Monday, April 26, 2010

Flasks, wine, and bodily perfection / Parshat Emor

In this week’s parashah, we learn that in order to minister at the altar in the Tabernacle, the priests (the sons of Aaron) must be free of any physical defects:
The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:16-21)
The classical commentaries seek to understand each defect specified: Rashi thinks a boil-scar is scurvy. Nahmanides thinks the growth in the eye is a cataract. Gersonides goes so far as to say that any deviation from the norm is considered a defect even if it does not impair the individual’s ability to perform priestly functions. None thinks to ask a question that is obvious to modern sensibilities: Why does a priest need to be a perfect physical specimen of a human being?

Before we jump to condemn the Torah for its “ancient,” “primitive,” “outmoded” emphasis on human bodily perfection, we would do well to acknowledge that the ideal of physical perfection is as alive today as it was in ancient times. Each day we are bombarded with images of physical perfection on TV, in movies, in magazines, on billboards, all over the internet. Never mind that many of these are air-brushed images and hence a only virtual perfection. Every day throughout America people spend literally millions of dollars on products and even surgical procedures to improve their looks and hide their blemishes.

All this occurs simultaneously against the background of a growing realization that characterizing physical differences as “defects” is offensive. Moreover, the belief that there is, as Gersonides claims, a “norm” is often an illusion. Yet, Torah holds not only that there is a state of perfection for animals (Parshat Re’eh says they must be without mum, “defect”) failing which they cannot be offered on the altar, so too must the sons of Aaron who minister at the altar be without mum (“defect”). Torah’s dictate does not pertain beyond the altar: it applies only to animals sacrificed and humans who make the offerings. Physical perfection is not a Jewish ideal. Quite to the contrary: learning, wisdom, compassion, and a yearning for justice are Jewish ideals.

In fact, our Rabbis celebrated individuality and difference. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 tells us:
[Only one human being was created at first] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One blessed be God because a human being stamps many coins with one mold and they are all identical. But the Holy One blessed be God stamps us all from the same mold of the first man yet each of us is unique.
Rambam (Moses Maimonides) in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Berackhot 10:12, drawing on B. Berakhot 58b) writes:
One who sees… people with disfigured faces or limbs recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes people different.” One who sees a person who is blind or lame, or who is covered with sores and white pustules recites the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who is a righteous judge.” But if they were born that way [i.e. with the disability], one says, “…who makes people different.”
Rabbi (and some say R. Meir) taught us:
Do not look at the container but rather at what is in it. You can find a new flask with old wine and an old flask that does not hold even new wine. (Pirke Avot 4:27)
We must learn to look within, to see the divine spark in each neshamah (soul). Then we will glimpse the face of God.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, April 23, 2010

God and humanity: who's imitating whom? / Parshat Kedoshim

When we read Western literature we know just where to find the climax. It’s in the penultimate chapter, very near the end, with just enough after it to resolve unanswered questions. But Biblical literature is often structured differently: the essence is in the middle. Picture Mt. Sinai, its peak in the center. Hence many scholars have pointed out that the central “high point” of Torah – the Five Books of Moses – is Leviticus. Leviticus delineates the rites and requirements of the sacrifices made in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Ironically, Leviticus has the least amount of narrative (only two small portions) and is weighed down with rules and rituals.

Leviticus itself has a fascinating structure, but for our purposes here, let us consider the book as another Mt. Sinai. The peak is chapter 19, which has been dubbed “The Holiness Code.” It begins:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1)
The content of chapter 19 is a mix of laws that we moderns would say fall into various (and sometimes overlapping) categories: ethics, rituals, agricultural laws, social legislation, and business law. These categories are meaningless to the Torah because everything we humans do matters to God. There is no distinction between ethical and ritual laws for the Torah. It is all a matter of aligning our lives and behavior with God’s vision of the world as it should be.

The phase, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy encapsulates a radical idea: we can be, and should be, like God. How is that possible? Is not God wholly other, completely removed, at a far distance from us and our world? Not at all! God is as near as the air we breath and continuous reality in our lives to the extent that we permit God into our lives.

Our Sages went further and offered and even more radical notion: Not only do we imitate God, but God imitates us! In the Talmud, R. Yochanan learns from a verse in Isaiah that God prays, muh as we humans pray. This leads to a question we might well be inclined to ask: what prayer does God pray?
R. Yochanan says in the name of R. Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be God, prays? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer [literally: “the house of My prayer”] (Isaiah 56:7). It does not say “their prayer” but rather “My prayer”; hence [we learn] that the Holy One, blessed be God, says prayers.

