energy. Something is always going to fall by the wayside. And as we get older, the responsibilities only grow, causing each choice to become that much more potent. Our silences, like in the Bible, are as powerful as our shouts. The things we ignore or avoid have as much, if not more, defining power as to who we are as the things we focus our energies upon. Moses didn’t have much of a choice, in reality. He had the supreme creator of the universe breathing down his neck. But one wonders if, in the end, as he continued to lead the Israelites into Canaan, his silence was covering his regrets.

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

The Inheritance of Your I

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, (Numbers 25,10-30,1) is almost entirely about inheritance. It outlines the priestly lineage, the divvying up of the land for the many tribes once they enter the Promised Land, and even gives a bit of case law about how inheritances are to be passed down which includes women being able to inherit property from their parents, a rare practice in the ancient world. All in all, pretty dry fare. But it got me thinking about our conception of inheritance in society today.

Lets look a little bit more closely at the Torah’s conception of inheritance. In a beautiful scene in Exodus 34:4-7, when God finally acquiesces and shows himself bodily to Moses, God focuses on the inheritance of behavioral dividends. He says:

“The Lord! The Lord! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

So, we’ve got a couple different forms of inheritance here in the old Torah. Sure, people get their parents belongings when they pass, but they also get their parents’ punishments from God. So if you were lucky enough to be born to parents who were both rich and pious, you had it made! But we see no explanation as to why this is the case. This very well may be because this document was written in a time when the idea of individuality was not yet taken for granted as it is today. But we still have very similar conceptions of property inheritance, so what happened to our conception of divine punishment being inherited?

Nature and nurture, biology and psychology, are oft debated topics when we start talking about individualism. How much of an individual is actually unique? How much is actually in that individual’s control? Can people be held responsible for their lives if their lives started out with deep difficulties that no one would be expected to overcome? Is the individual simply a twining coil of biology and psychology created by their parents, or is there something more to the human being?

It is a lovely thing to do to just make the a priori claim that we are clearly each unique individuals, with souls distinct and solid enough that we would be who we are regardless of anything else. That we stand above the muck of our material world, and have the ability to separate ourselves from our nurtures and our natures completely, as shining, Nietzschean supermen of will. But I don’t think this is the case.

If anything, our essence, the thing inside us that makes us the person that other people recognize as a whole being, are those things that we do carry with us from our nurtures and our natures. I do believe in the soul, but I do not believe in the primacy of the soul, especially in regards to the person we are in our day-to-day lives. More than anything we are the accumulation of the detritus of our history, both personal and familial. The effects of our own personal collected detritus, though, are the things that make use unique.

In the conception of the soul that I tend to lean on, it is the soul that collects this detritus. The I you think of when you think of yourself isn’t in very good control of his or her soul. Instead, the soul helps to guide the I’s attention towards the little detritus that the I needs to continue forming into the whole person the soul wants. In a way, this is similar to the process by which oysters create pearls. If the detritus is the intruder into the oyster, and I is the oyster, then the soul would be whatever it is that guided the intruder into the oyster in the first place. So maybe, instead of our conception that the soul is the little light shining inside each and every one of us, the soul is actually something outside of us, pushing our attention (attention is another great mystery of humanity) to focus on specific pieces of our experiential history based on whatever need our I has at the time. Our I is then free to begin the pearling process on this new piece of detritus, and we begin behaving accordingly.

For instance, my wife and I often agree that we would be awesome trust fund kids. We’d still do what we are doing, we would just be able to live in a nicer apartment and not have to worry about student loans. But this is the real conundrum, isn’t it? Were we magically gifted this money right now, this might be the case, but had we grown up with it, we probably wouldn’t be the people we are today. Having the freedom and ease of an endless inheritance to fall back on makes everything that much less important. As the flip side to the coin of a past post, if you knew that failure had no effect on your comfort or livelihood, would you ever really bother to work hard enough to accomplish anything? If our Is hadn’t been fed the detritus of having to both chase our desires while simultaneously having to provide for ourselves, would we even have the desires we have today?

Inheritance can then be seen as a double edged sword, and one that isn’t necessarily sharper on either edge. It is clear to me, based on this understanding, that the estimation of inheritance put forward in the Torah is still pretty spot on. If we do, in fact, generate our Is in the method described above, we can see our inheritances of both blessings and curses, wealth and poverty, are so intrinsic to our person that we can not be separated from them.

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 , , , , , , , , , , , ,