Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What is "Jewish law" anyway? / Parshat Pinchas

Do you know who Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah are? We meet them in this week’s parashah, Pinchas, and they are also mentioned in Numbers chapter 36 and Joshua chapter 17. They are sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad, who died without having left a son to inherit his land.
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family – son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph – came forward. The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, that banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Do not let our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen! (Numbers 27:1-4)
Until this point, the land of a man who died without having sired sons would pass to other male relatives, passing over his daughters entirely. Zelophehad’s daughters approach Moses to appeal the inheritance laws they consider unjust. Moses, in turn, appeals to God, who responds favorably:
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, who shall inherit it.’ This is the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with Adonai’s command to Moses. (Numbers 27:6-11)
This is an inspiring account. Here are five women, disenfranchised by the rules of inheritance, who bring their case to Moses. Moses appeals to God, and God responds by revising the law to correct – at least partially – its intrinsic injustice.

To me this suggests that Jewish law is not immutable, fixed for all time, and beyond human touch. To be a genuine reflection of the human-divine covenant, it must be flexible, pliable, and able to respond to human needs and the demands of justice and compassion. I have heard the response, “But it was God who amended the law, not Moses, and certainly not lesser mortals.” I am not impressed by this response.

Rabbinic tradition – the Oral Torah itself – is predicated on the notion that scholars immersed in Scripture and Mishnah, employing the best of human reason, and endowed with a keen sense of justice and compassion, can arrive at halakhic decisions that are accepted by the community as the “will of God.” At least most of the time. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they recognize that there are differing and even contradictory legitimate possibilities. And sometimes they are creative, using sacred text to build something new laws on the foundation of Jewish values and sensibilities: Hillel’s prosbul (tractate Gittin) to protect the poor, and the rabbinic value of tza’ar ba’alei chaim (the prohibition against causing pain and suffering to an animal – tractate Baba Metzia) are examples that jump to mind.

Halakhah is a term we often translate “Jewish law” but I think it’s a deceptive and misleading translation because it suggests that Jewish law is fixed for all time, immutable and unswerving. Halakhah means “walking” or “going” or “proceeding.” It conveys movement, a sense of response by those who seek to follow God’s way and do God’s will. Indeed, if our way of being Jewish in the world – of determining the path we should follow – cannot incorporate all that we learn along the way (science, psychology, history, and ethics are just the beginning), as well as our growing and evolving theologies and spirituality, it is not in my mind genuine halakhah. It is merely a set of rules (“permitted,” “forbidden”) and not an organic response to God in our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Balaam and Abraham / Parshat Balak

When visitors arrive at our house, the dog barks wildly in excitement, causing an irritating distraction. Imagine if he barked in English! Now that would cause a fascinating distraction. Similarly, the talking donkey of Balaam causes a huge distraction to those who enter this week’s narrative in parshat Balak. Too often we get stuck on the remarkable talking donkey and miss other aspects of the story.

If we set aside the donkey for a moment, we find resonances of Abraham, and particularly of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac). The Akedah is a troubling tale, however we interpret it. That Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his child on an altar horrifies us. That God would require it – either as a test or as a genuine sacrifice – perhaps horrifies us more. How do we resolve the tension created by a man whose trust in God is so complete that he cannot locate the boundary between following God’s moral dictates, and committing an egregious act of murder?

Throughout, the story of Balaam, the prophet of Moab who is on the take, evokes that of Abraham, the first prophet of Israel who gives up family and homeland to follow God. The resonances between their stories beg us to compare them.

Balak, king of Moab says: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Number 22:6). When God first commands Abraham (still Avram) to leave Haran, God says, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s 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 it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed(Genesis 12:3). The prophet with the power to bless and curse has met up with the descendants of the man who holds God’s special blessing in this regard.

Abraham responds to God’s command (most notably and frighteningly in the Akedah, the binding of Isaac). Balaam lacks Abraham’s proactive desire to do God’s bidding, but affirms his inability to violate God’s will (Numbers 22:18).