What does God pray? R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” It was taught: R. Ishmael b. Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! I replied: May it be Your will that Your mercy may suppress Your anger and Your mercy may prevail over Your other attributes, so that You may deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy and may, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And God nodded to me with his head. From this we learn that the blessing of an ordinary person must not be considered lightly in your eyes. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a)
Did you guess the answer to the question: what prayer does God pray? Are you surprised that God prays for self-control? What an exquisite and remarkable view of God! It is one thing to conceive of God as a model for human behavior, but here the Rabbis imagine human behavior as a model for God.

This is a dynamic view of God. This is not the God of Maimonides: the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Active Intellect. This is a God who engages in deep relationship with people and the world God created, who cares deeply, loves intensely, and seeks self-improvement – teaching us to care deeply, love intensely, and seek self-improvement. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.

Dr. Yochanan Muffs writes in The Personhood of God (pages 192-193):
It is almost tragic that in order to liberate the religious from religion, the God of the common faith from the God of supernaturalism, it should be necessary to demythologize religious literature, thus draining off its poetic power, and to depersonalize religious doctrine, thus draining it of its educational power. A model of divinity that does not partake of personhood can hardly be expected to cultivate personhood in man. Further more, a boring and unevocative model, no matter how correct philosophically, is certainly of little “world-creating” value. The problem, therefore, of the modern religious humanist is how to demythologize the model without sapping its poetic force and psychological profundity.

I believe that many of these pitfalls could be avoided if we remythologized our theology rather than demythologized it. Fully realizing that the anthropomorphic God is to a very great degree a projection of man’s understanding of his own psyche (not merely of his own intellectualized and abstracted ideals), we must turn up the mythical decibels of the old personal God.
Parshat Kedoshim offers us a doorway into that process. Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Who's worth caring about? / Tazria-Metzora & Yom HaShoah

Who should we care about – only the people we know (and not even all of them) or everyone everywhere? That is the question lying behind this week’s recondite double portion, Tazria and Metzora.

People often wriggle with discomfort at the detailed description of tzara’at, erroneous translated “leprosy” but actually an umbrella term covering a wide array of skin diseases that affect people, their clothing, and their homes.
When a person (adam) has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus 13:2)
The use of the term adam (“person”) here is curious. Torah would usually use ish (“man” or “person”). What is the difference? The plural of ish is anashim and connotes the Jewish people, but adam implies both singular and plural; kol adam means “all humanity.”

The plague of tzara’at renders a person an outsider, a pariah for a time. The metzorah (the person afflicted with tzara’at) must move outside the camp because he is ritually impure while the skin affliction is active. It is an experience of exile, banishment, expulsion, ostracism.

Our society is brimming with people who experience a sense of Otherness in our midst: the homeless, those who lack adequate resources for food and medical care, those who are unemployed or underemployed, undocumented immigrants. Torah provided a safety net that many in our society lack. Priests would check on the metzora weekly, bringing comfort and sustenance. When the metzora was healed, he was welcomed back into the embrace of the community with a purification ritual.

Perhaps Torah uses adam rather than ish to remind us of the importance of seeing ourselves connected not only to those we know and love, or those who live in our neighborhood or subscribe to the same religious tradition, but to all those around us, as far as we are capable of spreading a net of caring. That’s a tall order, to be sure.

There is a disagreement in the Jerusalem Talmud between R. Akiba and and Ben Azzai that echoes the distinction between ish and adam:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiba says: This is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of man (Genesis 5:1) – this is a greater principle of the Torah. (Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4)
For Rabbi Akiba, love and loyalty are the overriding obligation of Torah, the force that transform us and binds us to one another. But we can only achieve that with our “neighbor” – with those close enough to use that we have something important in common. Ben Azzai, however, believes that the highest principle of Torah is to recognize in a meaningful way the humanity of everyone on earth. He chooses a verse from Genesis, chapter 5, before there were Jews, when there was only undifferentiated humanity. Ben Azzai dramatically broadens the scope of those we are to care about. He wants us to embrace all humanity, just as God does.

Numbers 12:15 recounts that when Miriam was afflicted with tzara’at, she was shut out of the camp for seven days, and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. They waited for her. The Babylonian Talmud expands on this story by telling us in Sotah 9b that the Israelites waited for Miriam because she had once waited for Moses by the Nile River (Exodus 2:4). Her act of love and loyalty toward her infant brother was repaid by the Israelites’ love and loyalty many years later. But perhaps what we learn is that narrow circle of caring can be enlarged from the model we learn in our nuclear families to include many others: the Israelites in the wilderness numbered well over two million people. They could not all have known Miriam personally, yet they had learned to care about the Other.

Who do you include in your circle of caring? Who else can you include in that circle? How far can you enlarge the circle?

I write this on Yom HaShoah, a day devoted to recalling the darkness chapter in our history, indeed in the history of human kind. What bigger message is there in the Holocaust than the danger implicit in treating anyone, or any group, as "Other?"

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"How could God do such a thing?!" / Parshat Shemini

What kind of God strikes down loyal worshipers in the act of honoring God? That is the troubling question lying behind the account of the first sacrifices offered by Aaron and his sons in the wilderness Tabernacle.

Parshat Shemini opens with a description of the eighth day – the first day following the seven-day ordination ceremony of the priests. There is great significance to the eighth day. Seven days connotes Creation completed, the universe, as depicted in Genesis chapter 1, whole. The eighth day – the day following the completed Creation – suggests beginning anew on a higher plane. On the eighth day, Aaron and his sons assume their priestly duties: they offer sacrifices for the first time. (So, too, a Jewish boy assumes his place in the community through brit milah on the eighth day of his life.) It is a momentous occasion for both Aaron and his sons, and the People Israel.

First Aaron slaughters a calf as a sin offering, followed by a burnt offering, to make expiation for himself and for the people. Next Aaron offers a goat as a sin offering, as well as a burnt offering, on behalf of the people. More sacrifices follow. Finally, Aaron lifts his hands toward the people and blesses them. He and Moses adjourn to the Tent of Meeting and when they emerge, together they bless the people and va’yeira ch’vod Adonai el kol ha-am (“the Presence/Glory of God appeared to all the people”). Fire bursts forth and consumes the offerings, a sign that God is pleased.

It seems that things are off to a great start. Yet in the very next moment, tragedy strikes.
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when God said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people. And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10: 1-3)
In an instant, the perfect celebration, the ideal beginning, becomes a tragedy. Ordered creation returns to chaos. Joy is shattered by catastrophe. How often have we experienced this in our lives? “Just when things were going perfectly…” Where fire had burst forth to consume the sacrifices offered by Aaron and his sons (Lev. 9:24), confirming God’s acceptance, now fire bursts forth menacingly and lethally (Lev. 10:2).

On the surface, this story reflects the ancient belief that God strikes those who deviate from prescribed behavior. A similarly bewildering incident is recounted in Second Samuel, chapter 6. King David has decided to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. It is loaded onto an ox-cart. At one point while traveling along uneven terrain, the oxen stumble and the ark begins to teeter and slip off the ox-cart:
But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. David was distressed because the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah; and that place was named Perez-uzzah, as it is still called. (II Samuel 6:6-8)
Here, too, a human being oversteps sacred boundaries. As Nadab and Abihu lacked the authority to ordain sacrifices, so too Uzzah lacked the authority to touch the Ark. Just as God alone ordains sacrifices, so too God alone will protect the Ark.

Perhaps what distinguishes these two accounts is motivation, or perhaps not. Uzzah’s motivation is clearly to prevent the ark from toppling onto the ground. His motive strikes us as pure. We are unsure what inspires Nadab and Abihu to make an unauthorized incense offering. Many commentators have ascribed negative motives to Aaron’s sons (they were drunk, they disrespected their elders and eagerly anticipated their demise so they might assume control of the Tabernacle, they entered the Tabernacle inappropriately attired, they lacked faith in God). But we might also presume that, caught up in the religious fervor of the moment, their motivation is as pure as Uzzah’s: they seek to serve God.

Those who believe God intervenes in the quotidian of the universe often find these passages troubling. God appears excessively strict and vengeful, territorial and uncompromising.

Those whose conception of God does not conform to the micromanaging image portrayed in these accounts, who do not believe God looks down from heaven and abrogates the laws of physics and biology to intervene in our world on a continuous basis, who do not believe God is a cosmic being whose emotions often erupt into catastrophic events, find these passages difficult to interpret.

Perhaps one answer is found in the responses of Aaron and King David to inexplicable tragedy. Aaron remains silent. David is distressed. Neither can fully comprehend the meaning of what has just transpired. They can only feel pain coursing through them. And although both are inclined to attribute their tragedies to God – this is how they see the world and God in their time – they do not rail against God, shutting themselves off from God’s consolation and strength.

I cannot count how many people have said to me, “How could God…?” as they recounted a tragic event or terrible loss in their lives. Often, these same people are unwilling to attribute to God the blessings they have enjoyed. In their pain, they seek Someone to blame when things go grievously wrong. It is not the philosophical or theological inconsistency that worries me; it is that the prospect of cutting themselves off from God’s healing Presence, consolation, and strength to go on. Perhaps this is why the quintessential Jewish response to loss of life is to say Barukh dayan ha-emet (“Blessed is the judge of truth”) and Kaddish. God is inherent in the creativity, dynamism, and energy of the universe, but is not a coercive power that micromanages and coeres. Barukh dayan ha-emet then acknowledges that life, while precious, is not infinite, and Kaddish affirms God’s holiness.

Aaron and David model for us how to continue in relationship with God, whether you believe God caused your tragedy or not.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman