Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Justice, Justice / Parshat Shoftim 2014

The Jewish world is abuzz over the letter-to-the-editor that appeared this week on the august pages of the New York Times, penned by an Episcopal chaplain at Yale University. (Given that three of our kids both daughters and our son-in-law are pursuing PhDs at Yale, this one came across my screen in a nanosecond.) The Rev. Bruce Shipman informs us that Jews are the cause of anti-Semitism, that time-honored apologetic in the Christian anti-Semitism arsenal, long condemned by all decent Christians. Here is Rev. Shipmans shameful letter:

To the Editor:

Deborah E. Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israels policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.

The trend to which she alludes parallels the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank.

As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israels patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.

Groton, Conn., Aug. 21, 2014

Not a word condemning Palestinian violence, ranging from the rockets continuously fired at Israeli civilians since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005[1], nor mention of the extensive attack tunnels uncovered in Gaza this summer, clearly built to foment a massacre of Jews.  And no mention of Hamas charter, which is rivaled only by Mein Kampf for its rabid anti-Semitism and call for Jewish genocide. What is more, Rev. Shipman has demonstrated the now easily recognized one-sided condemnation and hatred of Israel that is a guise for anti-Semitism. Dressing it up with a clerical collar, it will be viewed by many as old-fashioned Christian-sponsored permission to hate Jews.

We can chalk off Rev. Shipman as a died-in-the-wool, no-longer-closeted anti-Semite (no doubt he would protest that some of his best friends). We can also wonder how Yale University will respond, given that Rev. Shipman certainly seems to be in violation of his signed Agreement with Yale (see the link at the bottom of this page for a copy of the Agreement). Id like to focus, however, on the climate that makes someone like Rev. Shipman believe it is acceptable to express such appallingly immoral and reprehensible views.

Associated Press journalist Matti Friedman, who covered the Middle East from APs Jerusalem bureau from 2006 to 1011 wrote just this week[2]:

The lasting importance of this summers war, I believe, doesnt lie in the war itself. It lies instead in the way the war has been described and responded to abroad, and the way this has laid bare the resurgence of an old, twisted pattern of thought and its migration from the margins to the mainstream of Western discoursenamely, a hostile obsession with Jews

Friedman goes on to say that, The world is not responding to events in this country [meaning Israel], but rather to the description of these events by news organizations. And what the news organizations feed the world is any thing but unbiased journalism. Heres how consumers of what passes for news these days know what we know and come to opinions and conclusions we believe we can support and defend:

Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters [i.e., Israel].

Corruption, for example, is a pressing concern for many Palestinians under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, but when I and another reporter once suggested an article on the subject, we were informed by the bureau chief that Palestinian corruption was not the story. (Israeli corruption was, and we covered it at length.)

Israeli actions are analyzed and criticized, and every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported In a very conservative estimate, this seven-week tally was higher than the total number of significantly critical stories about Palestinian government and society, including the totalitarian Islamists of Hamas, that our bureau had published in the preceding three years.

The Hamas charter, for example, calls not just for Israels destruction but for the murder of Jews and blames Jews for engineering the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars;[3] the charter was never mentioned in print when I was at the AP, though Hamas won a Palestinian national election and had become one of the regions most important players.

Perhaps youre thinking that Ive lost sight of this weeks parashah. I havent. On the Buzzfeed list of popular biblical verses we are sure to find this one from Parshat Shoftim:
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

To note that this verse is overused is a vast understatement. It has been employed to justify most anything people wish to defend. Slapping this general statement about the pursuit of justice onto an apologetic for injustice does not remove the tigers stripes. While Rev. Shipman did not trot out this verse, his argument was a justification for anti-Semitism. One can easily imagine him claiming that injustice done to Palestinians in Gaza justifies attacks on Jews in Europe and elsewhere around the world; hes only a half-step away from making that claim.

Much has been made of the double use of צֶדֶק tzedek (justice) in Deuteronomy 16:20. Many have pointed out that this doubling testifies to what a high priority justice, fairness, and decency are to the Torah, which is altogether true. But digging deeper, the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 18471905) wrote:

Justice, justice shall you pursue. There is no final depth or end to justice and truth; we always have to go deeper, seeking out the truth within truth. It is not true until the person is entirely unified and prepared for Gods service. Thus אמת (truth) contains the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Yehudi of Pryzysucha taught that the word justice is repeated here to say that even in the pursuit of justice, you have to engage justly, without lies.

The Sfat Emet is saying far more than that justice is a primary priority for, even the core purpose of, Torah. I think he is warning us that what we deem to be justice needs re-examination. Its easy to arrive at a simplistic and incomplete understanding of justice based on appearances, minimal information, or the sloppy reporting that passes for journalism these days. Its easy to arrive a simplistic and flawed understanding of justice when we scrutinize and absorb only one narrative and do not take the time and suffer the pain and discomfort to probe another narrative. When we arrive at what we think is just, and the behavior we think justice requires of us, Torah tells us צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף  Justice, justice shall you pursue look further, think deeper, double-check your assumptions, reconsider your conclusions, be ever vigilant that you have arrived a genuine justice, and are not stuck at a way-station of bias, bigotry, and ignorance. This is a prescient reminder, and divine wisdom, not only for the Rev. Shipman, but for all of us.

As for Rev. Shipman, I cannot resist passing along a comment by George Mason University professor of law, David Bernstein:

Next on Rev. Shipmans bucket list: blaming women who dress provocatively for rape, blaming blacks for racism because of high crime rates, and blaming gays for homophobia for being flamboyant.[4]

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pain & Pleasure, Blessing & Curse

--> More than 2,300 years ago, Epicurus noted that the purpose of pursuing philosophy was to attain ataraxia (tranquility, peace, and freedom from fear) and achieve aponia (avoid pain). Twenty-one centuries later, British philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, father of modern utilitarianism wrote: Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud wrote of the natural biological instinct of all human beings to seek pleasure and avoid pain. He wrote: It seems that our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, that it is automatically regulated by the Pleasure Principle. The Pleasure Principle, Freud explained, derives from Eros, the life instinct associated with sexuality, and Thanos, the death instinct associated with aggression and destructiveness.

In this weeks Torah, Moses tells Israel that they face a similar choice: blessing or curse, life or death:

רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.  אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.  וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים--אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם.  וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--וְנָתַתָּהאֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל.

See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and possess, you shall pronounce the blessings at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. (Deuteronomy 11:26-29)

This is pretty much a biblical formulation of the Pleasure Principle: how to seek pleasure and avoid pain in Gods world, under Gods covenant. In speaking of last weeks Torah portion, Ekev, I mentioned Deuteronomic theology, a term one finds in academic discussions. Deuteronomic theology refers to a set of beliefs that govern the writings in the Book of Deuteronomy. Here they are in short, and note how many are reflected in the four verses above:
     God is the divine and final authority of the Israelite theocracy. Israel is Gods elect people, with whom God has a legal covenant; God has chosen Israel to follow Gods Torah, which spells out Gods will through their covenantal obligations. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:1.)
     Israel is commanded to practice generosity and compassion toward those most vulnerable: the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers residing among them, and to treat one another as brothers and siblings. (For example, Deuteronomy 14:2915:11.)
     God has given the land of Canaan to Israel as their inheritance and they retain control of the land only so long as they obey Gods covenant. If Israel keeps the covenant, God will reward them with blessings. If they violate the covenant, they will lose possession of the land. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:28.)
     Worship is restricted God, alone, and to a centralized cult in the place that Adonai your God will choose. (For example, Deuteronomy 12:14 and 16:5-6.) Although Deuteronomy does not specify that location, we know from other books of the Bible that this is Jerusalem.

In the 21st century, few liberal Jews (let alone Orthodox Jews) hold to this theology. Indeed, few Americans of any religious tradition, when push comes to shove, hold this theology strongly. Even if they curse God for the trials and tragedies that befall them (How could God let this happen to me?), they are not likely to credit God with their personal accomplishments. If they thank God for their blessings (God saved me for a reason), they are unlikely to thank God when their desires are not fulfilled. Theology that entails the claim that God intervenes in our world and directs our lives is a messy business. Where does Gods providence end, and our own will and agency begin? If God rewards and punishes, why can no human being discern even the hint of a pattern of justice in the blessings and sufferings of human beings? And if God is not behind the events of our lives, let alone the larger events of the world, what is God and is there a God who promulgates Torah, mitzvot, and ethical principles for our lives? And an inescapable corollary: Is what we hold to be holy scripture truly divine in some way, or the composition of people who understood the Pleasure Principle and sought to bring order to society lest it devolve into chaos?

There are big questions and cannot be answered in brief, however pithy the response. What is more, there is no one set of answers to these questions; we each find our own understandings. However, Id like to offer a beginninga direction to proceed to find answers.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza (1765-1827) was a hasidic master, a student of Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa. His commentaries on Torah are collected in a work entitled Mei Shiloach. Commenting on the verses above, the Isbitzer rebbe tells us:

Everything is from God. It is the nature of a person to shout and cry out to God, What have You done to me? in a time of trouble. Yet at the time when God bestows goodness, [the same persons] eye becomes clouded from seeing that it is from God. Then that person says, My own power and the strength of my hand has made me this wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17); therefore the blessed God shows that person, See! this day I set before you, (Deuteronomy 11:26), meaning that everything is from God.

The Isbitzer tells us that God is the source of everything. This would seem to accord with the Mishnah, which tells us:

חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה שנאמר (דברים ו) ואהבת את ה' אלהיך בכל לבבך וגו' בכל לבבך בשני יצריך ביצר טוב וביצר הרע ובכל נפשך אפילו הוא נוטל את נפשך ובכל מאדך בכל ממונך ד"א בכל מאדך בכל מדה ומדה שהוא מודד לך הוי מודה לו.

One should thank God for the bad, just as he blesses God for the good, as it says, You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all of your means (Deuteronomy 6:5). With all your heart means with your two impulses [the word heart is spelled with two bets]the evil impulse as  with the good impulse. With all of your means”—by whatever measure [the word for measure sounds much like the word for means in Hebrew] God calculates for youwhether good or badyou should thank God. (BT Berakhot 54a)

Mishnah acknowledges that good and bad things happen to us, but wants us to be thankful for the bad as much as for the good. A tall order indeed! A few dapim (folios) later, we are treated to a story about R. Akiba that illustrates the principle that ultimately all that God does is for good.

הא דרבי עקיבא דהוה קאזיל באורחא מטא לההיא מתא בעא אושפיזא לא יהבי ליה אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב אזל ובת בדברא והוה בהדיה תרנגולא וחמרא ושרגא אתא זיקא כבייה לשרגא אתא שונרא אכליה לתרנגולא אתא אריה אכליה לחמרא אמר כל דעביד רחמנא לטב ביה בליליא אתא גייסא שבייה למתא אמר להו לאו אמרי לכו כל מה שעושה הקדוש ברוך הוא הכל לטובה

R. Akiba was once going along the road. He came to a certain town and looked for lodgings but was everywhere refused. He said Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good, and he went and spent the night in the open field [a patently dangerous thing to do]. He had with him a cock, a donkey, and a lamp. A gust of wind came and blew out the lamp. A weasel came and ate the cock. A lion came and ate the donkey. [R. Akiba] said: Whatever the All-Merciful does is for good. That same night some brigands came and carried off the inhabitants of the town. He said to them:  Did I not say to you, ‘’Whatever the All-Merciful does is all for good?’” (BT Berakhot 60b-61a)

We are to understand that the cock crowing, the donkey braying, or the lamps light would have alerted the brigands to R. Akibas presence in the field. Hence, what he might have perceived as losses were actually blessings that saved his life.

But how often does life work out this way? Does this story help us see good in all the bad that befalls us? Does it work for you?

The Isbitzer rebbes approach is far gentler. He wants us to understand that the universe is a unity in God; all things are intertwined, connected, inseparable. What happens to us is part of what is happening to the entire world. He tells us:

This means that each time the Holy One blessed be God bestows goodness on a person, [God] dresses it in a garment so that it appears on the outside to be the opposite of that goodness. In this way, a person may refine himself by his actions and bring to light the goodness that is at the depths. Then it will be called the work of his hands.

For the hasidim, grounded in Kabbalah, the theme of reality not being what it seems is ubiquitous. We see bad and do not realize that it is good-in-disguise. On the surface, this sounds much like the Mishnahs claim and Talmud illustration in R. Akibas story. But Rabbi Mordecai Yosefs wisdom comes from a different place, a different theology. For Kabbalists, like the Isbitzer, this is not a fragmented universe. The universe is complex and often incomprehendible, to be sure, but it is all one universe, with one source of being: God. The distinctions we make between God and the universe are merely our perceptions. The distinctions we perceive between what God does and what I do are also perceptions, not ultimate reality. Ultimate realitythe unity of allis God. Everything is contained within God: you, me, the rest of the world; good and bad. We experience things as good and bad but do not think about the full extent of the event under consideration, nor the long-range consequences. It is not easy to think on this broad scope, but doing so can ease some of our pain.

It is customary upon hearing the news of the death of a loved one to say: ברוך דיין האמת, Blessed is the Judge of truth. To many people this sounds like the suggestion that it is our duty to accept the death of one we cherish as good in some way we cannot understand, as the unfathomable act of an incomprehensible God of infinite power. I dont think it means this at all. I think the blessing is saying that the universe is constructed in such a way that being born and having life means that one day we must surrender that life and die. That is "the way of the world, and it is all happening inside God. In the larger scheme of things, it is the way things must be, but here in this moment, with the pain of our dead before us, it is hard to view what is happening from that vantage point. The Rabbis give us this blessing to help us gain some perspective, because perspective brings a measure of solace. Even if we cannot appreciate this blessing in the pain of the moment and in the throws of grief, in time we may come to.

We have always been creatures who seek pleasure and avoid pain. Epicurus framed it in philosophical terms, Jeremy Bentham in social-political terms, and Freud in psychological terms. Torah places into our hands the capacity not to avoid pain altogether, but by making choices that reach for blessing to lessen the pain. The Isbitzer rebbe reminds us that everything exists within God. This does not mean that what we experience as bad is necessarily good, but that everything is part of the tapestry of creation, a perspective that helps us cope with reality.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman