Monday, July 27, 2015

The Messiah is Born on Tisha B”Av

The Messiah is Born on Tisha B”Av

            Today is the Ninth of Av, Tisha B”Av, but since it is Shabbat, we postpone the observance of this date to this evening and tomorrow, so as not to mar the sanctity of Shabbat with our fasting. Note that we never postpone Yom Kippur, which is also a fast day, to Sunday. Yom Kippur maybe a day without food, but it is far from a day of tragedy; it is instead, a day of joyful expectation leading to “At-one-ment.”.
            One day, too, Tisha B Av will be a joyful day as well. It was already stated by the prophet Zechariah: This is what the Lord Almighty says: "The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. "( 8:19). The fast of the fourth month, counting from Pesach forward, is the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of the Temple were breached. The fast of the fifth month is Tisha B Av, when the Temple itself fell. The fast of the seventh month, the day after Rosh Hashanah, mourns the murder of Gedaliah, the High Commissioner appointed by the Babylonian overlords, which marked the beginning of the disastrous rebellion that led to the destruction. The fast of the tenth day, The Tenth of Tevet, marks the start of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem.
            In other words, the Jewish exiles, sitting in Babylonia had already established this series of memorials. When, two generations later, they were allowed back to Israel, this practice of fasting had been deeply ingrained. The prophet Zechariah, looking at this return, looks forward to a time when these fast days would be transformed into days of rejoicing, because the Sacred Temple and the Kingdom of Judah would once again be established. History would come to an end.
            However, we know that Zechariah was premature. The Temple was rebuilt, bigger and better and new kings were established on the throne of Israel, but it seems that the mourning, in one sense or another, continued. Things were not yet perfect.
            And then—the Temple was destroyed again, on Tisha B’ Av, 600 years after it was reestablished. Again, on Tisha B’Av, the great Bar Kochba rebellion was put down at Betar and the remains of Jerusalem were plowed under. We would have to learn to live without a Temple, without a society under our own leadership, and eventually, without our land. For some 1900 years, we would live at the tolerance of other peoples and rulers, and often, we would not live. Tisha B’ Av became a day of even greater mourning as other events were associated with that date in history- the expulsion of the  Jews from medieval France and England, and then the expulsion of the largest and most prosperous Jewish community of its day, the Jewish community of Spain, in 1492. Even in modern times, it became associated with the date of the official start of the Final Solution, when  Himmler received Nazi Party authorization to begin and with the date of the start of the deportations from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka and death.
            We can see, then, why Zechariah’s prophecy would be so very important for us. We would have been lost as a people in permanent depression had it not been for the words of Zechariah and the prophets that preceded and followed him.
            What kept us going, even before the Temple was destroyed the first time, was a concept that we call in Hebrew “ Yemot Hamashiach”, the Days of the Messiah, or Messianic expectation.  Messiah itself comes from the Hebrew word “ mashiach” for anointed with oil, a ceremony in which one was designated for high office, as a priest or king. Even a pagan king, Cyrus of Persia, would be called God’s Messiah by the Prophet Isaiah for opening the gates of the land of Israel to the exiles from Babylonia. It soon became a term to designate the rightful heir to the throne of King David.
This concept appears in the sense of destruction and restoration in the text of the Torah itself, long before there is a Temple to destroy, long before there is a king or Davidic lineage.
            At a time when both Kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were powerful and prosperous, the Prophet Amos preached of a “ Day of the Lord”, when the wicked would be judged and overthrown. When the Northern kingdom fell, the Prophet Isaiah already envisioned an heir to the throne of King David who would usher in a period of great peace, when” the lion shall dwell with the lamb”. In short, to paraphrase a rabbinic comment, God creates a cure before he brings the illness. A later Jewish legend would say that the Messiah was born on Tisha B Av itself. From the depth of destruction would come the redemption. (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:4)
            In the intervening years, before the destruction of the Second Temple, every generation saw itself as the last, as being on the verge of the end of days, as being participants on the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, as we find in the writings of the dead Sea sects and the Apocrypha (books from the close of the Biblical, period that were never included in the Jewish canon).    
            Jesus may have been a member or leader of such a movement and  may have seen himself as a precursor to the Messiah or have been seen by his followers as the Messiah. He promulgated his famous ethical statements towards one’s enemies, “Turn the other cheek” ,” Give your cloak.” (These statements themselves are adapted quotes from earlier Biblical verses). Many Christian scholars see these not as ethical directives for all ages but as a conditional statement of faith because the end is nigh. Why fight and why hold on to possessions when it would all be swept away overnight and the wicked would get their comeuppance and the righteous would be rewarded.
            It was this great anticipation of a dramatic end of all that is that gave rise to the disastrous rebellions against Rome; from this moment on the concept of a Messianic kingdom was dramatically changed.
            For the early community of followers of Jesus, as the dead Jesus failed to return to overthrow Rome, a new explanation was needed. Thus  Paul would find end of days not in the future, but in the present, a salvation of the individual souil, not the nation. This was the great radical departure of the new religion of Christianity, a split from all notions of redemption in history that were essential to Judaism. The fall of the Temple a few decades later was the catalyst that forced the separation of Christianity from Judaism and sealed this version of the new religion. Christianity never shook its Jewish roots completely and would, in time, come right back to the Jewish concept of the Messianic era, but as an afterthought. The idea of a future redeemer would find its place in Islam as well in the figure of a Mahdi  who would defeat evil at the end of days..
            Jews, in turn, were devastated; the longing for a Messiah had given rise to horror of war and internal division. The Sages now gave this future vision a critical revision. The Messiah would come, in and of his own time, as God would determine, still within the framework of the nation and world history, but in God’s own good time. At best, it could be achieved only by personal and communal perfection, not by war. Thus, a tale arose, that the Messiah could be found sitting at the gates of Rome, symbol of the children of Darkness. He would be disguised as a sickly beggar who is constantly bandaging his wounds.
“R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah, , , ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’  ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognize him?’  ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie the ir bandages all at once, and retire them all at once, whereas he unwraps and rebandages each separately, thinking,’ should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.’  
 So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon you, Master and Teacher.’ ‘Peace upon you, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When will you come Master?’ asked he, ‘Today’, was his answer.
On his returning to Elijah,.he complained: ‘He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come to-day, but he has not!’ Elijah answered him, ‘This is what he said to you, the first word. ‘Today’ (of a quotation from Psalms 95:7),’ Today, if you will listen to his voice.’( Sanhedrin 98a).
In other words, the coming of a Davidic savior would be depend on the merits of the Jewish people. It could not be forced by violent armed rebellion.
Of course, the odds of all Jews being so pious are slim, so other sages suggested the Messiah will come when all is Jews have fallen so low in morality and behavior that he will have no choice but to step in.
Finally, the accepted position was” Ayn Dohakin et Haketz.” Don’t try to force the end of days.” It is all in God’s hands.
            Thus the Rabbis claimed that God made  three oaths with the people of Israel and the nations: One, that Israel shall not go up as in a military siege to reconquer the land of Israel; the second,  Israel would not rebel against the nations of the world; and the third that the idolaters would not oppress Israel too much’.  To this was added the comment that the prophets would not reveal the secret of the end of days and  the people would not force the end.” ( Talmud Ketuboth 110-111
            Thus the speculation and the drive to obtain an end of oppression by force were pushed off into the future and left to the hands of God. In classical Rabbinic thinking, the idea of the Messiah would not be a cataclysmic end of days, but an era of social and political peace for the Jewish people.  Thus, the Rambam gave what may be the classical formulation of the Messianic concept:
Do not presume that in the Messianic age any facet of the world's nature will change or there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its pattern. . . .
Our Sages taught: "There will be no difference between the current age and the Messianic era except the emancipation from our subjugation to the gentile kingdoms."
The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, they desired to be free to involve themselves in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come . . .
In that era, there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.
Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, 'The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.( Isaiah 11:9)" ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melachim, Chapter 12)
            Note his insistence on awaiting and not pushing for an end of all; we may consider this the basic Jewish understanding of the ages before and after. We will know that the Messiah has come-after the fact, the Rambam assured his readers ( Ch. 11). That kind of viewpoint enabled Jews to establish communities and prosper in Babylonia and North Africa and the Rhineland and Spain. More or less, we would accommodate ourselves to the gentiles, they would not overly oppress us, and we would be fine until the Messiah would come. With this outlook, it would be easy for us to resist the blandishments of the Christian missionaries, as it would be easy to refute their claim that the Messiah had come in the form of Jesus. It would be easy for us to resist the subjugation under Islam and the extortion protection money we had to pay , the jizzya, because we could assure ourselves that these religions, as burdensome as their believers were upon us, were still a stepping stone for the nations of the world to attain the knowledge of God It would all be straightened out at the end
Thus, as Maimonides could declare, among his 13 principles of faith:
“Ani Maamin: I believe with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he delay, nevertheless, I wait for him.”

Now, I will leave for another Shabbat, the quandary of what happens to our belief in the Messiah when the nations of the world have violated their oath not to oppress us too harshly. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Wise Daughters of Zelophehad and the Evolving Role of Jewish Women

The Wise Daughters of Zelophehad and the Evolving Role of Jewish Women

            Those of you who watch the news from Israel- when it doesn’t involve Palestinians, Hamas and so forth- may have heard of an incident in the town of Beth Shemesh, located just at the beginning of the foothills of Jerusalem. It was a typical Israeli town, mostly devoted to agriculture, but as the price of housing has increased in Jerusalem, it has become a refuge for those seeking affordable housing. That, however, has included a large influx of the Charedim, the ultra- Orthodox.
            One of the results has been intrusion of the highly restrictive and segregated male-female lifestyle of the Haredi. We already have, in the Charedi world, women at the back of the bus, or even “separate but equal buses.” The straw that broke the camel’s back for the non-Charedi residents, even for the main-stream Orthodox, was a sign:” Women must go to the other side of the street!”         
            I am hard pressed to find, in Jewish sources, any precedent for such a draconian edict. It is not a symptom of Orthodoxy, but a symptom of the threat this insular population feels from the changes occurring in the status of women, even in their circles. Even in these ultra- Orthodox, hide –bound circles, women are the ones bringing home the kosher-bacon and being exposed to the outside world. It is a reactionary offense as defense.            
            The Charedi community has also used its political clout to take over what was originally an official Israeli Rabbinate, for example, that was Zionist and outward looking. Thus, the Israeli Rabbinate recently pushed the great innovative Rabbi Riskin from his position because he had the nerve to offer classes for women in higher Rabbinic studies. As I said, it’s offense as a form of defense.
            Moses, apparently, did not have the problems they have. In our Torah portion, it is the women, the daughters of Zelophehad, who force Moses to accept their reasoned opinion on inheritance. Even the Torah notes that they did not stay in the back of the bus:”And they stood before Moses and   before Eleazar the priest and before the princes and the entire congregation.”  Right up front, in the assembly, in a traditionally male-only location. ( vs 2)
  The Talmud takes the text of our Torah portion even further:
            “It was taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, they were scholars, and they were            virtuous.
            They were wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment . . . just as Moses was            teaching the laws of inheritance for a man who had died before having fathered children.
            They were scholars, for they said: 'If he had a son we would not have spoken'. . . 'Even if a son of his had a daughter, we would not have spoken'
            They were virtuous, since they were married to such men only as were worthy of them.  (from Baba Batra 119a)
            Moses had no problem with these women asserting themselves.
            It is clear, with all the changes in the world, that there is no way that woman can be relegated to the back of the bus. This change has been across the board of the Jewish world, including the main-stream Orthodox community as well.
            In my last year at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I studied Talmud under the leading light of the movement, Professor Saul Lieberman. In that class were two women. Now, we are going back 40 years ago, I date myself. One was Judith Hauptman, who was working on her doctorate in Rabbinic studies and had a great mastery of Jewish law, but who could never, as far as her Talmud professor, the official Rabbi of the Seminary, Saul Lieberman could determine, be ordained as a Rabbi, for all her knowledge. She since when on to become a Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics and only many years later was ordained as Rabbi .
            The other woman student came to class for only a few sessions, and as far as we knew, was merely sitting in out of curiosity. Later on, I was informed that, unknown to the professor, she was at the time studying privately with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a maverick Orthodox Rabbi, who had plans to make her the first Orthodox woman Rabbi. As far as I know, it fell through, perhaps because, in the end, Rabbi Greenberg felt at the time that there was too great an opposition in his circles to such an act.
            That was also the time that the idea of counting women for a minyan began to make headway.
            One day in 1973, the New York Times placed on its front page the news that the Rabbinical Assembly law committee voted by a majority ruling to permit women to be counted at a minyan. Imagine, it made front page news! Of course, it took a long time after that for it be widely accepted; the  chapel service here began counting women for the minyan only a few years ago.
             In that same year, the Reform movement Hebrew Union College ordained its first woman Rabbi, and since then the new Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia began to ordain women as well.  It took the Conservative movement yet another 10 years to get around to it. It was not an easy path and led to serious fracturing of the movement.  
            As I said, the main-stream Orthdoox community is not immune to was is going on. It is the path that is being taken, even today, in some Orthodox circles, with  the ordination of women as “Maharat,” a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, or “Leader of Jewish Law, Spirituality, and Torah”( in the Hebrew feminine). They are also granted an ordination of
Toreh- Toreh”, the feminine form for the formal ordination of “ Yoreh -Yoreh”, the authority to made halakhic decisions. B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles has been among the first Orthodox congregations to bring on a candidate for “ Maharat” ordination  to serve as intern to the senior rabbi.
            This dramatic shift in the position of women in modern Jewish life, not just in Rabbinics, but in all aspects of life, across the board, is part of the reason that elements in the Charedi community literally want to return women to the back of the bus.
            Yet there is historic precedent for this as well.
            In truth, there have always been women who have functioned as authorities of Jewish law, and who had the right, by virtue of their great knowledge and understanding, to tell the judges and Rabbis of their day what the law is to be. The prophetess Huldah instructed the king and priest about the authenticity of a Torah document that had been found, neglected, in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The classic example of the early Rabbinic period was  Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir, the outstanding Rabbi of his day, who formulated laws for him and his colleagues. In every generation there were women who stood above the cloud of ignorance in which the average Jewish woman was kept and gained recognition from the male world for their erudition.
            Even in more recent times, among the Chasidim, there have
been women who have served as leaders of Chasidic communities-- Sarah the daughter of R. Joshua Heschel Teomim, Malkele of Trisk  and the best known, Hannah Rachel . Der Ludomirer Moyd, the Maiden of Ludomir, over a century and a half ago , wore tallit and tefilin, recited kaddish after her father and preached to her followers.
            Yes, there are specific laws that place a limit on a woman’s position.
            Yet the grounds for these laws were based on social norms of the day, social norms that ceased to exist already for a century and more. Exceptions were made, way back when, even while these norms stood. Tempus mutandis, times change, and Halakhah has always recognized the need to deal with the times.
            Clearly, today, we are dealing, not just with issues of women as Rabbis, but with issues of gender and marital relations as well
            The Conservative movement is just that:conservative with a small “c”. Conservative does not mean to stop the clock. It means to conserve the best and most valuable and to move slowly in order to do so. It does not mean to stop the clock.
            Change is not an exception to Judaism; the main tradition we have is that of changing. That is why one of the great classics of the movement is titled Tradition and Change. Note the word” and”, not “or”. Two opposites—but the brilliance of Jewish thought has always been to hold on to two opposites, recognize that fact, and reconcile the opposites.

