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.”