Monday, June 27, 2016

We All Have to Deal with Difficult Texts

Parshat Naso 2016
 We All Have to Deal with Difficult Texts

Our Torah reading deals with a strange ordeal by water and sacred script of a woman accused of infidelity.
A man is struck with a fit of jealousy against his wife, and instead of beating her, as was  acceptable (and still is in some societies), he must bring her to the priest, who takes dust and water from the altar, writes a terrible curse on parchment, and dissolves the ink into the water. If she is guilty, her belly and thigh expand and collapse. If she is innocent, she is rewarded with fertility. ( Numbers 5)
It is an odd trial by ordeal from our perspective, until we realize that it comes, first and foremost, to stop a husband who is in a fit of jealous rage and who could become violent and dangerous.  It is a great step ahead of the standard procedure of the day:
 If a finger has been pointed at a married woman with regard to another man and she is not caught lying with the other man she shall leap into the river for her husband." (  Code of Hammurapi (Pritchard, Texts, 171, law 132). This procedure, of proving innocence by throwing oneself in to drown as proof of innocence was still in vogue in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft trials.
Yet while the Temple still stood, the ceremony was already annulled.
The Talmud ( Sotah) states clearly: When adulterers multiplied, the ceremony of the bitter waters ceased and it was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who discontinued it, as it is said, “I will not punish their daughters for fornicating, nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery, for they themselves [turn aside with whores and sacrifice with prostitutes]” (Hosea 4:14). He could not blame the women when the men were worse!
When the people stop believing in their own religious standards, when everyone is hopping around, these laws lose their effectiveness and become nullified. It is a reflection of reality—when a law becomes impossible to uphold, we void it in order to enable the community of worshippers continue, even when many are sinners.
We might call this the Jewish version of “jury nullification” ,the right of the jury to question the validity or application of a law in a specific case . God is the Judge of the world, but we are the jury, and in the course of our history, our jury, the Rabbis, often reflecting the practice of the people, found ways to nullify laws that no longer worked.
The laws of the rebellious son fated for execution or the city condemned to destruction for betrayal of the faith are posted in Deuteronomy, but are nullified by the Rabbis. ”Lo hiya vlo nivra”;never was and never existed. Our sages taught that this threat was never intended to be carried out--it was written only in order to scare us straight.
What of the harsh Biblical laws to uproot the Canaanites without any mercy?  Those laws were voided by the Rabbis, as the Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors erased the ancestral heritage of all these ancient nations.
These changes were not done on impulse nor to satisfy popular whims.
There are essential principals that operate in Jewish law. For example, “ Pikuach nefesh”- the saving of a life overrides almost all of the Torah. There is the idea that not only “ Life saving”  but even” Kavod habriyot”, the dignity of the individual human being, may override a prohibition. The Rabbis uprooted and reversed a statement in Psalms, to say- When it is necessary for the sake of God, violate the Torah. Principals like these enabled our Sages to deal with the social, psychological, and economic necessities in every age.

Why do I bring this up?
All religions have texts with verses or edicts that can be difficult or painful. What had been essential in antiquity, to protect the ideal, becomes anathema in a later day. I say this as prologue to my thoughts on what has happened in Orlando , with the massacre of innocent people in the name of Islam.
We know now that these people, in the eyes of the murderer, were guilty of the sin of homosexuality. It is a sin, punishable by death, in Islamic jurisprudence, and this is in effect in a dozen countries, such as Iran, where executions of convicted homosexuals are carried out on a regular basis. In 40 other countries, it is a criminal offense, punishable by fines, whipping, or jail.  It is not a law placed on the books by extremists, unless you are ready to label most Moslems as extremists. The leading Islamic jurists have repeatedly stated that homosexuality is a major crime, not just a sin. Islamic teachers today reflect what were principals in the foundation text, the Quran, and were reinforced in the Hadith.
To be fair, in different times and ages, this law was ignored or overlooked and as we approach modernity, the Ottoman Empire, standard bearer of Islam, decriminalized it almost two centuries ago! In much of the Moslem world, as in the Christian West, the rule of “Don’t ask;don’t tell” applied. However, as has happened with much of the Islamic world, there is a return to roots, and with it, a return to standards and laws of a prior age.
Now, it is true that Christianity has statements in its texts denouncing homosexuality. It is not in the words of Jesus, who forgave the gravest of sins, but in the words of the Apostles. However, these statements lack legal threats and punishments; those come from the rules and regulations of Church and State in the centuries that followed. As we enter the modern era, in Europe, the major countries began decriminalizing homosexuality. To a great extent, the various denominations of Christianity have come around to increasing tolerance or open acceptance. In the West, it is a result of religion following public sentiment, not leading.
The one tragic exception, we must note, was Nazi Germany, which re-criminalized homosexuals as well as Jews, to a deadly effect.
What about us? After all, we have laws in the Torah that threaten the death penalty for male with male acts( although not female-with-female !) However, we know that jury nullification sets in. All laws that involved capital punishment were in effect nullified because we placed impossible restrictions so that for almost 2000 years no Jewish court could impose such a penalty. 
Frankly, with Jews, as with Christians, religion follows public sentiment. The non- Orthodox denominations have been opening the doors in the past decades, and even the Orthodox community is coming to grips with it as a fact, one that gets, if not “kashrut”, then at least sympathy and understanding. If you read discussions in Rabbinic circles, a lot of “ nullification “ is going on. We re-read the text of the Torah to understand the ban as relating to pagan prostitution in the Sanctuary. Other re-readings distinguish between different kinds of relationships and acts, or differences between inclinations and actions, or the status of someone acting “ baal korcho”, under mental compulsion. All relate to attempts to include, rather than exclude, a part of our community. 
Several years ago, one of our frequent visitors at services was a teacher from YULA, the large main Orthodox high school of Los Angeles. He was dying from AIDS, and at his funeral, every Rabbi of the school attended, even though they well knew his proclivities. That would not have happened a generation before. 
In the Islamic world, we must recognize, that at present, the secularizing tendencies that have swept over Judaism and Christianity have ceased in the Islamic world. If anything, we know that there for the past century, there has been a resurgence of tradition against modernity and a resurgence of faith against the onslaught of Western liberal  thought. It is manifested in the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt , in the rise of Wahabism, fueled by oil-money, in Saudi Arabia, in the rise of Shiite militancy in Iran , in the reversal of Turkey’s historic secularism since the rise to power of Erdogan, and so forth. 
It is reinforced by a renewed sense of “ Islamism”, that is, a major triumphalist political ideology, replacing fascism and communism, rooted in Islam. This is something that our President, unlike the Prime Minister of France, refuses to speak about publicly, for fear that, if we say the name, we may cause it. He does, however, acknowledge this semi-privately, in an interview in a major magazine. (It did not go unnoticed and the Saudi’s fumed at him.)
The massacre in Orlando is one consequence of this retrenchment of a fundamentalist Islam. It is the result of the impact of preachers in the mosque and in social media. Words have consequences. The shooter, who seems to have had serious problems of sexual orientation, in a society in which this orientation was the pathway to hell, became a perfect target for recruitment.
We are very sensitive to the fears of the Moslem community in this country and of course, we bristle at the thought of labelling an entire minority. We are Jews-- we have been there, we know that.
However, we also know, that to guarantee our own safety, we have had to accommodate ourselves to this country.
The burden falls on the religious and civic leaders of the American Islamic community, a community than is far more diverse than is ours. We know that, in the wake of the killings, some leaders have been speaking out about compassion and understanding to the LGBT community. There have been the beginnings of dealing with contemporary issues regarding sexuality in general and the status of women. There is the beginning of a Moslem “ Reform” movement. But it is still the beginning. 
It is not the job of American society to accommodate all teachings of Islam, nor of any other religion.  It is up to the Islamic religious leaders in the mosques and on the airways to affect attitudes and opinions. It is time for “Jury nullification” on their end. That is the path that every religious group in America has gone. All of us have found ways for the teachings of the faith in a society composed of a multitude of believers and non-believers.For just one example, the Mormon Church abandoned polygamy and abandoned its teachings on race. We Jews have dealt with this for 2500 years, since the fall of the first Temple, when the prophet Jeremiah instructed us to pray for the peace of the city in which we live, even that of our conquerors, and the Talmud instructed us, Dina d’amlkhutah dina, the law of the realm is our law, no matter whose realm it is.
The American Moslem community has a potential to be a tremendous influence on the global community of the faithful. Islamic tolerance is a much touted claim, not completely backed by history; it is now time to make it a doctrine. That burden is now upon the very people who could have most influenced the Orlando murderer-- the preachers and teachers.
God expects us, Jew, Moslem, Christian, to recognize that “ midat harachamim” , the quality of mercy, outweighs “ Middat hadin”, the quality of the judgement. We need to be able to “nullify” in order to preserve the sacred. We need to preach that, and we need to act on that. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Why does Leviticus end with pledges?

Parshat Bechukotai  June 4 2016

Why does Leviticus end with pledges?

Sometimes it is hard to understand why the Torah is organized the way it is.

This book, which we end this week, starts with rules and regulations for the priest and the sacrificial worship; it moves on to issues of personal purity and permitted foods and personal and national ethical and spiritual standards. It ends with a vision of the future, of what blessing will come from the nation’s commitment to the Torah and what curses will befall the nation if it fails to keep these obligations.

We know, however, that a reading never ends on a note of failure, but on a note of hope, that no matter how far down the people of Israel may fall:
“…45 'But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.' 46These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the LORD established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai.

That is a great last line. It wraps up the book very well. Close curtain; end of the concert. And then, we have an encore to the concert as it were, or an appendix.

