Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FATHER AND SON- On the Binding of Isaac and the Theology of Extremism

FATHER AND SON- On the Binding of Isaac and the Theology of Extremism

            Over a century ago, the English writer, Charles Dickens, looked at the end of the century that preceded him, the century that culminated in the French Revolution. He described it in the words: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
            We look back upon the previous century, the 20th century, which in sheer numbers of dead, was probably the bloodiest in history. It is also the century, in which the largest mass of humanity has risen above the level of mere survival to living well. We have seen, in the ending decades of the century, the relatively peaceful fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of a militant religious radicalism, the end of the imminent threat of nuclear immolation and the beginning of the threats of biological and chemical terror, the conquest of horrendous plagues, and the creation of new ills. We have unprecedented wealth, yet there are still regions with people living in abject poverty. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
            Now, we look at the secular 21st century, and  at the beginning of the Jewish year 5775 and we are stunned. We are just 100  years from the start of the Great war, the war to end all Wars, the War to Save Democracy, World War I. We thought, scholars told us, that we were at the end of history and we find ourselves, instead, retreading centuries old conflicts, the old Great Game of the West versus Russia and  a flourishing of murderous radical movements.
            Will this too, be .like the last century, " the best of times, the worst of times." Can we find advice in our teachings to guide us into the next year, the rest of the century, the rest of the 58th century, that is.
            It is ironic, that at the start of this secular millennium, after two centuries of the rise of the modern, secular world, that the great divide of humanity is the same great divide of the beginning of the last millennium, the divide between the Christian world and the Moslem world, aggravated by another dividing line of Moslem world versus Moslem  world, while the Jewish world, tiny as it be, is sitting on the dividing line between them.
            Can we bring the three together? Is there a common ground?
            Our Torah reading of this season speaks of a theme that our great civilizations share. Three world religions, more than half of all humanity revere the story which we read today and tomorrow from the Torah. The two readings actually form one, as they center around the birth of Isaac today and then around his near-death experience tomorrow.
            For us, as Jews, the Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac, is chosen for the reading for the Rosh Hashanah service. The traditional interpretation of our ancestors has been that God should remember and spare us, just as he spared Isaac at the altar, and, further, that for the sake of Abraham who was willing to offer his only chosen son, we be granted mercy from God.
            For the Christian, this tale is a precursor to the Crucifixion of Jesus -Abraham takes his beloved son up the mountain top to be offered like a lamb as a sacrifice, just as, in Christian thought, Jesus is to be brought up to the top of Calvary to be sacrificed like a lamb as the beloved son of God. 
          For Islam, this story forms an integral part of the Koran. There is, however, a fundamental change --In the Koran , Ishmael, not Isaac, is bound to the altar, thereby giving the followers of Mohammed the claim to being Abraham's chosen descendents, and not the Jews.
How can one story provide inspiration for three different religions?  The answer is to be found in the nature. of the biblical tale which is surprisingly simplistic in outward style, yet as complex and unfathomable as the most  difficult maze.
            Unlike stories told by a storyteller, the Torah gives us very few details.
            What did Abraham look like? How old was Isaac?  Who went with them?  This is kept a secret.  Abraham and Isaac walk for three days and we have no hint of what was said, done, or thought, as they approach the most painful crisis in their lives. We are left guessing.
            This is not the kind of story we can just soak in as we lie back in our easy chair.  It demands involvement, investigation; it challenges us with the words "Dirshuni" - Comprehend me.
            Therein lies the story's power. The understanding of the story in fact revolves around one sentence.
             Al tishlakh yadcha al ha naar...
        " Do not lay your hand on the boy, nor do him any harm, for now I know that you
fear God, that you withheld not even your only son from me."
One of the great modern philosophers and theologians, Soren Kierkegaard, saw in this account the basis for his perspective. Reason is futile and flawed as the basis for human existence. One is overwhelmed with fear and trembling at the perplexities and vanities of human existence.  The only solution could be found in a leap of faith that bridged the gap from man to the true reality, God.
            It was in our Abraham of the Akedah, that this philosopher found the Knight of Faith.  Here was the true man of faith, in the fullest sense of the word, who, at God's command, did not even hesitate to offer his own son. It represents the realization that morality and. ethics are secondary to God, and that God can suspend the rules of reason and morality. "For now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from me."
            Sounds strange? Yet this line of thought represents a serious strain in the religious realm for if God is above all, he is also above his own laws.  There is no ethics beyond that which God determines. God commands and we do.
            When we come to Jewish interpretations of the Akedah, we find, indeed, many who emphasize the willingness of Abraham to carry out God's command unhesitatingly, as proof of his faithfulness.
            These interpretations depict Abraham as defying even the command to let Isaac live.
                                                                                         Legends depict the angel snatching the knife from zealous Abraham, who then attempts to strangle Isaac.  Other legends describe the knife actually cutting Isaacs throat, which, by miracle, turns into iron and is safe from the blade of the knife; even others suggest that Abraham actually killed Isaac. These emphasize the sentence: "Now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from me."
            All of this is to prove the greatness of Abraham's faith, of the ability to transcend doubt and confusion and emotions and human laws for the sake of God. Is it such a strange interpretation?
            When we look back on Jewish history, how many Abrahams have there been to sacrifice their Isaacs for the sake of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of the name.  Up and down the Rhine land, during the Crusades, so many Jewish fathers cut the throats of their own wives and children, and themselves, rather than convert and give in to the demands of the raging mob.  The prayers of that period are filled with declarations that descendents of Abraham were indeed capable of greater faith than Abraham himself, for while Abraham had     God's promise that Isaac would be his heir, these latter day Abrahams knew that, in the face of the raging mobs outside, no angel would enter to spare them their anguish.
            But, I said, the story of the binding of Isaac is not an open and shut case.
            The above interpretations rest on the ending of the sentence: "For I know now that you fear God, for you have not withheld your only son from me.  But it is possible to look at that sentence, and look at the beginning of that sentence to find the opposite interpretations - "Don't raise your hand against the boy, and don't do him any harm:"
       .           The interpretation may rest on the words, "Don't raise your hand."
Medieval Jewish commentators are quick to point out, that from the very opening of the story, it is clear that God never could have intended a sacrifice.  The first words are "God tested Abraham"--        to let us know that the real object of our story is Abraham, and not Isaac, to let us know that it is only an experiment.
Modern commentators, like Rabbi Hertz, whose, bible we use during the year, are quick to take the story in an entirely opposite meaning. It is a denunciation of human sacrifice; God tries to see if Abraham has yet understood completely the idea of ethics and a just God. Abraham, overly zealous, is ready to sacrifice his child, and therefore God stops him.
                 This approach is in line with the declaration of the Bible that human sacrifice is abhorrent.
Something can be said for this outlook.  Human sacrifice had long since been replaced with animal offerings in most of the world of Abraham's wanderings, yet, in the land of Israel, among the Canaanites, it was still an accepted practice in times of troubles. An enemy King offers his child to his god before he enters war with the children of Israel; a renegade Judean king offers his own son to Moloch; even a Jewish leader, Jephtah , can think of offering his daughter to God.
         It was against this that the prophet Micah spoke:
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?    It hath been told thee, 0 man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of thee: To do justly, and love mercy, and to walk humbly before God."
                 Which approach is correct? We have before us two entirely opposite understandings of this same story.
                             One understanding tells us that God's word is so vital that we must follow it even though it seems against all reason and morality, because God is above all and God is the basis of all existence.  The other understanding tells us that God demands of us to follow his law at all times but to recall that the Divine law is itself rooted in justice and mercy; we must know where is the border between obedience and madness.
                             Which is correct?
            You know that in Jewish thinking, there is no such thing. Both are the word of God. But the final decision. must be made by us--According to which interpretation shall we live.
            I ask you-- by which interpretation can we live? There lies the rub.
History has taught us that we must follow the second interpretation. We must look at that part of the story that says "Don't touch the boy!" The other interpretation rubs us the wrong way - it rings a bell in our minds that says--here is something dangerous.
         Let's think in terms of the world today; let's think of what we call "great men." Abraham of 4000 years ago was undoubtedly a great man. He let his son live.
            Look back at the last century. It was a century of “great men” who had visions of a new society to be attained at all costs.
            Adolf Hitler was considered to be a great man - yet we know what he was. One third of all our family was brutally murdered by this man .Millions from all nations killed, millions uprooted - we know what he was. For the sake of his ideals, a world was destroyed. For the sake of his great cause, millions died. The same could be said of Lenin and Stalin and Mao, all great visionaries who led millions to their destruction.
            That is the danger of the interpretations of the first kind. Ad maioram gloriam Dei - For the greater glory of God or of the party, the state, the people - all of these great causes are taken as the license to commit every sin imaginable.

            In this century, we are witnessing what horror results when such an ideology is taken to it as full extent. I  recently saw a book, published in Pakistan and sold openly here, in English, in the United States. It is entitled" Is Dajjall's coming Immanent? Dajjall, meaning Satan. It is the Moslem equivalent of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic visions. In this, America, and Israel, under the thumb of the World Jewish Congress, created the first and second World Wars to control the Moslem world, Israel would soon destroy the Al Aksa mosque and then conquer all Arab and Moslem lands, which would in turn bring on the onset of the end of days. It then outlines the plan of action in which Islam would then overcome the West .It is this mind-set that is tearing up Syria and Iraq and fueled the rocket and tunnel attacks on Israel . This is the mind -set which prepares otherwise intelligent people to create acts of mass horror. These are issues for the Moslem world to resolve, but we, as Jews, sit on the receiving end of their debate!
            That is why we have to teach the verse - al tishlakh Yadchah el Hanaar - don't touch the boy.
            Now, we look back to our reading of the Torah portion. Today, for our own sanity, we have to insist on those interpretations that say "Al tishlakh yadchah - Don't touch the lad. "Don't forget humanity and decency in the name of God or any other cause.
            Our ancestors were very cautious people. Being a minority requires an extra measure of sanity in order to survive. Therefore, we were  very wary of anyone who claimed to speak for God. Our sages went so far as to declare "Prophecy is now in the hands of fools and toddlers "Let us have no more of divine calls or great causes, they were saying, let us live properly, and not listen to fools and little children. All authority, they announced, is now given over to the sage, the cautious wise man, who will examine tradition and reason before acting.
The story of the binding of Isaac by Abraham can be used as the source of inspiration for every would be "great man” or leader for the great cause - for the greater glory of mankind, or for the sake of heaven, or for the sake of science - or whatever cause you will.
But in the long run, we have to remember that part of the story that says - Lay not your hand on the lad. We have to remember that we can, at no point sanction the abandonment of reason in the name faith, nor abandon morality in the name of God , the proletariat, or the nation. Ours is not a blind faith, but a faith grounded upon reason, for our faith has taught us,     V chay bahem, You shall Live by Them.
We have to remember that, in the long run of Jewish tradition, we no longer listen to prophets, but only to wise old men, very cautious and timid, careful not to cause hurt.
My teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, retells the following story, with which I shall conclude:
A child of seven was reading the story of Abraham and Isaac aloud in class.
As he read of Isaac being tied to the altar, his heart beat faster, with pity for Isaac.
As he read of Abraham raising the knife, his heart froze with fright; and when the voice of the angel called out to Abraham, "Lay not your hand on the lad" - he burst out into tears. The Rabbi teaching the class was surprised, "Why are you crying? You know that Isaac was not killed?" The little boy turned to him and weeping, said, "But Rabbi, suppose the angel had come too late?"
The Rabbi comforted him by assuring him that angels can never come too late. Heschel pointed:
An angel can never come too late, but man, of flesh and blood can.
An Abraham can act with the faith an angel would save him.  We cannot do as we wish for the greater glory of Heaven or mankind or society - because we know that on Tuesday of last week, no angel came to stop our hand in the last minute.
All people on the face of the earth must remember those few words - "Don't lay a hand on the lad, and don't harm him in anyway.    In that way, we shall all of us, succeed in the intent of the Toarh--Ve Chay Bahem-- You shall live through the Divine Teachings. May we always choose life. Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Erev Rosh Hashanah -- One People- God’s Partners

One People- God’s Partners
Rosh Hashanah Evening   Weds Sept 24 2014

               I do some genealogy research on my own and I am signed on to a website called Geni.com.    One of the members has decided to track and link everybody who has a smidgen of Jewish connection into the website. So, I find curiosities like: Victor Borge,born Rosenbaum, or the author of that most typically American character,Holden Caulfield, the creation of J D Salinger. Even when you go into time travel in the future, both Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, Shattner and Nemoy, a Yisroel and a Cohen, belong to the planet of “Yidden”. 
               I don’t know if people of other religions get so caught up in this conceit of “ So and so is Jewish” . This must be the Jewish version of tabloid journalism.
               So, who is a Jew? Better yet, what is a Jew?
               During these ten days of Teshuvah, we have one way of determining- who gets tickets to get in to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is one way to determine it.
            It is clear that we have come here, not to a Church, and not to a mosque, nor to a Buddhist Temple, because we feel the need to be here.  But it is hard, often, for a modern Jew to articulate the reasons for that need.
               For the Jews of history,  the Jews who saw  themselves as if still be standing at the foot of Mount Sinai,  during these ten days they opened themselves in prayer, examined themselves and  their actions in light of the belief in a God who examines and judges  and holds accountable for their doings
               But what of us today? We are the Jews of modernity, a modernity that is already two and a half centuries old. We seek desperately to connect the threads of 3800 years of history to make sense for ourselves.
               So who is a Jew? what is a Jew?
               David Ben Gurion, the founding father of the State of Israel, was very much perturbed by this question, “ What is a Jew”. What could be more Jewish than a man who creates a Jewish state. To have a State for Jews means to know what a Jew is.
               He phrased the dilemma in a speech in 1971, when we was well past any political involvement in Israel. As he said it,” 400 years ago, it was clear that a Jew is someone who keeps the 613 commandments. Today, I doubt if there is anyone here who keeps 100 commandments. So” , he told his audience, “you are not a Jew according to this.!”
               Ben Gurion had himself questioned the leading Jewish scholars, religious and secular, for a good answer. Finally, he came up with his own: 
“A Jew is one who says he is.
A Jew is one whose neighbors say he is.
A Jew is one whose friends say he is.
A Jew is one whose enemies say he is.”
               Is this a satisfying answer? Do we have to let our enemies tell us we are Jews. 
               So what is a Jew?
               I wrote in my letter to the congregation for Rosh Hashanah, that this season, I would emphasize the concept of Jewish solidarity. It was brought home to all of us with the vitriol and hate that we saw in mobs in Europe and then regurgitated in sophisticated language by UN Human Rights officials and celebrities. “ Genocide” hurled at Jews by these sophisticated elites who don’t lift a finger to protest the murder, in the hundreds of thousands, of Yazdis, of Christians, of Moslem by Moslem in the 
Middle East. “Genocide” hurled at Jews by sophisticated elites who keep silent on the crushing of Tibetan and Uighur nationalities by China. “ Genocide” hurled at Jews by sophisticated elites who keep silent on the mutilation of women in large parts of the world. And so on!. 
               Yes, even some of our Jewish intellectual elites seemed only too happy to join in the fray, joining in the mindless accusations.
               Yes, we know for Jews, it is always different.
               So, we are all  in one boat, altogether. We are reminded of the old Jewish tale of a boatload of people in the middle of the Sea. One of them begins to drill a hole under his seat. The rest of the crowd scream at him to stop, and he replies,” What are you worried about—I am only drilling under my own seat!.”  
            So, my friends, we are altogether in the same boat. We can’t drill away at our private seats, so to say. We all sink or float together. What happens in one Jewish community impacts all of us. Moslems have not taken to the streets of the US or Europe to protest the death of Moslems in  Iraq. Christians have not taken to the streets to protest the death and expulsion of Christians in Iraq. This is a uniquely Jewish response, to feel so closely bound up in the fate of our fellow Jews.
                        So ,let’s go back to our question, What is a Jew?
            One way, to borrow the metaphor of science, is the null hypothesis. We eliminate what can’t be, and we can get to what is.
Why are we not Christians?
We live in  a Christian society, a very hospitable, open and accepting Christian society, which we appreciate very much, a first and one of few of its kind in history. Yet, we choose not to be Christians. We hold that God is totally other than human, that no human is God in the flesh or God’s son, and that our salvation depends on our actions and deeds in this world and in this life. So, we are not Christians.
Why are we not Moslems?
We Jews began in the middle east and have always been a part of that world for thousands of years, before Islam. So why did we not join Islam when the rest of North Africa and Western Asia jumped aboard?
. After all, Islam has so many similarities. God is indivisible, not in the flesh and  the human finds his purpose in following the commands of God, commands strikingly similar to Judaism. So why is it that we did not, in some 1300 years since Mohammed was rejected by the Jews of Medina, why  did we not become Moslems? It’s very simple. We believe we have the original word of God and in the course of 1300 years, the Moslems could not convince us that their word of God replaced ours. Why then replace the original with the newer model, when we get good mileage from the first, with all the good accessories, and we still have the factory warranty ?
We are also not complete secularists. It is true, as a whole, Jews are the least devout of all religious groupings. It is true that we gave rise to such giants of secular and religion shattering figures as Spinoza, Marx or Freud. It is true that we have Jewish atheists and Jewish humanists and Jewish secular nationalist and Jewish secular anti-nationalists. Still, for most Jews, as secular and denatured as they may be, there still is a glowing ember, a nitzotz hakodesh, a spark of the divine, that yearns for a core message, a core hope .
So, now, what are we?
On Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the shofar, we do it in sets of three, for the three notes: Tekiah, Shevarim, teruah. So, I want to put my answer also in a set of three.
            First, for the tekiah. The blast of being a Jew out of that deep , ingrained instinct that identifies us as a Jew, with Jews, as part and parcel  of Jewish history. We are Jews as part and parcel of  the Jewish people.
Do we need someone’s else’s testimony to make us understand this?
      How about this description of us as a unique people:
      “What is the Jew?...What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed. . . despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish. . . .The Jew — is the symbol of eternity. ... He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear. The Jew is eternal. He is the embodiment of eternity.”   This  is how  the great writer, Leo Tolstoy saw us when the largest mass of world Jewry was still living under massive discrimination and wide-spread poverty in Tsarist Russia.("What is the Jew?" ,1908).
So we have our pride in being part and parcel of a unique and dynamic people.    
            But one note does not a Rosh Hashanah  make, and social identity alone is not Judaism.
            Therefore ,we have to have the second blast of the trumpet, the Shevarim, It knocks us  with three hard blasts.
            .The Shevarim is for the Jewish way of life, of observance.
            Therefore I must be a Jew  in my life and my observance .I must give flesh and blood to my existence as a Jew.
            We Jews measure content by does, not dogmas.
            Ben Gurion pointedly remarked that of the 613, most of us can’t keep even 100. But just because we can’t keep everything is no blanket excuse to keep nothing. Or to not try.
            One of the great teachers of Judaism to the disaffected Jew,  Franz Rosenzweig, was asked if he put on tefillin every day. His replay was, “ Not yet.” In other words, we aren’t and don’t claim to be pious saints. . Be we can’t close the door on any aspect of Jewish life- whether it be Shabbat or kashrut or prayer or personal ethics and social morality. If you remember you basic math, zero plus one is greater than zero by a factor of infinity. Even doing one thing in the name of Judaism is infinitely greater than doing nothing.
            Finally, for all of this, Jew by identity and Jew by observance, there must be an underlying basis.
            For this, we need the third blast on the shofar . It is the Teruah, the staccato notes to shake us out of our complacency. It is the blast  of Jewish purpose, the soul of a Jew. What are we for? What is our reason to be Jews?
            We are Jews for a message. If I am to be a Jew, I might as well be a Jew to the core. At the core, A Jew is a Jew of faith, a searching faith, a seeking faith, open, not closed..
             At the core of Jewish faith is the midrash, the inquiry. It is an inquiry, an examination, probing the texts, the words of the Torah as well as the words of the sages, using those texts to lead us to the truth for ourselves. Ours is a faith in one God who  demands of us , in the words  of the prophet Amos: Dirshuni vichyu.” Seek me, inquire, examine and probe the Divine and you shall live.”
            So, we have our three blast of the shofar. A tekiah for Jewish identity,  a shevarim  for Jewish observance, and a teruah for the Jewish soul. Then we can get to a tekiah gedolah, and be solid in our foundation as Jews.
            You know that I published a book on the account of my father, Rabbi William Weinberg, z”l. He was imprisoned by the Nazis twice and escaped to the Soviet Union and returned to serve the surviving remnant in Austria and Germany after the Shoah. In between prisons, he managed to write an essay that summarized the message of Judaism I have translated the essay as “ Courage of the Spirit”, and it is an attack on the major movements of modernity, scientifically based movements, the proven science of its day : economic, genetic and psychological determinism.
            “It has been an accepted thesis for decades within all trends of our culture that all events occur independently of human will.  Little and rarely does anything result from conscious thought.  Like the apparition that vanishes at the toll of the bell to usher in a new day, so all the values and ideals of mankind melt away, overpowered with unpitying might by the merciless hand of economic, biological, and historical fate.”
            Over and against this was the core concept of Judaism.
            “Judaism's theory of history is activist, the Jewish ethos is a willful ethos, the Jewish religion is outspokenly a religion of will. The originality of Judaism rests primarily on the point that the Bible, for the first time, inquired into the question of the sense and inner unity of all human history and conceived of the individual events of history as steps up to a meaningful and powerful world goal.  . .
            “No! Humanity is not the disturbed dream of some sleeping deity and no mad chaos wildly swirled about by a happenstance. God created the world according to plan.   .  . .  The duty of humanity in this world is prescribed in these brave words by an ancient Jewish philosophy of history: "Man is called upon to be God's co-worker in the act of creation.” (Mechilta  Exodus 18:13).
            That is a dramatic a reason as any to be a Jew and to affirm our Judaism and our solidarity with our fellow Jews. As difficult as the world appears, as confused and caught up in struggle, we hold on to our belief that we are not victims of our world but that we are God’s partner in the act of creating the world. May our every step be one of creation of  a better and divinely infused and blessed world. Amen.



Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ezekiel and I: Thoughts on Netzavim Vayelech and Therefore Choose Life

 Ezekiel and I: Thoughts on Netzavim Vayelech and Therefore Choose Life 

Last week, I pointed out that there was a ceremony of offering of the 2nd tithe for the poor, in which we were told to declare that nothing had been set aside for the dead or for mourning. I pointed out that the emphasis throughout the Torah is life, not death.

This week, we have the portion of Netzavim-Vayelech. Moses is driving home his final pitch to the children of Israel:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed ( Deut 30).

The choice, it is very clear, is in our hands, and this is the very theme of our season, the month of Elul, leading into the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.

There yet remains, in this idea of choice and consequence, one thought: Moses is constantly speaking to the people as a group. In the Torah, very little is actually said about responsibility and consequences to the individual. Indeed, in Jewish thought, we always have the metaphor that we are all in one boat together. We float together or we sink together.

Is there a “Me” in this picture, as opposed to an “Us”?

Yet, as we have come to recognize, individual responsibility became a corner stone of Jewish thought and with it, individual thought, rather than “group think”.

 It gradually made its way into the Jewish psyche, so that in the old  Soviet Union, where Jews had been removed from contact with Judaism, the head, Nikita Khrushchev( remember the one who banged his shoe on the desk at the UN)  could complain of our fellow Jews:
"They are all individuals and intellectuals. They want to talk about everything, they want to discuss everything; they want to debate everything--and they come to totally different conclusions."

How did we get to be this way? How is it that we have been singled out as proponents of individual difference, of individual responsibility?

To answer this, we look to a prophet who taught and wrote long after Moses, who taught and wrote when all the predictions by Moses of the failure of the people and of exile had come true, the Prophet Ezekiel. It is this prophet who lays the groundwork for individual responsibility, choice and consequences. He is the father of Jewish ego psychology; that is some twenty-five hundred years before Freud’s adversary, Alfred Adler, discovered the power of conscious rational choice.
In two earlier sermons I had mentioned Isaiah and Jeremiah as molders of contemporary Jewish and universal thought-Isaiah for the messianic concept, and Jeremiah and the response to catastrophe.
Now, I will examine Ezekiel as the founder of ego psychology.
Unfortunately, he has always been plagued by bad press-he is always picked on as the most unusual, most bizarre of the prophets. If anyone writes on flying saucers in antiquity, Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly wheeled winged creatures always earns a full page or two. When our fundamentalist neighbors try to predict the end of days, when world powers obliterate each other with nuclear weapons, it is always based on Ezekiel's vision of the War of Gog and Magog. Whenever life after death is discussed, there is Ezekiel with his vision of dry bones growing skin and coming back to life. He is now perhaps best known for Ezekiel Bread, based, the manufacturer claims, on the ingredients Ezekiel used in his loaf.

To be frank, he almost failed to make it into the Bible. When the early sages where deciding what to include, they were perturbed at Ezekiel’s many prediction which had failed.
His assets, however, outweighed his liabilities, and, instead of his works being buried, they were preserved, for our benefit.
Ezekiel was a man of tremendous imagination and a marvelous flair for dramatics; hence his unusual imagery. However, behind the highly colorful depictions in his writings, there lurked real substance.
It is Ezekiel who gives great weight to the idea that the individual is responsible for his or her own actions.
Let's transpose our minds from that of twentieth century sceptics to ancient middle easterners. What thought had we of ourselves and our actions?
The Hittites, a few centuries before Ezekiel, had a poem, in rough translation, as follows:
"Men and gods are all alike. If the servant angers his master, then they kill him, his wife, his children, brothers, sisters in-law, the whole lot. If a man angers his gods, then he doesn't punish him alone. No, he destroys his wife, children, descendant’s cattle and harvest as well."
In other words-what I do is of no significance-I get punished for the other guy’s faults.

Standard law in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq and Syria, just in those lands where Ezekiel was sitting in Exile, had laws that applied this complaint and put it to practice: a murderer could offer a substitute to be executed in his place, for example-son, brother, wife, slave; it really didn't matter who was punished, as long as someone was, and justice was thereby done.
It is true that Ezekiel didn't break ground entirely on his own
Biblical law had long before held that, when it comes to crime, only the guilty could be punished-the sons could not be held accountable for the crimes of the fathers, and the individual had long since been accorded the possibility of choosing right from wrong.
Nevertheless, it was still only an embryo of an idea.
The courts could not punish the sons for the sins of  the fathers, but God could. Entire families could be held liable out by divine decrees for the sin of one member. It’s there in the Ten Commandments; it’s there in the revelation to Moses at the Golden calf.
In Ezekiel’s time, the popular slogan was: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children have their teeth
set on edge." In other words-what one does is of no account-
it has already been determined by ancestral deeds and misdeed. Why bother being a righteous, decent person-it won't do any good anyway.
When Ezekiel hears this proverb, he explodes:

"What mean you by this proverb!  As I live, says the Lord God, you shall no longer use that proverb. Behold, all souls are mine. The soul that sins-it shall die, but if a man be just he shall surely live."
Ezekiel continues his lesson to the public gathered to hear him: A just man can have a wicked son-that son will get no credits for the father's sainthood. But a wicked man can, in turn, have a righteous son. Nothing that the father did wrong can be held against the son.
With one fell swoop, Ezekiel throws out of consideration ancestral history as a determinant of human fate. He also makes impossible the entire concept of original sin, upon which Christianity has hung its peg.
Ezekiel moves even further. The worst person, he contends, is endowed with free choice--he can change his actions and become a saint. Even a saint has free choice-he can become a sinner.
In short, in the eyes of both God and man, people are individuals, free to choose right and wrong, and responsible for the rewards and consequences of their deeds and misdeeds.
It is possible to call Ezekiel's words a declaration of independence of the individual-independence from the weight and burden of ancestral wrong-doings and independence even from one's own past. You and I are at any moment radically free to choose.
The Rabbis recognized this move. The Talmud sums it up: Moses said “ He visits the guilt of the parents upon the children “( Ex.20:4) and Ezekiel came and overturned that.” The person who sins, only he shall die.” ( Ezekiel 18:4). ( Talmud Makoth 24a).
It is a heavy notion, one that took yet many centuries to take hold in Jewish thought, and one which is still not fully accepted today. In action and deed too much of humanity respond to reality with the despair that they themselves are of no consequence in the order of things.

That is behind the idea of pre-destination that is found in some streams of Christianity and very much so in classical Islam.
 Every dictatorship on the face of the earth is the consequence of such a submission to fate, such an abdication of individual responsibility and choice.
In my freshman week in college, our required reading was the novel by the behavioral psychologist, BF Skinner, Walden II. In this description of a perfect society, by this most influential of American psychologists, everyone is preprogramed for specific roles and functions. All of life's choices are intelligently chosen for the individual by the programmer.
That was the generation of Hippies, free this and free that, the generation most individualistic, yet it was just this work, which spoke of the disappearance of the individual, which was the most popular.
There are many who say we should go that route.
Freudians claim we are but an amalgam of instincts and mournful childhood experiences. The behaviorists say that we operate on the same principals as their laboratory pigeons and rats. Sociobiologists claim our behavior is determined by genetic patterns. Classical Marxists place our mode of thinking to our position in the class struggle.
But we, as Jews, have to keep room for ourselves in all of this. We look back at that ancient dreamer, Ezekiel, and constantly must remind ourselves that we are, each of us, responsible for our lives, and even as we are part and parcel of our families, our communities, and our world, we play that part well only in so far as we deal with ourselves with responsibility.
Nikita Khrushchev paid us a back handed compliment, about us being such terrible individualists; why couldn’t we be like the rest of the proletariat, sheep to follow the leader in a flock. I am sure that Pharaoh in ancient Egypt had the same complaint—after all, why weren’t we happy to be slaves like the rest of the Egyptians? Haman in Persia had the same complaint: their laws are different!
We should not let these miscreants down!
 This Rosh Hashanah, as good students of the Prophet Ezekiel, let us be sure to live up to the Prophets expectations, each of us taking responsibility. Let us fulfill the challenge of Moses, our teacher,” Therefore Choose Life.” So may it be. Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The portion of Ki Tavo Now that’s what you call living!

Ki Tavo           Now that’s what you call living!          

