Monday, March 16, 2015

The Pure Makes Impure

The Pure Makes Impure    Shabbat Parah

            There are two types of Jews-- if only two.
             It was exposed three centuries ago, in southern Poland and Ukraine, areas of poverty, when the Baal Shem Tov began to preach a new approach to Judaism, one that spoke from the heart. No sooner than he had begun to preach, and it raised the hackles of the classic leaders of the time, the Talmudic and highly logical, Rabbis of the northern lands of Lithuania, lands of comparable wealth. There arose, in time, the two camps, Chasidim, the Pious Ones, and Misnagdim, the opponents  It is not in truth a new development, as we have had, in previous generations, the mystical movements contrasted with the rationalists like Rambam, or, in thse times, very rational , anti-supernatural Reconstructionism as contrasted by New Age Judaism. A Judaism of the heart and a Judaism of the mind; two kinds of Jews and two kinds of Judaisms.
            We have a sense of this paradox in our special reading for today, Shabbat Parah. We add this reading because the Red Heifer was essential for the right of purification that would allow Jews to participate in the actual Pesah as it was carried out in the Temple grounds of Jerusalem.
            Most of the laws of the Torah can be explained based purely on reason; the great Sages believed that they could be derived from human experience but there were a few, very few, for which no logical explanation could be given. The Red Heifer was a prime example. Of this, the Rabbis said, even King Solomon could not find a reason despite all his wisdom.
            A pagan was once taken aback at this idea that a ceremony would “make the pure impure and the impure pure”.   Thus, it was said, a non-Jew once asked Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai about this ceremony. Rabban Johanan took a page from the typical practice of Roman psychiatry of the day. “ When someone is possessed by demons what do you do? “ We take some weeds , burn them, grind the ashes, mix with water, sprinkle it on the possessed fellow, and the demon flees.” To this the Rabbi answered,” Well, with us, it’s just the same thing.” The pagan was satisfied with this answer and walked away, but the Rabbi’s student were very much upset.” What answer do you give us?” He said to them, 'By your life!”[ In other words, he is stunned that they haven’t figured this out on their own] ”A corpse does not defile nor does water make pure , but it is the decree of the Holy One Blessed Be He who declared, I have issued an ordinance and enacted a decree, and you are not permitted to question My decree'" (Tanh., Ḥukkat, 8).
            In other words, there are certain mitzvoth that have no rational or logical purpose except to make us face G-d and respond. It is a mix of an answer between the purely logical aspect of Judaism and the mystery behind existence. The Red Heifer forces us to face things that don’t fit neatly in our mind, a round peg in a square hole. It takes us to the core of religious understanding, not to the irrational or crazy, but to those things beyond the rational.
            We are a very much quantifying and categorizing culture. We are even more business-oriented, quantity-oriented, means-oriented. Everything must be quantified, calculated, measured, and, most important, as we used to say,” It must compute” or in today’s word, we look at performance metrics . It must be able to fit into the yes-no, or the 0-1 measure of  bits and bytes. God does not program well on our platforms, whether Windows or Apple based. 
            But, we know very well that in life, not everything fits the standard equations. The ballerina, Anna Pavlolva, was asked to give the meaning of an exquisite performance she had just done." If I could say it, do you think I should have danced it?"
            We could plot every step and every movement on a computer screen, even in three-D live animation--yet we still could not understand what she meant as she danced--only Anna Pavlova herself could understand it.
            What about other aspects of human life. Love, for example. In Judaism love and religion are always compared to each other as perfect parallels. What can one say about love? Can anyone speak clearly and definitively about love? Can you measure it, quantify it, and compute it on a scale? Yet all of us, in some way or other have been in love. We have no trouble feeling and comprehending something that is ineffable, undefinable. Love does not compute, but we love, anyway.
            Just the same with religious belief-in this day of high technology and advanced sciences, we are beginning to realize that while we cannot define and quantify our beliefs, they are there. While we cannot define God, he-she-or that is there, but ineffable.
            For all of our business-like approach to much of life's issues, we do have a thirst for something spiritual, something that extends beyond us, something past our 9-5 routines.
            We Jews. as a whole, tend to be rationalist, we tend to be secular, and, we, more than any other segment of America, tend not to be affiliated with a formal religious organization.
            Nevertheless, I had a conversation some time ago with one of our congregants, who had attended some popular programs on Jewish mysticism. She was amazed to discover how many Jews had been involved in one mystic or spiritual movement or another.
            A noted guru for on oriental mystic group once noted indeed, that Jews must be very spiritual people, because all the seekers for truth that turned to him were Jews. This is, I suppose, in keeping with Jewish temperament, to presume that the grass is always greener in somebody else's yard, politics, religion, or what have you.
            We also have, in these past years, an unusual phenomenon, of some Jews so thirsty for religion that they make a gigantic leap from a life of no values and licentiousness to the utmost extreme branches of ultra-Orthodoxy, and reject everything, everything for which modern Jewry, even the modern Orthodox Jew stands for.
            There is a classic case, of Uri Zohar, one of Israel's most celebrated of Bohemian actors and movie stars, who committed no mitzvah and left no averah unturned. He became so devout, that he refused to make any television or movie appearances, with only one exception-- to make political commercials for an ultra- Orthodox party.
            For many, perhaps that is the route. It is not, however, the route to religion for me, and I suspect, for none of us here.
            However, one need not go the route of the mystics, it is not necessary to spend forty days and forty nights fasting and seated in a lotus posture to find religion. Nor must it be the route of immersion in ultra-Orthodoxy, be it Lithuanian, be it Hasidic, be it Habad.
            We do, however, need to make a beginning, when we realize, for the first time that we are thirsting for something that is greater than our own selves.
            What stands out, at this time, if not the sense of awe and wonderment of the Divine in the universe. It is in this that we make our first step.
                        The poets and prophets of our Bible wrote of their awe and wonderment at the workings of the universe--the marvels of this world and its creatures--this gave them their great religious inspiration. It was the perfection that they saw in nature that egged our prophets on to demand justice of their fellow humans. The creator of a perfect world can call us to task for our leading of very imperfect lives.
            Think of this, psalm, 104-Borchi nafshi et adonay''Bless the Lord ,o my soul"-the psalmist goes on to describe God at work and even at play in the universe" who stretches out the heaven like a curtain/ who layers the beams of the upper chambers in the waters/ who makes the clouds thy messenger/who walks on the wings of the wind/... how manifold are your works, O lord, in wisdom, you have fashioned them all."
            A prophet such as Amos , could base his challenge to justice: Seek the Lord and live--ye who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground-- Him that make the constellations the Pliades and Orion, who turns darkness into morning and darkened day into night, who summoned the waters of the sea and poured them over the earth, who makes Taurus rise after Capella, and Taurus set hard on the rising of the Vintager."
            Job finds his consolation for his suffering in the presence of a God of creation: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if you have understanding/ Who determined the measures thereof, if you know?/ or who stretched the line upon it? Who shut up the sea.. hast thou commanded the morning since thy days began? Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea  or walked in the recesses of the deep?
            Our world view has come a long way, it true. No longer doors to the sea, or God walking on the wings of the wind. We have replaced it with energy of fission and fusion, the DNA molecule, and we have filled the universe, in our understanding with galaxies, quasars, and black holes. We have discovered many more mysteries of the world than the Psalmist or Job could ever have dreamed of--more mystery, more wonder, more amazement, and no  answers in any textbook of physics, biology, or astronomy as to why, what reason, what meaning. Only amazement.
            I want to jump from the Red Heifer of Moses time to Albert Einstein, who gave us more insight into the nature of our physical existence than any thinker before him. He was not an observant Jew, certainly not a religious Jew in any conventional sense, yet he wrote:
            "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the God-faith. It is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is no stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed. .. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms-- this knowledge , this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.

