Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Divine Art / Parshat Vayakhel

Michelangelo said: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” He may have believed true art is but a shadow, but another way to understand it is as a reflection of holiness – in us and in the universe.

Recently, my husband treated me to a surprise birthday experience. The only thing he told me in advance was that I would be doing it together with our son, Jonah. Since Jonah is, among many things, an artist (to view a small selection of his work, click here and enjoy) I was pretty sure that we would be doing something artistic.

Should I keep you guessing, or just tell you? Okay, I’ll tell you. We spent two hours learning how to blow glass. We made a somewhat lopsided yellow and orange speckled vase and a glass flower to place in it. The vase and flower were certainly not a reflection of divine perfection – nor even a shadow of it – but we had a wonderful time.

In my life, I have done a good deal of sewing and needlework, some woodworking and pottery. I have never considered my creations anything beyond utilitarian, nothing that could rightfully be called art. When I need to clear my mind, or am need of solace, an art museum works magic for me. I am dazzled by the insight and imagination of artists. The role of human imagination has been important to religious thinkers across the spectrum, from Maimonides, the neo-Aristotelian rationalist, to the mystics of the Kabbalah. Many have understood that human imagination opens a portal to heaven for divine energy to flow through. Whether an artist considers his or her work “a shadow of the divine perfection,” a reflection of the holiness of our world, or a portal to heaven, I cannot say. But often their work is that for me. I think this is true for artists of all kinds: musicians playing and composing sublime melodies and harmonies, writers and poets whose words take wing, philosophers crafting ideas to stimulate the mind to new heights, and mathematicians writing elegant proofs, to name but a few.

Art can be an expression of one’s soul. Art can reflect the majesty, beauty, and holiness of our world. Art can be prayer, connecting the artist, the viewer, or both to the divine spark within, God above, the unity of being, the source of everything.

In last week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, we read about the Golden Calf. It was an artistic creation that not only was not a prayer to God, but was in fact a substitute for God that brought a plague upon the Israelites. It was art in service of idolatry. This week we read Vayakhel, where we meet Betzalel, the artisan who builds the Wilderness Tabernacle. Betzalel’s creations are art in service of the Divine.
And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft – and to give directions. He and Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work – of a carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver – as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs. Let, then, Betzalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom the Lord has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all he tasks connected with the service of the sanctuary carry out all that the Lord has commanded. (Exodus 35:30 – 36:1)
There is yet another sign of Betzalel’s unique spirit: the Israelites were so inspired by Betzalel, Oholiab, and the artisans building the Tabernacle that they brought freewill offerings in abundance – more and more until there was far more than was needed and Moses had to tell them to stop.
Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:6-7)
AndrĂ© Gide (1869-1951), winner of the Nobel Prize in literature once said, “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” Gide felt that true art is divinely inspired. (Isn’t it enough if it truly inspires?)

Betzalel and God were collaborators in the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), making Michelangelo’s words all the more prescient. Michelangelo said that art is “ a shadow of the divine perfection.” Betzalel means, literally, “in the shadow of God.”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, February 14, 2011

War, Peace, and "Collateral Damage" / Parshat Ki Tissa

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight – twenty gerahs to the shekel – a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the Lord, as expiation for your persons. (Exodus 30:11-16)
God orders Moses to take a census of all males at least 20 years old. These are the people eligible to serve as soldiers and defend the Israelites should they be attacked in the Wilderness (which, indeed, happens when they encounter Amalek). Each person entered into the rolls is to pay a half-shekel – a token amount – as “ransom for himself.”

Here we find the beginning of the Jewish ethic of warfare.

The word kofer (“ransom”; the same root as the term for “atonement”) is found in the Torah only a few times. A form of it is found in Genesis 32:21, where Jacob, preparing for his reunion with Esau, sends his servants ahead with flocks and herds to propitiate his brother. Here the sense of ransom or atonement is clear: Jacob is ransoming his life from a brother who has every reason, as well as the ability, to kill him. The classic example is Exodus 21:30, where the owner of a goring ox (shor mu’ad), an animal known to be a danger because it has killed a person previously, has killed again. The owner pays a ransom to atone for the life taken and redeem his own life. The owner did not himself kill the victim of the ox, but he bears responsibility for having failed to restrain the animal. Number 35: 31-32 tells us that a kofer (“ransom”) may not be paid in the case of murder, because one who takes the life of another must pay with his own, and no ransom can substitute.

It appears that those Israelites who may have to go to war are paying a ransom up front for the lives they may be compelled to take in battle. Even before being called up as soldiers, the Israelites are reminded of the supreme value of human life and prepared for the trauma of having to take another’s life in battle. Killing is not glorified; quite to the contrary.

War is horrific. Lives disrupted, lives lost, dislocation of peoples, separations within families. For all this, there was a time when it was clear who was a combatant and who was a civilian, and while that distinction was not always honored – legion are the accounts of civilians brutalized by invading armies – there was at least tacit lipservice paid to the notion that non-combatants should not be targets. With the advent of modern warfare, we see the use of indiscriminate terrorism, a blurring of the the line between civilian and soldier is blurred, and civilians used as human shields. “Collateral damage” is a pressing moral issue in the modern arena. What does Jewish tradition offer us?

Returning to Jacob’s reunion with Esau, midrash Beraishit Rabbah 76:2 explains:
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed [on hearing that Esau was coming to meet him] (Genesis 32:7). R. Yehudah ben R. Illai said: "Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that [Jacob] was greatly afraid lest he should be slain, and he was distressed lest he should [be compelled to] slay. For Jacob thought: 'If he prevails against me, will he not slay me? Yet if I am stronger than he, will I not slay him?' That is the meaning of he was greatly afraid (lest he should be slain) and he was distressed (lest he should slay.)
This midrash served to set the tone for rabbinic repulsion for war. However, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (16th century) goes further and interprets the midrash to issue a stern caution concerning civilian casualties during war. In the Gur Aryeh he explains that Jacob’s concern, as midrash Beraishit Rabbah explains it, is for Esau’s entourage. Jacob knows that Esau is his enemy, and he might well kill, or be killed by, Esau. However, the status of the retinue accompanying Esau is unknown to Jacob. Are they soldiers who are willingly entering combat? Or are they merely laborers accompanying Esau without the intension to fight Jacob? Rabbi Loew concludes that Jacob’s fear and distress in Genesis 32:7 come to teach us that it is impermissible to kill civilians even in the midst of a legitimate military battle. “Collateral damage” is to be avoided at all costs.

The State of Israel, from its beginning, committed itself to following a strict code of ethics called Tohar ha-Neshek ("Purity of Arms") to insure morality in combat. It reads, in part: “The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.”

Yet as we all know, in the modern arena discotheques, hotels, and buses have become battlefields, and enemy combatants store their explosives in hospitals, schools, and garages. What once seems a clear ethical standard must be revisited because the context is so murky. One can no longer say with clarity and certainty in all situations who is a combatant and who is a civilian.

Dr. Marc Gopin is the director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and professor of Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. In a paper delivered at Princeton University in 2001 Gopin addressed “the problematic nature of targeting anything near civilian populations with explosive weapons.” He writes, “In general, I would argue, explosive weapons, from rocket launched grenades to F-16’s, and certainly weapons of mass destruction, make it extremely difficult to comply, in any contemporary warfare, with the halakhic rule that requires giving even combatants, let alone unarmed civilians, a way out of conflict, a path of retreat.” Theory is one thing, reality quite another.

Dr. Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, when asked about the civilian casualties in Gaza and Lebanon during the 2006 war, said, “The argument about proportionality is a hornet’s nest. It is not a very precise measure. No one knows what it means, and it can be used to justify massive injuries to civilians or used to condemn exactly the same injuries. I think there are other questions that need to be asked first: What kind of war is the army fighting? How precise is their intelligence? What kinds of risks are they accepting in order to reduce the risks they impose on civilians? Those are the key questions.” Walzer expressed concern for how the war in Gaza was conducted during the last week of the operation, but said that, overall, “I think it was a justifiable operation.”

Tohar haNeshek is a difficult standard to live up to during war, and especially in the modern arena, yet it remains a central tenet of The Spirit of the IDF, the Israeli Army’s doctrine of ethics.

My purpose is not to answer the question of how Israel or any other country should address the complex moral conundrum of “collateral damage” in the modern warfare arena, but rather to open the issue up for your consideration. Should Israel amend its standards in response to the reality it faces? Should Israel retain the high standards of Tohar haNeshek even if that means sustaining greater casualties among its own troops? How should other countries respond in the face of a changing landscape of war?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

7 or 12? Both! / Parshat Tetzaveh

Numbers intrigue me. In the Torah, they are always significant.

Tetzaveh opens with instructions for the oil lamps that were kindled daily in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle), outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages (Exodus 27:21). (To this day, every synagogue has a Ner Tamid (eternal light) hanging above the aron ha-kodesh (holy ark) as a remembrance of the lamps lit in the Mishkan.) The menorah’s design for distinctive: a seven-branched candelabrum. In last week’s parashah, Terumah, we find the description:
You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand. (Exodus 25:31-32; the description continues through verse 40)

In contrast, the High Priest’s breastplate (the choshen) was adorned with twelve precious and semi-precious stones:
Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 27:17-21)

What is the significance of seven and twelve? Universalism and particularity.

