Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Signing Off - For Now

I wanted to thank all of you for a wonderful experience.  My good friend Sho, both a student and a mentor, had asked - perhaps instructed -- me to write a farewell note on my blog. And so I do it now.

Reflecting every week on the most sacred and unique of all texts  of was a truly labor of love. Indeed, it provides one with an unparalleled sense of freedom and intellectual happiness to roam free through the lines of the Torah, to raise new questions about it, and to try and settle old ones.

The ideas I promoted - mostly about the the Torah being mainly a book of faith (Emunah) -- are not mine to claim. I was merely serving as a mouthpiece to Professor Yesha'ay'hu Leibowitz who, in turn, claimed to have been a mere mouthpiece of the Rambam, more than 800 years before his time. Still, these same ideas are as fresh today here in American as they were in the 12th Centry in Egyptian Alexandria.

Again, I wanted to thank you all for partaking in this wonderful journey. If I have prompted even one of you to begin -- or return to -- reading the portions of the week, I've done my share.

Ve'idach Zeel Gmore (and the rest - go and study yourself).

Shana Tovah to Everyone,


Monday, June 4, 2012

Parashat Be'ha'a'lot'cha

This week’s portion, Be’ha’a’lot’cha – literally, “when you raise” (here in the unusual use of “when you raise the candles against the Menorah”) – provides us with a rare opportunity to discuss a fascinating topic: What was it really like to travel in the desert for forty years?

Welcome to this week’s portion. Everything you want to know is in here - from “when they went” to “what they ate” and much more. Accordingly, instead of using my regular method of two comments on the portion, I resort to the more interesting format of an imaginary Q&A between a reader and the story teller. For readers who are interested in a less-religious commentary, I also offer one at the end of each answer.

Life in the Desert: Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Did they actually travel every day?

A: No, the traveling was not performed on a daily basis. The organizing principle, of course was the following: “According to God the People of Israel would go, and according to God they shall make camp.” (Numbers 9:18; and again, 9:23). Accordingly, they first parked, for nearly a full year, near Mt. Sinai. (Num. 10:11). After that, they followed the divine cloud: whenever it rested over Ohel Mo’ed, the holy tent in which the Mishkan resides, they rested; and whenever it lifted, they traveled. At times, the cloud rested for days, even “many days,” while at other times it rested for shorter periods (Id., 9:17-20). In other times, the travel was done daily as the “cloud [rested] from evening until the morning, and was lifted during the day, and then they traveled.” (Id., 9:21). In some cases, however, the Israelites traveled at night as well. In other cases, they walked for three days straight.
Non Religious Explanation: Life in the desert is tough.  Different terrain, changing weather, and continuing issues with this enormously large traveling group (over 600,000 grown up men) require flexibility in moving arrangements. A good pattern is to move every day, and to rest during the night, but that pattern has to yield to the various needs and objective requirements. Hence the frequent variations. 

Q: Was there a special order of traveling?

A: Yes. First in the group was the tribe of Judah, with their military commander (Nachshon – a name and title that, until today, signals (in Hebrew) “he who dares to stand in front” – usually in the military context, such the he or she is ready to run first to battle, even in the face of enemy fire). Then two other tribes (Yissaschar and Zvuloun), with their commanders. Then the Mishkan  - always in front, but never exposed. Then the tribes of Re’uven, Shimon, and Gad. Then, separately from the Mishkan, the Kahaties – those in charge of actually erecting and dismantling the Mishkan each time the People made camp.  Then the other tribes. And then, at the very end – as sweep – the tribe of Dan and its commander. (Num. 10:11-28)
NRE: Clearly, considerations of safety and utility played an important role in devising the correct order of travel. Thus, back then (much like today), the strongest part of the army was always in the lead; this has been a winning strategy for the Israelis since those days and until today. The strategic placement of the Mishkan – at the top of the group, but not the very top, as well as the separation between the Mishkan and its workers, all guarantee a smooth operation and quick set-up and breakdown. Another great example of Moshe’s superior organizational skills at work.

Q: What did they eat?

A: Despite the widely-spread myth about the plentiful “Manna from Heaven” and how well it was received, the Israelites never hesitated to complain about the narrow selection and its uniformed taste (nothing new here, either).  This week, their complaint is especially detailed (and visual, I may add): “[And the People] cried and said:  Who would provide us with meat? We all well remember the sea-food that we have eaten in Egypt for free, and the squash, the water melons, the leek, the onions, and the garlic; and now our soles are dried – there is nothing but the Manna in front of our eyes.” (Numbers 11:5-6).  In response, occasionally, Moshe would provide some other culinary choices, such as meat. But that, in turn, would create some issues of its own – widespread food poisoning, for example, or other issues. (See Numbers 11:33-34). 
NRE: Constant (purified) water and food supplies are by far the hardest part of the entire exodus operation. The great thing about the Manna was its freshness – every day the people would only get enough for the next day (except for Shabbat, when they collected for the entire weekend in advance). Those who dared to collect more were severely punished – sometimes by God, sometimes by a severe food poisoning. Every deviation from this strict diet had its consequences, but Moshe had to balance between his limited resources and the People’s complaints – so he provided them meat (and other options) every now and again, only to prove them, once again, that the Manna is really the only thing to come straight from Heaven.

Q: Was Moshe the only person in charge?

A: We know, from many portions ago (Yitro, Exodus 18:18), that Moshe could not handle his judicial power obligations all on his own. Thus, his father-in-law provided him with an advice to devise a well-structured legal system based on himself as the entire Supreme Court and other adequate people (see the post there) as judges below him. But today, we learn that his executive powers, too, were hard to handle over a group of such size, and for that long a duration. After pleading with God (See Num. 11:12 for a wonderful text: “Did I conceive this entire People?”), Moshe receives assistance in the form of 70 elderly wise men who help him in carrying his executive mission. Later, this number would form the basis for the famous Sanhedrin, a joint legislative-executive body of the small Jewish community in Israel. (Note that despite his hardships in the Article II and III issues – executive and judiciary branches – Moshe leaves to God (and himself, by delegation) the sole authority of legislation.)
NRE: Clearly, the model of a single leader as the only legislator, executive, and judge is unattainable; but it is interesting to note that the request for help comes from Moshe himself – not from the people (who don’t seem to mind) or from God (who is apparently content with channeling all three branches to one person). Empirically speaking, it seems, the separation of powers is not only a wise poly-sci choice (just ask Motesquieu and then the Founding Fathers, who read him closely), but also a necessary fact of life.

Q: What about the Occasional Catastrophe?

A: This week’s portion alone tells us the story of three emergencies/mini-catastrophes: First, a fire consumes part of the camp (Num. 11:1-3); second, as we noted earlier, a food poisoning leaves several casualties behind (Num. 11:33-34); and finally, a mysterious skin condition afflicts Miriam, Moshe’s sister, perhaps in response to a bizarre derogatory comment she made in relation to her sister-in-law, Moshe’s black-skinned wife. (Num. 12:1, 10)  All these – and naturally, many others – are issues Moshe had to contend with on a daily basis, with the help of God, of course.
NRE: I believe these incidents, deliberately reported and included in the text forever, are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Moshe had to deal with on a daily basis. With no medical facilities (or much knowledge, for that matter), no sanitation, harsh conditions, and a huge group of people who were never used to long-term camping, those occasional catastrophes were probably part and parcel of the 40-year desert expedition. The fact that Moshe successfully brought all of them to the Promised Land is a true testament to his fantastic leadership skills – not only from the religious perspective, but also – and perhaps primarily – from the pragmatic, day-to-day leadership perspective. Not for naught does this portion concludes with the following compliment:  “And the person Moshe is very humble – more than any other person on earth.” Indeed, we had a very humble leader then. I wish we had some more like him today as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Parashat Nasso

This week’s portion, Nasso – literally, an order to count (as in “go and count the people of Israel”) – is the longest of all portions of the week. Then again, it is also a great example of the rule that quantity does not necessarily yield quality. But enough about me.

The portion’s main issue – other than the continuing last week’s discussion of the census and its importance (see last week’s post) – is infidelity.  More accurately, a married woman’s alleged infidelity and its consequences. In looking at this issue I will venture, almost for the first time in this blog, to the very muddy waters (more in a second on this choice of words) of the Torah’s view of women. While aware of how dangerous this terrain may be, I would still like to offer my two cents. I begin with what – thankfully – has by now become a standard criticism of the text.  I then move to suggest a surprising twist, a possible justification for the seemingly humiliating ancient practice described in the text. I conclude with some general thoughts of the text and its relation to women.

I. The Water of Bitterness

To summarize – while strongly recommending that you read the entire passage (Numbers 5:11-31) – this week’s portion deals with adultery; more specifically, with a proposed solution to a situation where a woman has committed adultery, or, more accurately is alleged to have committed adultery (since no witnesses are available). The proposed solution, in a nutshell, is a test; it is the test of the “water of bitterness:” Here, the alleged adulterous woman has to drink some extremely bitter water. Should she (physically) respond well to it – she’s safe; if she’s ill (as most people would be), then she’s guilty of being unfaithful to her husband.

At first glance, the entire ceremony of the “the water of bitterness and curse” may be viewed as a typical (and unfavorable) biblical treatment of women. To begin with, the text does not even mention, let alone discusses, a situation in which the husband – not the wife – is suspected of cheating while the wife is “fraught with jealousy” (as the husband is described). Not here. Instead, all we have is a situation where the wife is suspected of being disloyal to her husband, to “have gone astray and broken faith” with another man (elegant, creative translation by JPS here) (Numbers 5:12).  What would a husband to do in this situation?

According to this week’s portion, the husband has to go to the priest - the religious authority (which, coincidently, comprises of all men – then and now, more than 2,000 years later). In a description reminiscent of the later “Salem witchcraft trials” and the famous “drowning test” –if the accused woman has drowned, she was innocent, but had she lived she was guilty of witchcraft – the text goes in great detail through what the poor suspected woman has to go through:

“And the priest made the woman stand before God, making her hair undone, and then he gave unto her hands [holy water (mixed with) the soil of the Tabernacle…  this water shall be known as] … the bitter, cursing water.  And the Priest swore that woman in, and told her: If no man has slept with you, and if you have not gone sinfully astray under you man, you shall be cleared by this water of bitterness and curse . . . [but if not,] your stomach would distend and your thighs will sag . . . and the woman would say: Amen and Amen.” (The full description, which is heavily edited here, may be found in Numbers 5:16-31).

Importantly, the text provides a nice alternative to the likely physical response the woman may have to the bitter water: if her stomach would not “distend,” then the suspected woman would be cleared of all suspicion, declared as “pure,” and even be “planted a seed” (become pregnant) (Numbers 5:28). [Loyal readers of this blog may look back at the discussion we had on the first verse of Parashat Tazri’a (Levit. 12:1), where, again, our sages has shown clear preference against naming a portion “A Woman”; there, too, the verse deals with the planted seed in the woman’ womb.] 

While the text provides no data, one may only venture to guess how many poor women could actually survive the test – which their husbands, again, had no need to take under similar circumstances – and be declared “pure.” To reiterate, this ritual is not dealing with the case of well-proved infidelity cases. Rather, we are dealing here with mere suspicions, rumors, and innuendoes; all we have in fact is “the wind of jealousy” by the husbands.

When I first read this text, I was appalled. To me, it represented everything that was wrong with the Torah’s treatment of women. It reminded me of my first class of Jewish Law in my final year at the Hebrew University Law School. By then, we were no longer viewing our professors with the same awe and revere that were the staple of our first year.  So when the Instructor opened the class by announcing that the Israeli Law of Equality of Women’s Rights – a mainly declaratory, though still important, act of legislation passed by Israeli Knesset very early in the life of the Jewish State – that this Act has “violated a delicate balance struck over thousands of years by Jewish sages with regards to women’s rights” I could no longer remain silent. “It is quite the opposite” – I told the instructor, shortly before leaving the class for good – “The State of Israel has corrected an imbalance that lasted through thousands of years with regards to the rights of Jewish women, due mostly to sages of Jewish thought who intentionally and creatively discriminated against women.”

That is precisely how I felt when I read the text initially. 

II. Later Developments – in Halacha and Within Me

In part, it seems that my sense of reprehension was at least justified in part. During the Mishna period, the “Water of Bitterness” test was abolished. (3 Mishna, Sotah, Chapter 9 mishna 9).  The reason behind this surprising turn may be more telling than the actual act of abolition itself: “Mi’she’rabu Ha’me’na’a’fim” – when cases of infidelities became so many, too many in fact, there was no longer need for the test.  In other words, the deterring effect of the test was lost in the “sea” of infidelity. But a careful reading of the text shows an even more interesting feature: The Mishna does not say: “Mi’she’rabu Ha’me’na’a’fot” – when the women infidelity cases became too many; but rather “when the infidelity cases [by all!] became too many” then the test was abolished. Here we have an initial recognition – very implicit, very hesitant, almost secret – in the fact that perhaps the initial test was wrong, as it applied to women alone. Perhaps not only women should have been accused of such an act. Perhaps men, too, are fallible.

But not only have our sages changed their mind. I did, too. I came to view the test in a different light. I realized that – at the time, and within that context – women required a great degree of protection from their jealous husbands.  In fact, in some instances these women were in a state of “clear and present danger” to their very lives, just by virtue of being suspected of committing adultery. (Hmm… Is that really so different today in some parts?) And that by providing the test – horrible as it may seem to us today – the Jewish religion has stepped forward to end this situation and to protect those women (clearly in a manner less than satisfactory, but still).  To be more specific, the notion that a priest – the prime religious authority – may absolve a woman of that cloud, in a final manner and with the blessings of God, is a huge step towards the protection of women’s right. [Moreover, as I was pouring some sugar into my baby son’s bitter medicine – he was sick this week – I was thinking that maybe some thoughtful Priests pored some sugar into those bitter waters back then, to make it easier on the women.] 