The text  picks up with a completely different concept:
1The Lord said to Moses, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, 3 set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekel ; 4for a female, set her value at thirty shekels.
It goes on with a variety of items –animals or fields- that people may have offered as the basis of their pledge. Towards the end, there is one very serious reminder:” Kol Cherem asher yecharam”—whatever among the human may have been dedicated—
 can not be redeemed. That is a “ cherem”, unlike the “pledge”. That is a condemnation by the court for an actual crime that has been committed, a crime of capital punishment—“ Lo yipadeh”—that may never be bought off. There is no blood money that can wash off murder, as had been done in other societies at the time and is still on the law books in many countries till today.( .e., Iran, Saudi Arabia)( Lev 17:31)

The portion then wraps up with the almost the same words as the penultimate chapter.
“ These are the commandments…”

First, we may complain- why is the value of a woman less than that of a man. Please don’t take offense—the value of a senior citizen drops to small a fraction of either—and this is in a civilization that respects age.  Rather, consider that , in an agricultural society, you value labor by the bushels an individual can produce—a woman who is burdened with child-rearing can’t produce as much, and a retiree is not going to do a whole lot of plowing.
              What is this vow?
It was common for people to offer themselves as devoted to the gods or to the sanctuaries. This was found throughout all antiquity. There is the famous story of Jepthah, who dedicates the first thing that goes out to greet him- who happens to be his own daughter. It is a piece of Greek tragedy,much like the play Iphegenia at Aulis by Sophocles.It also matches the wild west atmosphere of the period of the Judges. There was, in contrast, although in this same epoch, Hannah who dedicates her son, Samuel, to the Sanctuary, and he grows up to become the leader of all the tribes.
            It is clear that the Sanctuary could not actually use all that were offered. Since the Kohen and the Levi had the job of serving the sacrifice at the Sanctuary, there was no need of extra hands. Since they also received their regular share of the tithe and other offerings, there was a limit as to what could actually be accepted. It was quite simple to institute a system of financial compensation for all of these offerings.
            This idea of pledging a contribution is so very, very old in Jewish thought. You are probably most familiar with “Shnoder,” a play on words, of “Schnorer” and the pledge one made to earn an Aliyah, The Misheberach that continues, “ she-nadar”, “who has pledged.” Now, you don’t have to be afraid of an aliyah here- we don’t charge. However, before there was such a thing as annual membership dues, this was the Jewish equivalent of passing the plate in church. We don’t use cash on Shabbat, so we use pledges.
I can’t, at this point , hold back from an old joke. Did you hear of the thief  who broke into the shul and ran away with the safe on Yom Kippur. He was so excited, he cracked the combination, opened it and found a $million—in pledges!
We must now ask, why would the Torah end the book of Leviticus with a statement that these words, of pledges, are now the summation of the laws of Moses, just as the previous chapter made the same claim to the entire book. It seems incongruous.
I can only draw one conclusion—that the entire Torah stands on our ability to keep our word. The pledge is a word that we must keep.

            Our words are so powerful. “The tongue has the power of death and life, and those who love it will eat its fruit.( Proverbs 18:21)”. The Hebrew is very physical in its language: Mavet ve Chayim—death and life- beyad- are in the hand-Lashon—of the tongue. Hand and tongue are used to express the power of language to cause death and give life. As one commentator explained: Those who love it, that is the use of language, will eat the fruits—sweet  fruits if the tongue speaks well, and bitter fruits if the tongue speaks evil.( Ralbag)

At the end of every Amidah, three times a day, we conclude Elohal Neztor leshoni me’ra--My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile, and to those who slander me, let me give no heed.” Three times a day, our sages warned us to be careful with our words, and to be ready to ignore the words of others when they are painful.

This is especially true when we make commitments to ourselves as well as to others.
There is a practice among very observant Jews to temper any promise with the words   “ Bli neder”- I promise, but this is not a full pledge. In other words, I admit that I may not be able to fulfill this- caveat emptor-you are forewarned. In Israel today, in court, a witness is not charged with swearing to tell the truth.

There is an ancient practice, still carried out in some Jewish circles, of standing in the presence of a rabbinic court on the morning before Rosh Hashanah to be absolved of words uttered rashly. We make promises and pledges and vows that we can not possibly live up to, and this forces us to take it seriously. Of course, best known to all of us is the Kol Nidre declaration on Yom Kippur which reminds us of the words we have uttered foolishly. in excitement or in depression, in the heat of passion or in anger which bind us to obligations which cannot be kept. We seek to free ourselves of the words which should never have left our lips in the first place.

There  is  a  phrase  in  Psalms,  about  God  who  forms  the mountains,  creates the wind,  and declare unto man what  is his speech. What is the reason for this progression? The Rabbis ask. Mountains are granite basalt, immovable, the wind is softer, fluid, and speech is an intangible--shouldn't one describe God by going
from the softer to the harder, from weaker to stronger? But, indeed, that is what we have.  Hard as mountains may be, the wind nevertheless wears them down over the ages. Words, however, are more powerful, for the wrong word can easily whip up a storm. A word harshly uttered can be   a hurricane. The word, unheeded, can cause a typhoon.
            With this thought in mind, we now can make sense of the final editing of this book of Vayikra. Whatever God, through Moses, may have said about purity, or permitted foods, or ethical conduct, or building a just society—all that is empty verbiage—until we put our money where our mouth is. We make a pledge—pay up. We make a statement- be true to it. We pledged ourselves at the base of Mount Sinai- we have to put ourselves behind it.
When we open our mouths, may our words always be words of truth, words of sweetness, words that give life. Amen.