Friday, November 23, 2012

Religion as a battering ram / Vayishlach

Whether or not Dinah is kidnapped, whether or not she is in love with Shechem, and whether or not Shechem truly loves her after raping her, one thing is uncontested: the sons of Jacob use the sacred covenantal rite of circumcision as a weapon of slaughter. When Shechem and his father Hamor come to ask permission for Shechem to marry Dinah:

Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor, speaking with guile because he had defiled their sister Dinah, and said to them, “We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred. But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go. (Genesis 34:13-17)

They speak b’mirmah (with guile). We shouldn’t be as shocked as we are when we learn that the purpose of the scheme — at least in the minds of Shimon and Levi — is not to merge two peoples, but to weaken the Shechemites. But we are most certainly appalled when we learn that while the Shechemites are healing and most vulnerable, on the third day after their circumcisions, Shimon and Levi enter the city with drawn swords. They slaughter all the males and more:

They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled. (Genesis 34:26-27)

Torah emphasizes that the purpose of the horrific butchery is to free Dinah and avenge her rape. (And let’s not overlook that they then plundered the town.) Could they not have recovered Dinah in any other way? How could they possibly justify killing every male to free their sister? How did they manage to execute this plan without Jacob having a hint of it? And if Jacob knew, why did he not intervene?

Beneath these troubling questions is yet one more: What are we to make of the use of a sacred Jewish rite — brit milah — as a means to weakening people so they can be overpowered and killed?

There is no shortage of people who claim that religion does this all the time, and they have no difficulty marshaling evidence:

Historically, the Church used its teachings about heaven, sin, and salvation to control great numbers of people and threaten them with eternity in the fires of hell, as well as to justify countless massacres, the Inquisition, and witch hunts. Today “sacred Christian values” are evoked to coerce public policies and laws that violate other people’s values and rights (specifically contraception and reproductive rights).

Islamic teachings from the Qur’an have often been used to relegate non-Muslims in Muslim countries to second-class citizenship (dhimmi). In our time, sacred religious texts and promulgations of imans have provided both motivation and justification for horrific terrorism.

In Judaism, threats of God withholding the fullness of olam haba (the world-to-come) have been used to coerce people into observing Judaism in a manner a select few deem correct and defaming other streams of Judaism, which keeps them in the seat of power, at least in their communities. Sacred text has been used by “Settlers” in Israel to justify murder and the destruction of mosques.

This is not to say that all Christians, Muslims, and Jews engage in such behavior. In fact, it is a small minority. But it a shameful thing to do.

Jacob’s response to the massacre his sons have wrought is distressing and disheartening.

Jacob said to Shimon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” (Genesis 34:30)

Where is Jacob’s moral condemnation? Jacob’s only concern is for himself, and he couches everything that way: “me,” “my men,” “attack me,” “I and my house.” This is not the model we would hope for. Lacking that, we must be the models out in the world who call our co-religionists to a higher level of accountability, and reject their use of sacred texts, rites, and traditions as weapons to attack — within the Jewish community and beyond it, as well.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jacob's Zen / Parshat Vayeitzei

A Zen master visiting New York City goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, "Make me one with everything." The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. "Excuse me, but where is my change?" asks the Zen master. The vendor replies, "Change must come from within."

The account of Jacob’s ladder in this week’s parashah has much to teach us about our own lives.

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him, and God said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:10–16)

Jacob's Ladder by William Blake (British Museum, London)

Jacob is on the lam. He cheated his brother, deceived his father, and stole the patriarchal blessing. He has every reason to think Esau will come after him to kill him. He is fragile and vulnerable. His life, recently so privileged and cushy, now lacks all luxuries. His security, recently so assured, is now up in the air. Jacob ventures into a new land, a new family, a new culture. Jacob has reached the outer borders of his life and is about to cross that boundary into… who knows where? Va’yifga ba-makom  (“he came to a certain place”) — a nowhere place without a name. Ki va ha-shemesh (“the sun is setting”) — it’s neither day nor night. Jacob lies down and dreams a dream so vivid it’s not clear whether he is conscious or unconscious. Jacob is in limbo: physically, temporally, and spiritually betwixt and between.

