Friday, May 6, 2016

Jewish Counterculturalism / Acharei Mot 2016-5776

Long before the Beat Generation boasted its countercultural credentials, there were 17th century Romanticists and 18th century Bohemians. Today both are considered countercultural phenomena, even if terming Romanticists and Bohemians counterculturists is anachronistic. The term came into common parlance when Theodore Roszak published The Making of  Counter Culture in 1969, the heyday of hippies, the civil rights movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and a tidal wave of changes in sexual and social mores. The countercultural movement of the 60s had the patina of universal religion, complete with moral values (e.g., anti-materialistic, pacifistic), social values (e.g., communal, egalitarian), and spiritual values (e.g., introspective, mystical).

Judaism has always been imbued by a countercultural streak. Parshat Acharei Mot provides the template:
 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
Adonai spoke to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: “I am Adonai your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I am Adonai your God. (Leviticus 18:1–4)

In four tightly constructed verses, Torah sets forth a philosophy: Don’t do what you’ve seen in the past in the land of Egypt, nor what you will see in the future in the land of Canaan. Don’t follow their laws; follow only My laws. Sounds like a call for Jewish separatism, doesn’t it? And some have, indeed, read it this way.

The icon for this philosophy might be Abraham as viewed through the lens of the Rabbis. A classic midrash imagines Abraham not only living in a culture organized around idolatry, but as the son of a professional idol-maker, Terach. Once, when Terach was away and Abraham was minding the shop:

…a woman came with a plateful of meal and requested of him, "Take this and offer it to them." So [Abraham] took a stick, broke them (the idols), and put the stick in the hand of the largest. When his father returned he demanded, "What have you done to them?" "I cannot conceal it from you," he rejoined. "A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, 'I must eat first,' while another claimed, 'I must eat first.' Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick and broke them all." "Why do you make sport of me," [Terach] cried out, "have they then any knowledge?" "Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying," [Abraham] retorted. (Genesis Rabbah 38:13 and Tanna de-bei Eliyahu)

The Sages portray Abraham as a man who discovers God on his own. When God subsequently calls him, he is more than prepared to leave Haran behind, having already rejected the core of its culture in his heart. Is Abraham the world’s first counterculturalist, rejecting the ways, values, and norms of the society in which he grew up?

The problem is: It’s a fine line between “counterculturalist,” “rejectionist,” and “isolationist.” Too easy to leap-frog from one to the other. “Counterculturalist” is a tempting label for those who would hold up Abraham as a model for Jewish purity and isolationism, justifying throwing up walls and holding up banners reading: “Don’t be polluted by their ways!” “Avoid cultural entanglement!” “Remain pure!” Indeed we see not only a variety of Jewish and other extremists doing their best to live in silos of isolation lest “the heathen” defile them, but growing cracks in our society, as people separate along religious and cultural lines, vilifying and demonizing “others”—be they adherents to another religion, or immigrants, or people with differing political perspectives.

Yet not only are the stories about Abraham myths[1] that are open to multiple interpretations and applications, the biblical and rabbinic stories of Abraham do not portray Abraham living in isolation. God’s call to Abraham is to leave Haran, yes, but also to go out into the world and live among others. Abraham encounters Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Amorites, Philistines, and Egyptians; he makes a covenant with King Abimelech of Gerar, receives the blessing of King Melchizedek of Salem, and buys a burial cave from the Hittites among whom he lives; he negotiates with God on behalf of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s covenant with God requires him to retain his identity and commitments to God, but not live separate and apart from the world.

Over the past 30 centuries, we Jews have lived in virtually every land on the globe and have evolved our traditions, practices, values, and understanding of the world through interaction with the wide variety of peoples and cultures among whom we’ve lived. We have learned from others and borrowed ideas from them. And they from us. To most of us, this is obvious. At the same time, we remain a vibrant, distinctive, contributing member of the human family of nations by remaining committed to the Jewish people and the Jewish enterprise, which in this day crucially includes Zionism and the revitalization of our sacred texts.

