Does God Punish Us with Illnesses?
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.
As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.
When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.
Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.
But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”
And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.
Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?
In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.
And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.
I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.
What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.
Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.
Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.
Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.
And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’
Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.
What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.
In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?
Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.
And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.
The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.
Live Long and Prosper
May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I go to visit congregants who are ill or recovering, I usually give a blessing when I leave, in the form of a prayer for healing. The first part is the usual mi sheberach formula in Hebrew (‘May the One who blessed…’) and the second part is a list of the things we are hoping will happen. A blessing is more than the expression of a good wish for someone: it has an element of the transcendent in it
This week I had the good fortune to hear a scholar with an international reputation speak about issues related to this week’s Torah portion. Dr. Ruth Calderon is a Member of the Israel Knesset who was invited by the Jewish National Fund to speak about her book, A Bride for One Night.
The book is quite wonderful, and does not lack for content directly relevant to our portion this week. Since our portion this week features the priestly blessing, however, I thought that I would share with you a selection from her work regarding the High Priest and a blessing.
In her work, Dr. Calderon draws from the Talmudic text, using a compact and enigmatic story from the Talmud as the basis of her extended retelling. In this case, she is relating the story of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, who had at one time, prior to the destruction of the Temple, served as the High Priest. In the story, Rabbi Yishmael tells of an encounter with God during Yom Kippur, when God was made manifest to him as another human being. Come and hear; this is his story.
“Yishmael senses a presence. Someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest nor even like a regular human being.
“From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.
“‘Achatriel Yah Adonai Tzvaot,’ his lips murmur.
“Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes and is greeted by a stormy visage.
“‘Yishmael, my son, bless me.’ He is being addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. ‘ Yishmael’ – pronounced just as his mother would say it. ‘My son.’ This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between a father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?
“Yishmael does not understand what the One seated on the throne wants for him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest and becomes only himself. He listens. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.
“Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is showered in blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: ‘May it be Your will.’ The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.’ He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a hint of embarrassment.
“He continues: ‘And may You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’ The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael’s doubts are assuaged. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the fire pans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals, enters an outer chamber and offers a prayer, keeping it short. He does not want to worry the people outside, who will be concerned about the fate of the priest in that holiest of chambers and the holiest time of the year.
“Truly how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.”
An interesting aspect of this story is the shift from a ritual activity – the slaughter of animals – to the spoken word. According to this text, spoken blessings occurred even at the time of the Temple. And, as the story indicates, they were indeed welcomed by God. This could be a backward projection or a historical record; we do not know.
Nonetheless, the priestly blessing, a blessing that appears in the Torah, has long been a part of the liturgy of the synagogue, the institution that replaced the Temple cult. After the destruction of the Temple, the priests no longer sacrifice animals; they become, instead, the bearers of God’s blessings for the congregation.
In Reform congregations, the priestly blessing is often invoked in a sacred moment before the ark in the context of life cycle events. But it appears in a different form in more traditional contexts. Listen, for example, to the recollection of civil rights lawyer Rachel Farbiarz of its recitation in the sephardic synagogue of her youth: “At a specified time in the service,” she writes, “the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.”
“The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape.”
The ‘v-shape’ she mentions is one that any fan of Star Trek will recognize: Leonard Nemoy, also Jewish, adapted this hand-sign for use in a Vulcan blessing, ‘live long and prosper.’ What looks like a v-shape, however, is actually a different letter entirely. The ‘v’ is created with the pointer finger and middle finger on one side and the ring finger and pinky finger on the other. However, if you include the thumb, the fingers form the three arms of the Hebrew letter shin, the letter that appears on all mezzuzot, those little boxes we hang on doorposts. The letter references one of the names of God. Like the mezzuzot, the priests become the vessels for conveying God’s omnipresent blessing.
Ms. Farbiarz continues: “the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.”
Note a key difference between this blessing and the one relayed by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha: this one is not done face-to-face, in a direct encounter. As she explains: “I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers.” One is expected to look away and not gaze upon this source of holiness.
Ms. Farbiarz has an interesting explanation for the reason why the blessing is chanted in this manner: “I have always suspected,” she writes, “that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other. The tented shawls, the downcast gazes, shield the community from the inevitable psychological contortions that easily transform a blessing into an act that underscores the hierarchy between blesser and blessed.”
Thus, in her view, this practice democratizes the distribution of blessing: “The kohanim cannot see those upon whom they confer God’s blessing and the congregation cannot identify the priests who have done so. Rather than simply given or received, the blessing is instead resident within a community of both givers and receivers.” There is no intermediary here.