The seven-branched menorah symbolizes the Israelite conviction that God the Creator’s divine providence extends to all Creation, not just to Israel. Torah begins with a universalistic perspective. There are no Jews in Genesis 1 or 2; indeed there are no Jews for 20 generations until Abraham, and no Jewish nation until the second book of Torah. We Jews locate our origins amidst all humanity.

The twelve stones embedded in the High Priest’s breastplate signify the unity of the Jewish people and their particular covenant with God. The twelve tribes constitute one nation, one people. It is the particular and unique experience of the Jewish people – who experience God’s redemption and enter into a covenant with God – that informs our ethics, values, and way of life.

Universalism and particularity: inseparable, complementing each other. If we shed our unique identity and traditions, we forfeit not only the wisdom, insights, and ethical values of Judaism, but also the Jewish way of encountering the divine in the world. If we live only with a mind to protect our Jewish identity, we forfeit the wisdom of the world around and fail to contribute the best that Judaism has to offer in addressing the perplexing issues of our day and eternal dilemmas of human existence.

The morning prayer service opens on a highly particularistic note: the Israelites’ experience of redemption at the Reed Sea. It happened to us, it happened for us, and it reminds us that redemption is possible. Indeed, redemption is the overriding theme of the entire service. But the service ends a universal note: Aleinu provides a vision of day when all idolatry will end, together with the cruelties and miseries it brings. Aleinu does not paint a future in which everyone is Jewish. Its messianic landscape includes variety – the very same variety God so cherished from the beginning, and insured for the long term when God scattered the people of the Tower (Genesis 11). It is out of the prism of our particular experience as Jews that we come to universal values.

The Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) records a disagreement between Rabbi Akiba and his colleague Ben Azzai concerning what is the single great principle on which all of Torah stands.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiba says: This is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of humanity (Genesis 5:1) – this is a greater principle of the Torah. (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4)
For Rabbi Akiba, v’ahavta l’rei-echa kamocha, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the principle from which all Torah – ritual requirements, ethical teachings, civil & criminal law – derives. What does Ben Azzai hear in this? He understands that “neighbor” is likely to be narrowly interpreted as referring to the Jewish people. And so he chooses a different verse as the great unifying principle of Torah: This is the book of the generations of humanity, a verse that reminds us of the humanity of every person, each created b’tzelem Elohim (the image of God). Rabbi Akiba is the particularist; Ben Azzai is the universalist.

Which one is right? We don’t have to choose. Neither particularism nor universalism is privileged – we must keep both in balance. Perhaps at times we feel we are walking a tightrope, but it is that balance that assures we become the best Jews we can be and thereby give our best to the world. But we do best when we approach the world-at-large through the lens of our Jewish values and traditions, thereby offering the world the richness of Jewish ethics and spirituality, and approach Judaism with an appreciation for the wisdom that abounds in the world and that can deepen our appreciation of our traditions.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tiger Mom - Jewish Mom / Parshat Terumah

The Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, has been the focus of several family conversations of late. Anyone who doesn’t live in a cave is aware that Amy Chua wrote The Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother and a WSJ piece, and was featured in Time Magazine and countless interviews, where she described her childrearing practices, which include depriving her children of rest, nourishment, and use of the bathroom until they master a skill she considers important. She controls their activities and social life, forbidding everything she considers extraneous and trivial (like sleepovers, school plays – unless her child is the lead – and most sports). She employs demeaning language and demands that they not only bring home only As, but be the best student in their classes in all academic subjects. Some have described her as cruel and heartless, but Chua insists that it is her love and devotion to her daughters that drives her. She derides the Western emphasis on self-esteem that is not tied to accomplishment. In that regard, I can agree with her: the piles of meaningless certificates and trophies in our house attest to the nonsense pervasive in our society of pumping kids up with empty praise to produce a false sense of self-esteem that more leads to narcissism than accomplishment.

Amy Chua believes she is eliciting from her children their best, and both gifting them with her high standards and developing in them their gifts. This week we open to Parshat Terumah, whose very name means “donation” and speaks of the gifts the Israelites brought unbidden and with love to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:1-2)
Torah tells us that the Israelites were so enthusiastic and generous that eventually God told Moses:
“The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:5-6)
No one stood over the Israelites depriving them of food or bathroom privileges to coerce them to bring gifts. Indeed: is it a gift if it is coerced? Just as significantly to me, the Israelites brought genuine gifts to the Tabernacle – they came from a sense of devotion, love, and dedication to God and community. Chua’s children develop their “gifts” purely for themselves and their demanding mother. I wonder if they have any sense of contributing to anything beyond themselves.

The little book of “Haikus for Jews” by David M. Bader includes this gem:
Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I’ve done?
Yet if you ask most Jewish parents what is most important to them in raising children, they will not mention Nobel Prizes. They will say: a mensch. I prize most my children’s integrity, compassion, generosity of spirit, and kindness toward others. These are their greatest gifts, and the greatest gifts they give the world, and I feel inordinately delighted that they all possess much of each. No amount of berating, insulting, demeaning, demanding, and deprivation will nurture integrity, compassion, generosity of spirit, and kindness in a child. If they have other gifts – intellectually, musically, artistically – I am delighted to nurture these, as well, but they are not essential, and I cannot imagine developing them at the expense of what is truly important.

When our children enter the world, we recite a blessing over them that does not mention straight As, becoming violin or piano virtuosos, or being the best student in every class. Rather we bless them with a life of Torah, Chupah, and Ma’asim tovim – Torah learning and living; a happy, satisfying, and loving marriage; and a life filled with good deeds. This Jewish Mom is no Tiger Mom. This Jewish Mom believes the traditional blessing over our children says it all: we want for them a life of Torah – connected to God, their people, and the values we cherish. We want for them loving and satisfying relationships. We want them to go out into the world and do good because their value system is one in which they use their gifts to gift those around us. May all our children be so blessed.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Bring back that Mishpatim Feeling! / Parshat Mishpatim

One of the most irritating phrases I heard as a child emanating from the mouths of my peers was, “I could care less.” They presumably meant, “I couldn’t care less,” but inadvertently told the truth: they said, “I could care less” only in response to things they truly cared about.

Parshat Mishpatim is aptly named. It is chock full of mishpatim – laws – of all sorts: slavery, assault, kidnapping, insulting parents, striking a woman and causing a miscarriage, wounding a slave, the ox that gores, leaving an open pit, theft in various forms, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, mistreatment of orphans and widows, usury… the list goes on.

This collection of laws transcends the modern categories of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. They are all delivered, as it were, in one breath, without such distinctions, which are unknown to the biblical writer. Everything is within God’s purview; all human behavior is God’s concern because every act, however small, affects the universe. For everything, God says, “I could care less” precisely because God cares very much about everything.

From the Renaissance onward, people viewed religion as a “realm” of life and thought, rather than the lens through which all life was lived and all thought and values generated. Religion came to be restricted to the corners and crevices of life. For Jews, integration into western societies entailed jettisoning Jewish sovereignty over what we call civil and criminal laws, transforming Judaism from an all-encompassing way of living life in relationship with God and the universe, to a “religion” that addresses theological and ritual matters alone.

Yet the beauty, grandeur, and genius of Judaism is precisely that it is all-encompassing, that the categories of “civil,” “criminal,” “ritual,” and “ethical” do not exist as barriers because all life and experience are integrated. My every choice and action has ramifications beyond the intellectual compartment someone may choose to stuff it into. Every action has a ripple effect that spreads out through the universe. The ripple may often seem small, but it is real, and never negligible.

“Mere religion” is insufficient. Many today seek to recapture the sense of the unity of all being, the connectivity of all, a spirituality that is all encompassing, not pigeon-holed and limited. If anything I do matters, then everything I do matters. If Judaism is concerned only with ritual practices, and a few moral obligations, what’s the point? In fact, from a Jewish perspective, there is no distinction between “secular” and “religious,” “civic” and “moral” behavior.

It is time to recapture the deep insight of Judaism that we need to examine everything we do and its repercussions for the world because it all matters and because our tradition provides a wonderful way to approach the most challenging questions of life. While there is no one Jewish answer to every environmental issue, social justice question, or biomedical quandary, there is a Jewish approach: take each concern as a serious matter with divine implications, explore the options and their ramifications, use the best of modern scientific knowledge, and run everything through the sieve of Jewish traditions, values and ethics. This is the torah method. It has served us well for many generations, and is needed all the more today. The more we retrench and retreat from the all encompassing and comprehensive Jewish approach to living life, the more spiritually impoverished we will become.

Perhaps the most telling verse in all of Torah is Deuteronomy 22:3, the admonition not to remain indifferent. All of life must be invested with meaning because it all matters.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman