Thursday, December 18, 2014

Judaism in Transition 1

Judaism in Transition  1  

As we approach Hanukkah, I ask: were the Maccabees Reform, Orthodox, Hasidic or Conservative?
Most people would say that they were the Orthodox Jews. After all they defended historic tradition and observance. However, as you will see soon, unlike the Orthodox, they did deviate from the path of tradition.
Very few would say they were Reform, especially Reform as it was in its very earliest stages, when Shabbat services were moved to Sunday in some synagogues. Yet, in one sense, they did set out to reform, in the sense of returning to original roots and intents, the original Temple worship.
Others would say they were like the Hasidim, full of fervor and emotion. However, while there were Hasidim in those days( called the “ First Hasidim” to differentiate form our modern Hasidim), they rejected Jewish society and fled to the wilderness as their response.
I will be Chutzpadik and say that they were truly Conservative! The definition of conservative, both in religion and politics, is to try to conserve that which has the weight of tradition while engaging in change that makes that conservation possible.
What did the Maccabees do?
They made the first major change in interpretation of Jewish law. The law, as it was understood then, stated that one rested on Shabbat even if attacked. The Hellenizers intentionally attacked observant Jews on Shabbat and slaughtered them.
The [Greeks] arose, suddenly, to fall upon [the Jews] on Shabbat, saying to them:  How long will you refuse to obey the king . . . .  And the men in their midst did not raise their hands to hurl a stone or to silence them . . . and they fell upon them on Shabbat and killed all those in the cave . . . about 1,000 people.
They said to one another: If we all act as our brothers have, and refuse to defend our lives and beliefs, we will shortly be destroyed.  They decided on that day: Whosoever will attack us on Shabbat, we will fight back; we will not die like our brothers in the caves.
( Maccabees 2: 29)
The Maccabees were the first to be recorded to introduce the concept of “pikuach nefesh”, that the saving of human life outweighs the command of rest, thereby reinterpreting an central tent of Biblical law.
The Macabees were the first to initiate a religious commemoration of a victory in battle . Purim itself did not gain universal observance till afterwards.
 Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev,n the days of the dedication* of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary.( Macabees 1 Ch 4)
This was Greek custom, never before mentioned or initiated by any Jewish leader in history till then.They went ahead and established another day, Nicanor Day- as a festival commemorating the victory over Greek General Nicanor.
As you see, in order to conserve tradition, they changed tradition.
That is how they enabled us to make it through one of our first crises in post-Biblical history.
According to the Pew Report, we Jews are in a crisis. We have been in a crisis since before the Maccabees,  after the Maccabees, and ever since. It is like the old joke of the store that has a sign” We are celebrating our 50th Anniversary of Going Out of Business.”
We will still be celebrating our crisis a thousand years from now.
I think that as we think through what has gone on in past Jewish history we can get an idea of what needs to be going on today and towards the future. As Solomon Schechter, one of the seminal figures of our movement stated, “ Whatis past is prologue.”
So I go for my thoughts to a non-Jew, to George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright and Englishman who  once quipped,” The  only one man who knows that I have changed is the tailor. He measures me every time he sees me.”
What Shaw quipped about himself is true, not only for himself, and not only for people in general, but for social and religious groups as well, and we Jews are no exception.
What is startling is to realize how continuous and in-depth our change is. What I wish to do is to put away the notion that some Orthodox claim that all was well and good until the Reform and Conservative came along to water things down. I don’t by any means intend to disparage my fellow Jews, especially Jews who do make an effort to live as closely to Jewish observances possible, but we do have to have a serious discussion as to what is or is not original or authentic in Judaism.
So over the course of the next several sermons I am going to examine events that shape Judaism in its great disarray in modern times, and why Judaism has sprung so many variations like the many heads of the hydra monster. We can’t avoid it because all the surveys like the recent  Pew Report come to repeat basically what is been happening over the last two centuries.
It is common in Conservative circles to speak of tradition and change. One thing we need to realize though is that since Judaism is a 4000 year old heritage, we have a long chain of tradition and change comes slowly and often delayed after the cause but it comes. If the Jewish quip is that 1000 years in the eyes of God is like but a day, so too in Jewish history a 1000 years is but a day.
For example, there are two major events that have affected Jewish consciousness within the lifetimes of many of us here in this room – the Holocaust and the birth of Israel.
Only in the last decade or so, in other words more than half a century after these events, did we begin to see organize communal celebrations, commemorations and observances relating to both events..
Take a look at the prayer book that we have still in our services today ( Silverman edition). It was  published just after the Holocaust and has been reprinted many times since. Yet with the exception of a few additional readings at the end of the book, it is as if nothing ever happened. To a great extent that’s true with the high holiday Silverman Mahzor that we still use. These prayer books, as well written as they were, were still addressing issues that  came up 50 and 100 years before their time. The Conservative movement only began to address these newer issues in the last few decades and they influenced the language of the two revised High Holy Day prayer books that have been issued since.
I say this not to pick on my movement but to highlight how long it takes for responses to major events to gel and make their way into the Jewish world today. Perhaps it will be different today with Internet and smart phones but we will not know that for another century.
I can go back even further two centuries or more ago. If we are still absorbing the impact of events that took place 60 and 70 years ago, we need to keep in mind that we are still absorbing the impact of events that took place two centuries ago or more.
Two centuries ago the gates of the ghettos were first thrown open to the Jews of Western Europe, and for the Jews of Eastern Europe, only a little over a century ago. For the great mass of Jews of Europe the gates really were open only when they landed at Ellis Island.
We are still feeling fully the effects of an open society, the breakdown of the traditional Jewish communal structure, its effects on Jewish identity, institutions, family, traditional values and the like.
Now if I go back to that prayer book we have printed and reprinted from the 40’s to the 70’s,  it was dealing with issues that took place with the rise of the Enlightenment in Europe of the 1700s. I don’t know how much schools teach the idea of the Enlightenment anymore (the current intellectual climate tells us that we don’t take dead white men seriously any more), but certainly it was the great earthshaking movement of ideas that change both the Christian and Jewish world and perhaps only now is changing the Moslem world as well ( with as bloody consequences as had been in Europe till the middle of the last century.)
So what did that mean, Enlightenment, and the Hebrew version, Haskalah? Intellectually, it was putting every article of faith and belief under the critical blade of reason and science. Every established truth was now open to question. Politically it was even more significant for us. We had a special term, “Emancipation.” It was the same word “Emancipation” that President Lincoln used in his Emancipation Proclamation to free African slaves in America and it was the same word “Emancipation” used to mean the freeing of serfs from their lords in Europe centuries before. We Jews, it should be recalled we at best a tolerated alien nation and at worst, “servae camera”-serfs or slaves of the court.  It now meant that France would declare.” We must refuse to the Jews as a nation everything and refuse to the Jews as an individual nothing.” The Jew was no longer to be an alien nation, under separate laws and subject to the ruler, but a Frenchman or  German or an Englishman( at least on paper). It would mean Napoleon forcing open the gates of the Frankfurt ghetto, it would mean the Germans granting citizenship to Jews in 1870, it would mean the Austrians actually recognizing Jews as being legitimately married and not bastards in Austrian law, and it would mean the creation of the largest body of Jews in history to live in the wealthiest and most open society in history. None of this happened overnight and many times the freedom was taken back but the shock to the Jewish system stayed.
Now I am going to say that 60 years or 200 years is still too new. That I say because Jews were at that time still shaking from events that took place 400 years ago! So when we speak of modern Judaism we don’t just go to 1948 with the rise of Israel or 1776 with the American Revolution. We must go back to the 1500s and the 1600s. We’ve been in a crisis for 4 or 5 centuries!
We Jews don’t live in a vacuum and events that took place in the world affect us at all times.
So what is happened to change the world?
Printing came into its own and it made it made possible the spread of new thoughts and the challenge to the system. The most radical of all books of its time and the first book to be printed was the Bible. (Unfortunately for the Mediterranean world the Turkish Sultan felt threatened by printing and soon shutdown all printing presses, blocking scientific advancement. The Moslem world has been paying the price for this act ever since.) With the spread of the Bible came the spread of the ideas of the Bible. The institutions of religion were attacked from within- Luther, Kalvin, Zwingli-- succeeded in destroying the binding authority of traditional religion by the Reformation. Europe was torn apart by religious wars, until it was agreed upon that whoever is the Prince- that’s the religion.( Cuius region-eius religio) No more war for religion.
They were great economic changes. There was the creation of a modern middle-class and even the first waves of inflation. Economic prosperity was now built upon religious ideals that emphasized the work ethic and initiative as preached in Switzerland or Scotland.
Science now attacked religion from the outside. Galileo for example upset the foundations of theology. The church was the center of Christendom just as the earth was the center of the solar system. When Galileo suggested the earth moved, it was widely understood that society moved as well.
Well, we might ask, what did it really matter? After all we Jews lived very much to ourselves, we read our own books, and we lived in our own circles. What did it really matter what was going on in the outside? Indeed some Jews still take that attitude, such as in Bnai Brak in Israel or New Square in New York. However the great poet of Germany, the Jew who went to the baptism font in a cynical move to advance his career but never meant it, Heinrich Heine , stated,” as the Christians, go so go the Jews.” (Wie es Christelt sich, so juedelt es sich.) Or as it was stated supposedly by Mark Twain or supposedly by an anonymous Rabbi or supposedly by Heine himself “Jews are like everyone else only more so.”
So while these tumultuous events were taking place in Christian Europe, there were equally tumultuous events taking place in the Jewish world. The most famous, and in some senses the equivalent of the Holocaust in its day, was the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The results took a century to impact on the Jewish world.
At the same time that Jews were developing a more uniform code of observance, something made possible by the rise of the printing press and the publishing of the Shulkhan Aruch, Jewish belief went through a major trauma. There was the rise of the  Kabbalah of the Ari in the land of Israel in the town of  Tsfat. In this kind of thinking God was no longer completely in charge. God was in trouble. It required the Jew to redeem God and the universe, not to be redeemed by God . This was a highly radical and revolutionary perspective , certainly as great a shift as the development of rabbinic Judaism  1500 years earlier or the solid rationalism espoused by the great Jewish philosophers 500 years before.
Similarly, there was the terrible disaster inflicted upon the Polish Jewish world by the Cossack uprisings under Chmielnitzki, with concomitant massacres of Jewish communities in Poland and Ukraine.
Within a century, the Jewish world would again be shattered as a result of this Kabbalah by the appearance of the new Messiah, Shabtai Zvi. He was a manic-depressive and fraud who led the entire Jewish world into believing that as the Messiah he could save the faith only by becoming a Muslim. Jewish faith was never again the same. The traditionalists closed rank and delve deeper into the world of Talmud  and began to with draw from contact with the outside world. The radicals began to draw away from Judaism altogether in this Sabbatean movement and lived outwardly Jewish lives but inwardly were radically heretics. Its most extreme version was the appearance shortly afterwards of Jacob Frank who claimed the new Messiah, convinced the Catholic Church to accept him and his followers while leading a cult of orgy. That was in Poland.
So again we have responses to these developments. And all this is before we actually get to the Enlightenment and Emancipation. We have the development of extreme piety, Hasidism, and with it a rebellion against the rabbis, against the scholars and against the Jewish ideal of study. It is instead an emphasis on emotionalism and semi-magical charismatic figures of a Rebbe or tsaddik.  It is the creation a vibrant and  emotional cult, which brings new life into Jews of east Europe but also brings a closing of the mind. We have also the formal Orthodox reaction to the new world, with the declaration by one of the great scholars and thinkers of the Talmudic world. Rabbi Mosche Schreiber, Chatam Sofer as he was known, of Pressburg, now Slovakia: Kol HaChadaah- assur mid’oraita—All that which is new is forbidden in principal in the Torah.
It is in response to these shocks, that Jews react. One way was to the baptism font, or to the revolutionary political parties. There is a legend that says that the sea floor near Ellis Island is strewn with the tefillin of Jews who realized that they were free of tradition and threw their religion overboard.
In the midst of this were those Jews who saw what was happening, realized that the horse was out of the barn, but would still find an avenue to remain rooted in Judaism while being part of this Brave New World. This would be seen in the rise of reform, neo-Orthodoxy, Conservative, movements from a religious perspective and the rise of a new nationalism, like Zionism or the Bund, Yiddish nationalists.

Now, I know that I have competely muddied the waters for us. Next time, I will begin to put the muddle back into place. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Red Tent- Rethinking Jewish Women and Other Contemporary Issues

Red Tent - Rethinking Jewish Women and other Contemporary Issues
  Vayishlach 2014
            I am so happy that Lifetime is airing The Red Tent. Not because it is the greatest piece of television drama ever made—We are waiting see Christian play Moses the Hebrew in Exodus for that—but because it gives me a reason to go into the issue of the status of women in Judaism and from that how we come to our standards and positions on all modern issues while trying to remain loyal to the foundations of Judaism.
            To start quite simply, so much of the story of Jacob is as well the story of the relation of man and woman. Last week, we had Jacob working for the two wives, Rachel and Leah and the competition between the two of them for Jacob’s love.
            I mentioned a popular Israel song , by Ehud Manor, who tries to turn history on its head: Jacob sings ” Ani Ohev Otach-Leah”.” I love you, Leah!”
Et oto haboker lo esh'kach . . .
That very morning I won't forget /when you hid your head in the pillow
the sunlight rested on the tent/and my head is beaten by drunkenness. . .
Behold, many days passed/and my hands grew tired
and how beautiful your eyes/like Rachel's eyes.
I love you Leah/love you proudly/if I forget you Leah/my name isn't Yisrael.”

            This portion is full of the troubles between male and female.
            In this portion, we have the story of the rape of Dinah, the only known daughter of Jacob, by the young prince of Shechem, and then the horrendous massacre under the ruse of peace, of the town’s folk by Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi. When their father protests, they retort” Ha ke Zonah Yaaseh Ahoteynu”—Would they make prostitutes of our sisters!
            As much as the bloodshed is abhorrent, the victim is innocent in the Bible. She is defended. Not so in the Middle East of today. This is form CNN about Saudi Arabia, from a 2007 report of how rape is handled:
“The case, which has sparked media scrutiny of the Saudi legal system, centers on a married woman. The 19-year-old and an unrelated man were abducted, and she was raped by a group of seven men more than a year ago, according to Abdulrahman al-Lahim, the attorney who represented her in court.
The woman was originally sentenced in October 2006 to 90 lashes. But that sentence was more than doubled to 200 lashes and six months in prison by the Qatif General Court, because she spoke to the media about the case, a court source told Middle Eastern daily newspaper Arab News.”(CNN report).
At least our Jewish Bedouins understood that the victim of rape is not the guilty party!
            Jacob then goes through the loss of his mother’s nursemaid, Devorah; it is an emotional trauma as he calls her burial place” Alon Bechut”,” The Oak of Crying”. It only gets harder, because he next loses his beloved Rachel, just as she gives birth to Benjamin.
            In next week portion, it is now Joseph who is assaulted and almost raped by Potiphar’s wife and then he is thrown in jail as he takes the fall for her. You can see that abuse can be a two way street, as happened recently in the unfounded rape accusations at UVA ! Next Judah has an affair unknowingly with his own daughter-in-law; she unjustly accuses her but she now proves to be the righteous one in this case! What a twist!
            It is all in the family. Who needs a soap opera or a TV melodrama when the original is so convoluted.
            I don’t need to go into the details of the TV’s drama, which is based on the book, The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. While she tried to reflect life as it may have been some 3600 years ago in a shepherd’s encampment, it is, like all Bible dramas, a rewrite of long-lost times through the lens of todays’ presumptions.           
            Everyone likes to rewrite Bible in their own perspective, and certainly feminism and the change of women’s status is an understandable perspective. It is not just on our side of the Bible. As much as the figures of our side of the book are family figures, with such human foibles, on the Christian side of the divide, Jesus is portrayed as immune to being mired in family affairs. He is born free of original sin, which includes what we call in Jewish terminology, the Yetzer Hora, human libido. That means that his representatives must themselves be celibate and unmarried.
            That’s why people jump today at the prospect that they may find hints of a personal life for Jesus. For example, recently, an ancient Coptic fragment of an original text of the Gospels was discovered, and it revealed Jesus referring to Mary, perhaps Mary of Migdol, as his wife. Ah, wonderful, headlines, Harvard Review, TV documentaries, publicity. Except it was a fake and the accusations are flying as to who created the forgery—those who want priests to marry, such as liberal Catholics or Mormons, or those who want to defend the prohibition on women as priests and celibacy and planted it as a trap to embarrass the liberals.
            Frankly, as Jews, we are constantly rewriting the Bible from a 2nd century perspective, or an 11th century perspective or 18th century or 21st.
            There is a phrase that is very appropriate. It is “ Dor, Dor, v’ Dorshav”, a play on sounds: Generation after generation and its interpreters.  The big difference, for us as Jews, in dealing with our Scriptures, is that we claim the concept of Torah She Bikhtav, the Torah,as it is written, and Torah She Ba’al Peh, The Torah as it has been explained over the generations. It is a revolutionary concept, because it allows us to separate the text, the Pshat, from the meaning, the Drash. It is the joker card in the deck.
            There is no question that the position of women in Judaism changed in many ways over the centuries and that “ Dor , Dor v’Dorshav”—each generation’s interpretation is legitimate because it arises in response to its needs.
            Let’s go back to Dinah—she is by the way, a very central character in this TV drama. She is described ” Va Teytzey Dinah bat Leah” .” And Dinah daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob went out to see the daughters of the land.”(34:1) This is in and of itself from the perspective of the Bible narrative a very understandable action--understandable for the people who lived in the time of the Bible. They were still to a great extent shepherds or farmers and in such a society, a woman could, like Devorah, give commands to the generals in battle or go out a herd the sheep themselves.
Our Rabbis however, were merchants to a great extent and they lived in cities. Life in cities was very much more constricting for women than it was in agricultural or sheepherding society. The shift was expressed already in Proverbs ,”Kol kevudat bat melech pnimah”, “The glory of a princess is within her home.” In other words a woman of status did not go out into the streets; her life was in the house especially if she was of a prominent family. Maimonides, very much the rationalist, who is seen as the intellectual father of modern Jewish thought, taught that a proper Jewish woman should not go out of the house more than once a month!
For that reason when the Torah says “Dina went out” it raises a question. What is a good Jewish girl doing out to the streets on her own?
The Rabbis further asked “ why is Dinah called the daughter of Leah”. Don’t we already know it?”
            So they say that in this way, Dinah is like her mother Leah, because Leah is also described as going out to greet Jacob with almost the same wording, when she has the mandrake roots she got from her sister Rachel and goes out to greet Jacob and take him into her tent. The Rabbis next raised the question, “Does that mean that our mother Leah is a prostitute”? They are quite flustered at this and solve the problem of Leah’s case, because she was going to do a mitzvah and she was rewarded with male sons. In Dinah’s case, with the same word for going out, it was clear she was not going to her husband! She was going out on the town with the local girls! A shande!( Talmud Megila 18 a).  
            Today, in our economy and society, we would be absolutely incapable of understanding this perspective. We are used to the idea of an ideal Jewish woman as Golda Meir, commanding forces, like Deborah of old, in war.  Indeed, except for the very few die-hards among Haredim,  the ultra-Orthdodox minority,  even among the ultra-Orthodox, Jewish women are very much on the outside. The dean of the Orthodox college that meets downstairs is a woman and even in Hasidic circles, it is common for the woman to be the one to put the bread on the table.
            Even in Rabbinic law, there are now women in the  Rabbinic courts in Israel who are “ Toenet Rabbanit”—Legal advocate in Rabbinic cases such as divorce.
            You can see from this how a change in history and economics changes the perspective of the woman’s status. Even for those who follow the idea of the eternity and immutability of Jewish law, Tempus Mutandis, times change, or, in the Rabbinic phrasing,”Hamakom gorem v hasha’ah goremet” Time and place determine the application of the law.
            Let’s go back to Dinah and going out and about town.
             In Jewish society, men and women led separate lives. It was especially so in the synagogue, which was seen as the man’s territory.
            This separation of the sexes was so strong in Jewish circles, that the Reform movement, the embodiment of liberalism, in Germany, still kept women in the balcony till the Holocaust. An American Jew, it is said, came to Hamburg, the seat of militant Reform, around the 1840’s, and offered a million marks donation if they would allow mixed seating. The Rabbi rejected it as an insult.” In the Hamburg Temple, men and women remain separated to the very end!”
            It was only when Reform came to America, that things shifted. American Protestants also had separate seating and the idea of mixed seating, what was called family pews, spread slowly. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise tried to push mixed seating in the choir,  but ”the girls objected strenuously to sitting among the men!”  The first synagogue with mixed seating came about by accident when his synagogue in Albany moved into a former church building and the seating style had no setup for separating men from women. Mixed seating did not become prevalent in Conservative circles until the middle of the 20th century, when the great scholar and defender of traditional Halacha, Prof.  Louis Ginsberg, essentially threw in the towel on the battle and declared,”when you have lived long enough in America, you realize that the status of woman has changed so much that separating women from men has become obsolete.”(from Jonathan Sarna , in Jack Wertheimer’s The American Synagogue). Now, it is accepted to have women as Rabbis, women as Cantors.
            You can see how much has shifted and how much our Jewish perspective has changed in the course of a century and a half in regards to women. In the perspective of Jewish history, this is considered an overnight wonder!
            So, we approach a time and a place, in which not only women’s issues but many other critical issues, much more critical than when we open the ark, are at hand. What is family, what is life and death, and soon, we may be asked, what is human versus machine. Can we provide answers to life’s critical issues?
            I want to approach in future discussions, what we mean by Jewish law and custom, what remain permanent and consistent and what has been subject to change, and what we mean by Conservative Judaism, which has as its motto, the contradiction of “Tradition and Change.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chayeh Sarah The Valuable Lesson of Camels

Chayeh Sarah    The Valuable Lesson of Camels

Eliezer on his camel?
            Have you ever given thought to the important role that camels played in the Bible. Thus camels are used by the wandering Midianites who bring Joseph to Egypt and again camels are used by the Midianite enemies of Israel in the time of Gideon. But in our Torah portion, the camel is a very important element for it is at the core of the great test of  the bride for Isaac.

            There is an unusual tidbit about the origins of the camel at least according to Bedouin legend.
            “The Bedouin of Arabia have a strange legend about the origins of the camel. According to them, it was the Jews, not the Bedouins who had camels first in antiquity. The legend says that the Jews lived in the mountains of the Hijaz, while the Bedouins lived in the deserts.”   The Bedouins were lost …. Until “ they came to a plain where the Jews lived.
            “When they came to the plain, surrounded by hills, they discovered the many tents of the Jews. In front of the tents were strange animals that the Bedouin had never seen before. These were camels, known to the Bedouin as al-vil. The Bedouins hid until sunrise and then attacked the Jews in the early morning by surprise. The Jews fled by every possible means, and with them, they took their female camels. The Bedouin then chased the group of Jews, defeated them, and took their female camels. Since that time the Jews have had no camels to raise, and instead became farmers or tenders of sheep and goats. “
            The legend continues to say that the Jews would put out buckets of water, hoping to draw the camels back to them.” From this story the ancient Bedouin proverbs developed for something one does not expect to attain or achieve, rajw al-hihuud min al-bil. or "the Jews hope for the camels." (

            This curiosity tells us that while the Arabs may be angry at the Jews for stealing Arab land, we have a claim against them for stealing our camels!
            Bible critics have had a heyday with camels because archaeological evidence seemed to indicate that camels weren’t used intensively till the ninth century before the common era. Thus they claim that the writers of the Bible use the word gamal, camel, only because that’s what the audience knew, like saying “ car” for a story about horse and buggy times. However, the story of Gideon fighting the Midianites really makes sense only in describing people who knew and used the camel for warfare and that account predates the time set by these archaeologists by two centuries. Even more, newer archaeological evidence do show references to camels and pictures of people riding camels in Mesopotamia dating back to the time of Abraham. That evidence puts the camel back into play in our account!
            We have this popular and well known story of Abraham sending his trusted servant, Eliezer of Damascus, to his home town of Haran to find a wife for his son.  In the Bible, the well is core of civil life. In a world without water faucets, no bottled water, and no canned coke, getting water plays a central role in society and becomes a metaphor for all that sustains life. Therefore, Eliezer will meet Rebecca at the well, a generation later Jacob will meet Rachel at the well, and then Moses will meet Zipporah at the well. Clearly, the well is eHarmony or JDate of its day. It is also extensively used as a metaphor for the spiritual nourishment needed— U Shavtem Mayim be  Sason,” You shall draw water with joy,” Mi Maayanei Hayeshua, “From the fountains of salvation”.(Isaiah 12:3)
            Let’s ask ourselves now. Why did Abraham go out of his way to send for a bride from his homeland? Was it just that he wanted his boy to marry into his faith? After all his family was not Jewish; they were all idol worshipers while he was the lone monotheist in the group. .
            Why would he not have his son marry one of the local Canaanite women? After all he had developed some friendly relations with the locals as it was shown just a chapter before when he negotiated with the people of Hebron for a burial place for Sarah. Did he look down on the Canaanites as racially inferior? Was it a reflection of the accusation later made by anti- Semites who claimed that Jews don’t allow intermarriage because they don’t want alien blood?
            He is afraid of the influence of the Canaanite culture.
             Abraham is the epitome of kindness to strangers; only a few chapters before we had seen the worst of cruelty in the behavior of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. The culture of Canaan is also described in the Bible as a culture of sexual license. Abraham is concerned with shaping progeny who were dedicated and loyal and neither trait would be fit for his children.

            We’re all familiar with the test that Eliezer devises to identify the right woman and it raises lots of questions. For example, some of our rabbis asked “Isn’t this an act of divination or of going to an oracle?” You create some test and if the test comes to be then you know that’s your answer? That goes against the teachings of the Bible that we do not use acts of divination.
            It was also, they said, in itself, an unfit request. What if the woman that carried this out was unfit for marriage? Never make an oath that you might regret!
            Rather should see this not as an act of fortune-telling but as a kind of entry exam, let’s say it’s an S A T test not for college but marriage instead.
            What is nature of the test?
            Drawing water for a stranger is, by itself, not so unusual. It would have been a common courtesy to a stranger in those days.
            But in our day? Could imagine all the possible answers that Rebecca could have given if she was one of our modern teenagers?
            “You’re standing near the well, you can go draw it yourself.”
            “I just finished going to the well. Why don't you get one of the girls who has just arrived to help?”
            “I just got the pitcher up on my shoulder; get it down by yourself.”
            The test becomes a real test when we realize what it involves.
            Have any of you ever been on an archaeological tour Israel where you are taken to see ancient wells. You know they are you deep and cavernous circular pits in the ground with staircases cut into the rock going all the way down. It’s not our common depiction of the well with a crankcase attached to a water bucket. You had to go down down down with your bucket and then up up up with a bucket full and heavy.
The great pool of Gibeon, cut from rock, measures 37 feet in diameter and 35 feet deep. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.
Here's an unusually large cistern
             This mystery woman( or girl) is described as descending into the ancient well of that time  so to draw the water is a major effort.
            Where does she have to bring the water? The watering trough is not next to the well but at a distance, so she is described as running, not walking!
            Eliezer only asks for water for himself. She offers not only to give him water but to draw water until all the camels have finished drinking!
            Eliezer is stunned and we can only understand this when we do the arithmetic for watering camels.
            It turns out that a camel drinks about 25 gallons of water a shot and Eliezer has 10 gallons. That means a total of 250 gallons and if we assume she can carry 5 gallons bucket seven trip, then that is 50 trips up and down the steps of that the well and to the watering trough. Now that is a prayer fulfilled.
            It is now clear for us how Rebecca is so very different from the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. When strangers come to Sodom and Gomorrah they are almost gang raped and killed. When the stranger comes to Rebecca he is nourished. That makes clear why the heir to Abraham’s vision cannot be from the Canaanite peoples but only be from someone like Rebecca.
            Here is the person who runs to help, offers aid without expecting a
tit for tat, without asking “What’s in it for me”, or” why should I bother?”. Here is the ideal one who does not say “call on somebody else.”
            So we can see how much we owe to these camels, because through them, we find a match made in heaven. Perhaps Rebecca was the originator of the slogan, “I’ld walk a mile for a Camel”( but the cigarette people used it the wrong way.)
            We can all use more Rebeccas.
            People of her time may have thought of her as a fool to go out of her way for a stranger, but  I want to respond to it with a quote from Pirke Avoth in the name of Akabya ben Mehalelel:
            “Better that I be called a fool all my life than that there be one moment of wickedness on my account in the presence of God.”
            Let's all choose to be called fools; lets all be like Rachel.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Father and Son - A follow up to my Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Parshat Vayera

Father and Son - A follow up to my Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Parshat Vayera

            I hope you remember my sermon on Rosh Hashanah. It was on the possible interpretations of the Binding of Isaac, which is part of the Torah reading today, Vayera, as well as the core of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading.
            As you know, the function of the reading is to reassure us that God will hear us and pardon us and save us, just as he saved Isaac from death. Hence, the Ram’s horn, the Shofar, as a reminder of the Ram offered in Isaac’s place.
            A friend of mine asked me, quite rightly, how can it be possible to test Abraham’s loyalty as the expense of Isaac? It is, to borrow a metaphor,” I will fight to the last drop of his blood. “Extreme ideologists seem to adhere to this, as Hamas left the children on the rooftops to face Israelis missiles  while they themselves sat in their bunkers in safety.
            However, as we see, God spares Isaac and Abraham is stopped, with the message that it is all a test and the test can never come at the expense of an innocent’s life.
            Still, we have a legitimate concern. Doesn’t Abraham care for the life of his son Isaac? Doesn’t he care for the anguish and terror that Isaac suffers? He cares for the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not a bit for his own innocent son?
            I can only think that to understand this reading calls for a suspension of disbelief. In other words, we must assume, for the sake of the argument, that the issue of Isaac’s life and suffering is put aside, that for the sake of debate, at this point, Isaac is a cipher, an inanimate object, or at most, another sheep (which  is offered in his stead). It is a test of Abraham, not whether he will kill his son, but whether he is willing to lose the very promise of the future that God gave him, for the sake of faithfulness to God. Faithfulness to God leads him to plead on behalf of the wicked and faithfulness to God leads him to be willing to lose all that he has, Isaac.
            We can allow ourselves this luxury as, from the hindsight of history, we are descended from Isaac, and we have read the book, so we know the happy ending. After all, it is a test of Abraham, not Isaac, not whether he is willing to murder, but whether he is willing to lose it all.  
            I want to take this Shabbat to read with you some ancient and modern variations on the story of the Akedah, as each generation saw itself in the account as either Abraham or Isaac.


I turn first to the Midrash

The Torah tells us that God called to Abraham,”Take your son.”
“ But I have two sons! Which son?”
Your only son!
“But both are the only son, one for one mother, one for the other mother.”
The one whom you love!
“Are there limits to my love? I love both.”
,Abraham and Isaac approach the selected sight of the slaughter.
Isaac says to his father:” My father, my father.” What prompted it after 3 days of silence?
The angel of death approached Abraham:” Old man, old man, have you lost your heart? The son who was born to you at the age of one hundred--You are about to slaughter him!”
“Even so.”
“Isn't he testing you beyond your Iimits?”
“ I can stand even morel!”
“If tomorrow, he accused you of murder, for murdering your son?”
“Even so!”
The angel of death realized that he could get nowhere with Abraham and  proceeded with Isaac.
“ Son of the poor, saddened woman, this man is going to slaughter you!
“Even so!”
But think of all those trinkets and goodies your mother made for you. Your hated brother, Ishmael, will inherit them all, and you will get nothing !
At this point Isaac began to have his doubts. Then he said “My father, My father.”

How willing was Abraham to commit his deed?
When God said “Do not set your hand on the lad, Abraham was stunned!”
“Yesterday you promised me that my descendants would come through my son Isaac! Then you told me to take my son for an offering! Now you say do not do them any harm! What is going on?”
God replied,” I do not annul  my covenant nor change my words. When I told you to take your son I did not say “Kill him”! I said “Bring him up to me!” I told you to bring him up and you followed my directions. Now you bring him down.”
The midrash continues. To what can this be compared? To a king who told his dearest friend, “Bring me your son to my table. He brings him his son and brings his knife as well. Says the King.” Did I tell you to bring him here in order to eat him. I told you to bring them here because he is dear to me!”

Thus, Abraham was never asked to kill Isaac—it was the fruit of his own over-eagerness to please God!
During the Crusades, nearly a millenia ago, would-be-heroes discovered
that it was far easier to gain glory and honor by killing Jews at home than by traversing thousands of miles of sea and land to face the powerful Moslem armies in the land of Israel.
Entire Jewish communities were surrounded, locked into their synagogues, and were offered the choice of conversion to Christianity, or death.
They chose death, in sanctification of God's name, and saw themselves as the real Isaacs being offered on the altar. In many cases, entire communities committed suicide, and fathers literally drew the slaughterer's knife across the necks of their own children.
These are the words of those who witnessed it:
0 Lord, mighty One, dwelling on high!
Once, over one Akedah, Ariels cried out before Thee. But now how many are butchered and burned?
Why over the blood of children did they not raise a cry? .
Before that patriarch could in his haste sacrifice his only one,
It was heard from heaven: Do not put forth your hand to destroy.
But now how many sons and daughters of Judah are slain—
While yet He makes no haste to save those butchered nor those cast on the flames.'

On the merit of the Akedah at Moriah once we could lean,
Safeguarded for the salvation of age after age—
Now one Akedah follows another, they cannot be counted."
How the outcry of the children rises!
Trembling, they see their brothers slain.
The mother binds her son lest he be blemished as he startles,
The father makes a blessing before slaughtering the sacrifice.
To their mothers in grief the tender children say,
Offer us up as a whole burnt offering! We are wanted on high!
With their fathers the sturdy young men plead,
Quick! Hurry to do our Creator's will! . .
His father tied him who was offered on Mount Moriah,
Who prayed he should not kick and disqualify the slaughter.
But we without being tied are slain for His love . ( From Spiegel, The Last Trial)

 In the lifetimes of many of us here, the entire Jewish people was once again confronted with an Akedah—the destruction of one third of all Jewry during the nightmare of the Shoah. This Shabbat is also the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, so this is an appropriate theme. This experience set the tone for modern Jewry's view of the Akedah-for a Jewry no longer willing to see itself as sacrificed by God's will.
The following is the interpretation by the Israeli poet, Amir Gilboa, who wrote Isaac in 1953
Toward morning the sun strolled in the forest •
Together with me and with father.
My right hand was in his left.
Like lightning flash, a knife between the trees
And I fear the terror of my eyes opposite the blood on the leaves.
Father, Father, come quickly and save Isaac
That no one may be missing at the noon meal.
It is I who am slaughtered, my son,
And my blood is already on the leaves.
Father's voice choked. His face grew pale.
And wanted to scream, writhing not to believe
And I opened my eyes wide
And I awoke.
Bloodless was my right hand.
(Translated by Miriam Arad)
Veteran’s Day leads us to  a contemporary version, written in the shadow of the Vietnam War era by song writer and  poet, Leonard Cohen.
The door it opened slowly
My father he came in
I was nine years old
And he stood so tall above me
Blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
Said, "I've had a vision,
And you know I'm strong and holy
I must do what I've been told."
So he started up the mountain
I was running he was walking
And his ax was made of gold.
The trees they got much smaller
The lake a lady's mirror
We stopped to drink some wine
Then he threw the bottle over
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar
He looked once behind his shoulder
He knew I would not hide.

You who build the altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By demon or a god.
You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before.
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
Just according to whose plan?
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war -
The peacock spreads his fan.
The last selection of readings for the Akedah deals with the psychology of feelings rather than faith. It looks at the Akedah as a personal familial event which every father and mother, daughter and son, passes. Hence the following interpretation of the Akedah by by the contemporary American Jewish poet Ruth Brin
I dreamed that my first-born of Sara
would be the father of a great nation,
a nation as numerous as the sands of the sea,
as bright as the stars of heaven.
I taught him to be a chieftain
but I forgot that God demands of us our first-born.
It is easier when they are infants,
but now I know the lad, slender and quick;
he leans against me and my hand rests on his
curly head.      
How can I do what I must do?
Oh my God! I would give back every promise
Thou hast made me
for the life of my son, my only son, Isaac!
My father led me up the mountain,
tied me down on the uneven faggots
with my head thrown back.
I saw his hand, the knuckles white,
clutching the knife with the jagged edge:
I knew that when my throat was cut
and my blood running out on the ground
death might not come before the burning.
But then my father's hand stopped in mid-air,
and I heard the angry bleating of the ram.

Oh God, I know Thee now,
not as a maker of covenants,
but as the giver of life.
I pray to Thee:
Let my son dream his own dreams, not mine.
Let him make his own promises to Thee.
Let him live the life Thou hast bestowed upon him
as Thou and he see fit.

My father used to teach me many things
so I could learn to be a great chieftain,
but since we went up on the mountain
he is quiet and gentle and only tells me
that as I grow older I, too, will speak with God.
When I wander in the fields at eventide
and sometimes watch a caravan pass by
I think about my father finding the ram
and I wonder what God will require of me.