 It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, ,,, and humbly try to comprehend an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why the Bicycle Riders? Thoughts on Modern Anti-Semtism

Shabbat Zachor             Why the Bicycle Riders? Thoughts on Modern Anti-Semtism
Feb 28 015
            A story is told of an anti-semite who is maliciously slandering the Jewish people. He announces”-The Jews are to blame for the last war.”  To this someone responds,
“Yes, yes, the Jews! And the bicycle riders!”
             The speaker is taken aback. "Why the bicycle riders?"
            To which the  response is "Why the Jews"?
            Why the Jews? Why not the Jews? Somehow, we always seem to be in somebody’s gun sights as the cause of all the troubles.
            This is Shabbat Zachor and it always precedes Purim. It is marked by the additional reading from Deuteronomy:  Zachor et Asher asah lecha Amalek- Remember what Amalek did to you There will be a constant war against Amalek in every generation. The reference is to the attack by marauding brigands who attacked the weakest and defenseless among the children of Israel- for no reason, other than they were there to be attacked. From this, we have the usage of “Zachor” in regards to Holocaust memorials, for example. I have a photograph of my father , for example, as he dedicates a restored synagogue in Salzburg, Austria, and on the front in large letters, is just that reminder: Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek.  
            We are told to remember that God delivered us from Egyptian slavery but not to have an eternal war. Four hundred years of slavery did not earn them eternal enmity of the Lord. What’s the difference?     
            For the Egyptian, it was not a matter of hatred. Slavery was a business; that’s how the Empire ran. It was practical, logical and it could be reasoned with, even if it took ten plagues and a Red Sea. But Amalek- there was no cause, no rhyme or reason- only the hate for the sake of hate, the attack for the sake of the attack.        
            This is why we connect Amalek with Purim. Haman is the embodiment of Amalek; his family name, if you pay attention, is the familyof the royalty of Amalek, Agag.
            What was the essence of Haman's hatred?
            Perhaps he had a rational motive at the start. After all, he was rising in power, all bowed down to him, but Mordecai refused. What better idea than to remove this opponent.
            But once one begins hating, all reason melts away. Haman must destroy his opponent, the opponents family, and all the nation,
            Like so  many haters, Haman was able to give reasonable arguments for his case: Yeshno am ehad==A unique people scatttered and dispersed, their laws are different from the laws of other nations. They do not observe the laws of the king.
            Contemporary events remind us that Amalek never vanished. Attacks on the synagogue in Copenhagen; the Kosher Market in Paris; the fact that Jews wearing kippot cannot walk in the streets of Europe for fear of provoking attacks.
            We are seeing a new version of an ancient malaise—this version is predominantly Moslem, but the previous versions were Communist-class based, or Nazi- race based, or Christian-religion based. The form changes but the target is still there. What is shocking is that here, in the US, we find strong streaks of anti-Semitism in quarters that we would expect to be the most understanding.
             A Professor of Afro-American studies, Leonard Jeffries, head of the Black Studies Department at City University, could declare that Jews controlled the slave trade and though their control of Hollywood, intentionally kept American blacks down.  Jewish students increasingly report feeling uncomfortable or being picked on in student forums if they don’t denounce Zionism. Swastikas were painted on a Jewish fraternity building and a Professor at Temple University could question if Jews were really killed en masse in the Holocaust.
            What goes on in Europe, among respectable circles, is much nastier and malicious, not just in Moslem circles, but in enlightened, so-called liberal or educated circles.
            It is amazing how much hatred one can spew, and still get away with it. What is worrisome is the willingness of otherwise well-meaning people to put aside such comments as PR stunts, attention grabbers, or a simple exercise in free speech or academic freedom. But words have consequences, serious consequences.
            82 years ago, the German conservative forces, the leftovers of the old Junker nobility, and the army officer cadres, looked at the threat to their standing and their power by the socialist forces. One man was drawing public attention and popularity away from those revolutionaries. He was preaching a national as opposed to international socialism.
            True, he preached against Jews, he preached against everybody, true, he had tried to overthrow the government in the Putsch in Munich--but, " trust us ,said the conservatives--we will bring him into our fold, we will use his political clout, and he will  mellow. " The head of State, Von Hindenburg then appointed Hitler as Reichskanzellor, and the power of the conservatives and the old guard was destroyed, and the rest is history.
            There can be no compromise with those who preach hate. There can be no consolidation; there can be no bringing in to the fold .
            There is the famous legend of a man who found a snake frozen. He had pity on it, and out it in his coat to warm it back to life. The snake then bit and poisoned the man. As he lay dying, the snake apologized." It is, after all, in my nature that I am a snake."
            There can be no compromise, and no understanding, of those who preach hatred. Is it any wonder that the Prime Minister of Israel is willing to risk insulting the President of the United States who is operating on the presumption that he can convince Iran to join the ranks of civilized nuclear powers.  Is it any wonder that the Prime Minister believes the Ayatollah Khamanei when he publicly announces his plans for the destruction of Israel?:
     What can the reason be for this longest hatred in history?
     Was it, as some have suggested, a peculiar pathological hatred of Jews endemic to the Germans?

Was it the outcome of centuries of Christian denunciation of Jews as Christ-killers?

Is it today the ongoing struggle of Israel and the Palestinians? Or the many denunciations of Jews founding the Quran?

Next week is my father’s yahrzeit, so if you will allow me, I will read from an essay he wrote just as Jewish leadership was scrambling all over Rome to get the new Pope, John 23rd to redo historic Catholic doctrine. For sure, the Catholic Church of today is light-years away from the Church of yesteryear.
     Nevertheless, my father, from his experience, was skeptical of the value over the long-run of such begging and pleading.
My father wrote an essay on the topic of anti-Semitism, in the early 1960’s, which was published in the National Jewish Monthly of the B’nai B’rith, even though the editors disagreed with him.
This is an excerpt of what he wrote:
Anti-Semitism Is Based On New Factors, Not Religion

Neither Hitler, nor the Dreyfusards, nor the anti-Semitic right-wingers who between the two World Wars grouped themselves around the daily “L’Action Francaise,” fought under the faded banner of the church. We must not be deceived by smuggled-in pieties. Nazism’s anti-Jewish ideology was not based on the theological antagonism between the Pharisees and Jesus. The Nazis did not adorn themselves with the symbol of the cross but with the swastika, which stood for many things but not for Christian myths or beliefs. Hitler was not a modern Torquemada, and the gas chambers were not regarded by him as auto-da-fe, a place for burning heretics.

It is wrong in our day and age to identify anti-Semitism, primarily, with religious intolerance, though the words are still used interchangeably, especially by Jews. The religious wall turned long ago into a “paper curtain.” If we are still excluded from some clubs or neighborhoods, it’s not for our disbelief in Jesus. The idea that hostility toward us is, mainly and directly, the result of religious intolerance, is a product of frustration. The seed of anti-Semitism is undoubtedly Christian; the root and branches are not. Creeds are not the insignia of our present-day civilization, and the Christ-killer myth rarely, if ever, pops up in conversations. To the best of my recollection, no Nazi ever threw the New Testament at me, nor did any Russian anti-Semite, during the four years I was a refugee in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism is essentially a-religious, thoroughly secularized and materialistic.

We are under a spell and look in the wrong direction. Out of fear of another Holocaust, we have put up a warm blanket of belief that if only the churches got less nasty, most Jew baiting would disappear. And yet I venture to say that if every trace of religious discrimination against us were wiped away overnight, it would have the same effect as a heart operation on a broken leg. In September 1938, Pope Pius stated clearly, “Anti-Semitism is…a movement in which we, as Christians, cannot have any part whatever…. Spiritually we are Semites.” Did this noble statement prevent the Germans, the Ukrainians, the Poles, and Lithuanians from slaughtering Jews? Does the contemporary left- or right-winger pay much attention to church statements? Does the average Catholic study them?
. In this context it is worth remember­ing that we in this country, as well as Jews in other democratically gov­erned countries, did not have to wait for the Ecumenical Council's "Declara­tion on Relations of the Church with Other Religions" to get our freedom to pray in accordance with the dictates of our conscience.
It is the First Amendment to our Constitution that guarantees us the free exercise of our religion, not the Vatican's Declara­tion that came out about 200 years later—and 25 years too late.
It is on the stubborn loyalty of the American to his Constitution that we pin our hopes for the continuance of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not on church declarations

Modern anti-Semitism is primarily a secular movement, and large parts of it are anti-Christian…. We must look for friends who themselves are power factors, for men ready to protect their liberties, law, and peaceful procedures for the redress of their grievances—within the framework of our Constitution.

We need an increased realism and sobriety with which to approach the modern varieties of Jew hatred. This is a job for politicians, political scientists, criminologists, and psychopathologists rather than for theologians.

Is this the right analysis? A half century has gone by since the Catholic Conclave that changes church teachings. Now, however, our fears stem, to a great extant, from the Moslem, not Christian world. We are right in the focus of an extremely intolerant and implacable form of Islam, for sure, whatever the label that one wants to give. It is also an attitude shared, as surveys show, by the great majority of the Moslem world. Perhaps it is not in as malevolent in tone and preaching, but it is certainly there. Certainly, the Moslem world is not a secular world for whom and certainly the Quran and Hadith have their share of statements that incite against us Jews.
     Nevertheless, we are facing a phenomenon that has deep psychological and emotional roots, based as much in a sense of the failure of the Moslem society to live up to its image of old the ideal Caliphates or a mythical Golden Age. Certainly much of the Israel-Palestinian issue is not a question of justice for the Palestinian as it is for the image of the lowly, despised Jew to raise his head over and above a Moslem. Recall that in Moslem tradition, the Jew had to pay protection money, the Jew could not ride on a horse that would make him higher than a Moslem, the Jews house and synagogue could not be higher than that of a Moslem. For the lowly subject to now have authority over Moslems and to be in control of what was seen as Moslem wakf, sacred territory, is hard to swallow, just it was hard for members of the KKK to swallow that black could vote and elect black officials .
These are the resentments that fuel the new anti-Semitism.
Will we see a resolution?

There were Moslems who saved Jews during World-War II, there were Moslems who put themselves on the line for Jews even today. But these are still few in numbers. When that will be the norm instead of the exception, that will be the time we can celebrate Purim once again.