Ki Tisa — Miley Cyrus and Graven Images

February 14, 2014 § 1 Comment

It is indeed something of a surprise that the Israelites turn to worship a golden calf so soon after receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. One has to wonder: were they not listening? Did they not hear the part about ‘no graven images’? Were they napping when God said, ‘you shall not worship any gods before Me’?

And, not surprisingly, both Moses and God get very angry in response to their misdeeds. God is the first to know, and therefore is the first to get angry. When he hears what they have done, Moses intercedes on their behalf, asking God to forgive them. He reminds God that the people had just come out of Egypt.

When they come to that line in our text, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand,” our ancient sages ask themselves, ‘why does Moses remind God of Egypt? Surely God already knew that they came up out of Egypt. To what purpose does this serve? Why would he say something that God already knows?’

And of course, the sages provide an answer. “Rabbi Huna said: It can be compared to a wise man who opened a perfumery shop for his son in a street frequented by women of ill repute.”

Rabbi Huna is giving us a parable, one that explains why the time in Egypt contributed to the Israelites’ misbehavior. In the case of the young man in a perfume shop, he writes, “The street did its work, the business also did its share; and the boy’s youth contributed its part, with the result that he fell into evil ways.”

Each of these factors contributed to the outcome: he was spending time in a place where lewd behavior was practiced, engaged in a trade that would bring him into contact with that lewd behavior, and at an age when he would be susceptible to those influences.

Rabbi Huna continues, “When his father came and caught him engaged in lewd behavior, he began to shout…But his friend who was there said: ‘You ruined this youth’s character and yet you shout at him! You ignored all other professions and opened a shop for him just in a street where prostitutes dwell!’

In other words: does the father not bear some of the guilt in this case?

“This is what Moses said: “Lord of the Universe! You ignored the entire world and caused your children to be enslaved only in Egypt, where all worshipped lambs, from whom Your children learned (to do corruptly). It is for this reason that they have made a Calf! … Bear in mind whence You have brought them forth!”[1]

We pick up cues from our environment as to what constitutes appropriate behavior. After spending years in a place that worshipped idols, the Israelites naturally would think that such behavior was entirely appropriate to the situation.

This year, Miley Cyrus was one of the ten finalists for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Ultimately, she did not win: they chose Pope Francis, a much better choice from my perspective. But it is interesting that she was one of the possibilities.

If you do not follow pop culture particularly closely, you might not know who she is. But if you are under 12 and female, it is very likely that you know her work. She spent a number of years as a Disney darling, starring in the show “Hannah Montana” about a teenager who has a double life as a pop star. In the show, she is a brunette who wears a blonde wig when she performs, so all of her friends are unaware of her star status. As if none of them were smart enough to recognize her.

If you are quite a bit older than 12 and a fan of the Video Music Awards (also known as the VMAs) you might also be aware of Miley Cyrus’s work. At the VMAs in August, she engaged in a very provocative dance number with Robin Thicke, leaving precious little to the imagination. It was not the most family-friendly entertainment.

And so, in response to that event, I wrote a blog post about it, one that went quietly viral on Facebook, with more than 4,000 views, well past my usual readership. It would seem that I had hit a nerve. It would appear that I touched on a deeper issue, one more important than costume changes at an awards ceremony. Here’s an excerpt:

“Dear Miley Cyrus,

“You certainly received a lot of attention for your VMA performance this past week, which was undoubtedly your intention. It is likely that you think of this event as a rousing success. And the backlash against…your performance is probably a bonus, from your point of view, because we are all now talking about you. Even bad publicity is good publicity, right?…

“Here is the real issue: You had a fan base of millions of young girls who looked up to you and pretended to be you. They had your likeness on their bedroom walls. They sang your songs into their hairbrushes.

“And then you became an adult and that role no longer fit you. Tired of your old image, you shaved off your hair. Good for you.

“So you were standing there with your hair cropped, all eyes on you, a brand-new adult. Imagine what would have happened then had you turned to that fan base and said, ‘girls, you do not have to be pretty or sweet in order to matter in this world. Cut your hair if you want or leave it long – that’s not what’s important. Who you are is what matters most. Choose your own path, and find your own voice.’ Imagine what would have happened then.

“You were, in a word, dangerous. Whole industries would suffer if these girls become empowered. Who is going to buy all this lip-gloss and mascara? Insecurity is what sells product. And more: imagine you had a real message, something deeper and more profound than the simple exhortation to ‘find yourself,’ and that you too had been encouraged to find your own voice. What would you have said then? I really wish that we knew.

“Instead, your handlers convinced you that the best way to break out of your candy-coated shell is to start pole dancing, stripping, and twerking…

“Here is an exercise for you: imagine, for a moment, that you had gone out there on the VMA stage without a microphone that night. Imagine the exact same performance, but without a sound. Would you have garnered the same attention? Yes, absolutely yes. Would we be saying the very same things about you this week? Oh yes, definitely.

“You know what that means? You have been effectively silenced. Your voice was not heard. You were merely there as eye candy, and not as a singer. You are now replaceable…

“[The problem with this situation is that] your God-given talent will eventually want to make itself heard. If you continue on this path, it is going to take more and more drugs to silence it. Your handlers will see to it that you get them. They will be there, ready to go, even before you ask. And then they will tip off the paparazzi regarding the publishable antics of the latest ‘hot mess’…

“In the meantime, I wish all the best to you. I hope that you eventually prove to be better than all of this. I suspect that you are.”

A few people thought I was unduly harsh in my assessment, but most thought that I had exactly pinpointed the problem. Unfortunately, her situation is hardly unique. There are others: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, and Selena Gomez, to name a few.

Every child star faces intense pressure, of course, and many of them try to get attention through sensational means.

But it seems to me that the experience of these women is particularly troubling because it all seems so cynical and deliberate. At the very moment that they are about to come into their own, these young women suddenly veer toward the most vulgar forms of self-expression, as if that’s their highest value.

Should we be worried? Should we be concerned about this? After all, performers come and performers go. It’s a cutthroat business and they are well-compensated for their efforts. They are supposed to be replaceable, right?

No, actually. They’re not. They are talented young women who serve as role models to millions of young girls. And we cannot afford to give girls the message that their role models are expendable. Otherwise, we risk teaching them that women are worthwhile only so long as they are young, charming, and attractive.

There is a second problem here as well, one directly related to our Torah portion this week.

The shows themselves – the live-action Disney shows for tweens – are also part of the problem. Watch one of these shows sometime and you will see what I mean. Watch “Hannah Montana,” or “The Suite Life,” or “Wizards of Waverly Place.” What you will see is an environment where the kids are rewarded for finding ways around their parents’ wishes. You’ll see an environment where it is acceptable and encouraged for tweens to talk back, to be cruel, and to be snarky. You’ll see an environment that teaches kids how to get what they want through manipulation of the adults, most of whom are largely clueless. It’s a training ground to teach kids how to talk their parents into buying more and more products, one that equates love with buying gifts. And it’s one in which material things define a person’s value.

If we don’t want our kids worshipping the Golden Calf of pointless cruelty in the service of endless consumerism, we have a responsibility to police these shows. If you are a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle, sit down with the kids you know and find out what they are watching. Because we can’t trust Disney to be the one to teach them right from wrong. It might seem harmless, but letting them watch the Disney live-action tween shows without supervision is a bit like setting them up with a perfume shop in the red light district: despite your best intentions, you are bringing them into regular contact with a corrupting influence.

What do the Israelites do next? They build a sanctuary.

What that means for us: instead of letting kids watch those kinds of shows, we should bring them here, even if they’re not old enough to sit through a service. We will be indulgent if they’re wiggly. What we offer here at the Temple is a place where kids are valued for who they are, rather than what they have. What we offer here is a community that will give genuine support for an appropriate parental role. What we offer here is a set of alternate values, counter-cultural values, grounded in the ethics of the divine.


[1] From Nehama Leibowitz, “Ki Tissa 3: Moses Interceded,” New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, pp. 570-1. I have softened the language somewhat, in light of the fact that there might be children present when I deliver this sermon.

Terumah — Offerings

January 31, 2014 § 1 Comment

“They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.”

In our Torah portion this week, when it says, “They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them,” the word for ‘sanctuary’ in Hebrew is ‘Mikdash’. Holy place. What is holy is what is set aside, the special place.

In other words, in the midst of a series of instructions about architecture, God tells the Israelites that they should make a structure – some sort of moveable Temple structure – that allows them to encounter God’s presence while they are encamped in the desert wilderness. It is a place set apart, yet also ‘among them.’

Not surprisingly, this pithy instruction is one that finds its way into synagogue architecture, written in fancy letters, scrolled across an ark or a foundation wall: ‘They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.’ It’s a reminder of what we are here for, why we have come to this place: is this not the very house of God?

Yet in Hebrew, that’s not what we call it. In Hebrew, the synagogue is a Beit Knesset – a house of meeting – or a Beit Midrash – a house of learning – or a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer. We don’t normally say Beit Adonai – House of God. My congregation’s name, for example, is Beit Yisrael – house of Israel, in the sense of ‘the people of Israel.’ It’s the place where Jews belong.

Why is that? I suspect that it’s because God is not our only reason to be here. We are here to pray together, of course, but also to encounter each other and to learn from each other as well.

Sometimes I am asked: ‘Is it necessary to believe in God to participate in congregational life? Can you join the Temple, for example, if you don’t believe in God?’ Sometimes it is phrased as a statement: ‘I don’t participate because I don’t believe.’

That’s fine, I say, come anyway.

You might think that I say ‘it’s okay’ because I am an easy-going sort by nature. You might think that it’s my personality, my outlook, my approach to welcome everyone regardless of belief.

But it is actually a profoundly Jewish point of view.

Whenever I teach Introduction to Judaism, the students are always a bit surprised when I explain that it is entirely possible to be a Jewish atheist. The reason for their surprise lies in the fact that we live in a Christian culture, where religion is defined as ‘belief in God.’ If you do not believe in God, then you are not religious. That is the Christian view.

Judaism is a more complicated subject. Defined in Christian terms, it might not make sense: by all means, we say, participate if you don’t believe in God.

Judaism is much more than a belief in God.

The word ‘Torah,’ for example, is often translated as ‘laws.’ But it is not a particularly helpful translation. Its root does not mean ‘law’ – rather, its root is the same one as the word ‘horim’ – ‘parents.’ Torah is your inheritance, your culture, your ethnicity, and your religion. Torah is what you get from your parents – the stories and the rules, the preferences and the traits that shape you. Torah is what your family teaches you, and what you take into the world with you.

So, we have had a number of movements or groups within Judaism that were explicitly or implicitly atheist. For example, the early political Zionists were not religious in the Christian sense of the word – they were avowedly secular. They were seeking to create a nation like all other nations. They were not interested in waiting for God’s redemption. They were interested in forming a state with their own hands, their own effort.

And, similarly, there have been a long line of union organizers and socialists in this country, particularly at the time of the sweatshops and tenements in New York, who were not believers in God. They were not motivated by a sense of commandedness when they worked for social justice. They were, however, very much moved by the lessons of the prophets who decried taking advantage of the poor.

And in the most recent Pew Report, a significant percentage of Jews cite their sense of humor as a key part of what makes them Jewish. For many, a Jewish sense of humor is more closely tied to their self-understanding as a Jew than a belief in God. Which would explain why, as a rabbi, it really helps to have a sense of humor.

What is God’s relationship to this sanctuary, then? In the case of the Israelites, God’s presence is both ‘among them’ yet also ‘set apart.’ It’s an interesting paradox.

The Israelites have, up to this point, encountered God in grand historic terms, redeeming them from slavery, conquering their foes, and revealing the commandments amidst earthquakes and fire. They have been experiencing God as a pillar of fire, something intense and powerful and otherworldly.

So God commands them to make a sanctuary – a holy place – that is both set apart yet also among them. The purpose of this ancient portable Temple was to create structure for the sense of the holy. God’s presence was conceptualized as a form of energy – like a lightning bolt in its intensity – that could create life and death.

The portable Temple would hide that presence, envelop it, and create a process by which it would be encountered.

The rituals that grow up around this Temple dwelling-place are in fact organized around a desire to manage this energy, to keep it holy – to keep it separate – so that it is not chaotic or destructive. God commands them to create a structure, a process, and a ritual, that allows them to live in proximity to this energy, to organize their community around it.

What had been an overwhelming divine force encountered either in moments of grand revelation or as a terrifying pillar of fire is now living in community with the people of Israel, among them, in a manageable fashion, approachable. You don’t have to think about God in the same way as the Israelites do in order to understand the value of this fundamental transition. God might now be a part of daily life, a part of the community’s self-understanding.

To be sure, not everyone who comes to Temple believes in God. Or believes in God in so many words. Not everyone who comes to Temple finds genuine support or comfort in engaging in ritual.