Jacob awakes to a revelation:  Achein yesh Adonai ba-makom ha-zeh v’anochi lo yadati (“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”) Jacob’s neshamah (his soul, or inner self) has finally been awakened.
 I want to share a Hasidic interpretation of Jacob’s spiritual awakening.  At the very moment that Jacob becomes aware of God’s presence (“Surely Adonai is in this place”) he comes to the realization that v’anochi lo yadati, which can be translated, “I did not know me/myself.” Only when Jacob sheds his considerable ego, jettisoning his anger, fear, deceit, self-justification, sense of entitlement, is there room for God’s presence “in this place.” To make room for God we need to surrender our self-centeredness and open ourselves up — truly open ourselves up — to God. Our narrow concerns crowd God from view.
 This interpretation comes from the world of Hasidut, which is richly informed by Kabbalah (Jewish mystical tradition). While I am not a mystic, I believe there is much wisdom to be gleaned in the way mystics view the world and think about God and humanity. This interpretation teaches me three important things:
First, the God inside me is the God inside you, the God inside Jacob, the God that is not only in “this place” (as Jacob said) but is the place of the universe. The Rabbis, in midrash Bereishit Rabbah 68:9 express it this way: God is the dwelling place of the world, but the world is not God’s dwelling place. God is in everything and also beyond it. This is a God-saturated world. By way of analogy, consider radio waves, the electromagnetic part of the light spectrum. Vibrating radio waves travel at the speed of light. They’re everywhere, surrounding and even penetrating you. But they can be only be detected and decoded with a radio receiver that is tuned to the right frequency. In a similar way, God is within and around us all the time, but we have to set our receivers to become aware, tuned in. You are a natural receiver if you tune in. So what we need to do is stop. Clear our minds. Tune our spiritual receivers. It begins with mindfulness. This is what prayer and Torah study are about.
 The second thing this interpretation teaches follows from the first: God is not up there, out there, far away and distant, separate from the universe I know and inhabit. (That’s the picture of God presented me as a child, but it’s not the reality I live.) I cannot find God “out there.” I can only find God through conventional prayers, sacred texts, and religious practices when I use those prayers, texts, and practices to face myself, to know myself, and to remake myself; then I can explore what it means to be fully human, find my purpose in life, and learn how to be God’s image in the world. That’s what Jacob is finally doing. In this God-saturated universe, Jacob is tuning his receiver to God and facing his true self.
 The third thing I learn from the interpretation is about how the world works. Rather than expecting that a God “out there” will intervene in the world on my behalf, I need to focus on the God within — deep within. That means that God works in the world not by big splashy miracles, but through me, and you, and everyone else. And since that’s how God works in the world, it must be the case that I — just like Jacob, just like you — have everything I need within me to become what I should be become. The solutions aren’t “out there” and I can’t blame “them” (parents, teachers, economy, politics) when I don’t realize my potential. I must dig deep within. That’s where change and transformation are born and blossom.
As it turns out, in a sense all of us are always in limbo — always betwixt what we are, and between what we might yet be. We are always changing, becoming. And given that, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, change is the one constant of the universe, we do well to consciously and purposefully embrace and manage our personal evolution.

Okay, let’s hear it again: A Zen master visiting New York City goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, "Make me one with everything." The hot dog vendor fixes a hot dog and hands it to the Zen master, who pays with a $20 bill. The vendor puts the bill in the cash box and closes it. "Excuse me, but where is my change?" asks the Zen master. The vendor replies, "Change must come from within."

Jacob is our model. He dives within to find himself and thereby find God. He is not wholly transformed overnight — concrete change takes more than two decades — but Jacob is continuously evolving, always becoming.  Like Jacob, we too can dive within and there find God, our true selves, and our divine potential.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, November 12, 2012

I can delay gratitification - if I get it now! / Parshat Toldot

Have you heard of the marshmallow experiment? In 1972, Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel constructed an experiment to determine the mental processes that enable us to delay gratification. Six hundred fifty-three 4- and 6-year-olds were offered a marshmallow. They could eat it immediately, but if they waited for a time, they would be rewarded with a second sweet treat. Can young children resist temptation in the short term to gain a reward in the long term? Consider for a moment if Esau were one of Mischel’s test subjects.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” — which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.

Esau cannot defer gratification. We can criticize Jacob for taking advantage of his vulnerable brother. I have no argument with that, but I want to focus on Esau’s choice, without become entangled in Jacob’s arguably unethical behavior.

We might claim that Esau is famished. As hungry as he is — after only one day out hunting, a day that probably began with breakfast — he is hardly on the verge of collapse, or suffering malnutrition. What is more, the stakes are extraordinarily high: the birthright itself, something that has long term consequences.

We are all faced with choices like Esau’s. As teenagers we decide how much time and energy to invest in our social lives and how much to invest in our studies. As adults we decide how much of our resources to spend on the pleasures of life, and how much to invest for retirement. Short term gain versus long term investment. Our decisions — for the short term or for the long term — are often a crucial determining factor in future opportunities, careers, relationships, and retirement.

Does this mean we should always defer gratification and never indulge in the pleasures of life? Certainly not!

R. Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw that, although permissible, you did not enjoy. (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12)

What R. Chizkiyah means is that God has given us a world filled with pleasures and wonders. God wants us to enjoy them and be happy because life is a divine gift to be savored. In fact, we express our gratitude to God by enjoying the blessings and pleasures of life. Being present in the moment, enjoying the wonder of life, and appreciating our blessings is a Jewish religious value.

If we forgo the pleasures of life -- always setting them aside for the future -- when will there ever be a time that is a “present” in which we need not defer to the future?
The Rabbis frowned on asceticism precisely because asceticism is grounded in a denial of pleasure. My husband’s grandmother always took the gifts her husband received — new shirts, razors, and the rest — and “put them away” for his “old age.” She was still doing this when he turned 90. When do we unwrap our gifts and savor their beauty?

Talmud tells us that when the Rabbis left the school of Ammi, they blessed one another:

May you see your world in your lifetime, and may your latter end be for the future world and your hope for many generations; may your heart meditate understanding, your mouth speak wisdom and your tongue compose song…

What a magnificent blessing! May you see your world in your lifetime  — may we all see our dreams and visions realized in our lifetime. For that to happen, we need to unwrap the gifts today. May your latter end be for the future world — but if we live only for today, without thought to the future, we will not have a “future world.” We need balance in order to maintain an appreciation of the present that nurtures [our] hope for many generations.

Perhaps the best description of the Jewish approach to achieving a healthy balance is encapsulated in the words of an exceptional sprightly and vigorous elderly woman who visited the first year Harvard University medical school class a few years back to speak about her experience with health and medicine. One student asked what her secret was to being so healthy, fit, and active at such an advanced age. She smiled and responded, “My rule is moderation in all things, including moderation.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman