Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Ketubah & the Kotel / Parshat Terumah 2016/5776

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about prayer space at the Kotel, which raises several questions: What’s the buzz about? Why is the Kotel so important to Jews? Should the Kotel be of importance to progressive Jews?

First question: What’s the Kotel buzz about? Last week, the Israeli government approved a plan to establish an egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel, the Western Wall (so-named because it is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount) thanks largely to Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center, under the leadership of the indomitable Anat Hoffman. Celebration among progressive Jews, and the predictable and appalling comments of ultra-Orthodox reactionaries swirl together in the media haze surrounding the announcement of the compromise agreement.

 Second question: Why is the Kotel important to Jews? This week’s parashah, Terumah, tells the story of one of the greatest moments of Jewish unity: The Israelites bring gifts to Moses for to be used to construct the portable Tabernacle that will accompany them throughout their 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The people bring so much that eventually Moses tells them, “Enough!” At the center of the Tabernacle is the  enclosure for the ark containing the tablets Moses brought down Mount Sinai. Later, long after the people have settled in the Land of Israel, God assigns King Solomon to build a Temple to replace the Tabernacle. The Holy of Holies, containing the ark, will stand at its core.


The Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt by those who returned from Exile, and then underwent a massive expansion by King Herod in the first century B.C.E. Herod began the project by shoring up the hilltop on which the Temple will be built, reinforcing it with a retaining wall. He then rebuilt and refurbished the Temple. When the Romans tore it down in 70 C.E., they were unable to dismantle the entirety of the Western retaining wall because the stones were so massive. Today those that remain constitute the bottom layers of the Kotel, with smaller stones from the Umayyad period filling in the gaps.

The Destruction of the Temple was a cataclysm for the Jewish people. In the wars with Rome thousands upon thousands of Jews were killed and the country was decimated. The loss of the Temple spelled the loss of the religious space that united the people in worship of God. A nascent rabbinic movement gradually filled the void with a growing library of forward-looking rituals and laws that breathed life into the nation again. But at the same time, the Rabbis looked back at the Destruction with an array of intense emotions. We have a wealth of their writings that reflect a spectrum of reactions. On one end of the spectrum, there were those who felt the Destruction was God’s just judgment against Israel for sins she committed. On the opposite end of the spectrum we find enormous anger expressed at God for overreacting, abandoning Israel to her enemies, and participating in the torture of her people.

This week, I want to share with you just one parable of the many, many stories, commentaries, and parables that address and reflect the pain and sadness, confusion and disillusionment, anger and resentment that the Destruction engendered, sentiments that lasted for several centuries. (I’ll interweave an explanation, but I recommend that you first read the parable intact; it is reproduced at the bottom of this drash for that purpose. We are accustomed to reading stories once through and moving on, but to fully understand and appreciate rabbinic stories—even seemingly simple ones—we need to read them many times. Please keep in mind as you read that in rabbinic parables, the king is always God, and the king’s wife, son, or servant is Israel.)

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope (Lamentations 3:21). R. Abba bar Kahana said: [This situation] is like a king who took a certain woman to be his wife. He wrote her a very large marriage contract. So many bridal chambers will I make for you,” he wrote her. So many jewels will I bestow upon you, so much silver and gold will I give you.” Then he left her for many years while he journeyed to a distant province.

The parable opens with a verse from Lamentations, the biblical book of dirges composed in response to the destruction of the First Temple. Tradition attributes them to the prophet Jeremiah. Lamentations 3:21, significantly, tells us where the parable is going to go: hope.

R. Abba bar Kahana tells the story of a king who wrote his wife a generous ketubah (marriage contract). He then went away without explanation and without communicating with her for a long time. In a similar way, the Rabbis mean us to understand, God wrote Israel a generous marriage contract. Can you guess what the rabbis have in mind? And then, from the perspective of the Rabbis, God essentially abandoned Israel, failing to protect her from her enemies and allowing the Romans to enter the Land and destroy the Temple. Abandonment is a strong emotion and, indeed, an accusation, yet the Rabbis did not hesitate to express it.

All this time her neighbors taunted her. Has your husband not abandoned you?” they said. Go! Take another man for yourself.” The woman wept and sighed, but then she would go inside her bridal chamber, read her marriage contract, and console herself.

Alone and bereft of her husband, the woman’s neighbors take advantage of her fragility and tempt her to find another man, but she resists the temptation. What makes it possible for her to wait for his return? Her marriage contract, which she reads again and again in their bridal chamber, reinforces her love for, and loyalty to, the king even though his presence is neither seen nor felt. Similarly, after the Temple was destroyed, other nations taunted Israel, suggesting they follow other gods since theirs had abandoned them. What is it that Jews do that is equivalent to entering the bridal chamber and re-reading their ketubah?

Many days and years later, the king returned. You amaze me!” he said to her. How have you been able to wait for me all these years?” She replied, My lord, O king! If not for the generous marriage contract you wrote me, my neighbors would indeed have led me astray!”

When the king finally returns, he is amazed that his wife has waited for him and remained loyal to him. She is quite honest and admits that the only thing that kept her loyal was the sense of love ignited by reading the ketubah—she certainly hadn’t heard from him nor did she feel his actual presence. And now the Rabbis will decode the parable for us:

So the nations of the world vex the children of Israel. Your God no longer wants you,” they say. He has abandoned you, and removed His Presence from among you. Come! Join us, and we will appoint you rulers and commanders and generals.” But the children of Israel enter their synagogues and study houses where they read in the Torah, I will look with favor upon you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you…and I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you (Leviticus 26:9, 11)—and so they console themselves. And in the future, when the redemption arrives, the Holy One, blessed be God, will say to Israel, My children, you amaze me! How have you waited for me all these years?” They will reply, Master of the universe! If not for the Torah you gave us, and the verse, I will look with favor upon you… and I will not spurn you, which we read when we entered our synagogues and study houses, the nations of the world would indeed have led us astray.” This is what is written: If Your law had not been my delight, I should then have perished in my affliction (Psalm 119:92). And therefore it says, This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope (Lamentations 3:21).

Torah is the ketubah God has given us. We read and re-read it in our bridal chambers: our synagogues and study houses. When we pray and when we study Torah, we are reading the ketubah, the marriage contract, that God gave us. The Rabbis often likened the Giving of Torah at Mount Sinai to a wedding in which God is the groom and Israel is the bride. While we often cannot feel God’s presence directly, Torah—and especially God’s promises as expressed in Leviticus 26:8-11—keeps us connected to God until we can feel God’s presence again. That is why there is reason to hope. The parable therefore ends on a hopeful note: We always have Torah to keep us connected to God. Today, the Kotel serves as a connection with what once was, and perhaps, for some, a promise of what may yet be.

Third question: Should the Kotel be important to progressive Jews? For many progressive Jews, the Torah is the ketubah that matters. The Kotel is an ancient artifact of a by-gone era, not even part of the ancient Temple but merely of the retaining wall around the Temple Mount. I have heard people express the concern that the worship at the Wall borders on idolatrous worship of the Wall. I can appreciate the concern that perhaps there has been too much focus from all sides on the Wall, and not enough on the real ketubah: Torah. Yet I can also see that the Wall has become a manifestation of the ketubah in the parable: it is a tangible sign of our deep and abiding historical and religious connection to the Land of Israel. Tzur Yisrael; the Rock of Israel.

For the Kotel agreement to become a living, breathing reality, Israel must allocate the funds to
build the platform stipulated in the agreement, as well as access to the area. No doubt there will be an unpleasant fight to make this happen. Yet the precedent has been established that different Jews live their Judaism differently and that the State of Israel  has the moral and political obligation as the state of the Jewish People to recognize and respect this. For this reason, alone, the agreement is a landmark event. From here, we move to the next issues: equality in governmental support for non-Orthodox synagogues, marriage, and conversion. Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik — May we go from strength to strength.


© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman





Eichah (Lamentations) Rabbah 3:21 
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope (Lamentations 3:21). R. Abba bar Kahana said: [This situation] is like a king who took a certain woman to be his wife. He wrote her a very large marriage contract. “So many bridal chambers will I make for you,” he wrote her. “So many jewels will I bestow upon you, so much silver and gold will I give you.” Then he left her for many years while he journeyed to a distant province. All this time her neighbors taunted her. “Has your husband not abandoned you?” they said. “Go! Take another man for yourself.” The woman wept and sighed, but then she would go inside her bridal chamber, read her marriage contract, and console herself. Many days and years later, the king returned. “You amaze me!” he said to her. “How have you been able to wait for me all these years?” She replied, “My lord, O king! If not for the generous marriage contract you wrote me, my neighbors would indeed have led me astray!” So the nations of the world vex the children of Israel. “Your God no longer wants you,” they say. “He has abandoned you, and removed His Presence from among you. Come! Join us, and we will appoint you rulers and commanders and generals.” But the children of Israel enter their synagogues and study houses where they read in the Torah, I will look with favor upon you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you…and I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you (Leviticus 26:9, 11)—and so they console themselves. And in the future, when the redemption arrives, the Holy One, blessed be God, will say to Israel, “My children, you amaze me! How have you waited for me all these years?” They will reply, “Master of the universe! If not for the Torah you gave us, and the verse, I will look with favor upon you… and I will not spurn you, which we read when we entered our synagogues and study houses, the nations of the world would indeed have led us astray.” This is what is written: If Your law had not been my delight, I should then have perished in my affliction (Psalm 119:92). And therefore it says, This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope (Lamentations 3:21).

Monday, February 1, 2016

Living the Details of Life — Parshat Mishpatim 2016/5776

It is said that, “The devil’s in the details,” but I think more importantly, life is lived in the details, and God is found in the details of life and how we live it.

So far, much of the story of Israel’s Exodus and Redemption have been big, bold, splashy, dramatic events—the opposite of details. Israel experienced the awesome might of God first in the terrifying plagues that afflicted all Egypt, and then in the astonishing parting of the Sea of Reeds that gave way to a song and dance number on the far shore. Moses had his tête-à-tête with God at Mount Sinai. As they communed in the clouds, God revealed Torah, and Moses brought it down to the Israelites. Now Hollywood and Bollywood fade away and Israel settles down to the business of nation-building and living with one another, much if not most of which is in the small details that occupy our waking hours.

Life in the Wilderness is as messy as life anywhere else. Having broadcast the headlines—the Ten Commandments—last week in Parshat Yitro, Torah now dives into the nitty gritty of life and how it should be lived in order to stave off chaos, promote justice, and preserve human dignity. Parshat Mishpatim is a compendium of laws touching on everyday life: family, servants, neighbors, animals… Life is lived in the details.

Among the most mundane details of life is the law concerning finding and returning lost property.

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, return it, return it to him. (Exodus 23:4)

Deuteronomy elaborates on this law, explaining that indifference to another’s claim is unacceptable; we are obligated to care about the details.

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

This means that if I find a wallet or a cell phone, I am obligated to make a reasonable effort to locate the owner and return the article. But not every case is as simple as a wallet with a driver’s license or a cell phone with the owner’s information on the lock screen. People’s claims to ownership are often contested. For this reason, even in the ancient world, there were contracts, witnesses, and oaths—more details—employed to prevent nasty disputes

Thirty-five years ago, my husband left his camera in a taxi in Israel. We were in a hurry to get to the airport because the bus drivers were on strike. The taxi driver was rude and when we arrived, he charged us more than the ride was supposed to have cost. It seems a clear case of price-gouging. We argued with him and then took our things and dashed off to make our plane, leaving the camera on the seat of the cab. Given our unpleasant argument with the driver, we assumed it was lost to us forever. There was no doubt who the owner of the camera was, but we didn’t even know the name of the taxi driver. Consider a case where the identity of the owner is less clear.

When the hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810) moved to Berditchev in 1795 to assume the post as rabbi, the very first case he heard, in his capacity as judge, concerned the return of “lost” property: some barrels of honey. Long before Levi Yitzhak had arrived in Berditchev, a wealthy merchant from Hemelnick had brought several barrels of honey to the Berditchev fair in expectation of selling them at a good price. Unfortunately for him, the price  of honey dropped just as he arrived. Preferring not to take a major loss, the merchant asked a friend in Berditchev to store the honey for him. They had long done business together and trusted one another implicitly. They never used contracts, oaths, or witnesses; a handshake and a smile sufficed to seal a deal because their trust ran deep. Time passed. The honey remained in storage. More time passed and the man in Berditchev became ill and passed away before he had the opportunity to tell his family about the barrels of honey.

The price of honey returned to its previous profitable level and the owner of the barrels arrived one day from Hemelnick to reclaim his property. The merchant spoke to his friend’s sons, but they knew nothing about the honey and refused to honor his claim. Unable to arrive at a satisfactory agreement, they took the case to the bet din. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, newly arrived in Berditchev, heard their case.

Levi Yitzhak listened carefully to both litigants. In his mind, the case was clear. There was no signed contract; there were no witnesses. What is more, Torah stipulates that claims may not be brought against orphans. Therefore he was compelled to find in favor of the sons. It certainly appeared to be an easy, open-and-shut case. Yet two things bothered him, so he delayed announcing his decision. The first concerned the nature of the case. Why, he wondered, was the first case brought before him so simple and straight forward, leaving no room for compromise? Was this a message from Heaven that he was to adhere to the strict letter of the law in all future decisions? Second, the Hemelnick merchant and his deceased friend were known to everyone in town. People knew them both to be scrupulously honest. It was beyond imagination that the merchant was lying; therefore the barrels of honey must be his. Yet there was no signed contract and there were no witnesses, leaving Levi Yitzhak with no choice but to rule against the merchant, a decision that would cause everyone in town to ask why Torah law should be the opposite of common sense.

Levi Yitzhak delayed his ruling for several days. The merchant and the sons spent several days anxiously awaiting his ruling. Levi Yitzhak spent his time in prayer, study, and contemplation. On the third day, the merchant from Hemelnick burst into his study and exclaimed, “I remember, I remember!” “What is it you remember?” Levi Yitzhak asked. “It’s a very old memory, Rabbi, but it returned to me. Long ago, 50 years ago, when I was a small child, my father—may his memory be for blessing—died suddenly, leaving my brother and me a large inheritance of cash and property. The property included a storeroom filled with casks of wine and oil. Then the father of these two young men, my dear friend—may his memory be for blessing—came and claimed that the wine and oil belonged to him and that he had left it in our father’s safe keeping. My brother and I didn’t know what to do, so we went to the rabbi. The rabbi decided in our favor because, just like this case, there was no contract and he could not take anything from the inheritance of orphans without absolute proof and oath. So we kept the wine and oil and sold them for a good profit.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak nodded, understanding what the merchant had in mind. “You see, Rabbi,” the merchant continued, “the profit on the wine and oil equals the value of the barrels of honey.” With that, the merchant happily conceded the case, feeling that justice was being done.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, for his part, understood the case to be one of Divine Providence meant to teach him that what seems obvious and true to human eyes is not necessarily true or just. But for us there may be another lesson: When we pause to consider not just a specific rule or obligation, but its purpose and how it fits into the large scheme of justice and decency, we often see things from a different perspective. When our narrow, immediate interest give way to the bigger picture, justice and decency come into sharper focus. And we see that the details of life are linked inextricably to the larger values and purposes of life.

Before our plane took off, my husband called his cousin in Netanya to tell him that he left his camera in the taxi and about the argument we had had with the driver. We all agreed that the chance of recovering the camera was exceedingly low. When we returned to the United States, my husband’s cousin called to tell us that he had called the taxi company. The driver had turned in the camera with a description of us so that it could be returned to us. When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey [or his camera] going astray, return it, return it to him. (Exodus 23:4)


© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman