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. 


  1. This is the comment I received from Ralph Georgy, author of Absolution: An Israeli-Palestinian Love Story, and himself, a descendent of Egypt's original Coptic Christian community:

    I read your sermon and the only word I can use to describe it is brilliant. It is beautifully written, thoughtful, measured, as well as historically and textually informed. I must comment on the ending. Here is your quote:

    "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."

    I absolutely love this. The quality of mercy outweighs the quality of judgment. This is the problem facing religion in the 21st century- the capacity to nullify in order to preserve the sacred. Islam faces this challenge in a very acute way. So long as Muslim leaders refuse to nullify anything, the sacred will become corrupted by the affairs of men.

    I absolutely loved your sermon. Bless you!!!

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