Friday, September 4, 2015

You're the Best! / Parshat Ki Tavo 2015-5775


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We have all known parents who speak about their children only in the superlative: Hes the smartest kid in his class. Shes the best reader in her grade. Hes the most artistic kid in the school. Shes the best player on her team. Setting aside how listeners (especially other parents) may feel when subjected to this parental patter, we might wonder: What effect does this have on children spoken to, and of, in this hyperbolic manner? Do they feel supported by their parents belief in their abilities? Do they feel pressure to live up to their parents expectations? And what effect does singling them out have on their relations with their peers?

God, the cosmic parent expresses similar superlatives through Moses in this weeks sedra, Ki Tavo:

וַיהוָה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְוֹתָיו.  וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.

Adonai has affirmed this day that you are, as [God] promised you, [Gods] treasured people who shall observe all [Gods] commandments, and that [God] will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that [God] has made; and that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to Adonai your God. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19)

This passage is one of several expressions of what has come to be known as the Chosenness doctrine: the belief that God chose the people Israel among all the nations to fulfill the covenant of Torah and that Israel thereby has a special and unique relationship with God. This ancient idea has been the source of untold and immeasurably grief and suffering[1], a favorite trope of anti-Semites[2], and popular tripe for Jews who would see the Jewish people as superior to others. Of course, having a special and unique relationship with God doesnt preclude God having special and unique relationships with other nations, and the purpose of chosennessto keep the covenant of Torahis conveniently ignored by both sides.

I sometimes think that the idea of chosenness, much like the my-child-is-best idea, resides at the intersection of the natural human desire to feel distinctive and unique, and the natural human proclivity to compete with others. Apparently, what happens on the individual level can happen on the national level, as well. Where does this leave Israel, Gods child? Pressured to live up to high expectations? Supported by Gods confidence in them? And what of their relations with peers?

The Torahs true perspective might be helpful when we approach the idea of chosenness, and also for parents who are inclined to speak of their children in the superlative. Lest we think that Israel is inherently superior, endowed with exceptional attributes, qualities, or powers, Torah tells us this:

לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק יְהוָה בָּכֶם--וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם:  כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת-הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם, הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה; וַיִּפְדְּךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, מִיַּד פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרָיִם.

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that Adonai set his heart on you and chose youindeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because Adonai favored you and kept the oath [God] made to your ancestors that Adonai freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

Here we find that God chooses the Israelites and redeems them from Egypt not because they are inherently superior to other nations, but rather in fulfillment of a commitment made to Abraham who, from the perspective of Torah, was an arbitrary choice.[3] There is no suggestion from Torah concerning why God chose Abram. The Rabbis, however, fill this lacuna with copious midrashim attesting to Abrams extraordinary spiritual insights, strength, and resilience; they presume that Abram was an innately superior individual and that God recognized this even if Torah does not record it. However, is it possible that Abram was ordinary until God selected him, and the selection itself imbued him with a sense of purpose and potential that helped him become extraordinary? Is this what Moses was doing on Gods behalf in telling the Israelites that [God] will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that [God] has made; and that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to Adonai your God? Does this happen to our children when we shower them with accolades and praise?

In fact our passage from Ki Tavo is most often read as exhortation: Moses is calling the Israelites to fulfill their potential, making it a wonderful passage to be reading shortly before Rosh Hashanah, a day on which doing teshuvah (repentance) should focus us on our untapped and unfulfilled potential and promise, just as a new year of possibility unfolds before us. Exhortation can support and encourage a child or a nation to aim higher, but it can also have a dark side: it can also be construed as a branding of superiority that actually exempts the child or the group from exerting greater effort because, after all, they are destined for fame and renown and glory.

The Rabbis are wise to temper the notion of chosenness with an eloquent reminder that all human beings share in Gods holiness and none is inherently superior: after all, everyone descends from the same ancestor:

להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים, הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע מאה מטבעות בחותם אחד, וכולן דומין זה לזה, מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע את כל האדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון, ואין אחד מהם דומה לחברו.

Humanity was produced from one human being, Adam, to show God's greatness. When a person mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy One, Blessed be God, creates human beings in the form of Adam, not one is similar to any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Rabbi Akiba frames our tendency to wish to see ourselves as special and unique, set apart and uncommonly (or even exclusively) endowed with certain attributes in a fascinating way. He affirms Israels sense of being uniquely beloved of God, but only after affirming that all people are beloved of God and everyone is created in the divine image. And what is more, everyone knows that they are. Israels sense of uniqueness does not stand outside humanity, but in the very stream of humanity, all of whom are beloved of God.

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם; חיבה יתרה נודעת לו שנברא בצלם, שנאמר "כי בצלם אלוהים, עשה את האדם" (בראשית ט,ו).  חביבין ישראל שנקראו בנים למקום; חיבה יתרה נודעת להם שנקראו בנים למקום, שנאמר "בנים אתם, לה' אלוהיכם" (דברים יד,א).  חביבין ישראל, שניתן להם כלי שבו נברא העולם; חיבה יתרה נודעת להם שניתן להם כדי שבו נברא העולם, שנאמר "כי לקח טוב, נתתי לכם; תורתי, אל תעזובו.

R. Akiva used to say, "Beloved is humanity, for they were created in God's image. Exceedingly loved are they, for it was made known to them that they are created in the divine image, as it is written, In the image of God, man was created (Genesis 9:6). The mishna goes on to say, "Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God; it is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of God, as it said, 'You are the children of the Lord, your God. Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them                 (Pirke Avot 3:18)

Put another way: British journalist[4] William Norman Ewer (18851976) coined the well-known epigram: How odd of God to choose the Jews, to which Prof. Anonymous appended, Not so odd; the Jews chose God.

Rabbi Akiba subtly and lovingly asks us to consider our chosenness in the context of everyones specialness. Many years ago, when my oh-so-wise husband thought one or another of the kids was acting, well let me tell you what he would say to them and I think  youll get the picture:  Yes, you are unique in all the worldjust like everyone else.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] The prophet Amos suggests that designation chosen people might not be such a prize: You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities (Amos 3:2).
[2] Inspiring Tevyes complaint to God in Fiddler on the Roof: I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
[3] Adonai said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your fathers house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Avram went forth as Adonai had commanded him (Genesis 12:1-4).
[4] Historical trivia: he was also a Soviet agent!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Torah's Hobgloblin / Parshat Ki Teitzei 2015-5775

Are you a consistent person? As a whole, our society prizes consistency and considers it to be an attribute allied with maturity, reliability, and rationality. Before you laud yourself for never veering from stated principles and positions, or flay yourself for being changeable, consider what Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.[1]

Emerson was on to something. We speak from present knowledgewhat we know today. When tomorrow arrives and we learn more and think further, if our minds and hearts are open, we view yesterdays certainty from a new perspective and less assurance. Put another way, in the words of art historian Bernard Berenson, Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.[2] This naturally makes people who contend that Torah is completely consistent because it is entirely the word of God uneasy.



How could God be inconsistent? How, indeed? Heres how: Parshat Ki Teitzei provides two stunning instances of Torahs inconsistency: First, we are told (Deuteronomy 23:4) that Ammonites and Moabites may never, even in the tenth generation, be admitted to the khal Adonai (Assembly of Israel), which is to say, the Jewish people. Yet Moses wife, Tzipporah, is the daughter of the priest of Moab, Jethro (Exodus 2:16; 3:1). Second the parashah closes with an admonition to, blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, and without missing a beat, in the very next breath, Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:19). Put another way: Remember to forget Amalek! The mind spins.

A friend recently told me that Rabbi BenZion Gold (he was for many years the director of Hillel at Harvard University) would say, Consistency is not the first mitzvah in the Torah.

The Rabbis carried on the long, proud chain of inconsistency, understanding that, as Oscar Wilde expressed it, Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.[3] The Rabbis were very imaginative. Among their brilliant solutions to deeply troubling problems is their halakhic conversation about the Ben Sorer uMoreh (The Rebellious Son), found in this weeks parashah, Ki Teitzei:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה--אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם.  וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ.  וְאָמְרוּ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה--אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקֹלֵנוּ; זוֹלֵל, וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל-אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים, וָמֵת, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ; וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ.

"If a man has a wayward son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.  Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus shall you sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:1821)

The Rabbis, in discussing the Rebellious Son in tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, notice that the son must be a child in his parents care. Who executes a child? What is more, his crimesdefiant behavior, excessive eating and drinkinghardly seem commensurate with the punishment of stoning. At the same time, the Rabbis conclude that something far more nefarious must be going on here to explain Torahs harsh judgment about the Rebellious Son, and also render the punishment inapplicable. They tell us:

תניא רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר וכי מפני שאכל זה תרטימר בשר ושתה חצי לוג יין האיטלקי אמרה תורה יצא לבית דין ליסקל אלא הגיעה תורה לסוף דעתו של בן סורר ומורה שסוף מגמר נכסי אביו ומבקש למודו ואינו מוצא ויוצא לפרשת דרכים ומלסטם את הבריות אמרה תורה ימות זכאי ואל ימות חייב שמיתתן של רשעים.
It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean said: Did the Torah decree that the rebellious son shall be brought before bet din and stoned merely because he ate a tartemar[4] of meat and drank a log of Italian wine? Rather, the Torah foresaw his ultimate destiny. For at the end, after dissipating his father's wealth, he would [still] seek to satisfy his accustomed [gluttonous] desires but being unable to do so, he would go out to the crossroads and rob. Therefore the Torah said: Let him die while yet innocent, and let him not die guilty. (Sanhedrin 72a)

This suggests that the boy was stoned not because of what he had already done, but to prevent him from committing a more egregious violationtheftwhich is also not punishable by execution.[5] Is this consistent with Torahs notion of justice? Hardly.

Yet this justification comes after the Rabbis have devoted no fewer than six full dapim (68b through 71b) to successfully dismantling the law of the Rebellious Son by placing so many strictures and limitations on it that it is impossible to carry out. Thus the Rabbis simultaneously justify and promote the law of the Rebellious Son, on the one hand, and effectively demolish it on the other hand. Are the Sages consistent?

Certainly, consistency has much to commend it, but it was consistency that Emerson criticized, but rather foolish consistence”—doing things the same way without regard to consequences, new knowledge, or consideration of deeper values and concerns.

From a certain perspective, the Rabbis are meticulously consistent. The underlying valuesa premium on family and respect for parents, concern for the welfare of society, respect for the dignity of every human beingare consistent and admirable. The way to best live and promote those values in law and life changes with time. But even our values change with time, as we acquire more knowledge and wisdom. To say that nothing changes is to deny the magnificence manner in which halakhaha system and tool chest for responding to questions of morality and practice, not merely a set of rigid lawsresponds to our ever-changing, dynamic reality. To reduce halakhah to a strict set of immutable laws is to render it a foolish consistency that is, indeed the hobgoblin of little minds.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

This Torah commentary is posted at: http://taste-of-torah.blogspot.com, where you can find commentaries for all the weekly Torah portions.

You are welcome to visit my website at: http://scheinerman.net/judaism.

You are welcome to visit my Talmud blog at: http://nuviewtalmud.blogspot.com.


[1] Self-Reliance, 1841.
[2] Notebook, 1892.
[3] "The Relation of Dress to Art, Pall Mall Gazette (February 28,1885).
[4] The Jewish Encyclopedia (volume 12, p. 489) says a tartar is slightly under seven ounces.
[5] The Rabbis famously considered, but rejected, the idea of killing Bar Kamtza, although they knew that he intended to bring false evidence to the Roman government that the Jews were rebelling, a lie that would likely lead to war and the deaths of thousands. Gittin 56a reports that confronted with a preponderance of evidence concerning Bar Kamtzas intensions, R. Zechariah ben Abkulas said to his colleagues: "Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?