Tag Archives: Torah

B’hukotai: Sing Unto God a New Song

jewish-music-carlebach

This D’var Torah was given at the final Shabbat service of my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem campus, May 2014.

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. These words of the ancient Psalmist are some of the most beloved today, especially because of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s beautiful rendition that is now sung worldwide during Kabbalat Shabbat. We all know Rabbi Carlebach from his renowned rejuvenation of Jewish music, but we tend to forget his other accomplishment of helping to bring Chasidic thought into mainstream Judaism. The power of the transformation he affected in our own movement is so clear that his own daughter Neshama recently declared her “aliyah” to Reform Judaism. His ability to radicalize Jewish mystical thought is well attested. Some may even say that he went too far at times.

Once, before leading a community in his rendition of Psalm 96, he asked, “How could it be that with all the Torah that was being studied and all the great luminaries in Europe, this tragic event could have occurred?”

We tend to shy away from answering this question when it comes to the Holocaust, or really any tragedy that has stricken the Jewish people in Modern times. Rabbi Carlebach was not so shy. “Perhaps,” he said, “The Torah being studied there was not good enough. Perhaps we need a new Torah.”

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash.

In our Torah portion this week, B’hukotai, we are regaled with a whole host of blessings and curses based on whether or not the Israelites follow God’s laws. Of course, one must immediately ask which laws. Reliable as always, Rashi jumps right in stating that what the Israelites, and therefore we, are commanded to do is toil in the study of Torah. This study is described by Rashi to be the foundation for maintaining the covenant with God, as he states that one who does not toil over the Torah, will then not fulfill the commandments, which leads to despising those who do follow the commandments and hating the Sages, which itself will lead to preventing others from fulfilling the commandments, and eventually ends with denying the authenticity of the commandments and God as well.

If there’s one thing I really don’t like, it’s a slippery slope argument. Yeah, I know, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah, but I’d rather flip Rashi on his head here and declare these things in the positive. To keep the covenant we must toil over Torah, which will lead us to following the commandments, loving those others who also do, and our Sages, and so on and so on, until through our embracing of our tradition we finally see, understand, and accept the omnipotence of God.

By flipping this around, we end up with a totally different relationship to God and the commandments. Our first step, which we have all embarked upon in earnest this year, is toiling over the Torah. We’ve toiled over the Torah of Moses, the Torah of Hazal,  the individual Torah of each individual’s personal experience, and the wonderful Torah brought to us by all of our faculty. Sounds like we’re on our way to some blessings, right? The rest of the path will just flow naturally out of our learning. And, following this, one of the blessings our Torah portion says we will receive for doing as God commands is that God will set up a covenant with us, with God’s people. In Rashi’s interpretation of this blessing, he sees the promise of a new covenant with the Israelites once they settle in their land, studying the Torah that had yet to be fully written.

Funny enough, in the narrative of the Torah, we’re just now ending Leviticus, which means the first covenant has only just now been established. In conjunction with this fact, the Israelites still have two books worth left of trekking before they reach the destination in which this whole blessing and curse formula will take effect. They are still a full generation out of their Promised Land, and are already being dealt out the stipulations for their descendent’s eventual habitation there.

We too are in a similar situation. We’ve just finished the first leg of our journey towards a lifetime of devotion to the Jewish people, and we know that there’s an endpoint to this training somewhere out there, but we may as well have the Sinai desert, checkpoints, border crossings, and all, between us and the endpoints of our programs.

We’ve also received quite a few warnings of blessings and curses that may come during the rest of our long haul in regards to our levels of toiling. Sure, we haven’t been threatened with having our sky turned to iron and our ground to copper like God threatened the Israelites, but I’ve got a feeling that our administration has some serious smiting power. So we’d better be toiling over that Torah. The question, though, is which Torah?

Rabbi Carlebach’s question about the Holocaust, and suggestion as to the answer, is rooted in a Kabbalistic teaching about the nature of Torah. According to the mystics, the Torah is to be renewed in every generation. It is remade by the masters for the students in a way that meets the needs of the particular time and place. One reading of his statement about the Torah of Europe prior to the Holocaust is that to make way for a new Torah, the old one had to be destroyed.

If we apply this idea to Rashi’s reading of the new covenant that was to be established should the Israelites follow all of God’s laws, what does this mean about the old covenant? Should we, as Reform Jews, be reimagining our covenant with God not only in terms of continuity with the past, but also to supersede the past? The first Reformers certainly did when they made their big break with the orthodoxies of their time, but what are the Reform orthodoxies of our time that make up our generation’s received, but yet to be renewed, Torah? What are we taking for granted?

I think that this question should be at the very core of each and every one of our minds. Ordained or still in school, part of the faculty or administration, if we are truly a community focused on Reform, the verb and the movement, our relationship to the past and the past’s relationship to the future should be weighed in every programmatic, theological, liturgical, and pedagogical decision we make. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Sing unto God a new song. We sing this regularly, often without considering the fact that it is a command. Even someone like me who doesn’t know the difference between soprano or tenor is commanded to sing a new song, in spite of the distress it might cause to everyone else’s ears.

Rashi, although obliquely, said the same thing: Toil over the Torah until a new covenant is made. Rabbi Carlebach said it much more directly: Sometimes the old Torah must make way for the new. Both of these men were ardently traditional, but both saw a path forward not through more of the same, but through the new.

This year in Israel I have been very lucky to be exposed to some wonderful new phenomena arising throughout the country. An attempt to renew the Israeli population’s relationship to Torah is under way. Dr. Ruth Calderon and those like her pushing for a renewal of the relationship of the hilonim to our textual traditions have made great strides. Yossi Klein Halevi sees hope in this renewal through the Israeli music scene, which we were lucky enough to experience first hand with Kobi Oz, System Ali, the rejuvenation of modern piyyutim, and countless other musical expressions of Judaism in Israel’s ever-growing music scene. I heard that some Israelis have even begun calling the people ordained here at HUC rabbis! The battle towards a new view on Progressive Judaism in Israel is underway, even if it sometimes seems bleak. The new Torah of the state of Israel is already being written, some of it right in these hallways.

Rabbi Carlebach’s reading of the Holocaust and its relationship to Jewish history and religion is definitely a radical one. There are many who would protest any such use of the Holocaust within a theological or religious framework due to the extremity and closeness of the event. These individuals would have a strong argument to do so. Regardless of the legitimacy of his thought, he made the statement. He taught new Torah from his heart.

Let us embarking upon a path of Jewish leadership not forget that we too can do this. We too can sing a new song, teach a new Torah. And not only can we, but we must. B’hukotai demands this of us, and so does the world. Let us teach a Torah of inclusion; a Torah of fearlessness in the face of change; a Torah no longer striving to maintain Jewish existence only for its own sake, but striving to make the Jewish people a blessing to all of the nations of the world; a Torah focused on how to bless our lives with meaning, not on a constant looming fear of curses. Wherever there is life, there is new Torah to be learned, and then to be taught. Let us never settle for teaching the same Torah that has been taught before. Let us teach a new Torah, each and every one, for the good of the Jewish people, and the good of the world. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Shabbat Shalom

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Parashah Toldot: Dysfunction, Redemption and Learning to Swim

The story of Yitzhak and Rivkah’s sons Yaakov and Esav is a compelling and difficult one. In this week’s Torah portion Yaakov , the eventual namesake of the people of Israel, is seen committing some very questionable acts. His brother, Esav, is clearly not the brightest human being, and we see Yaakov tricking him out of all of the inheritance that he believed he was to receive from his father. The first time, Yaakov takes advantage of Esav’s ravenous hunger, and makes him pledge his birthright for a bowl of stew. The second time, under his mother Rivkah’s recommendation and with a great deal of her help, Yaakov tricks his now-blind father into believing that he is Esav coming for his deathbed blessing. Not quite the behavior we’d expect or desire from the person who gave his name to Israel.

 

The name of this week’s parshah is Toldot, or generations in English. Prior to the story of Yaakov and Esav, we are given a narrative of Yitzhak repeating almost exactly his own father Avraham’s ambulations around the land of Canaan. On the same theme, our introduction to the story of Yaakov and Esav is focused on parental favoritism, Yitzhak favoring Esav, and Rivkah favoring Yaakov. When looked at from a zoomed out lens, we see what this parsha is really about – trans-generational relationships.

 

If we accept this as being the main theme of Toldot, then we should take a step back and not just look at condemning Yaakov, but instead figure out what the generational factors here are. It is clear that Rivkah pushes him towards some of his behavior, and it is also quite clear that his father’s affections are showered upon his brother and withheld from him. It’s a common trope today, in our post-Freudian world, to focus on how our parents messed us up, and how our foibles and failings can be traced back to their foibles and failings. Looking at Toldot, we see that this certainly isn’t a new idea.

 

So was this behavior Yaakov’s fault? Was it Yitzhak and Rivkah’s? Even Avraham and Sarah’s? Are our own failings ours, or are they our parents’? The Babylonian Talmud teaches us that a father’s responsibility to his son is “to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim too“ (Kiddushin 29a).

 

The first three responsibilities are the religious traditions of circumcision, redemption of the firstborn from God via paying a Kohen, and teaching Torah, but the last three are quite practical. The Talmud goes on into pages and pages of debating and interpreting what each of these things means, except for the responsibility to teach a child to swim in which there is no debate, only an explanation that “his life may depend on it” (Kiddushin 30b).

 

So it goes with the relationship between parents and children. For every attempt to do the right thing, either by teaching your child correctly, or living up to your parents’ expectations, there is always another way to interpret or debate the outcome. It is always possible to blame yourself for your child’s failings, or take credit for your child’s successes. It is similarly always possible to blame your parents for your failings, or to credit them your successes. In the end, one can never truly know which pieces of their parents’ parenting or their own parenting have affected the eventual outcome. Foresight and hindsight are both almost impossible when attempting to uncover which pieces of these very basic relationships will be highlighted in the future or have colored our lives.

 

I think that we can absolve Yaakov of at least some of his guilt through an acknowledgment of this reality of the relationship between the parent and child. This trickster-like behavior was clearly being taught to him by his mother as a way of gaining the attention and affection of his aloof father. In a way, we can see this parshah as all prelude to the fruition of Yaakov into Yisrael which comes later in Bereishit. By suspending our own judgment we can see the tragedy in the way the portion, which is Yaakov’s entire youth, plays out.

What a child takes from a parent’s attempts at education is out of control of the parent; what a parent does to attempt to educate a child is out of control of the child. In spite of our choices to trick our brothers, push our children to do the wrong thing, or disrespectfully swindle our parents, as we continue to live we gain new chances to do the right thing. The Talmud’s clarity on why it is important to teach your child to swim is clear. In my opinion, though, the swimming that the Talmud is referring to is not simply swimming. It is the knowledge one needs to continue moving forward in the world; to continue receiving the chance to make the right choices that will redeem his or her life. Yaakov’s redemption through his own actions later in the Torah show us that the indiscretion of youth, or the damaging meddling of passive aggressive parents, is not something that stands alone as a root of human development and personality. In Yaakov’s youth and family we can see our own, and in his later redemption we see hope for ourselves and our own families.

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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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Everything Is Amazing and Nobody is Happy

This week’s Torah portion is easily one of the most famous. Everyone knows the general

outline – God tells Noah that he’s going to destroy the world which has become corrupted

beyond redemption, and Noah needs to build an ark to save himself, his family, and all of

the animals of the world. When learning this story, from a young age on, we’re taught to

identify with Noah, the most righteous of his generation. So what was so wrong with this

generation that a guy like Noah, who didn’t even bother to warn his fellow humans of the

impending doom, was the most righteous?

 

One of the explanations our ancient sages gave us in the Talmud was that this generation

had become haughty because of the goodness that God showered upon them (Sanhedrin,

108b). Citing the book of Job to describe these wicked people the Talmudic baraita goes

on to say that they enjoyed so much abundance and such great wealth that they came

to believe that they didn’t need God for anything at all. This wicked generation enjoyed

extremely long lives in which they were never lacking in food or pleasures, music was

always readily at hand, and their children danced.

 

A few years ago, one of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., was on Conan O’Brien’s

talk show and pointed out some pretty clear truths about today’s generation. The general

theme of his interview was that, today, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. His

most clear elucidation of this theme is the fact that people complain about their cellphone

reception not being strong enough to surf the internet, without considering the fact that

the signal has to go all the way up to outer space and back. Similarly, a few generations

ago, it would have been inconceivable to have a piece of equipment like a modern day

smartphone be available for nearly everyone.

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I complain about these things; with modern conveniences

come modern inconveniences. I also must admit that in comparison to the early rabbis of

around 1800 years ago who wrote the baraita quoted above, my life has so far matched

their description of the generation of the flood to a tee. I have certainly been quite lucky

in my life, but I would also say that the majority of my friends in the Jewish world

have had similar luck. If we are like Louis C.K. says and absurdly taking the wonders

of our world for granted, are we then mirroring the generation of the flood? Are we

similarly devoid of thanks to God, losing our ability to see the wonders in what is now

our everyday life? In short, should someone start building an ark?

 

Well, I think an ark might be a bit much, but there’s another clear alternative: Let’s be

more thankful. But thankful to whom? The second problem of the generation of the Flood

according to the baraita, that of casting God off, is another struggle that we face today.

One of the greatest issues in Modern Judaism is with the conception of God. We are so

often confronted with ideas and conceptions of God that are inherently contradictory

to a modern, scientific mindset that it is sometimes quite difficult to conceive of fully

believing in a God. It is especially difficult to believe in one that has the power to flood

the entire earth, but needs a human being to build an ark to save a remnant of inhabitants.

This is not a reason to dismiss the whole concept of a higher power, though, but instead

a challenge to the conception we have of our rational sensibilities to fully understand

our reality. The critique of thanklessness found in both the Talmud and Louis C.K. is a

similar challenge. Although we may have cast aside the idea of a man in the sky pulling

strings and deciding upon punishment and reward, at the very least we can marvel at the

wonders of nature, human ingenuity, and sheer beauty in the world around us. If just that

spark of wonder can be fanned, thankfulness for these phenomena will surely follow.

Luckily our tradition has a built in mechanism for reminding us of the wonders of our

life. The Jewish practice of reciting blessings is designed specifically to orient us towards

acknowledgment of the wondrous goings on around us. The morning prayer sequence in

particular (shaharit) is designed to start our day by thanking God for returning our souls

to a working body, along with giving us all of the things we need, from sight to physical

flexibility to consciousness, to go about our day.

 

It seems unlikely that we are heading towards another great destruction akin to that of

the story of Noah. Even if we don’t actually face a doom that necessitates an ark, we can

certainly take something away from the commentary of our rabbinic tradition. If mere

haughty thanklessness in a time of great plenty was thought of as enough to warrant utter

destruction, we ought to take this into account. In fact, if we read Noah’s collection of all

of the creatures of creation as an acknowledgment of the many various wonders of the

world, instead of as a literal gathering of the species onto a boat, we even find the answer

to the problem right in the story. Acknowledging the wonders of our daily life, and our

lack of control or full understanding of these wonders, is something we can all benefit

from. It brings a sense of awe to the everyday that can enrich even the most banal of

moments when utilized correctly. If this is the way that Noah became the most righteous

in his generation, let us all strive for such righteousness!

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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.

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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 Boundaries of Purity and Pollution

toxic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Many Returns of the Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wandering, Traumatized Aramean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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