The Pure Makes Impure Shabbat Parah
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
Zachor Why the Bicycle
Riders? Thoughts on Modern Anti-Semtism
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
“Yes, yes, the Jews! And the bicycle riders!”
The speaker is taken aback. "Why the
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
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
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
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
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?
the outcome of centuries of Christian denunciation of Jews as Christ-killers?
today the ongoing struggle of Israel and the Palestinians? Or the many
denunciations of Jews founding the Quran?
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
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
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
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.
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 .
the resentments that fuel the new anti-Semitism.
see a resolution?
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.