But what we offer here is something more than a house of God: what we offer is the structure of ritual, the growth of education, and the comfort of community. We attempt to address what is inchoate and unmanageable in ways that are familiar and engaging.

We live, in a sense, within that original paradox: we attempt to set apart what is divine so that it might live among us.

Mishpatim — Laws

January 24, 2014 § 6 Comments

Once when I was a rabbinical student living in Jerusalem, I went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with a group of friends; while we were there I ended up talking to a group of Christians who were also touring the site. When one of them learned that we were Reform Jews, he asked: if you do not observe all the laws of Judaism, then why are you not Christian?

To his way of thinking, Judaism is a religion of law, whereas Christianity transcends it. So if we do not observe the law, we must be Christian, right? Except, of course, that we are not.

Let me explain what is wrong with his syllogism.

First, let me point out that there is a basic disagreement between Judaism and Christianity regarding the nature of law. This disagreement has theological origins, and it creates a different understanding of our mutual obligations as a community.

Specifically: is the rule of law a burden, something restricts our freedom? Or is it the very structure that allows us to live freely without conflict?

In Paulist thought, living according to the laws of the Bible is a source of anxiety because it is not possible to ever fulfill all of them. We are continually sinning by continually coming up short. To this way of thinking, in fact, the giving of the Torah was intended as a prelude, in that it ultimately leads to an entirely different approach to getting right with God. In other words, the purpose of the Torah was to teach us the depth of our sins.

For many Christians, the way to know the right thing to do is to either take the Holy Spirit into your heart and let it guide your decisions or use Jesus’ example as a guide. Charitable giving, for example, should be motivated by this sense of godliness – which is, in fact, why it is called ‘charity’ – it is related to the word for ‘heart.’ You should be moved by the spirit to give.

But we have a different view entirely. For Jews, the commandments are not a burden. The commandments are a gift. They show us the way to live.

Rather than relying on the spirit of God to motivate us to give from our hearts, we tend to be a bit more pragmatic: for example, when faced with the problem of poverty, our approach is to set up a legal structure. We seek to create a system that is capable of adequately meeting the needs of the poor while also equitably distributing the costs of the collection. That’s why we call it ‘tzedakah’ – righteous giving – for it is rooted in the very concept of ‘righteousness.’ You will give, because it is the righteous thing to do. And you will give out of legal obligation to give, because the poor do not have the luxury of waiting until you feel moved to give.

We Jews really like the rule of law. In fact, as a minority culture, we prefer to live in a society that fundamentally respects the rule of law and has a robust and fair court system.

In the Medieval period, for example, the Jews of that time were not citizens of the state in which they lived. Instead, they had a charter from the local prince or duke, which allowed a certain number of families or individuals to live within the borders of the principality or duchy.

And that number could not be exceeded. If you were born in a given principality and lived there all your life, as had your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents, you might still have to find another place to live when you became an adult because the number of Jews allowed in your community had been exceeded. In fact, the charter for the community itself could be revoked at whim, so the whole community might have to move as well.

Not having rights guaranteed by law creates a sense of instability and anxiety that casts a pall over the activities of a given community. No one likes to live in fear.

We Jews tend to like the rule of law because it protects the minority from the majority.

What was – and is – special about the Jewish experience in the United States, for example, is the fact that Jews have had citizenship here from the very beginning. We had no need for special dispensation in order to be here and to participate in the broader society. Whenever we find that we have been excluded or targeted, the law is on our side: we can set things right.

From our perspective, law is not a burden. The rule of law is one of the markers of civilization: it is what allows for a peaceful and stable society.

And it is in this sense that we say that the law is our proof of God’s love for us.

You don’t have to believe in Torah-from-Sinai to appreciate the value of that construction: legislation is a divine right. But, for us, instead of choosing a human King whose will is law, we have located the source of our law in the divine itself, and made the smallest, least important members of the community – the widow, the stranger, and the orphan – our most important legislative priorities. As a matter of religious obligation we must take care of the weakest and poorest among us because God wants us to.

So now let me proceed to my second point regarding my questioner’s syllogism: he wrongly assumes that Jewish law is synonymous with Biblical law.

The Jewish legal system is founded on the Biblical text, which we call the ‘written Torah’. However, we also have a parallel legal tradition – the oral Torah. The oral Torah, according to tradition, is comprised of the laws that God taught Moses orally at the same time as transmitting the written text.

This oral text was compiled Rabbi Judah the Prince around the year 200 in our secular calendar – his document is called the Mishnah. His text attracted the rabbis’ ongoing commentary, which was compiled and redacted in the sixth century. That commentary is called the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together are called the Talmud. And that text – the Talmudic text –also received ongoing commentary as well. So, when you look at a page of Talmud, what you will see is a conversation that extends from the Biblical period to the modern day.

When you speak of Jewish law in its traditional terms – from Moses to Rabbi Judah the Prince to the Talmud – it all seems rather seamless. And it is seamless, in one sense, for it is in fact an organic growing body of work. But what is not so obvious in that narrative is the rupture that occurs in the year 70 of our secular calendar.

In the year 70, the Second Temple was destroyed. Up until that point, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.

And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos. The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.  As we read in the Bible, ‘If you observe all of My commandments, then there will be rain in its season…’ These commandments helped keep the cosmos in order.

So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.

Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?

The ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding. God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.

All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.

Which brings me to my third point: what the man who questioned us did not understand is that the Reform movement has not transcended or repudiated the law.

We do not follow its medieval interpretations: that much is indeed true.

But we have not left that ongoing conversation. In the Reform context, we take the approach that major upheavals in Jewish life – such as the destruction of the Second Temple – call for a revision in our relationship to the law. We are responding to the upheaval caused by the Enlightenment and our Emancipation.

As I mentioned earlier, Jews in the medieval period were not citizens of the state in which they lived. They were, instead, subjects of a prince or duke who would grant them a charter to live within the principality or duchy. So, if you were born into the Jewish community, you were generally unable to leave it unless you converted or became an outlaw. Or both. There were a few – Spinoza, for example – who left the community but never joined another. His was a very lonely life.

After Jews were granted emancipation in Europe – after Jews became citizens of the state in which we lived – then participation in Jewish life became voluntary. And it became possible to make a distinction between religious and secular spheres. That’s why it’s possible, for example, for me to teach Judaism at a public university without conversionary intent. The classroom at the university is secular space. Yet when I deliver a sermon, I do so in a religious sense: the sanctuary is religious space.

What the upheavals of the past two centuries mean for us is that we need Reform. We need to be able to reconsider the received tradition in light of our new understanding of the world and of ourselves.

One area, for example, in need of revision is our understanding of the non-Jews in our midst: as equal citizens, we relate to our fellow-citizens in distinctly different ways than we did in the medieval period.

And we also have extended our appreciation of equal rights into areas of Jewish law as well: we seek to protect underrepresented and minority groups within our own culture as well, such as gays and lesbians.

For us, there is a middle ground between the poles of ‘follow the commandments in their most literal form as received in the Torah’ and ‘repudiate the laws entirely.’ To be Jewish, in our view, is to be part of an ongoing conversation and an evolving legal tradition. To be Jewish is to be commanded, yes, but it is also to be engaged in an ongoing conversation with the texts.

Yitro: the 10 Commandments

January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

The language of autonomy that has dominated the Reform movement’s discussion has been a distraction from our core principles, from what has been the driving force of our religious self-understanding.

Yes, to be sure, we allow for individual choice. And yes, that should continue. It just isn’t the sum total of our religious commitments, however. Somehow we have put the emphasis on the least important part. Rather, we are indeed commanded, in the fullest religious sense.

More specifically: we are commanded to respect human dignity in all its forms. And this commandment amounts to something much deeper, grander, and more pervasive than Kant’s philosophical ethics. Kant teaches ‘treat everyone as an end rather than a means to an end.’ He also teaches the need to universalize ethics. But where his ethics really falls short – and where the Reform movement fundamentally parts ways with Kant – is regarding the question of feeding the poor.

In Kant’s view, if you have done what is right, and have attended to all of your moral duties, it is possible to walk past someone who is hungry without a thought. A sense of pity, in fact, is a moral weakness, for it might distract you from the rational calculation of your duties. As long as you yourself have not done something directly that was immoral to cause that person’s poverty, you have met your moral obligations.

We Jews say no. To the contrary: a person who is hungry is indeed a person. And leaving that person to remain hungry is to profane the very name of God.  You must act. You are commanded to act. The commandment to practice tzedakah – righteousness – that is, the commandment to engage in righteous living, to respond righteously to the challenge of hunger is a fundamental pillar of Jewish practice and belief. We differ as to the best ways to go about doing that, but you must act. You are commanded to act in response to this person, created in the image of God.

This commandment, in fact, is a point of agreement across all streams of Judaism.

Where the liberal movements part ways with the Orthodox, however, is on the question of extending that sense of human rights beyond the challenge of hunger. We Reform Jews take that commandment so seriously that we extend its reach: we are also commanded to treat persons with dignity in all other areas of life, which (among other things) means offering an equal opportunity to participate in the community.

 

Beshalach

January 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

What does it mean to be redeemed?

The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah.

What does it mean to be redeemed?

We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:

“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.” (JPS translation)

Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.

Three days later, they are complaining.

What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?

I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’

The hardest part of redemption is learning to think yourself worthy of it.

Bo

December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century.

English: Moses Maimonides, portrait, 19th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in response to the portion Va’era, I raised some questions relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This week, I wanted to investigate in greater depth Maimonides’ position on this issue.

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.  Individuals are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for their pattern of behavior.  Providence punishes (in the form of adverse outcomes) those who turn their attention away from God or cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly.  These adverse outcomes are the natural consequences of such actions.

Thus, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence. In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but the outcome should instead be understood as the natural result of the Pharaoh’s decisions.  As Maimonides explains, “…Pharaoh and his followers disobeyed by choice, without force or compusion.”[1] God does not act in the sense of causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Maimonides also acknowledges that there are verses in the Torah that “cause many to stumble and think that the Holy One – blessed be He! – has decreed that man shall do good or evil and that man’s heart is not allowed to do as he wishes.”[2] In truth, however, those passages are reporting on the cumulative effect of the individual’s evil actions: Grave sins and repeated transgressions create a barrier to repentance.

In those cases, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.  As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”[3]

“Because they continued to sin,” he writes, “repentance was withheld” and they could not break the pattern of behavior. It was not God who caused their difficulties; rather, they were the ones at fault. “Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous.  All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.”[4]  The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.


[1] Maimonides, Chapter 8 of the “Eight Chapters,” in Ethical Writings of Maimonides, p. 90.

[2] Maimondes, The Book of Knowledge, 6:1 p. 124.

[3] Ibid, 6:3, p. 124.

[4] Ibid., 6:3, p. 125.

Va’era

December 23, 2013 § 2 Comments

In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.

So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!

What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.

The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’

Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.

In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.

Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?

How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?

We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.

But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Consider the possible implications:

It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?

Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”[1]

In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.

But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?

In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.

Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.

So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.


[1] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.

 

Shemot — Names

December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Exodus 4:28   Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 

It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.

“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt.  We will go to Pharaoh – ”

“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.

“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”

Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?

Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”

And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”

Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced.  When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.

Vayechi

December 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

Theology defines what is possible in our lives: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

For many of us, our theology changes as we grow older. In Joseph’s case, his understanding of God changes and his theology improves.

In this week’s portion, for example, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

“His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They are truly afraid. But Joseph is not offended. He tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph? After experiencing a tragedy like Joseph’s, we do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild.

We also do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. And we do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook. Rather, what we need is a theology that allows us to forgive and rebuild. The best response to a tragedy is to create a world where such kinds of evil are unknown.

Then we might be able to say: what was intended as evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Vayigash

December 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

An interesting thing happened to me last week: in a single sitting I read the portion of the week (which was Miketz) and then wrote a commentary on it — yet (without realizing it) I focused on the material in this week’s portion (Vayigash). I don’t know why that happened exactly. I could, of course, read meaning into my choice: perhaps it happened for a reason. Perhaps there was someone (me or someone else) who needed to hear that message in that week. That was, in fact, my first impulse when I started writing this week: to find some meaning in the error.

 The irony of it, however, is that my message last week counseled against reading too much meaning into random events. Perhaps, then, God has a sense of humor.

Regardless, we have this strong need, of course, to explain ourselves. We have this desire to make a narrative out of our lives, to provide context and meaning.

Whenever there is a catastrophe, for example, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.

It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, to leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.

And there is also a second position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being? Do we not have an agreement that tragedy should not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, should all stay clear of us, so long as we ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day’?

In the wake of tragedy we are often angry with God: we had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.

Why, then, should we care about theology?

What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman, or as an invisible force, or (to borrow an image from the avowedly secular) as a flying spaghetti monster? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God?

Theology defines what is possible in our lives.

To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not. In Joseph’s world, miracles do happen: God guided him to this very moment to save his family from famine.

This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.

So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?

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