The cracks we see in the pavement of our society—fault lines between people who prefer to live in whatever isolation they can manage with others who are “like them”—are sadly mirrored in our own communities. The divide between isolationist ultra-Orthodox Haredi groups and the rest of the Jewish world is growing into a gaping, unbridgeable chasm of values, priorities, practices, and belief. One wonders if we’re still talking about the same religious covenant. And even within the liberal, open Jewish world, we must honestly face our own insularity, which we have barely come to acknowledge. This past week in New York City, 150 Jews of color gathered to discuss problems too long ignored in our communities, among them racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Our institutions are not yet safe places for Jews of color; they are rarely as “warm an welcoming” as we would like to think. (“Warm and welcoming” is still more a mantra than a reality.) The meeting was organized by JMN (Jewish Multiracial Network) and JFREJ (Jews for Racial & Economic Justice), and co-sponsored by Bend the Arc.

Kalycia Trishana Watson was born in Jamaica and grew up in a Reform congregation in Illinois. “It is exhausting to always feel like you are ‘other’,” she told a reporter for The Jewish Week. Whether it is far more intense questioning than other Birthright participants experience from El Al security officials, or being asked if she is “really Jewish” by speed-dating partners, “I’m always being asked to ‘prove’ my Judaism.”

Erika Davis, who blogs for JMN, writes:

For me, the idea of juggling multiple identities, was, and continues to be a struggle. My skin color always signals that I’m different. That difference often inspires questions like How are you Jewish?”, Was I adopted?”, “Have I met the other Jew of Color in the synagogue?” Many times I let these questions slide off my back, but other times I cannot, and am suddenly thrust into the role of educator. Add to that my lesbian identity, and it seemed that new Jewish spaces were often places not for me to reconnect to my faith and be swept away by familiar niggunim, but a place where I was on edge and defensive.

I’ll be honest. It has kept me away from synagogues in my new home town. Rather than deal with the stares due to being the black Jew compounded by more questions and inquiry due to also being the lesbian Jew, I’ve avoided going all together…

It is said that context is everything. In the case of the verses from Acharei Mot quoted above, this is especially true. The injunction warning to the Israelites not to abandon their covenant and its ways is a prelude to the gillui arayot, Leviticus’ long list of sexual prohibitions against incest, adultery, and other relationships deemed off-limits. The verses are not a global statement, but rather a very specific expression of concern about what were deemed, in its historical context, abhorrent sexual practices.

There seems to be something in our human make-up that leads us to strongly identify with our “tribe” and ascribe negative attributes and motives to outsiders.  The Male Warrior Hypothesis,” drawing on findings in the fields of evolutionary psychology, social psychology, biology, and anthropology, posits that the long history of intergroup conflict between human tribal groups exerted an evolutionary pressure on human psychology that are felt today as intergroup prejudice and aggression, including racism, xenophobia, and classism. The abstract of Melissa M. McDonald, Carlos David Navarrete, and Mark van Vugt’s seminal article on the “Male Warrior Hypothesis” summarizes:

The social science literature contains numerous examples of human tribalism and parochialism—the tendency to categorize individuals on the basis of their group membership, and treat ingroup members benevolently and outgroup members malevolently. We hypothesize that this tribal inclination is an adaptive response to the threat of coalitional aggression and intergroup conflict perpetrated by ‘warrior males’ in both ancestral and modern human environments…[2]

            We do not have to continue to replicate the behavior of our ancestors in this regard, viewing others with suspicion and disdain.
            In every generation and age, we have observed the ways and value systems of those among whom we live, absorbing what is  good and rejecting what is not. Unfortunately, our filters are not ideal, and we have sometimes absorbed chaff and ignored fine wheat. We need to fine tune those filters, take in more of the good wheat, and honestly identify and divest ourselves of the chaff.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] I use “myth” in this sense: an ostensibly (but not actually) historical account of events that embodies and expresses part of the worldview of a people and explains or illustrates its deepest beliefs, values, and prized practices.
[2] “Evolution and the psychology of intergroup conflict: the male warrior hypothesis,” (January 23, 2012), The theory, which describes tribal behavior, suggests that for women, intergroup proximity increases the risk for sexual assault by men of the “outgroup,” creating thereby selection pressure for women to maintain a bias against men from the outgroup.

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