Taken together, these two stories point to the fundamental paradox of blessing: in one sense the giving of a blessing is very much an interpersonal event, a face-to-face encounter with the other.
Yet, at the same time, giving a blessing is a profoundly transcendent act, otherworldly in its content, metaphysical in its transmission, for it references the Holy One of blessing.
May you experience shabbat peace.
 Ruth Calderon, “Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me,” A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales translated by Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), pp. 141-2.
 Rachel Farbiarz, “Birkat Kohanim: Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?” in http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/naso_ajws3.shtml
What counts most?
May 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
This week’s Torah portion is all about counting: taking a census of the Israelites as they head toward the Promised Land. At first blush, a census does not seem to be the most interesting topic. For most of us, it’s right up there with accounting rules and seating charts.
Hear, for example, Eli Horowitz’s reflection on this portion: “The Bible is, of course, full of excitement: fighting and feasts and sex and weird food rules and weird sex rules. It’s a real page-turner, no doubt. But amid those rollicking good times, every now and then there’s a…pause. A moment of reflection, or a meditation on core values – or, in this case, the logistical procedure for a regional census, followed by detailed results of said census and also some discussion of campground zoning.”
“Of course, that’s just a rough summary,” he continues. “The actual text gets much juicier. I mean, this census isn’t going to just organize itself, is it? Of course not, and don’t worry – the Lord has thought of everything. For example, you were probably wondering who was going to help Moses and Aaron count the members of the Asher clan; well that’d be Ocran’s son Pagiel.”
He admits that the portion is probably “sounding a little dull” and, as a result, he finds that he is “left looking for lessons, the essential truths at the heart of this seemingly mundane recitation.”
That would make two of us. What should we make of this accounting?
In the case of Horowitz, he asks a series of rhetorical questions: “Does this passage teach us the benefits of taking stock, counting up who we are and what we have? Or is it, perhaps, a meditation on neighborhood dynamics, urban planning, the diverse roles that make up a community? Maybe. It’s possible,” he writes. 
But he doesn’t sound convinced: “Maybe, “ he writes, “what we’re reading here is just a reminder that sometimes things are a little…boring. Some days you might find yourself spending hours rearranging your living room, or alphabetizing your record albums, or choosing which among your children will serve as specialized ark-porters.” Sometimes life involves rather dull moments, it seems.
But I find that I am not so moved by this description. My own sense, based on my own lived experience, is that even the mundane moments have the potential to be transcendent. The rearranging might give you a new view on things. The alphabetizing might reacquaint you with who you were when you bought those albums. The choosing among your children forces a re-examination of your relationship with them.
Many of us, in fact, find greater resonance in the mystic viewpoint: the mystics hold that the world is suffused with meaning, a glorious transcendence that we, on rare occasions, are most privileged to witness.
In search of such meaning, then, perhaps I could tell you a few small facts: Did you know that when counting a minyan — the ten Jews needed for a quorum to pray — that it is traditional not to count each person but to say ‘not one,’ ‘not two’ and so on? Or, alternatively, to use a prayer or verse that has ten words in it, assigning each person a word in the verse until the quorum is reached?
The reason for this custom of not-counting reaches back to this week’s Torah portion: Jews are only to be counted when God asks for a census; to do so otherwise might lead to a plague. We may number our days — as the Psalmist exhorts us — but we may not number our Jews, at least not until God says so.
Yet, of course, we want to. Counting defines our reality: to not count is to not be present, to not be noticed, whereas ‘to count’ is to matter.
This issue is precisely why Reform Jews and other liberal denominations count women in the minyan: the women need to matter as much as the men. The women should also be counted, noticed, and heard. The men are not the only ones who ‘count’ in our congregation.
And further, we find that we want to count our households. We need to have an accurate count for the purposes of budgeting and planning. Our congregation’s size also determines the rate of dues for the Union for Reform Judaism. We need to know who’s in and who’s out, who has moved and who has stayed invested in our community.
In that sense, then, it seems most appropriate that we encounter this portion in the week immediately preceding our annual meeting. This coming Wednesday is the date of our annual census: we number our households and take a vote on the basis of that number, setting the bounds of our budget, and defining the congregation’s priorities.
And in that context, an accurate count will define what we can and cannot do: we need to know what is in the bank accounts, how many households will contribute to our shared community, and what kinds of dreams we may dream.
Yet even more is at stake than that. This week is, in fact, a big week for us, for you and for me, for we are entering into a longer-term contract together.
What that means, of course, is that our reality will change. My role has already shifted in the past few months, changing bit by bit as the congregation looks out over a long stretch of unbroken time with the same rabbi.
These days, I am less and less of a logistical administrator and more and more of a spiritual leader. These days, I am called on for more and more pastoral care. That’s wonderful news, really, and I am honored to serve.
It is, at the core of it, an expression of trust: I’ll be here for you when it counts.
 Eli Horowitz, “B’midbar (‘In the Desert’),” Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, Roger Bennett, ed. (New York: Workman Publishing, 2013), pp. 244-5.
From Generation to Generation
March 28, 2014 § 1 Comment
Recently, I was teaching the Introduction to Judaism course at SUNY Plattsburgh. The subject was ‘Jewish ideas of redemption’ and the reading had touched on how things changed in Israel in 1967.
‘What happened in 1967?’ I asked them.
I smiled. ‘Please don’t tell me that’s when your parents were born.’
One student raised his hand: ‘My dad was born in 1967,’ he ventured.
For those who lived through it, 1967 was a watershed year. That year was the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured territories in Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.
But for the students in college right now, it is ancient history, an event that took place around the time when their parents were born. Think of a major historical event that took place around the time when your parents were born, and you have some sense of their relationship to it. It’s rather remote.
This experience had me thinking about something I had read: as you might recall, two weeks ago, I wrote about the Vern Bengtson’s book, Families and Faith, which is a scholarly multi-generational study of the transmission of faith from one generation to the next. In his work, he also summarized the differences between generations in their views on religion. It was fascinating, which is why I wanted to share it with you.
In one of the chapters, Bengtson gives insight into how each generation is molded by the events that it experiences in its formative years. And it really explains a lot. The kids in college today don’t remember how vulnerable Israel was prior to the Six-Day War. They don’t share that sense of miraculous deliverance. For them, the outcome is already preordained and cannot end any other way. And that changes how they relate to Israel.
So let’s walk through Bengtson’s work, to find out what’s unique about each generation, and to see what else is of interest [all of the quotes that appear below are from Chapter 2, “Religion and Spirituality Across Generations,” pages 21-53.]:
The first group is the WWI Generation (born 1890-1915)
According to Bengtson, this group does not talk much about God; religion is a given part of their experience, but not something that’s regularly discussed. As Bengtson writes, “Each of the elderly members of the WWI generation we interviewed expressed a firm belief in God or a higher power, yet many struggled to articulate their beliefs.” However, he explains, “despite such difficulties in articulating their beliefs, several members of the WWI cohort described their faith in God as being strengthened by evidence they find in everyday life, especially in the natural world.” This group, for example, would be the most likely to enjoy a sermon about feeling close to God while gardening.
Interestingly, he writes, “Beyond social value, it was difficult for members of this generation to articulate the role of religion in their lives.” When they attend, they are here for the community.
The next group is the Depression Era (born 1916-1931)
“Members of the Depression Era generation,” Bengtson writes, “came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Nearly all of those we interviewed reflected on the impact of one or both of these events on their lives, noting the great sacrifices made by their families and the resulting ethic of hard work, patriotism, practicality, and thrift.” I would bet, on this basis, that this generation is the one that bought the flags for the bimah, born out of a sense of gratitude to the two nations represented here for having provided a safe place to live.
“These individuals experienced circumstances caused by the Depression or the war that were beyond their individual control. They credit a protective, benevolent God with seeing them through these difficult and sometimes life-threatening times. Through sheer determination and a strong faith in God, they persevered and even thrived. An emphasis on hard work, beginning in childhood, is reflected in their religious beliefs as well, where actions speak louder than words. Being faithful and committed to God is important and is evident in what a person does but not necessarily what one says or thinks.” As a result, this group is less interested in services and more interested in service. They are more likely to respond to a call to help clean up after Passover than a call to fill the pews for the festival service.
Next, we come to the Silent Generation (born 1932-1945)
Bengtson writes: “Whereas members of the Depression Era cohort that we spoke to described God as a powerful being that provides guidance from on high, beginning with the silent generation – a relatively small group that was born during the lean times of the Great Depression and World War II but too young to experience the full extent of the Depression or to serve in the war – we see increasing discussion of the accessibility of God and of [God’s] ‘embeddedness’ in everyday life.” Their lives are not marked by momentous historical events in the same way as the older cohorts: they focus more on the daily aspects of life.
“Taking this a step further than the WWI cohort whose members offered descriptions of God in nature,” he writes, “ many in the silent generation expressed the belief that a higher power dwells within the human spirit. This sentiment is especially common among those who have no religious affiliation or who question their faith in God.” If you think about it, this position makes a lot of sense: they learned about God from the example of their parents, the ones who picked up the pieces after the war and rebuilt their lives. This group would most want an existentialist sermon about finding God within.
The next group is the Early Boomers (born 1946-1954)
This group is different than the ones who come before it. “Early Boomers frequently talk about religion as something one does and spirituality as something one feels through one’s relationship with God.” In fact, Bengtson writes, “Some Early Boomers take this distinction a step further, describing religious practice as being determined or scripted by a religious institution and spirituality as ‘personal’ and emerging form within an individual.”
“From these interviews we see the leading edge of Early Boomers was born in the wake of World War II’s carnage and came of age during a period of extensive social change in the United States. Political unrest, rising divorce rates, changing mores about gender and sexuality, and the increasingly influential role of the mass media in the 1960s and early 1970s coalesced to destabilize the relatively conservative social conventions of the 1950s.” This group has personally experienced some of the greatest changes with regard to the expectations of their own gender roles, for example. A woman who was not allowed to have a bat mitzvah as a girl could become a rabbi in later life.
That kind of rapid change can be very stressful. “Perhaps because of this,” Bengtson continues, “Early Boomers often mentioned that they relied jointly on religious institutions and spiritual practice as coping mechanisms and sources of emotional support; they emphasized the healing qualities of religion and spirituality.” But some have turned away: “for some in our sample – Jews in particular – the impact of the war and other tragedies proved too much to cope with, prompting them to question their faith in God.” And I do meet people who feel this way, who say that they don’t believe.
This group is the most likely to appreciate a sermon that speaks of the difficulties of finding faith.
And we now turn to the Later Baby Boomers (born 1955-1964)
“Whereas the Early Boomers we spoke with seem to value both the religious and the spiritual realms,” Bengtson writes, “the Later Boomers are less comfortable with ‘Religion’ with a capital R. Many reject what they perceive as the institutional nature of religion in favor of a more personal spirituality. Whereas all but one of those we interviewed believed in God and nearly all identified as ‘spiritual,’ only one-third claimed to be ‘religious.’”
Religion, by its nature, changes slowly. If these individuals were in favor of the liberalization that took place in the 60s and 70s, then they are likely to be skeptical of religious organizations that were slow to change in response to the times. And if they were against that liberalism, they might be skeptical of religious organizations that were trying to stay relevant.
Regardless, that skepticism has meant that “for many Later Boomers, religious practices such as going to religious services detract from, rather than encourage, a deepening spirituality.” That’s a key difficulty for congregations to overcome when speaking to the Later Boomers. I tend to approach the issue as one of rebuilding trust.
This group is the one most likely to enjoy a sermon about what’s wrong about religion and what we can do about it.
Then we come to Generation X (Born 1965-1979)
This is my generation, and I definitely fit the pattern. As Bengtson writes, “Religion informs many of the decisions religious Gen Xers make, including those related to raising children. Indeed, many we interviewed described how helpful religion is for raising children in today’s complicated world.” I would agree!
Bengtson also writes of “another theme that emerged” in these interviews: “religiously independent thinking. Many take temporary breaks from religious practice and feel free to selectively adopt doctrinal beliefs in order to make religion work for them.” Apparently, we’re a flexible bunch, not particularly prone to dogmatic thinking.
And we tend to emphasize independence. “In fact,” he writes, “‘independence’ is one of the few themes that bridge the gap between the believing and nonbelieving members of Generation X. For the believers we interviewed, freely choosing a more flexible approach to religion ultimately allow them to remain committed to their faith. For the nonbelievers in our sample, however, ‘independent thinking’ about religious beliefs and practices translates into a rejection of God altogether.”
We also want proof. As Bengtson explains, “one of the reasons for the nonbelieving Gen Xers’ lack of belief in God” is that “they can’t take the leap of faith required to believe in something that isn’t empirically verifiable.” We tend to take a scientific world-view for granted.
So my generation loves a good sermon about how to belief in God if you don’t have proof.
And our last group is the Millennials (for the purposes of this sample, they were born between 1980 and 1988)
So let me start with the good news, from a congregational perspective: “Unlike many of the Later Boomers who, regardless of affiliation, actively reject organized religion in favor of spirituality, most of the Millennials we spoke with do not demonstrate the same level of antipathy to institutionalized religion.” That’s great to hear.
And now with the bad news: “Those who profess belief often do not attend church [or synagogue] regularly.” However, even the bad news is laced with the positive: “Many commented favorably on the sense of community provided by a church or synagogue, and still others suggested they are shopping around in order to find a congregation with the right ‘fit.’ Furthermore, some Millennials, like many Early Boomers, describe the complementary nature of religious practice and spirituality.” So it is likely that they will join at some point; they are still deciding.
Interestingly, “many Millennials hesitate to adopt a single religion uncritically and in its totality, preferring a flexible belief system that draws from religion but is not entirely dictated by it. A tendency to draw from a range of religious perspectives or to selectively choose from the tenets of a particular religion reflects the nonjudgmental attitude of many Millennials. An open-mindedness and appreciation for diversity was one clear theme that frequently emerged in the Millennials’ interviews, whether they were speaking about religious or nonreligious ideas.”
I have noticed that members of this group tend to appreciate it when I take a non-dogmatic approach to religious observance. And they will question everything – such as the commandment regarding circumcision, for example – and are particularly appreciative when I can make a cogent argument for a practice or observance beyond ‘it’s our tradition to do so.’
As for me, I plan to take this research to heart when I am writing my High Holiday sermons this year. I’d like to do a suite of sermons addressing the value of participating in the Jewish community, using this material to construct arguments that will make sense to each generation, not just my own. And I am thinking that I will also use it when I teach the adult education course on Zionism later this April, to explain the variety of views on the subject.
In the meantime, I am interested in hearing from you: does your own religious experience make sense in the context of your generation? Or do you find that your personal narrative is one of difference? I’d love to know!
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.
Vayikra — sacrifices
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? I mean, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
As I explained last week, in the 12th century Maimonides argued that the sacrificial system was absolutely necessary: if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’”
The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompted God to provide an alternative:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
This early form of worship might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for it was an accommodation to the weakness of human beings.
This week I’d like to look at someone from the 19th century, someone who read Maimonides and agreed with him, someone who attempted to extend and update Maimonides’ medieval arguments so that they might be more in line with the philosophy of modernity.
Hermann Cohen was a philosopher and academic who was the chair of the philosophy department at Phillips University Marburg at the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th. He was also proud participant in the Reform movement. In his major philosophical treatise, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen argued that the sacrificial system was an important step in the development of rational religion.
In his view, the sacrifices were the first step in the evolution of prayer.
Cohen argues that the catalyst for this evolution – from physical sacrifice to verbal prayer – was the searing words of the prophets, who would vocally criticize the sacrificial cult. Consider, for example, the following passage from the first chapter of Isaiah:
“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? – says the Lord – I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.’”
And why is God not listening, you ask? The next verse provides the reason, along with its remedy:
“Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
When we see this kind of criticism, it is possible to understand how the Israelites were able to let go of the sacrificial system when the Temple was destroyed. Isaiah and like-minded prophets emphasized the need to engage in ethical behavior, rather than the need to engage in meticulous observance of Temple ritual. Even without the Temple, it was indeed still possible to act in an ethical manner. So his words provided a clue as to how to respond when the Temple was no longer standing.
But that still leaves us with our initial set of questions: what was the act of sacrifice trying to accomplish? And why is it no longer necessary?
To answer those questions, Cohen cites a Talmudic concept: shegagah, the accidental or unintentional sin. Specifically, he is referring to the idea that an intentional sin might be reckoned by God to be accidental if a person makes a concerted and whole-hearted attempt at repentance. In Cohen’s words:
“To err, to go astray, is humanity’s lot, but therefore shegagah is the limit of one’s fault. Whenever this limit is overstepped, only God knows what happens to someone. Human wisdom is at a loss in the presence of the possibility of evil in humanity.” We don’t know how to respond to evil, and furthermore, we don’t know how to forgive sins.
Thus, Cohen argues, “The Day of Atonement maintains the fiction of the unshakable moral preservation of everything human: all human sin is shegagah. Therefore God can forgive without relinquishing God’s justice.”
Let me explain what that last line means. If God were always merciful, there would be no justice in the world because all things would be permitted. On the other hand, if God were always just, there would be no repentance, because nothing would ever be forgiven. So, to preserve both justice and mercy, one should say that all human sin is shegagah, accidental sin. Yes, it is a sin – hence the need for justice – but it is also an accident – hence the need for mercy. Is that a fiction? Of course: but it is a necessary one for moving forward with repentance.
It’s a radical idea that he is proposing here: God’s love is such that any sins we might commit should be reckoned as accidental. All we need to do is turn and repent.
But it’s one he firmly believes. As Cohen writes, “It is the essence of God to forgive the sins of humanity. This is the most important content of the correlation of God and humanity.” This is how God relates to the world.
We are, in essence, already forgiven, even before the act of turning toward God.
We are in need of rituals, however. A sinner is unable to achieve a sense of expiation and forgiveness through his or her own efforts alone.
Let me explain: if you have done something wrong, you want to make it right. But even after you have apologized and righted the wrong, there is this lingering sense of not-rightness. You need to be forgiven. For this reason, Cohen argues, you need a congregation and a ritual. As Cohen writes, “The individual needs the congregation for his or her confession, and within the congregation, sacrifice.”
Thus, the great glory of the sacrificial system was that it established the custom of public worship involving a set ritual. That’s a necessary step in the evolution of religious understanding.
But, to fully understand how this process evolved, it is also important to note here that the priest was not the one granting atonement. Rather, God was the one granting atonement, and doing so in response to a ritual act.
So when it was not possible for the priest to engage in this ritual anymore – after the Second Temple was destroyed – it was entirely possible that a different kind of ritual could be substituted for the sacrificial act. If it is God who is granting atonement, then the priest is helpful but ultimately unnecessary.
So, for example, in the case of the Day of Atonement, it was possible to replace the sacrificial system with the recitation of words – which is precisely what happened.
It was possible for the Israelites to change from one form of worship form to another in the wake of the destruction because the necessary theological structures were already in place. The prophets declared that ethical behavior was more important than ritual behavior. And the priests were clearly acting as a go-between rather than a replacement for God. So without the Temple, what is needed? The answer is clear: ethical behavior plus a ritual for achieving atonement.
What should we make of this evolution now? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
Prayer forms are always changing, and appropriately so. Our prayer looks different than it did a hundred years ago. At the same time, prayer must include elements from the past. Even when our needs change, we crave continuity. Our prayer has a lot in common with the prayers of a hundred years ago.
We also learn from this example that we are not so different from our ancient forebears. We need a ritual to release ourselves of that sense of wrongdoing. We are forgiven, of course, even before we ask: but we need some way of expressing our sorrow, our sense of wrongdoing, and our intention to make things right.
So, when we read the book of Leviticus, we ought to read it with that frame of mind: this is not an ancient book of Temple procedures; it is, rather, the timeless expression of our longing for God.
 Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), III:32, p. 526.
 See the Bavli: Rosh Hashanah 17b and Yoma 86b.
 Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Simon Kaplan, transl. Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 223. I have changed the translation here to make it gender-neutral.
 Ibid., p. 213.
 Ibid., p. 200.
Pekudei — Perfecting your soul
February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
What happens when you pray regularly?
What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Let me explain. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God’s presence would be made manifest to them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This presence was considered dangerous: there was a clear need to set limits and define boundaries so that no one would be harmed by it.
So, as we read in this week’s portion, the Israelites were commanded to build a Mishkan – a portable tabernacle where they would encounter God’s presence in a structured way. And they became accustomed to offering sacrifices as part of their relationship to God.
Ultimately, the theology grew up around the Temple that these sacrifices were keeping the world in order. They were the activities that kept chaos at bay. And, as the society became more centralized and urbane, these activities became centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, the Temple was the very center of the world: the place where heaven and earth touch.
However, in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were left with the question of what to do about worshipping God. Does it matter that we no longer have the commanded forms of sacrifice available to us? Or are there other possibilities that might be equally valid?
Let’s look at Maimonides’ answer. For Maimonides, the highest form of worship is the contemplation of God. The outward forms of prayer – such as the sacrificial system – are not what matters most. For him, the contemplation of God is what matters most.
The contemplation of God is no small task, as it requires sustained effort. Most of us nowadays are a bit sleep-deprived, so sitting still long enough to engage in contemplation might instead provide an opportunity for a nap. In Maimonides’ time, it’s possible that folks got more sleep – not being distracted by playing Flapping Birds on the iPad or catching up on missed episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix – but they had at least as many opportunities to get sidetracked by business and family life as we do.
Therefore, Maimonides argues, God commanded the creation of the sacrificial cult, which would provide a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp without sustained effort and training. Moreover, engaging in sacrifice helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
In other words, he argues, if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.'”
The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
These forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer available, each worshipper had to create prayer-forms individually. And that was exceedingly difficult.
It was for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly developed a structured prayer-service. These are the folks who created the ‘baruch atah Adonai…’ formula that is so familiar to us today. They made it possible for us to lean on an existing form, rather than having to make it up ourselves each and every time we pray.
Maimondes also argues that the creators of these forms had a specific goal in mind: They created this structure so that the worshipper might use it to perfect himself or herself. Over the course of many years, he or she might learn the highest forms of contemplation.
In the Guide III:51, Maimonides lays out the steps to take toward perfection of one’s prayer, using the structure provided by the Men of the Great Assembly. As he begins:
“The first thing that you should cause your soul to hold fast onto is that while reciting the Shema prayer, you should empty your mind of everything and pray thus. You should not content yourself with being intent while reciting the first verse of Shema and saying the first benediction.”
It is not surprising that he chooses the Shema prayer as his starting-point, as it holds a special place in the prayer service. It is found in the Torah, and reflects the perfection of Moses. It is prescribed as the last words for a pious Jew to recite before death, just as it was uttered by Akiba in the last moments of his martyrdom. In addition, it provides a succinct profession of faith, one that affirms the singularity and uniqueness of God.
We should also note here that the direction of this movement prescribed by Maimonides flows from the simplest and most direct concept––the Shema––to the Bible, and then outward toward the rabbinic literature. This structure reflects the legal distinction of d’oreita (originating from the Torah, the most authoritative source) and d’rabbanan (originating from the rabbis, which is binding, but less authoritative). It also reflects the pattern for the education of the young.
Once this stage has been mastered, it is then possible to continue. As he explains:
“When this has been carried out correctly and has been practiced for years, cause your soul, whenever you read or listen to the Torah, to be constantly directed––the whole of you and your thought––toward reflection on what you are listening to or reading.”
Here Maimonides is teaching his reader how to develop the capacity for hyper-focused attention: First, learn how to clear the mind and consider just this one thing (a task that by itself takes years to master), and then, apply that focus to the Torah reading. Having done that, one might use the Torah text itself as a source of contemplation:
“When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thought is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are uttering and at considering its meaning.”
Once this step has been mastered, it is then possible to focus on the remainder of the service; one approaches the Haftarah portion next, and then the various benedictions in the service. One should start with this singular affirmation expressed by the Shema, and then work methodically towards expanding this capacity for concentration in prayer.
Eventually, it might be possible to differentiate clearly between the prayer-state and mundane-state of mind, and to transition between them at will. Maimonides suggests that the quiet time after the day is finished is ideal for this kind of reflection:
“When, however, you are alone with yourself and no one else is there and while you lie awake upon your bed, you should take great care during these precious times not to set your thought to work on anything other than that intellectual worship consisting in nearness to God and being in His presence in that true reality that I have made known to you and not by way of affectations of the imagination.”
Having used the prayer-service as a vehicle for training, it is now possible to achieve, and achieve at will, that state of hyper-focused intentionality.
During these moments at the end of the day when there is quiet in the house, it is possible to think without interruption. Therefore, Maimonides admonishes, do not waste this precious time thinking about business or household concerns; you have had all day to do so. This quiet time is designated for contemplation at the highest level.
So, let us return to our opening questions: what happens when you pray regularly? What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Praying regularly helps us develop the discipline to think about the big questions. Our culture teaches us to run away from them: to cover them up with noise and business, to drown them with consumption in excess, to avoid them through diversion and entertainment. But such activity leaves us feeling hollow.
Praying regularly allows us to cut through the noise and clutter, so that when you stop to think about the big questions – the questions that keep you up at night – you have a structured, disciplined way of considering these things, rather than being held ransom by your anxieties and insecurities.
In other words, what happens when you pray regularly, really pray, according to Maimonides? You perfect your soul.
Vayakhel — O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz?
February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments
It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:
O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.
But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a brand-new toy by asking God. You’d have better luck asking Grandma, or saving up your allowance.
So, then, what is the purpose of prayer, if it is not to get stuff? It must have some kind of larger meaning – or else why do we engage in it?
One possible answer to this difficulty is that it is for God’s benefit. We engage in worship because God commands it. It is, after all, one of the demands placed upon us by our covenant: God commands us to make a sanctuary.
For example, we read in our portion today, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.” On the face of it, therefore, the purpose of bringing all of these gifts is to offer them to the Lord, to build a sanctuary to honor God.
Interestingly, however, some of the midrashim reject this interpretation. For example, consider this one:
“The whole paraphernalia of the Tabernacle, the candlestick, table, altar, holy things, the tent and curtains – what was their purpose? Israel addressed the Holy One Blessed be He: Lord of the universe, the kings of the heathens have their tent, table, candlestick and incense burner and such are the trappings of sovereignty; for every king has need of them. Should not then Thou which art our King, Saviour and Redeemer possess the same trappings of sovereignty, that it may become known to all the inhabitants of the world that Thou art the King?
“The Almighty answered: You who are flesh and blood have need of this, but I have no such need, since there is no eating or drinking associated with Me, and I have no need of light.” So it’s not for God after all! Why is it commanded then?
In this Midrash, God goes on to tell the Israelites that they are already worthy of divine concern due to the merit of their ancestors. God specifically cites their connection to the Avot – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We would also add the Imahot – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
But the Israelites object to God’s answer: we do not pray to them, we pray to You. In other words: even though they merit God’s attention and protection on this basis, they still have a need to engage in prayer. For example, what should they do when they need to specifically ask for something in particular? In response, God tells them, okay, fine: “make what you desire but make them as I command you… as it is stated: ‘Make Me a sanctuary…a candlestick…a table…an altar for burning incense.’”
It is like a parent saying to a child, ‘anything that you need I will give you.’ And the child responds: ‘yes, but what about the things that I want? How do I ask for things that I want?’ And the parent finds some structured way to accommodate the child’s request.
What that means, according to this Midrash, is that the sanctuary is not for the honor of God; and it is not to demonstrate the glory to God the way we might demonstrate the glory of an earthly king. Rather, it is provides a structured way to ask for things.
But now we are back to our original problem: it’s not like we can ask God for a Mercedes Benz. We don’t get what we ask for, at least not in any sort of direct, easy-to-catalogue way.
And that’s a genuine pity, of course, because there are so many things that we want, and so many things that we need. Eventually, we learn to ask for bigger things than a new bike, bigger things than a Mercedes Benz. We ask for things like health, long life, children, employment, fulfillment, happiness.
Yet we discover that these things do not come to us magically, just for the asking. It’s one of the great surprises of adulthood: after having the majority of our needs fulfilled by our parents, we venture out into the world to discover that we are not provided with this same kind of support wherever we go. Apparently the world does not owe us anything: not health, not wealth, not happiness. And that can be a rude shock when it comes. Who will take care of me? We find that we must take care of ourselves.
So, then, what are we trying to accomplish in prayer? What is the point of worship? Why do our prayers include requests for God’s response, if we don’t have magical powers over the Godhead?
One possibility is that prayer helps us sort out what we really want, what we really need. In hearing ourselves speak, we realize whether we are asking for something worthy or not. It could be that prayer is our way of coping with this most basic difficulty: an acknowledgment of our boundless need and our limited means of fulfilling that need.
For example, whenever I visit people in the hospital, I will pray with them, if they are willing. And in that prayer, I will state some of our hoped-for outcomes: real ones, like “…and may this person go home soon in good health…” as well as miraculous ones, such as “…and astound his or her doctors with the speed at which healing takes place…”
The point of this act of prayer in the hospital room is more than saying “I hope you get well soon.” It’s a nice sentiment, of course. And the point of prayer in the hospital room is more than the good cheer that comes with having a visitor. It’s a welcome sight as well, of course. But there’s more going on here than that.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Reading or studying a prayer is not the same as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God.” Prayer addresses what is transcendent.
But if you are agnostic about God or a non-believer, then the act of prayer does seem to be pointless. Why should we speak of something transcendent, when all we know is what we can sense here and now?
Yet is that really the case? I have found, in my own experience, that we really do sense more than what’s just here and now. What is that energy that fills a room and causes a crowd to cheer at once? What is that energy that fills our eyes with tears when the bride comes walking down the aisle? What is that energy that overflows our heart when we hold a new-born child? What is that energy that we feel and know when a congregation prays on our behalf?
That is the energy that we are addressing in the act of prayer. Prayer is more than merely talking to ourselves, and more than listening to ourselves talk. There is more to it than stating a wish, no matter how dearly felt it is. There is something greater at work here, in fact. In the act of prayer, we are asking that the energy that is available to us be put to work to good ends.
In other words: if you find that you really cannot grasp hold of the full concept of God – if the idea seems entirely too difficult, too fraught, too complicated – then think of it in smaller terms. Make a modest request. Ask that energy be available to you, energy to do what is right. Nothing more. No throne of glory or angels on high: just a small, modest request that you have the energy you need to do what is right.
I started this process of becoming Jewish without a belief in God and with a doubt that prayer can be worthwhile. If my own spiritual life is any indication: if you concentrate on that smaller goal, that practice will ultimately lead you to its source, to something grander and larger. Learn to focus on the energy you can discern, and you will eventually find something much greater than yourself. You are not alone in this search.
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!”
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.
 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.
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.