When God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, we are told va’yashkeim Avraham ba-boker va-yachavosh et chamoro (Abraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey – Genesis 22:3). Of Balaam, we are told va’yakom Balaam ba-boker va’yachavosh et atono (Balaam got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey – Numbers 22:21). The language is nearly identical. Like Abraham, Balaam took two servants with him, again employing nearly identical language: sh’nei na’arav ito (Genesis 22:4); sh’nei na’arav imo (Numbers 22:22).

I even hear echoes of the Akedah in the verses that follow, with their short clipped phrases and generous use of verbs, reinforced by the trop (cantillation):
There Abraham built an altar
And arranged the wood
And bound his son Isaac
And placed him on the altar atop the wood.
Abraham reached out his hand
And took the knife to slaughter his son. (Genesis 22:9-10)

The donkey saw an angel of God standing in the way,
It’s sword drawn in its hand.
The donkey swerved from the path
And went out into the field
And Balaam beat the donkey to turn her back to the road. (Numbers 22:23-24)
Abraham carries a ma’achelet (knife) while the angel of God wields a chereb (sword). Abraham’s knife is intended to sacrifice Isaac; the angel’s sword prevents Balaam from being delivered to the appointed spot where he can curse Abraham and Isaac’s progeny, sacrificing them to machinations of Balak.

Both Abraham and Balaam are stopped by an angel of God. Neither is permitted to complete his intended devastating act.

Perhaps our Rabbis meant us to connect these stories, because they identified both the ram that Abraham ultimately sacrificed, and the donkey that spoke to Balaam, as being among ten special aspects of creation prepared on the eve of the first shabbat. In fact, they are the only two animals on the list:
Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach and his followers], the mouth of the well [of Miriam], the speech of the donkey [of Balaam], the rainbow, the manna, the rod [of Moses in Egypt], the Shamir [a legendary worm that cut through stone], the script [writing on the tablets], the writing instrument [with which the tablets were inscribed], the tablets. (Pirke Avot 15:8)
Ultimately, Balaam blesses Israel with a magnificent blessing that echoes Abraham:
Who can count the dust of Jacob
Number the dust-cloud of Israel? (Numbers 23:10)

God now said to Avram, after lot had parted from him, “…I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth. Only if one can count the dust of the earth will it be possible to count your descendants…” (Genesis 13:14-17)
Ironically, the morally degenerate prophet of Moab confirms the blessing of descendants of Abraham. Balaam’s story evokes that of Abraham, but also runs counter to it in this essential point: Balaam never sets out to do God’s will, as Abraham consistently does; he simply cannot violate God’s will. While Balaam seeks to avoid God’s wrath, Abraham is dedicated to walking God’s path. In that, there is a world of difference. Where are we?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Legalism and Love / Parshat Chukkat

An ancient anti-Semitic canard goes like this: Judaism is a dry, unfeeling legalistic religion lacking spirituality. Indeed, legalism is a powerful biblical metaphor for our relationship with God: we have an eternal, deeply committed, all-encompassing relationship with God. It is like a marriage in that it entails love and loyalty. It is like a parent-child relationship in that it is eternal and unconditional. It is like a teacher-student in that it involves guidance, direction, and sometimes rebuke. There is nothing dry and unfeeling in these relationships! Quite to the contrary.

This week we read Parshat Chukkat. The word “chukkat” comes from “chok” which might be translated rule, law, directive, or statute. In fact, Hebrew has a number of words that fall into this general category: mitzvah, mishpat, eidah, and chok. What distinguishes them?

There are, generally speaking, two kinds of mitzvot (commandments): mishpatim (laws, or judgments) are commandments that human reason can discern and arrive at on its own. Mishpatim include the commandments to give charity, and the prohibitions again murder and theft. Even if God had not commanded these laws, we would have come to them on our own. Chukkim, however, are mitzvot that we accept as divine decrees but cannot fully comprehend with our rational minds. Among these are the laws of kashrut (dietary laws) and the laws of family purity. Preeminent on this list, the law of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, with which our parashah opens. The law of the Red Heifer defies all logic. It’s not that it’s irrational, it’s more that it is supra-rational – it is entirely beyond human logic. The mishpatim reflect the magic of love and devotion: we do them out of a sense of love and devotion to God and God’s people Israel.

Eidot, which we might translate “testimonial,” are commandments that symbolize or commemorate an event or something else of great meaning. Shabbat menukhah/ sabbath rest is an example, because it commemorates Creation and permits us to engage in imitatio dei/imitation of God. Another example would be the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach, whereby we relive the experience of our ancestors. A third example is tefillin, which is the literal fulfillment of poetic passage in Torah. While we might not have assumed or deduced any of these mitzvot from the Torah, once they are explained, we can appreciate their purpose.

The combination of commitments we understand and those we don’t, but follow out of love and devotion, amount to a tradition of staggering spirituality: every face we greet is a reflection of God, every facet of life can reflect God’s holiness, every act can be an extension of God’s hand in the universe. There is no pocket of life called “religious” that we pull out once a week, attend to quickly, and return to a closet. All of life – in its astounding beauty, violence and ugliness, and quotidian messiness, can be responded to with a religious soul. The injustices that plague our neighbors become our concern because they are God’s concern. The pain and fear that haunts others generates a mandate to providing comforting care because we are the hands of God, and mitzvot meaning doing, responding, acting, being present. How could anyone for a moment think this is dry legalism, lacking spirituality? Only those for whom spirituality is an all-about-me activity.

The metaphor of law bespeaks Judaism’s premium on engagement in relationship in all its finest expressions: love, caring, justice, and compassion.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Swallow or Cradle? / Korach

Judy Klitsner recently published Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mind and Undermine Each Other (JPS, 2009). Her thesis is that “… if certain gnawing theological or philosophical questions remain after studying one narrative, a later passage my revisit those questions, subjecting them to a complex process of inquiry, revision, and examination of alternative possibilities.” (p. xvi) The result is a chorus of voices coming from the Bible on any one issue. Klitsner demonstrates how Jonah comes as a corrective to Noah’s lack of self, how the midwives in Egypt rewrite the Tower of Babel narrative on the subject of individuality, and how Jethro provides a corrected model of leadership through Moses as against Melchizedek’s influence on Abraham.

Could the same phenomenon occur between Torah and Talmud?

Parshat Korach tells the story of the most notorious mutiny in the Wilderness. Korach, a priest of the tribe of Levi, challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation? (Numbers 16:3) Korach gathers 250 chieftains among the Israelites and stages a full-scale rebellion. The story culminates in the spectacular and hair-raising climatic punishment of Korach and his minions:
Scarcely had [Moses] finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!” And a fire went forth from Adonai and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense. (Numbers 16:31-35)
The violent end that meets Korach and his comrades is deeply troubling. Could they not have been brought back into the fold of Israel? Was the only possible, or appropriate, response violence? Is the earth, that harbors, shelters, and nourishes life, to be seen as murderous, a global graveyard waiting to swallow alive those who do not tow God’s line?

I see evidence of two correctives in the rabbinic literature.

The first is found in Pirke Avot. While some interpreters have understood what happened to be an earthquake that rent the earth, our Rabbis sought a different understanding of the opening in the earth – va’tiftach ha-aretz et pi-ha va’tiv’la otam / the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them – to have a unique, one-time quality. In Pirke Avot 5:8 they list it first among ten things created on the eve of the first shabbat, at the very end of creation, even after humans were created. For the Rabbis, Korach’s rebellion is foreseen and God prepares for it as the world itself was coming into being. The suppression of Korach and his followers was a one-time event, not a regular feature of God’s interaction with Israel, and certainly not indicative of the nature of the earth itself. I think this is the first corrective.

The second corrective may be found in another account of the earth swallowing up people. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah, the Sages tell us that when Pharaoh attempted genocide against the Israelite baby boys, the pious Israelite women redoubled their efforts to conceive and bring forth babies into the world. As soon as they gave birth, angels cleansed and massaged each newborn, and God provided breast-shaped stones to nourish them with honey and oil. The account continues:
When the Egyptians became aware of these infants, they came to slay them. But then another miracle occurred, for the infants were swallowed up by the earth. At that, the Egyptians brought oxen and plowed the area where they had disappeared. But as soon as the Egyptians left, the infants burst forth out of the ground like grass in the field. As the infants grew up, they came running to their homes in flocks. Later, when God revealed himself at the Reed Sea, these infants [now grown] were the first to recognize God, for they said, This is my God (Exodus 15:2). (Talmud, Sotah 11b; Shemot Rabbah 1:12)
Here the earth is a warm and protective cradle, sheltering the infants against the genocidal shock troops of Pharaoh. While Korach and his minions went shrieking down into Sheol – the shadowy pit beneath the earth where those who die an ignominious death end up – the infants come bursting forth like wildflowers in the spring. While Korach and his followers are erased from the people Israel forever, the infants grow up healthy and strong, return to their families, and are the first to recognize God at the Reed Sea, because they have already experienced God’s redemption – in the warm, loving, protective embrace of the earth.

And how do we approach the world: as swallower or nurturer? Perhaps the Rabbis recognized the danger of seeing the world as ready to swallow us up, and God ready to punish every act of insurrection. We can experience the world as dark and intimidating, danger lurking at every bend, or we can perceive the world as a wide-open wonderland, teeming with life and bursting with blessings. It can certainly be both, but are we not better off presuming that earth – and the life it supports – will be kind, nurturing, and redemptive? When it comes to our relationships with God and other people, is this not the better assumption, so that we can reach out to God and other people, and experience the love and care they have to offer?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Self-image as destiny / Shlach Lecha

It doesn’t matter how much talent, strength, and ability you have if you cannot recognize it in yourself. What is more, when we believe we lack talent, strength, and ability, we are certain that the whole world recognizes the truth of our deficits. How many people’s lives have been obstructed and even devastated – or perhaps never even left the starting gate – because of inaccurate self-perceptions?

Three months into the Wilderness experience, and crisis hits. Moses sends out twelve spies – leaders of the twelve tribes – to reconnoiter the land of Canaan and bring back a report:
When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is tit wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (Numbers 13:17-20)
Forty days later, the twelve spies return with this report:
[The land]… does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; the Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan. (Numbers 13:27-29)
There are two ways to hear this report. The first is that the land is rich and abundant and the people who live there will be a challenge to conquer. The second is to hear the report as the Israelites did. The lushness of the physical landscape is eclipsed by the fierceness of its inhabitants. Terror fills the hearts of the Israelites and they are paralyzed by fear.

Caleb attempts to offset the pessimistic mentality that is going viral through the Israelite camp. He assures the people that they can overcome the inhabitants and gain possession of the land, but his words are too little and too late, because fear rules the hour.

We might wonder: if God has instructed the people to enter the land and take possession of it in accord with the promises of the Covenant, then surely God knows they will be able to succeed. This is, after all, the same God who overpowered Pharaoh, brought plagues upon Egypt, brought Israel out of slavery, parted the Reed Sea, and brought Israel to Mt. Sinai. Why would the people believe the report of ten men over that of God? How can fear so quickly and easily creep into their joints and souls and dominate their heads and hearts?

Perhaps the answer lies in the way the Israelites understand the report of the spies, and how it affects their self-image:
But the emissaries who had gone up with [Caleb] said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:31-33)
Seeing themselves as mere grasshoppers, they are convinced that others will see them as small and powerless. The slave mentality holds firm. This generation cannot recognize their strength and ability. How often does this happen to individuals and nations?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman