I am quitting.

January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.

As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.

“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.

“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.

“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”

Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”

The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.

The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”

On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.

On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.

Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.

From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:

First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.

Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.

Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.

These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.

But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.

But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.

So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.

In this week’s portion, 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.

They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.

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

They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!

But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.

And so 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, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph?

If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.

In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.

You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.

Because you most certainly are.

Shimini — When we are wrong

March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

For whatever reason, it has been decreed in this country that pita bread must have the taste and consistency of packing foam. In Israel, however, where pita-baking is a cottage industry in its own right, pita has that sweet yeasty flavor of just-baked bread. 

What is different about Israeli pita is the oven that it is baked in: it is a large unglazed ceramic globe, standing as tall as a man, with hot wood fire at the bottom. 

To bake the bread, small flat pancakes of dough are slapped to the inside wall of the oven, like doughy starfish. When the dough peels itself off the side of the oven, the bread is done.

A skillful baker will know this moment instinctually and place his wooden oar under it to catch its fall. If you wait at the bakery in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, you can buy a dozen of them right from the oven. 

I’m afraid that this week’s Torah portion, however, does not mention the sweet satisfaction of pita bread. Rather, it relates to an unpleasant surprise you might find one morning if you are tasked with the care and use of these ovens: what happens when a small animal crawls inside one of these ovens and dies? Might you still be able to use the oven?

According to the biblical law, the answer would be no.

“The following shall be unclean for you from among the things that swarm on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and great lizards of every variety; the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. Those are for you the unclean among all the swarming things… And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break… Everything on which the carcass of any of them falls shall be unclean: an oven or stove shall be smashed. They are unclean and unclean they shall remain for you.”

That’s the rule: an earthenware vessel must be smashed – no exceptions.

Yet, being as these ovens are enormous, they cannot be cheap to make. Finding a dead creepy-crawly in one of these ovens would likely be a crushing loss.

It would preferable, then, to discover an option that does not involve destroying an entire oven. What if, for example, the oven is made in a different fashion – what if it is one of those new-fangled tiled ovens, like what is used for bread-baking in Europe – then what happens if it houses an unwelcome swarming thing?  Maybe you could cut the bad part out and leave the rest of the oven intact? 

The Talmud has a rather fanciful explanation for how the matter was decided. 

“It has been taught” in tractate Bava Metzia, that “on that day” when this issue was decided by the sages, “Rabbi Eliezer brought forth every imaginable argument,” as to why a tiled oven could be made clean again, but the sages “did not accept them” and ruled that it should be destroyed, just like a pita oven. 

Said Rabbi Eliezer to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’  Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – and some say, four hundred cubits.  ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.”

“Again he said to them: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!  Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards.  ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.”

“Again he urged: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the walls of this academy prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined inward to fall.  But Rabbi Joshua rebuked” the walls, “saying, ‘When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute, what right have you to interfere?’  Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they become upright again, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.” 

Again Rabbi Eliezar said to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters, Jewish law agrees with him?’ But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven!’”

“What did he mean by this?  — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice,” instead it says that we should ‘follow the majority.’ 

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah, who is the prophet who never died but instead wanders the earth and speaks with rabbis. And Rabbi Nathan asked him, “‘What did the Holy One, the one who is blessed, do in that hour?’ Elijah responded: ‘He laughed, saying ‘My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!’”

It’s a fanciful story, rather unexpected, and quite funny. We should assume, of course, that the rabbis knew full well that carob trees do not uproot themselves. I also suspect that it is not a coincidence that this story is structured like a fairy-tale, with three examples. Like ‘three bears’ or ‘three wishes’ or any other group of three in the fairy-tale genre, here we have the three proofs, the carob tree, the stream, and the walls of the academy. 

After this triad comes the climax of the story:

“On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in a fire.  Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.”

Though in modern times we don’t normally practice it, Jewish law does allow for excommunication.  It’s actually a form of shunning; it can be done for a specified period of time or done indefinitely, but it ends when the person has repented. So, we learn, the sages excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer even though he was quite right about the oven. But why would they want to do that?  

Let me fill in the background, and tell you the backstory: the rabbis are living in exile, in the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, and they are worried about survival. Rabbi Eliezer was defying the majority in his obstinacy.

Because he was always right about these kinds of things – that is to say, if a voice where ever to come down from heaven to weigh in on an argument, it would surely back his position – he therefore had the kind of personal prestige that could create a genuine rift in the rabbinic world, one which the sages feared could be fatal to the fledgling community.

So they had their reasons for excommunicating him. They were afraid. And they let their fears get the best of them.

Said the sages, “‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered Rabbi Akiba,” a highly-respected scholar, “‘Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy his whole world.’ What did Rabbi Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits” from Rabbi Eliezer.  “‘Akiba,’ said Rabbi Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened today?’  ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that your companions are shunning you.’”

Thereupon Rabbi Eliezer “tore his garment,” as a sign of mourning, “and put off his shoes and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.” It is a heartbreaking reaction – clearly Rabbi Eliezer had only been seeking the truth, not trying to tear the community asunder.

It would seem to me, then, that even if the community had a very good reason for its actions – and ensuring the survival of the community would qualify as a good reason – it does not have the right to wound an individual in this manner.

We see a similar situation in this week’s portion as well. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu made a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

Shortly thereafter, however, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task:

Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’”

In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ rebuke. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things: ‘See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’”

If you are paying close attention to the text, you can visualize Aaron rolling his eyes when Moses is speaking: ‘Really, Moses? Really? I just lost two sons, and you’re worried about how, when and where the goat of the sin offering was burned?’

Moses is a mensch, of course, and knows when to let it drop. He admits that he is wrong: ‘Yes, Aaron, you’re exactly right. I have forgotten what’s most important.’ As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

Disputes will arise, of course, and well-meaning people of good faith will disagree. But what we learn from our Torah portion this week is that we have a responsibility to be gentle with each other, even when we are right – and most especially when we are wrong about being right.

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.

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.

According to the Laws of Moses and All Israel

December 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

A little while back, I had a conversation on Facebook with a friend of mine that lasted for most of a week. He and I went to elementary school together; his father was one of my math teachers in high school. He is a fundamentalist Christian; from his perspective, in the Bible the narrative of Adam and Eve teaches us that marriage should only be defined as one man and one woman.

I am not intending to discuss here the political or social aspects of single-gender marriage, or debate whether it is a good idea or not. Rather, I would like to focus more narrowly on the Biblical question: Specifically, is my friend’s view correct? Does the Hebrew Bible solely advocate a one-man/one-woman love match?

Based on my studies of the Bible, I think that he is quite wrong. Tonight I would like to explain why.

In this week’s Torah portion, in the midst of the Joseph story, we hear of Judah and his three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah arranges for his oldest son to marry Tamar. When he dies because he has displeased the Lord, Judah arranges for Tamar to marry the second son, Onan. And he, too, dies for the same reason: As the text states directly, he also displeased the Lord.

By the logic of the Biblical culture in which Tamar lives, she should then marry the third son, who would provide her with the male heir to her dead husband’s estate. She needs this heir to be properly cared for in her old age. This arrangement, called a ‘levirate marriage’ also figures prominently in the story of Ruth. After the woman produces an heir, the pair never engages in relations again.

But, when the time comes for Tamar to marry the third son, Judah balks. He withholds his youngest son, sending her back to her father’s home with a vague promise that he will arrange the marriage when his son is older. But he never gets around to doing so. Perhaps he thinks that she is killing the sons; perhaps he believes that she is bad luck; perhaps his youngest son has begged him not to go through with it. So he continues to stall.

Judah’s other option, of course is to release her from his family. That is, he can cut her free from the obligation to marry the youngest son, so that she might marry someone else. The ritual for that release involves the removal of a sandal and making a declaration in front of the elders at the gate. But that is a dishonorable thing to do in his culture, because it means that his first son, her first husband, will never have an heir. That particular outcome is in fact so unwelcome that it is used as a curse: May you die without heirs.

Stuck, Judah does nothing: He condemns her to the lengthy wait and denies her the ability to move forward with her life.

But Tamar is not one to wait. She tricks him by wearing a veil and pretending to be a woman of ill repute. And when he falls for the trick, she takes his rod and staff as pledge for payment, and then disappears.

Months later, the fruit of her deception becomes known: Word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Indignant (and perhaps relieved that he may be rid of her) he demands that she be burned. She was promised to his third son – it was an engagement, after all – and her pregnancy during this period of engagement qualifies as adultery.

But when she appears, she provides him with his rod and staff, and explains that the owner of these items is the father of the child. At that point, seeing his own symbols of power handed back to him, he exclaims, “She is more righteous than I.”

Why does he say that? Filtered through our modern lens, we assume that his declaration has to do with his own infidelity.

But in context, the real infidelity is his unwillingness to allow her to provide an heir for his first son. This question of lineage is of paramount concern to the Biblical writer, and Judah simply has not provided sufficient attention to his family’s line. Tamar understands this situation much better than he does. She also realizes that Judah himself is also able to fulfill the duty of providing an heir, and sets a process in motion by which that might happen.

And here we see one of the ways marriage has changed since the time of the Bible: Tamar had indeed operated within the bounds of the Biblical law. Her actions were not only legally acceptable, but also morally appropriate in the context of her culture.

And she is not the only one in the Biblical narrative to engage in this kind of levirate marriage arrangement, achieved through less-than-obvious means. In the story of Ruth, for example, we see a similar kind of situation; when Ruth is in need of a levirate marriage, she creeps in quietly in the darkness of night to lay herself down and cover herself with the cloak of Boaz as he sleeps on the threshing-room floor. He is the man who can redeem her and provide her with a much-needed heir to support her and her former mother-in-law Naomi. After their encounter, he fills her apron with grain, and she waddles home to Naomi with a rounded belly, an apron full of seed.

Marriage in the Biblical context is a legal and economic agreement, for the purposes of securing the orderly transition of land from one generation to the next, and for the purposes of seeing to it that all grown women are assigned to a man’s care. You don’t want it to happen that a widow is vulnerable to being cut loose from the estate without any means of support. Loose women, after all, are trouble.

In the case of Ruth, the narrative bestows upon her a very high honor: she gives birth to a son, who in turn becomes part of the lineage of the house of David.

In the case of Tamar, the narrative bestows upon her an even higher honor: she gives birth to twin sons. And one of those sons, in turn, becomes the other grandfather in the lineage of the house of David.

In other words, the Biblical world actually approves of their illicit affairs – a situation that is a far cry from the one-man/one-woman life pairing that the Bible is supposed to be teaching us. The institution of marriage has indeed changed since the time of the Bible.

Our current understanding of marriage – the idea that it is created on the basis of a love match between two people who share their hopes and dreams together, who build a life on the basis of mutual respect – that particular concept of the nuptial union is entirely foreign to the Biblical world.

That is not to say that the people of the time of the Bible were indifferent to love. To the contrary, the union of Isaac and Rebecca is an example of how it might be possible to create a marriage out of two people who are very much in love.

But recall also that their marriage was arranged even before they had met.

Recall also that their son Jacob married two sisters who were also rivals. In his household, the sisters engaged in a protracted baby war, using concubines and their own fertility as weapons in the struggle for dominance. And Jacob went along for the ride.

Our idea of romantic love has its roots in the medieval period. Prior to that point, marriages were made on the basis of a negotiation between two men; in the Biblical world, that negotiation would take place between the potential suitor or his representative and the girl’s father or brother. I say ‘girl’ because marriages were arranged young, just at the point that the girl is able to bear children herself.

And marriage could even be arranged in the wake of violence – such as when a man took a woman as a captive – in order to see to it that she was not cast aside after he had damaged her reputation. The father or brothers might then negotiate with her captor to arrange for her marriage, to provide for her future. They might then overlook the fact that he had done violence to her. He could indeed marry her against her will.

Marriage, in that time and place, established who had responsibility for whom. Its rules saw to it that no one should be left out in the cold. It saw to it that widows had a way to gain title to the land, and that every child could be assigned to a specific household. It also arranged for the woman to be given a significant sum of money if she were to be divorced. The people of the Biblical world accomplished this set of goals in a very public way, in a formal ritual before the elders at the gate, so that none of it could be disputed. For those cases that would fall through the cracks, they had the Biblical decree that you must care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. No one should be left on the streets.

Marriage was one ritual among many that established who was responsible for whom.

So, yes, I am indeed happy that our definition of marriage has changed; I am not so sure I would have wanted my brother to be in charge of my dowry. And I have indeed found a loving partner in my husband. And I am rather glad that I do not have to share him with another wife.

But beyond the question of marriage, there is something else of great interest here in our weekly portion: Much of the narrative of Judah and Tamar invokes imagery of seeing/not-seeing, of being veiled and of being revealed, of the appearance of reality and of the reality of appearance. Even the location of the action – Petach Enayim – means ‘the opening of the eyes.’

Up until Judah’s declaration, he had not thought of Tamar as a person in her own right. She was a problem to be resolved, just another one of the many people under his care. He does not ‘see’ her. He is not aware of the burden of waiting, of the suppression of desire that she must endure, of the uncertainty of her future. Her full reality – the lived experience of her life – has no meaning to him.