Again, I don’t know if any of this is true. I don’t know how many women, if any, were absolved by this test. But the very option granted by our religion to clear a woman from any unfaithful suspicion – with the authority of God, no less – should, in my mind, be looked upon favorably, even if the actual means used to effectuate this thought were inhumane by today’s standards. At least for that thought, the Torah’s text should be absolved.

Shabbat Shalom,


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Parashat Ba'Midbar

This week’s portion, Ba’Midbar (literally, in the desert) opens the penultimate book of the Pentateuch. It begins with an interestingly accurate time stamp – God speaks to Moses on the first day, of the second month, of the second year from the day they left Egypt – in other words, one year and one month, to the day, after the famous Exodus.

And what concerns God on that day? The exact number – or “Numbers” as the book is entitled in English – of the People of Israel.  In other words, God orders a census. And that brings me to a point I began talking about last week – that very little had changed between then and now.

The Census – Then & Now

Two years ago, in 2010 – much like during any other “decade” year – the federal government has held a census of the People of the United States, in accordance with federal law.  To me, this latest census is strikingly similar to the first census ever taken – the one we read about this week in our Portion. Allow me to demonstrate.
i.                The term “People”; their exact number 

God orders Moshe to count the number of “people” of the Children of Israel. What does the term “people” encompass? Does it entail all people, men and women, adult and children, slaves and slaves owners? Not quite. The original biblical text refers to the term “people” as including only males (as opposed to males and females); over 20 years of age (as opposed to people of all ages); and who could bear arms (see Numbers 1:3). The original American Constitution’s notion of “person” was equally exclusive: In the period close to ratification, the constitutional term of “persons” was interpret to include only males (and not females); only “free” persons (as opposed to slaves); and mostly property and land owners (which excluded minors as well).

The number of those “people,” according to the biblical census, was precisely 603,550 (see Numbers 2:32).  This number is strikingly similar to the approximated number of people who left Egypt, according to the text, just a year earlier: “approximately 600,000 men, notwithstanding children.” (Exodus 12:37).

While this number is not similar in any way to the 310 million or so Americans living in the U.S. today, it certainly is identical to the number of people who conducted the census in America in that year; see, for example, a not from the Census’ Director: “A Note to my 600,000 New Colleagues.” (available at http://blogs.census.gov/2010census/ ).

ii.              The Census’ Method

Today, just like the first biblical Census, the actual method of counting is based upon divisions. The entire group is divided into sections, or districts; those districts are divided further into lots; and those – into families. Each person conducting the count adds up to the grand total, which is received after accumulating a large group of data (in the U.S., a data gathered by 600,000 counters). The biblical text dedicates nearly an entire chapter – 46 verses, to be exact – to the accumulated data that led to the grand total; from which we may deduce the great importance accorded by the text to the census’ method (see Numbers 1:1-46). Indeed, it seems that the very method by which the census is conducted today is not very different, if at all, from the one used by the original biblical census. This is probably one of the very few things that we do today precisely the way they were conducted thousands of years ago (and with the same amount of success, I may add).

iii.            The reason for conducting a census

Why a census? Today, we are all aware of the “formal” reasons – a proper allocation of federal grants and budget in a manner that is proportional (or number-dependent) to the amount of people in each state. Indeed, the census determines, to a large extent, the amount of dollars each state would receive to fund its education, police, infrastructure, and, in fact, almost anything that receives federal support. In addition, there are several other reasons why the census is important today (see “Why [The Census] Is Important?” http://2010.census.gov/2010census/why/index.php ). 

Yet part of the reason so many people try to evade the census’ pollsters (and part of the reason the federal government had to recruit 600,000 strong to do the job) is that they fear additional knowledge would provide the government with additional power – too much power, perhaps – than needed in order to govern over its citizens. There’s a strong sense among some of the citizens that governmental knowledge equals governmental power, and absolutely accurate knowledge may lead to absolutely directed power. I would not like to dwell into this weak version of conspiracy theory, (“weak,” counter intuitively, because it does have some factual basis), but I would love to leave it to you to draw the proper analogy with the ancient ultimate pollster entity – and the reason why He was interested in the exact number.

The Prophecy: Hypothetical, Not Actual

From the census – a scientific, data-oriented, fact-based, empirical experiment – we move this week into the world of moral philosophy – the untested, hypothetical, purposively inaccurate realm of biblical prophecy.

This week’s Haphtarah – Hoshe’a 2:1 – begins with a statement that is quite contradictory to the subject-matter of this week’s portion: “And the number of the People of Israel has been like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted . . . [but God told them:] You are the children of the living God.” I will not dwell here on the heavier conundrum posed by the text – why would God have to wait until the Jewish People reached that nearly infinite number in order to break the good news to them (that they are the children of a living God), but instead concentrate on a much more mundane question:  Why does the actual portion text take so much pains to reach an accurate number, while the Haftara’s “prophecy version” insists on a number that is neither countable nor measurable?

The answer to this seemingly trivial question is actually quite profound, and stands at the heart of truly understanding the notion of Jewish prophecy. And this true understanding can be summarized in the wonderful phrase – appearing originally in the Tosaphot (Yevamot 50, 71) and invoked countless times by Leibowitz – that “the prophet engage in prophecy only for the matters that are ought to happen.” In other words, prophecy is not intended to describe the situation “as is” (descriptive), but rather intended to encourage certain desirable patterns of behavior (prescriptive). It tells us, in other words, in which direction we should go, not in which direction we are actually going.

Indeed, for thousands of years many of the prophecies written into the text did not come true – in fact, many have proved wrong over the years. But rather than seeing that as evidence of incompetence on the side of the prophets, those unsubstantiated prophecies should only serve as evidence of our own incompetence – of our own inability to live up to the prophets’ ideals. Still, those ideals are for us to reach, and they may always be there. And that, to a large extent, is the difference between the actual (census) and the hypothetical (prophecy). 

Shabbat Shalom,


Friday, May 18, 2012

Parashat Be'Har - Be'Chu'ko'tai

This week’s two portions – Be’har (literally, “at the mountain”), and Be’Chuku’tai (literally, “in my laws”) – mark the end of the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus.  Among others, these portions contain the famous laws of “shmi’ta” – the innovative idea that every seventh year the land itself has to rest, just like we humans who own it do every seventh day.  They also contain other, more familiar religious laws such as the prohibition on creating idols (Levit. 26:1), the decree to keep the Shabat (26:2), and others. 

And at the end of the Chapter 26 we find this dramatic concluding remark: “These are the statutes, laws, and doctrines that God provided between Himself and the Israelite People at Mount Sinai at the hand of Moshe.”  (26:46)

But other than those well-established rules, this week’s portions also discuss two very interesting concepts that are often less discussed in Judaism – that of business cycles and that of negative incentives for inappropriate behavior.  To me, both demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that very little has changed between the time the Torah was written and today. I will dedicate a very short discussion to each.

On Business Cycles and Old Recessions

The modern theory of business cycle – the notion that markets operate in stages, notably four: (1) expansion; (2) crisis; (3) recession; and (iv) recovery – was only developed in the twentieth century by pioneer economists like Joseph Schumpeter.  Yet the idea that economic activity operate in waves, and that sometimes people find themselves on top and sometimes on the bottom of economic success, is as old as the idea of market itself. 

This week’s portion is famous for its detail discussion of the laws of Sh’meeta, which I mentioned earlier – the careful consideration given to the soil, the main production resource of the time. In a limited sense, this too can be seen as a part of the notion of business cycle – here, the land must “rest” every seven years, and then begin again. To me, however, the more interesting part of the portion relates to the very detailed account of the rules that should apply when members of the community fall on hard economic times. For example, what is the law when your relative was forced to sell a part of their land, as he no longer can hold on to it? When a member of the community had to sell his lucrative residence located behind the protective walls of the city (the then-Upper East Side, perhaps) and to move to live outside the protective bounds of town? What happens to when out-of-protective-town homes are sold, as the owners can pay the mortgage? What happens when your relative losses his job and cannot make do? And so on and so forth. (Levit. 25:25-55) I hope that by now, some – if not all – of this sounds very familiar. An accurate description of the “biblical housing bubble,” if you will. 

Though the laws themselves are fascinating – providing, in essence, a model for market-created social safety net, including the (now famous) restriction on usury loans – I am more interested here in the very phenomenon of people who fell on hard economic times and how society should treat them (according to Judaism). This, to me, shows not only that a community-based approach and notions of shared responsibility were envisioned well before the Great Depression or the current economic crisis, but that the Jewish religion saw it as a moral and legal obligation to treat those people with dignity and fairness, and to provide them with hope for better economic times.  The message here is simple: You have to treat those people well today, because tomorrow you might be the one in need of that kind of help. The debate today over the creation of a new consumer protection agency, as well as the idea of “private” bail-out – a direct government assistance to people in need – are but a faint echo of this comprehensive set of laws created over  two thousand years ago to properly deal with the notion of business cycles and their effect. Once again, we can be proud of our wise sages (or God, or both) who identified a social issue and created a comprehensive way of dealing with it.

The “Sh’ma” and Sanctions for Bad Behavior

While business cycles are entirely a secular phenomenon – no God is involved in either their creation or the solution provided (with the proviso, of course, that everything is done in His command) – the next issue is anything but.

The Sh’ma – “Sh’ma Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad” – is by far the most famous of Jewish texts.  It consists of two parts, as Yeshayahu Leibowitz explains in length (also in English, see The Reading of Shema in Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State 37 (Harvard 1992)). The first part of the Sh’ma, which is presented as an absolute demand (or as a Kantian categorical imperative, for those who are interested in modern philosophy), requires every Jewish person to love the Lord our God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their might. (And Rabbi Akiva added: “with all thy soul – meaning that even when they come to take away your soul (i.e., to kill you) – you should still love Him.”)

I would not dwell here on the beautiful issue of why the word love was chosen to portray the desired – nay, decreed(!) – relationship between the person of faith and God. I would just suggest that love is the greatest human feeling of all, the strongest, the most expressive, and thus no other human emotion could be chosen for the task.

The second part of the She’ma is framed as a conditional demand (or, in Kantian terms, a conditional imperative). It begins with the words “And if you shall hear [Me],” and promises a set of rewards for those who would follow the ways of the Jewish Lord.  Leibowitz dwells here on the notion of “Lishma” and “Lo Lishma” (a faith for its own sake, which is the one mentioned in the first part, and a lesser, though much more prevalent, form of faith, to gain a reward, appearing in the second) – an issue I dealt with in previous posts. But for my purposes today, I would like to remark on what is missing from the Sh’ma.  The two sections (I omit here the third part of the Sh’ma, dealing with the Ts’tsit) describe no sanction, no punishment, no negative reward for the person who chooses not to follow the ways of God. 

That part is supplied by today’s portion. And in droves.

The portion of “Be’Chukutai” begins with the now-familiar text of “If you shall follow my laws, and keep my decrees . . . then I shall provide your rain in time (etc., etc.)” – much like the second part of the Sh’ma.  But then the text moves onto a third part that does not appear in the Sh’ma:

"But if you shall not listen to me, and shall not follow my decrees, and if you reject my rules and despise my laws . . . then I shall do the following onto you:" And here the text provides a parade of horribles, including plagues, wars lost, becoming slaves to enemy armies, a land refusing to give fruit, the death of domestic animals, and so on and so forth, including being forced to eat the very flesh of your own descendants. (Levit. 26:29).   

To me, that shows – once again – that not much has changed since the time the text was written. Yes, it is very nice to discuss categorical imperatives – doing things because they are right in and of themselves; or even to do something for anticipation of reaping the rewards – such as “if you will follow my laws, all the best will happen to you.” (As the second part of the Sh’ma is phrased). But at the end of the day, human nature is such that nothing would happen unless and until meaningful sanctions are put in place. And those sanctions, to be sure, must be such that would deter someone from doing the act.  Serious, big sanctions (and in this case, perhaps even cruel and unusual sanctions) should be put in place in order to deter unwanted behavior. And this is the role (well) played by the portion read this week. 

I would like to leave you with the following question, however: If this section is so important, so vital, so crucial to human behavior, why was it left outside the Sh’ma itself? Put differently, If you were sitting today in the Sanhedrin’s Knesset G’dolah (a religious legislative body that ceased to exist, but that had all the required authority to change the law) would you reintroduce this part of the text into the Sh'ma? Let me know your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom,


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Parashat Emor

This week’s portion, Emor – literally, “tell” as in “tell all the priests to…” – is very unique, both to me personally and to every thinking Jewish person more generally. It is personally unique to me as this is my “bar Mitzvah” portion.  It is (or should be) unique to every thinking Jewish person as it fully represents the stark contrast between the ancient written Torah text and the more current Halachic custom. I will shortly elaborate on each of these points in my notes today.

Text vs. Halacha: When Is Rosh Ha’Shana?

Suppose you had to pick just one portion that would include as many Jewish holidays as possible. Emor would easily be a top choice. This portion is practically a “Lonely Planet Guide to Jewish Holidays.” Beginning with the somewhat dramatic statement: These are the Holidays of the Lord – Readings of holiness that you shall read in their due course” (Levit. 23:4), the portion goes on to describe in great detail each of the major holidays: Passover (23:5-8); The counting of the Omer (of which we are currently in the midst) (23:15-22); Rosh Ha’Shana (23:23-25); Yom Kippur (23:26-32); and Sukkot (23:33-44).     

I will not go here through the intricate details of each of these Torah-mandated holidays. What is important to me today are the dates: Passover, according to the explicit text, is to be celebrated “on the first month at the fourteenth day of the month.” But Passover is not celebrated today on the first month – Tishrei; it is rather celebrated on the month of Nissan, the seventh month of the year.

Conversely, Yom Kippur, is celebrated today on the tenth day of Tishrei – the very first month of the current Jewish calendar; but according to the explicit text it is to be celebrated “on the tenth day of the Seventh month.” More importantly, between these two important holidays lies yet another holiday, in the beginning of that seventh month, in which the text requires us to cease all work.  Today this holiday is called “Rosh Ha’Shana” – the beginning of the year (or, more simply, “New Year’s”) – a name, by the way, that can be found nowhere in our portion (or anywhere else in the bible, for that matter).

But how can we celebrate the beginning of the year on the seventh month? In particular, how can the year begin not in the first month as is specifically prescribed by the text itself? Have we been wrong all these years? Should we move Rosh Ha’Shana to Passover?

In a way – a textual way – we have been wrong.  The term Rosh Ha’Shana (New Year’s) does not appear in the text. The holiday – which today marks the beginning of the Jewish year – is not designated as such by the text. Moreover, the first month of the year is not up in the air. According to the text, the month in which the Israelites left Egypt – Nissan, the month of Passover (of course) – is the first month of the year. So what is going on here?

Halacha O’keret Mikra – the Halacha overrides the biblical text – is the principle used to explain these (and many other) discrepancies. This week marks one of the most explicit cases where the customs devised by our sages stand in stark contrast to the biblical text itself. Today, we receive these Halachic commands, first iterated by the Mishna, as a binding (Jewish) law.  But you don’t have to be Justice Scalia – who can’t stand a law that has no strong textual basis – in order to pose a penetrating question: What is the basis of that? Who are those sages – and who appointed them – to overrule (or override) an explicit biblical text?

I am not able to answer these questions here. I am, however, able to suggest that an acceptance of such Halachic override may have far-reaching consequences both in terms of understanding what are the real sources of Jewish law, and, more profoundly, what does it mean to accept the “yoke of Torah and Mitzvot” – to accept Jewish law as a person of faith.  More on that in future posts. 

My Bar-Mitzvah’s Haftarah

It has been long ago – way too long, over three decades – since I stood in the then-new synagogue next to my parents’ home in Ramat Aviv (a small Tel-Aviv suburb), very nervous and anxious, preparing to read aloud my first (and so far only) public Haftara.  We just welcomed, four months earlier, a wonderful addition to our family – my younger brother Uri; I was so proud to carry him on my arms to shul for the first time. I will never know how I really did that day (in terms of proper reading). Everyone, of course, sang my praises, telling me I did great. Then again, what would you tell a young Bar-Mitzvah boy who just finished his readings (for which he prepared over several months)? That he did horribly? That he was barely understood, or almost not heard? Indeed, even in Israel – the “tell-it-as-it-is-and-in-your-face” country – we have our limits. Bar Mitvah is certainly one of those.

I have been to many Bar Mitzvahs ceremonies since, but every year I love to come back to my own Haftara – by the Prophet Ezekiel, of course (Ez. 44:15-31). Initially I was disappointed to read its text – it seems to deal with the mundane issue of the type of cloths priests should (and should not) put on prior to perform the holy task of serving God.

But then it hit me, several years later, that this text must mean much more than that. And indeed, thanks to my own “Rabbi,” Yeshayahu Leibovitz, I grew to understand that the text has profound – and indeed very relevant modern-day— implications. In essence, it requires the priests and Levites, when they enter into the “inner” sanctum, the holy of holiest places, to wear special (and very specific) clothes. But when they go back outside, “to the masses” as the text puts it, these same servants of God should again put on their regular clothes: “and they shall not consecrate the people in their [special] clothes.”

Why would the priests wear special clothes when no one can see them, but regular clothes when everyone does? The answer implies a fundamental principle of religious leadership adhered to, unfortunately, only by very few religious leaders today (in all religions equally, by the way): It is the idea that a religious leader is unique only to the extent – and during the period – that he or she are serving God; in all other measures, in all other respects, they are equal to all other people – and therefore should appear like that. In that manner, both them and the people would have a constant reminder that they are not “above all others” in any respect, except for the time they serve God.

But none of the religious leaders I know today – from the Pope to the Chief Rabbis to major Mullahs – would sacrifice their uniquely-looking garbs (or robes) for the “regular clothes” of the people. They rightly fear that “the people” would quickly reveal that, behind those gilded quilts, they may not be so different from any of us…

Shabbat Shalom,


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Parashat Acharei-Mot - Ke'doshim

This week’s pair of portions are A’ch’arei Mot (which means “after the death,” as in after the horrific death of two of Aharon’s sons for sacrificing the “foreign fire,” discussed in “She’mi’ni” several weeks back, that still has a lasting effect), and Ke’do’shim (which means Holy, as in “You shall be holy for I am Holy” said God).  Both contain some of the best life-guiding advice ever provided, thousands of years before the first “self-help” book was ever published. And they all, without exception, sound as fresh today as they did 3,000 years ago. 

Take, for example, the following: “You shall not curse the deaf, and before the blind you shall not place a hurdle” (the last one being extremely versatile; think of cookie-filled closet in the house of a person trying to loose weight (Levit. 19:14); “Do not carry injustice in a trial: do not favor the poor or show deference to the well-to-do; in justice you shall judge your peers.” (notice the early warning against “social engineering” at the trial level, on both ends) (Levit. 19:15); “You shall rise before the elderly, and show deference to the old” (enough said) (Levit. 20:32); “And when a foreign resident dwells among you, do not defraud him; as a citizen like you he shall be to you.” (pointing to the undocumented employees of old and the adverse treatment they already received back then); and finally, for those who wonder about the origin of the symbol of justice – the famous balanced scale – a reminder that Wall Street moguls were not the first to commit a devastating fraud on the financial markets: “Do not carry injustice in the law – falsely measuring size, weight, or capacity; you shall have a scale of justice – stones (weights) of justice, ruler of justice, and measurement of justice.” (Levit. 19:35).

But other than containing these – and many other – important lessons for life, the two portions are centered around two themes: first, the incest restrictions; and second, the notion of holiness.  I want to dedicate today a few words to each.

The Laws of Incest: What, and Why

In both portions, the laws of incest play a major role. In the first, we learn first of the general restriction – “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness (for) I am the Lord.” (Levit. 18:5). This general restriction – which, in my mind, should first and foremost be understood as a complete restriction against sexual relations with one’s own descendants – either sons or daughters, is followed by a very detailed list of less obvious examples of forbidden sexual relations, including sexual relations with one’s mother or father, with other wives the father may have, with sisters, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, and others. The list concludes with more general restrictions (not incest-related) of homosexuality and – separately – bestiality (hence the frequent erroneous link made by some self-righteous moralists between the two)(Levit. 18:6-23). 

The second portion mostly repeats that list of restrictions appearing in the first, but this time also adds the penalty attached. And that penalty – no surprises here – is mostly death. For example, “And a man who shall sleep with his father’s wife, exposing his father nakedness, both of them shall die, their blood upon them.” (Levit. 20:11) The same punishment awaits both persons engaged in homosexual relations (20:13); death by fire awaits a man taking a daughter and her mother (20:14); a “regular” death penalty is prescribed for a man engaged in bestiality (20:15); and so on.  Other punishments, presumably for less than full sexual intercourse, include excommunications or “cutting off” of the persons involved.

Much more interesting than the “what” contained in these two detailed lists, however, is the “why” – the religious explanation given by God himself for these restrictions.  One explanation to the prohibition is not to replicate the laws and customs of both Egypt (from where the Israelites have arrived)  or Cna’an (to where they are destined). Apparently, it seems that in both countries these acts were prevalent. Another explanation is that the land itself, according to God, became so “unpurified” by the prevalence of these acts, that it “spewed out” those sinners, presumably allowing the Israelites (who would not commit those acts) to come and settle in its midst. This is a fascinating humanization of the land, and one worth noticing on Earth Day (which we marked just recently).   

These two explanations are in fact one. They are two sides of the same coin. And they both relate to the notion of holiness in Judaism, on which I (again) want to say very few words next. 

The Notion of Holiness in Judaism                 

“You shall be holy for I am Holy, the Lord your God.” (Levit. 19:2).  Thus opens the second portion of this week (“Ke’do’shim – Holy); it is also one of the quintessential proclamations of the notion of Jewish holiness.  As I have explained before (based on Leibowitz, who, in turn, is based on the Rambam), the notion of holiness is not based on the fact Jews are superior in any way to other people in and of themselves; indeed, this is a prevalent mistake made by many Jews across history, and one that has caused many a misunderstanding for both Jews and non-Jews. Indeed, the equation:  We are Jewish, therefore we are holy is simply not true.

In fact, the notion of holiness in Judaism is properly based solely on the notion of holiness of God Himself: He alone is the only Holy entity; He and not us.  In order to become holy, too, Jewish people are supposed to commit wholeheartedly to two things: in the affirmative manner, they must follow all of His rules, decrees, and ordinances (613 of them) as they are detailed in the text; in the negative, they should never worship other Gods, and so many other people are doing. These two facets – the positive and negative – of the Jewish faith are the building blocks on which the notion of holiness stand. To the extent that Jews are not following God, or doing “as the rest of the people do,” they cannot claim their unique status.  But, and perhaps more importantly, to the extent they do, they are only holy in so far as the relationship between themselves and their God is concerned – not in any other dimension, including the oft-invoked Jews-non-Jews sphere.

So next time you encounter a self-proclaimed “holy” person, ask them: (1) Do you follow all of God’s rules?; and, if so, (2) Do you refrain from doing what other, non-Jewish people are doing? If so – and only if so – you can proclaim yourself “holy” in your own relationship with God, but nowhere else. Now, to be sure, such a status should be considered a huge achievement to every person of faith; but that is all that the achievement is. Holiness between (and among) men is not achieved in Judaism – neither achieved nor meant to be achieved.  This is an important lesson in humility. May all of you be holy in your standing before God today.

Shabbat Shalom.