            I go back to our wise women, the daughters of Zelophehad. This is a comment from the Sifra, one of the foundation works of Jewish law 1900 years ago. It examines our account of daughters of Zelophehad, a man who had no male heirs. The daughters realized that they would lose their share and came to Moses for a solution, which he received directly from God. The daughters comment, "The compassion of man extends to men more than to women; not so is the compassion of God; His compassion extends equally to men and women, as it is written, "The Lord is good to all, and his mercies are over all his works.”
( Ps 145).

Sunday, July 5, 2015

For this Fourth of July

For this Fourth of July

We held a Star-Spangled Bannered Shabbat at Hollywood Temple Beth El, with a Shabbat Kiddush featuring that great American stand-by, the hot dog.

Our discussion revolved around the theme of American exceptionalism. 

Certainly, at the beginning of our history, we were seen as such by not only ourselves but by foreign observers. This was a nation different, not only because it was a democracy (there had been others before which had for the most part failed) but because it differed greatly from the commonly accepted concept of a  nation, an entity created by one king or emperor forcing other ethnic groups by conquest into his domain, or an entity composed of people of some common language, religion, blood and long standing history on a land.  

This would be a nation created out of a common set of laws, by the people, for the people, of the people.

For us, as Jews, this was an exceptional nation, as never before seen in history. President Washington himself defined it:  For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. . . May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

It would take many years, tears  and bloodshed to enlarge this vision to  erase the shame of slavery and to include the descendants of the  African slaves as well as the  native American Indians. Germans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Latin Americans, all seen in their day as aliens who would never be absorbed, became part and parcel of the fabric of this nation. It is a work in progress.

Here are some thoughts from famous poets on the nature of America as well as an excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Poems for 4th of July

A foreigner looks at us: Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832) one of the greatest creative minds of German civilization:

(Amerika du hast es besser)
America, you are better off
Than our ancient continent.
You have no tumbledown castles
And no basalt deposits.
Your inner lives are not disturbed by
Useless memories and vain strife.
Use your time with confidence!
And if your children write poetry,
May a kindly fate guard them from writing
Stories of knights, robbers and ghosts.

A  century later and Europe would be torn apart in two world wars inspired by ancient myths of knights, robbers and ghosts.

A Nation’ Strength    Ralph Waldo Emerson

What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?

It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.
Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.

And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.

Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly...
They build a nation’s pillars deep  
 And lift them to the sky.

Are we still a nation of brave innovators who dare?

I Hear America Singing     Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 1867

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—
Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—
At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Only a few years after the terrible and bloody Civil War tore this nation apart, Walt Whitman could dream of a nation varied and at singing each his or her own song. Can we still give voice to that hope and expectation?

Emma Lazarus   The New Colossus  1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

America was then a vast, empty land hungry for the energy of immigrants. Can we still absorb the masses? In what way?

Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream  1963

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." . . .
I have a dream today! . . .
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
                Free at last! Free at last!
                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

No need to say more than, “Amen.”