It was not until she confronted him with the tangible evidence of his not-seeing-her that he realizes his blindness: She has achieved something of great value to him without his cooperation. She wears a veil before her eyes, yet he is the one that does not see; he is the one who may go out and visit the wide open places, yet she, cloistered in her tent, is the one with the foresight to see what is on the horizon.

The experience of the one who is suppressed – in this case, the woman who has no power in her own right – is not visible to the one who controls the situation. He is not able to see the effects of his decisions (or lack of decision) on her daily life, and he is not able (at least at the outset) to feel empathy for her plight. All is well in his world; why would it not also be so in hers?

But sometimes what is most needed in order to effect change is the tangible proof of oppression. In this narrative, Judah suddenly ‘sees’ her, in her full humanity, and renounces his power over her life, and frees her.

In that sense, the story of Tamar offers the hope that the force of the dominant power might suddenly give way to genuine understanding. What was once invisible is now seen. Not just seen, but acknowledged as fully human and fully righteous, and deserving of care and concern.

So, we should ask ourselves: Who are the veiled ones in our community, the persons who are not fully seen? Whom in our society do we treat as if they were one more problem to be solved rather than persons deserving of empathy and respect.

In other words, despite all of the condemnations of same-gender relations in the Bible, and despite the historically-inaccurate claim that the Bible only supports a one-man/one-woman view of marriage, I think that a much stronger case can be made that the Bible fundamentally cares about the needs of the silent, the invisible, and the oppressed. In my view, the Bible advocates that we see the silent suffering and respond to their distress.

I do believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, but not for the usual reasons. The Bible is deeper, wilder, and stranger than we might suspect. It loves contradictions, seeks out tensions, and resists our desire to collapse it into neat categories. Where we might want to write a nicer, smoother account of humanity, it is aware of our full range of existence. It can certainly be misused, but I cannot shake the sense that it is the truest word of God when it tells us: Do not hurt one another. You should know the heart of the stranger; you, too, have been found hurting and strange. Empathize and respond.

Getting Lucky

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

Abraham wishes to find a wife for his son Isaac, and sends his servant to find one among his kinsmen. Approaching the well near where Abraham’s kinsmen dwell, the servant stops and says a prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”[1]

It is a rather odd prayer: He is asking to be lucky.

As the Medieval commentator Abravanel comments: “If the servant relied on Divine Providence and for that reason prayed to [God], how could he invoke the workings of chance and ask [God] to engineer a coincidence when these are two mutually exclusive categories? What happens through the workings of Providence cannot be termed chance or coincidence.”[2]

“Moreover,” our more contemporary commentator and teacher Nehama Leibowitz adds, “is it conceivable for one who believed in Divine Providence to accept the existence of such a thing as ‘chance’ and even go so far as to request that the Almighty…to prepare such a situation?”[3]

Either God is in charge of all of these small details, arranges things to happen the way they do, and therefore it is no coincidence, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck – or – God is not in charge of these details, and does not make such things happen, in which case it makes no sense to pray for good luck.

There’s a third option, one that Leibowitz proposes: “Abraham’s servant entreated the Almighty as the Prime Mover behind all things to arrange that matters should work out in accordance with his desires.”[4]

In other words, there is luck – God is not a micromanager – but ultimately it was God who created the situation in the first place.

I think that these points would be clearer if we use the metaphor of a casino:

Option 1 is that the game is rigged, and you are asking the casino owner to load the dice in your favor. Except then it is no longer a game of chance. This is what’s called a deterministic universe, in that the outcome is determined in advance. The notion of divine Providence requires at least some amount of determinism in order to work.

Option 2 is that the game is not rigged, and the casino owner is not able to intervene. You get what you get. In that case, it’s not particularly useful to ask the owner to load the dice for you.  This is what we mean when we speak of free will: you pay your money and take your chances. And you get what you get. Free will requires that the outcome is not determined in advance. In order for it to be a real choice, either outcome must be possible. And therefore not already determined.

Option 3 is that the game is not usually rigged, but under special circumstances it’s possible to load the dice, if you should ask the casino owner nicely.  This is what we mean when we use the phrase “Special Providence.” Most of the time the rules are in place, but God can intervene as needed.

I use the imagery of a casino for a reason: Most of us would prefer that we had the power to rig the game. Or rather, that we had the power to convince the casino owner to rig the game in our favor.

Yet, at the heart of it, the rigged game is not just or fair, is it?

Can justice flourish if the game is rigged so that the good always win?

And would you want to participate in a system where what is good is defined exclusively by what the casino owner likes? Let us hope that it is a benevolent casino owner. Most of us would prefer that there was some benchmark, some absolute by which goodness could be measured, rather than having to bend to the caprice of another.

Okay, so let’s agree that God is infinitely good, unlike our hypothetical casino owner, and God is also just, and fair – and let’s say that the notion of God’s goodness is used as the benchmark. Would it work to have the game that is rigged in favor of those who were good, as God is good in an absolute sense?

But now you have another problem: are the ones who are being good really actually being good – or are they merely being prudent?

For example, imagine a cashier at that casino with a cashbox that will be audited at the end of the shift. If the cashier gives you correct change and does not cheat you, is the cashier doing what is right because it is indeed right, or is the cashier merely doing what is necessary to keep out of trouble?

If you know that the cashbox will be audited, and that there are indeed consequences when it is not kept accurate, then it is simply foolish to give incorrect change, except by unconscious mistake.

Interestingly, my friend the Christian fundamentalist believes that people will only do what is right if they know that their behavior is being judged. The cashier with the cashbox, in his opinion, gives correct change only if it is well-known and well-established hat the cashbox will be audited.

I tend to disagree with him about that, but I am also an optimist by nature.

But let’s return to our example: For the game to be fair, it can’t be rigged – right? You pay your money, you take your chances, and you get what you get.

So let’s look again at the servant and his prayer: why would he be asking the casino owner to bring him luck, if the game is not rigged? As if the casino owner could help! And if the casino owner can help, then why ask for luck? You ask instead for a good outcome. The casino owner has no power over ‘luck’. Luck is not helpful here.

This paradox is precisely why some commentators (including me) prefer to read the servant’s statement as a test rather than a prayer: He is calling out to God to be a witness, not a guarantor.

The servant’s camel request is actually somewhat annoying and difficult to accomplish. The young woman is to bring water for him and for all ten of his camels as well. That’s a lot of water – a lot more than what can be carried on her shoulder. The laws of hospitality require that she give a drink to a stranger – so the first part of his test is one of basic civility – but as for watering his camels, well, he’s on his own.

So he’s seeking out a woman who will go out of her way help more than is required of her – and who is strong enough to do it. He has, after all, ten camels with him, and every one of them can drink several troughs full.

To give some Biblical background: In the Biblical stories, the extent of a person’s hospitality is considered a reliable indicator of a person’s character. For example, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah are considered wicked because they wish to inflict harm on strangers in their city. Abraham is considered righteous because he immediately extends hospitality to the three strangers that appear at his encampment – he runs to serve them. And the refrain ‘be good to the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt’ appears repeatedly in the Exodus narratives.

So the servant is looking for a righteous woman, and a strong one, and (interestingly enough) one who will talk to strangers. And he indeed finds her in the person of Rebecca.

Though the Bible does not say that his request (or prayer, or test) was fulfilled by God, the narrative gives us that sense: no sooner than he had finished speaking did she appear. And not only does she fulfill the requirements by offering to give him water and to water his camels as well, but it says repeatedly that she hurried to do so. And she does so with such graciousness and charm that she must have seemed heaven-sent.

Still, we need to be careful here. If we accept that this woman is sent out by God in fulfillment of the servant’s prayer, then we also have to accept those times when she does not appear, when the prayer does not work, when things don’t work out right.

This date is also the date of Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazis’ reign of terror against the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Do we blame God for that one too?

Let’s then go back to our casino example: if the game is fair, then it is not rigged. We don’t automatically win. That only happens when we are small children and our parents indulge us.

Good does not always win – but it should. It is a moral imperative that we make that happen, that we engage with the universe and see to it that it is fair and just. The game is not rigged – but somehow the outcome matters, and it matters greatly. Which is, of course, where the casino metaphor breaks down.

Because, of course, we are not merely throwing dice. The outcome matters greatly.

So let’s look for a moment at a different kind of prayer, at the Misheberach, the prayer for healing. The phrase ‘misheberach’ means ‘the One who blesses’ – may the One who blesses, who blessed our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca Rachel and Leah, heal this person.

Is this prayer some kind of foolishness? Certainly not. But are we not asking for something that cannot happen? Are we not asking for God to intervene to create a favorable outcome.

Not exactly. When we try to get God to do our will, that is called theurgy. Theurgy is a fancy word for magic. We are trying to cast a spell that will cause the Godhead to do our bidding. The Misheberach prayer is not theurgy; it is not magic.

Nor are we invoking it to say that we think that this illness is some kind of test, in the sense of ‘if we pass this test, then we will be righteous.’

Rather, it is a statement of outcomes. It is the expression of a wish to be whole again, to be healed, the acknowledgement of our fear in the face of disease, our desire to hold on to what we love, our interest in rising above our mere flesh to have a life of meaning.

It is a request that all of the spiritual energy that is available to us – and it is considerable – be focused on the goal of healing, this one person, right now.

The servant was not praying for luck: he was praying for the ability to discern the results of his test. And we are not praying for luck: we are praying for the ability to respond in the best possible way to the challenges we face.

And that is a very real prayer, and a very powerful one.


[1] JPS translation

[2] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

[3] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit. I removed the word ‘Himself’ in order to make the phrase gender-neutral.

[4] Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

Moral Coherence

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

There is a battle between good and evil being waged in my living room. The forces of good are represented – of all things – by small plastic pirates. Evil, on the other hand, is represented by a motley group of Vikings, barbarian hordes and a handful of knights.  How it came to pass that the pirates are the forces of good – that I do not know; perhaps it’s because they have the really cool boat.

But this battle between good and evil – it’s a battle we all fight, throughout our lives, first using toys in symbolic play and later casting the various actors in our personal dramas to fulfill their assigned roles.

When we first learn to play, we require that these roles are quite rigid. When my son was five, he would get very upset with me if I would suggest that the various figures might change places. In this miniature world, genuine repentance is not allowed; the Vikings must be the bad guys – as my son would explain to me sometimes patiently sometimes not: Mommy, can’t you see he’s wearing a helmet with horns?  That means he’s a bad guy. And if I were to suggest that we could change his hat, then he would lose all patience with me.  Mommy! Don’t you know anything? That’s not how it’s played!

That’s not how it’s played. A five-year-old needs to have the bad guy remain a bad guy so that he can always be the good guy. If these categories are allowed to be flexible, then his constructed world becomes uncertain and unpredictable. The categories must stay put: in this stage of development he is simply not able to allow for any other situation.

At the age of five, naturally, he was not able to process the subtle differences between ambiguous moral positions. It is all good or all bad, entirely right or entirely wrong.  And changing the bad guy’s hat only changes him into a bad guy wearing the wrong hat.  We do not switch sides!

But that is the problem, of course: adult living is full of ambiguity and difficult choices. The choices we truly regret are those we make when we seek to define our world in the rigidly simple terms of good guys versus bad guys.

When we are completely right, and the other one is completely wrong, we are capable of committing the worst offenses. We think that our actions are fully justified. When we create this kind of dichotomy, we lose the ability to recognize our own role in the drama.  But true atonement requires that we take responsibility for our own behavior.

In the Talmud, in Yoma 86a, it explains that there are three kinds of atonement. First, it explains, “if one transgressed a positive commandment and repented,” then that person is forgiven immediately.  What qualifies as a positive commandment?  An example would be the commandment to honor your mother and father. If you have acted in a manner that was less than honorable in your relationship with your parents, then a sincere apology is sufficient to atone for your actions.  In this case, you do not need Yom Kippur to achieve forgiveness from God. Here, acknowledging that you have a responsibility that is rooted in your relationship to them is sufficient for atonement.

The second kind of atonement is for the transgression of a negative commandment – for violating the ‘thou shalt not’ commandments, such as the prohibition against stealing. In this case, “if one transgressed a negative commandment and repented, the repentance suspends [God’s] punishment and Yom Kippur atones for the sin.”

True repentance requires that the amount stolen be repaid, that the thief ask for forgiveness, and that the thief never does it again. Then, if these requirements are met, participation in the rituals of Yom Kippur atones for the sin.  Note that the rituals of Yom Kippur are communal in nature: the thief must find a way back to the community, to participate once again in communal worship. Then atonement has been achieved.

The third kind is most serious. If a person committed sins of such gravity as to be punished by death or by removal from the community – murder, for example – then “repentance and Yom Kippur suspend” God’s punishment “and suffering purges the sin.”  Here atonement is possible – but the requirements are fairly steep, even beyond serving jail time.

In this case, true repentance requires that the perpetrator asks forgiveness from those who were harmed. Thus, repentance is much harder than it sounds, for it requires taking full responsibility for your actions. That means, in the case of the murderer, facing the victim’s family and asking for forgiveness.

But that alone is insufficient – in this case, the perpetrator must also know what it means to really suffer, to be able to understand the family’s own grief. Thus, atonement is possible only after the perpetrator has made sincere repentance, participates in the rituals of Yom Kippur, and has experienced genuine suffering.

Interestingly, after listing these three kinds of atonement, the Talmudic passage then includes a caveat: “But as for one who bears the sin of desecration of the name, repentance does not have the capacity to suspend punishment, nor Yom Kippur to atone, nor suffering to purge.”

This situation is the most extreme – it requires the most difficult kind of atonement – but what exactly is meant by the phrase ‘desecration of the name’? It is when a person of authority, someone who commands the respect of the community, acts in a way that is less than honorable. It can be something small, like neglecting to pay for services rendered. But this person’s actions set the tone for the community, and are symbolic of the community’s values. Thus, the desecration of the name of God occurs when a leader violates the trust of the community by acting in a manner contrary to its values.

In other words, this passage explains why we are so outraged when our leaders commit sins that would be tolerable in lesser people.  Leadership – whether it is political leadership, intellectual leadership, or spiritual leadership – includes the added symbolic role of representing the moral voice of the community.

To give an example, the philosopher Martin Heidegger may be held morally responsible for his membership in the Nazi party, even if it was for purely political motives, because as a leading philosopher he was a symbolic exemplar. His participation helped to give Nazism a sheen of respectability for the German populace.  To the Talmud’s way of thinking, what he did was worse than murder – because his endorsement helped to make murder seem acceptable.

In this case, when a leader has sinned, then the Talmud argues that the leader must engage in the process of repentance and atonement and do so in the context of community, including attending Yom Kippur services. But, even after doing so, this sin follows the perpetrator for the length of his or her life. As the Talmud explains, only “death purges the sin,” as it says in the Bible, “This sin will not be atoned for you until you die.” Some things follow you always.

So, for example, this special burden of leadership means that former President Clinton will always be fair game for adultery jokes on late-night TV, all the way up to the date of his death, regardless of the amount of repentance, suffering, and atonement that takes place during his life. A leader is held to a higher standard.

In the Bible, parents are singled out as recipients of honor for a very specific reason – they are the persons of the greatest symbolic importance to us. Which is why a parent who lets us down is also the hardest for us to forgive. For the child, the parent represents the forces of good, serves as the model for good behavior, and provides the guidelines for creating moral coherence. Failing to do so, or violating the trust that is inherent in the parental role, destabilizes the child’s moral foundation. That sin – the failure to properly fulfill the parental role – may be repented and atoned for but it is truly purged only at the end of the parent’s life, because it is only then that the child can fully mourn what was lost.

What is interesting here is that this higher standard of behavior for parents is needed is for the very same reason as to why my son’s toys cannot switch sides. The little plastic pirates are the symbolic exemplars of the forces of good, much in the same way a leader is symbolic of the forces of good. What my son is playacting is our need for our rulers to be honorable and morally upright. This need originates in the dynamics of our relationship with our parents, and is acted out with our toys. As our horizons broaden, it is applied to the greater world. It is only in our later years that we are able to accept that the forces of evil may repent.

In other words, we have a strong need for moral coherence. We need to know that good is good and bad is bad. We need the people around us – particularly those who have the greatest symbolic importance – to act in an honorable manner. And if they have not acted honorably, the need for atonement reaches beyond mere repentance and ritual activity; we need to have the world set right again. Rarely, of course, are people all good or all bad. But we are much better equipped to accept this spectrum of behavior in persons who are not invested with the responsibility of maintaining the moral coherence of our world.

And what if we ourselves have been less than honorable? What do we do if we are the ones who have sinned? The common theme running through the Talmudic description of various kinds of atonement is the requirement that we ask for forgiveness of those who have been harmed. And we must sincerely vow never to do it again. Then, having done this work, we may ask for forgiveness of God and experience the healing power of true atonement.

And in so doing, we discover the true function of Yom Kippur: we are here to assert  moral coherence by affirming that there is justice in this world – even when that sense of justice has been violated. We are affirming that what has been wronged can be made right again.

 

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

“She is more righteous than I”

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Judah Gives his Signet, Bracelets and Staff in...

Judah Gives his Signet, Bracelets and Staff in Pledge to Tamar (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a Bible story that we do not often hear told because it is not for the ears of children. It is the story of Tamar, the first Tamar, and her relationship with her father-in-law Judah.

Tamar marries one of Judah’s sons, and the son dies; she marries a second son and the second son dies. By the logic of the biblical culture in which she lives, she should then marry the third son, who would impregnate her and provide her with the male heir to her dead husband’s estate. She also needs this heir to be properly cared for in her old age. This arrangement, called a ‘levirate marriage,’ also figures prominently in the story of Ruth. After the woman produces an heir, the pair never engages in relations again.

But, when the time comes for Tamar to marry the third son, Judah balks. He withholds his youngest son, sending her back to her father’s home with a vague promise that he will arrange the marriage when his son is older. But he never gets around to doing so: perhaps he thinks that she is killing the sons; perhaps he believes that she is bad luck; perhaps his youngest son has begged him not to go through with it. So he continues to stall.

Judah’s other option, of course is to release her from his family. That is, he can cut her free from the obligation to marry the youngest son, so that she might marry someone else. But that is a dishonorable thing to do in his culture, because it means that his first son, her first husband, will never have an heir.

Stuck, Judah does nothing: he condemns her to the lengthy wait and denies her the ability to move forward with her life.

But Tamar is not one to wait. She tricks Judah into impregnating her unknowingly by wearing a veil and pretending to be a prostitute. She takes his rod and staff as pledge for payment, and then disappears.

Months later, the fruit of her deception becomes known: word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Indignant (and perhaps relieved that he may be rid of her) he demands that she be burned. She was promised to his third son – it was an engagement, after all – and her pregnancy by another man during this period of engagement qualifies as adultery.

But when she appears, she provides him with his rod and staff, and explains that the owner of these items is the father. At that point, he exclaims, “She is more righteous than I.”

Why does he say that? Filtered through our modern lens, we assume that his declaration has to do with his own infidelity with regard to the prostitution.

But in context, the real infidelity here is his unwillingness to allow her to provide an heir for his first son. This question of lineage is of paramount concern, and he has not provided sufficient attention to his family’s line. She understands this situation better than he does. She also realizes that Judah is also able to fulfill the duty of providing an heir, and sets a process in motion by which that might happen.

And here we see how much has changed since the time of the Bible: she had indeed operated within the bounds of the biblical law, despite her ruse and despite her prostitution.

The narration then bestows upon her the highest honor available to the biblical woman: she gives birth to twin sons. And that line, in turn, becomes the lineage of the house of David. Even beyond Judah’s declaration that she is more righteous than he is, she is also greatly rewarded for her efforts.

I mention this story for a couple of reasons. The first is to highlight how biblical assumptions are much different than our own; we would condemn her willingness to resort to trickery, her intention to seduce her father-in-law, and her decision to play the harlot. But her reward – and Judah’s response to her pregnancy – each demonstrate that our first impressions would be wrong. We should note here (and note well!) that the biblical concept of marriage is very different than our own institution in its current form. That’s a theme I intend to return to later.

But what prompted this retelling of the story is a different issue entirely.

Much of the narrative invokes imagery of seeing/not-seeing, of being veiled and of being revealed, of the appearance of reality and of the reality of appearance. Even the location of the action – Petach Enayim – means ‘the opening of the eyes.’

Up until Judah’s declaration, he had not thought of her as a person in her own right. She was a problem to be resolved, just another one of the many people under his care. He does not ‘see’ her. He is not aware of the burden of waiting, of the suppression of desire that she must endure, of the uncertainty of her future. Her full reality – the lived experience of her life – has no meaning to him.

It was not until she confronted him with the tangible evidence of his not-seeing-her that he realizes his blindness: She has achieved something of great value to him without his cooperation. She wears a veil before her eyes, yet he is the one that does not see; he is the one who may go out and visit the wide open places, yet she, cloistered in her tent, is the one with the foresight to see what is on the horizon.

The experience of the one who is suppressed – in this case, the woman who has no power in her own right – is not visible to the one who controls the situation. He is not able to see the effects of his decisions (or lack of decision) on her daily life, and he is not able (at least at the outset) to feel empathy for her plight. All is well in his world; why would it not also be so in hers?

But sometimes what is most needed in order to effect change is the tangible proof of oppression. In this narrative, Judah suddenly ‘sees’ her, in her full humanity, and renounces his power over her life, freeing her.

The story of Tamar offers the genuine hope that the dominant authority (in this case, the patriarchy), might suddenly give way, having gained that flash of insight as to how his actions have contributed to her plight.

But what we should pray for – and what we should work toward – is the gift of insight, the gift that we might immediately ‘see’ those around us who are hiding. Who among us must remain veiled? Who among us are not able to be visible at ‘the opening of the eyes?’ Who among us have been oppressed by our assumptions?

 

This post was drawn from my experience teaching ‘Women in the Bible’ as adjunct instructor for the Judaic Studies Department at the University of Cincinnati, using texts from Aschkenasy and Frymer-Kensky.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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