            I want to share with you this old story, of a funeral procession.
            One of the participants at the funeral takes a look at the funeral procession--- one stretch limousine after another, on and on. Then at the cemetery, a shining gold colored coffin. Flowers by the ton on top, all the family dressed to the nines in high fashion, a marble monument that towers above everyone.
            The participant looks at all the wealth and riches spent for this funeral and decides," Dus Heist gelebt."
            Now, that's what you call living!
            At a Jewish funeral, you may have noticed one thing--one person is not allowed to go to the graveside--a Cohen, a descendant of the High Priest Aaron--may not attend, unless it is for an immediate relative. That's a strange absence. In antiquities, before there were Rabbis, there were Kohanim, Priests.  We expect that Rabbi to go to the cemetery—why didn’t our Torah allow the Priest, the equivalent of a Rabbi in his day, to go?
            We are given the special regulations regarding the Kohanim- the priests, who, in Biblical times, conducted the sacred rituals of the ancient Temple. The priests had to meet high standards of ritual purity than did the people.
            When did people come to the priest?
            At the birth of a child, the mother would come to give an offering of purification.
            When life was going wrong- the sinner would come to give a sin offering, as a step towards making amends.
            When life was going well, the grateful person would offer a korban shlamim, a peace offering.
            Who would you turn to then, in ancient times, when life came to an end? Why to the Priest, No?
            A few years ago, the burial treasures of King Tut were on display at the LA County Museum on Fairfax. There was a huge billboard on the side of the museum with the image of King Tutankhamen or Tutankhaten on it. It was great for our little granddaughter, who, had just learned about Pesah in nursery school—“That’s Pharaoh”, she exclaimed in delight.
Why do we have a good image of Pharaoh, but nothing remaining of Moses, or Aaron, or the great Kings of Israel? Blame the priest, or blame the Rabbi of his day.
In ancient Egypt, that's when the priest began to work. We have the Egyptian’s Book of the Dead; we've seen displays of their mummies, and photographs of the pyramids. That art of embalming and preserving the image of the ruler—was the job of the priest. And so it was in other ancient religions--the priest was there to guide the dead in the next life.
            What about our priest, our Cohen? Where is the priest at that moment, just when you think you need him? Where was the Rabbi of those years? In the Torah, just at that moment, when we would think the priest was indispensable, the priest disappears.  La nefesh lo yitamah beamav.  He shall not defile himself for the dead among his people. Only for his immediate family- father, mother, and so forth.
            So, just when you think you would need a priest the most, he is not there. Even till today, only if there is absolutely no one else able to do it, may a Cohen take care of the burial--only if there is no other person capable of doing it.
            Today, we expect the Rabbi to do it, but we have to remember, that in Judaism, the Rabbi is just like anyone else, not sacred, not sanctified, just another Jew who just happens to know what he, or she is doing. No more, no less.
            This practice goes hand in hand with another Biblical order:
             Throughout the ancient world, when people went to the cemetery, they would leave gifts, often food. Again, in ancient Egypt, in the pyramids, there was always plenty of food. When Pharaoh died, he had food and all his possessions placed in the tomb. In ancient China, when the emperor died, he had all his goods placed in the tomb. Even till today, in many societies there is the same practice, of placing food at the grave, for the deceased.
            What does the Torah ask of us? In Deuteronomy, we are told ,” Every third year, we take a tenth of all our produce, and we give it away--we give it to the Levite, who had no land, to the orphan and the widow, who had no provider, and to the immigrant, who had no job or protector--we had to give it away to them, no questions asked, and then declare," I have not eat of it when I was in mourning, nor have I handled it when I was impure from the dead, nor did I give any of it to the dead."
            Just what was expected in every other religion of the day, just that was forbidden in the Torah.
            Now, without a doubt, we recognize that in here is a message about life itself.
            There are a lot of cynics and skeptics in the world, for whom life is miserable, but for each one, there is an optimist and a visionary, both in Jewish and in non-Jewish sources.
            The great skeptic, Ecclesiastes, despaired of life, and said," What profit has a man of all his labor under the sun." and added," You’re better off never born alive."
            The great skeptic then turned around and also said," Even a live dog is better than a dead lion."
            The great Jewish German poet, Heinrich Heine, could complain," Life is a disease, the world is a hospital, and death is the physician."
            The same great poet also said." Life is the highest good."
            The great Yiddish writer and humorist, Sholom Aleichem, said
" Life is blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that."
            That same Sholom Aleichem also created the Beloved Tevye. What is Tevye's beautiful song, in the musical version, Fiddler on the Roof?" To Life, To life, lechayim." If life were a blister, would Tevye truly be singing?
            Which of these approaches reflects the heart and soul of Judaism?
            Most religious beliefs worry about the next world--what we do there. How we stay there. What happens to us there? How we get there?
            Jews, too, have no end of speculations, but Judaism, the Torah, came to teach us about this life, this world.
            The priest kept away from the dead, to remind us that we should deal with life.
            The sacred offerings were forbidden to the dead, to remind us that we had to meet the need of the living first.
            The Torah is amazingly silent about what goes on in the next life. We are not allowed to have a séance with the dead, we cannot try to raise the souls of the dead, and we are not told what happens.
            Instead, the Psalms sing out  Lo Hametim yehalelu yah, vlo kol yardei duma.         The dead don't sing praise to God, or those that go down in silence- Va anachnu nevarech yah -But we will praise the Lord from this time on and forevermore. Hallelujah."
What is it that we sing with so much gusto at the High Holy days?
  Zochreniu lechaiym, meleckh hafets bachayim, vkatvenu besefer hachayim,lemaacha, elohim chaim.  Remember us for life, O King who delights in Life, and inscribe us in the book of life, O God of Life.” The greatest season the year and we don’t pray to get into heaven- we pray to stay here alive! The concept of a reward in heaven is a big deal for the Rabbis, but they taught us not to pray to get into Heaven, but to stay alive, not to hurry to the next world, but to create a life such that Heaven is here, in our every day actions.
            Thus, Judaism is above all a life‑affirming religion. That's why, when we raise a cup of wine, in celebration, we begin with the affirmation, " LeChayim." That is why one of the most popular symbols in Jewish artwork is the word," in Hebrew" "Chai"-Alive, and the favorite gift to a charity is the number 18, to represent the Hebrew letters used to spell Chai, alive. When we give to a charity, we affirm our belief in the goodness and value of life that God created and gave us.
            There is a very popular slogan, a good one, which I have heard. " God didn't create junk". When God creates the universe, God discovers, over and again, " Ki Tov"-- Behold it is good.
            God didn't make junk, and that includes each and every one of us.
            It is all for one purpose-- to tell us" Dus heist gelebt"--this is what you call living. This life, this day that we face, each and every day.
            The Torah, Judaism, teaches us how to live. 24 books of the Bible- 63 texts of the Talmud, the numerous books of responsa, midrash, philosphy, and law--all of the come to teach us how to live, to teach us the value and purpose of our lives.
            Therefore, we are commanded to watch over our health, and guard our lives, above all other commands, except for idolatry, adultery, and murder. We are forbidden to engage in any dangerous activity, and for the same reason, commanded to seek good health and medicine. We are taught that God presented us our Torah, our teaching, for one purpose, V Chay Bahem, you shall live because of them." We may not kill ourselves for our religion—or kill others with us to become martyrs—but we must live for our religion.
            (This is not , by the way, what Hamas and Hezbollah have as their slogans. "We are going to win, because they [ the Israelis, the Jews] love life and we love death," according to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.)

            The Torah pleads with us to choose life: God has put before us,” Life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life‑ if you and your offspring would live by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him  (Deuteronomy 30:19‑20).
            We choose life in leading a life filled with the spirit of kedushah, of holiness, of hesed verachamim, of lovingkindness towards each other.
            If we follows these guidelines, and truly study and learn our religious teachings, while we are alive and well, we will be able to say of our selves," Dus Heist gelebt" --That what you call living. Lechayimn to us all.