Monday, June 27, 2011

If we do not succeed, we run the risk of faiure / Chukkat

Dan Quayle is said to have uttered these immortal words: “If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.” Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

If you died today, would you consider your life a success or a failure? How do you measure success and failure?

In Parshat Chukkat, Moses learns that he will never enter the Land of Israel. The Israelites encamp in Kadesh in the Wilderness of Tzin and there Miriam dies. The well that for her sake has followed the Israelites through the wilderness for nearly four decades disappears. The Israelites revert to their default behavior: they complain to Moses and imagine Egypt the fertile garden spot of the world that they were forced to leave. God tells him to bring forth water from the rock at Meribah – the very same rock he spoke to much earlier in the Israelites’ journey (Exodus 17:1-7) with success. This time, as before, God tells him:
“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” (Numbers 20:8)
Moses, however, is angry with the people. He takes his staff and strikes the rock. Okay, so Moses doesn’t achieve the goal of providing water in precisely the way God prescribed. Who wouldn’t be mad?
And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:11, 12)
Moses has endured 40 years of sacrifice, suffering, dangers, and hardships for Israel’s sake. They have spent much of the last forty years kvetching and rebelling. Wouldn’t you lose your temper on occasion?

What must Moses feel upon hearing this harsh verdict? Moses – the quintessential leader, prophet, and for our Sages, rabbi, is in this moment a failure. Success has eluded him.

Or has it?

What makes a life successful? Many of us struggle with discerning whether we are successes or failures. Perhaps that is why so much that is said about success and failure is rather cynical. Here’s a sampler:
The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made. (Jean Giraudoux)

Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success. (Christopher Lasch)

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure. (Mark Twain)

Nothing fails like success. (Gerald Nachman)

Why be a man when you can be a success? (Bertolt Brecht)

We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like? (Jean Cocteau)
What does it mean to live a successful life? What does it mean for you to have lived a successful life? We live in a society that plies and pumps us with images of success that are conceived on Madison Avenue and manufactured in Hollywood. They are far from realistic.

No one’s life is unalloyed joy and success, of course, and most people do not receive the recognition, or feel the appreciation, they deserve. Sadly, what has gone wrong, or failed to go as planned, often looms large in our eyes – crowding out memories of our many achievements. But perhaps in addition to recognizing that everyone’s life entails failure, and that failures do not define our overall worth, we might do well to consider the “fringe benefits of failure.”

In June of 2008, J. K. Rowling delivered the Commencement Address at Harvard University. (You can read the transcript and view the video on line.) After noting her own colossal failures – “I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” – Rowling provides sage advice on the blessing of failure.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The great philosopher Mickey Rooney said: “You always pass failure on the way to success.” Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt put it more eloquently: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

In his last hours, as he trod up Mt. Nebo, Moses may well have pondered his many failures. I’d like to think that he recognized that failure comes with the territory of living. I hope his failures did not overshadow his remarkable successes.

It is not the “great” and “glorious” things that make our lives a success. It is the accumulation of “little” things – the people we have loved, the good we have done, the difference we have made. How many of these came because of what we learned from failures?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, June 24, 2011

Entirely true but utterly irrelevant / Parshat Korach

Korach, as far as I can tell, is jealous and power hungry. Born into the tribe of Levi, Korach is not a member of the clan of Aaron and hence has no claim to the priesthood. He is second echelon authority seeking power. Korach gathers 250 minions around him – mostly from the tribe of Reuven, who, as descendants of Jacob’s firstborn son also feel disenfranchised – and stages a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. His fight song goes like this: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

Korach’s claim – “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst” – is entirely true but utterly irrelevant. It’s no secret that the Torah considers Israel a holy people, even a nation of priests. Rashi points out that Korach is claiming that everyone who stood at Sinai enjoys the same status – an indisputable fact. That “fact,” however, says nothing about who is authorized to lead them. Korach’s claim that everyone is holy – to which even Moses and Aaron can say “amen” – is a red flag. It’s a distraction. It is a shrewd, deceptive, subversive tactic. While proclaiming a fact, it is at its core dishonest because it has nothing to do with the truth that God appointed Moses to lead Israel and he has served with distinction.

Last July, conservative political firebrand Andrew Brietbart released a selectively edited video clip from a speech delivered by USDA official Shirley Sherrod at a NAACAP Freedom Fund Banquet on March 27, 2010. In the speech, Sherrod told a story about having once – prior to her employment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – seen things through the lens of race. It is entirely true that Sherrod once privileged African American farmers over others. Sherrod herself said so. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, viewing the damning clip on an iPod, sought to end Sherrod’s employment at the USDA. His condemnation was quick.

Briebart’s carefully (and deceptively) edited clip – which quickly went viral, was a shrewd and malicious deception because it lacked context. Sherrod’s point in telling the story was that she had discovered – on her own – that racism in all its manifestations is morally wrong. The video clip, posted by Breitbart to the Internet without context or explication, caused the very media frenzy he was counting on. In this end, the truth came to light, but not before much damage was done by his “facts.”

Recently I read a blog entry by Jack Brennan posted earlier this month. I don’t know Jack Brennan. On his blog, Jack says he is the parent of grown men whom he adopted from the foster care system. He himself knows what it’s like to lose a parent and get another. How he lost his mother is the subject of the May 3, 2011 blog post that caught my eye. When Jack was 15, his parents went out to a party. His father was drunk when they left, and as Jack wryly notes, it’s unlikely he sobered up at the party. On the way home, his father crashed the car into a concrete abutment on the Long Island Expressway. His father was severely injured and his mother died. Some months later, Jack overheard his father explaining to a cousin that the party had been held at the new police precinct where he worked. He noted that his friend Norman had transferred him to this precinct. Had Norman not transferred him, he would not have been invited to the party. Therefore, he reasoned, the accident that killed Jack’s mother was Norman’s fault.

It is a fact that Norman transferred Jack’s father. It is a fact that had Norman not transferred Jack’s father, he and Jack’s mother would not have attended the party that evening. But these facts are utterly irrelevant to the truth that Jack’s father was driving drunk, and that is why his mother was killed in a one-car accident.

On the corporate level, Enron is the poster child for facts that obscure truth. Enron provided an ocean of facts – all accurate and all publicly disclosed – but so complex that it obscured the underlying fraud they were purposefully perpetrating.

Enron drenched us with facts to cover up its corruption. Jack’s father told facts to avoid the truth and to evade any responsibility for his actions. Just like Korach.

The Rabbis suggest that perhaps the source of Korach’s hubris and sense of entitlement comes from knowing that the prophet Samuel will be among his descendants (B’midbar Rabbah 18:15). Moses, after all, will have no known descendants. Perhaps Korach considers himself far worthier to lead Israel because of the line that will emerge from him. Without asking how Korach could possibly have known whom his descendants would be – the Rabbis play fast and loose with the timeline – we can certainly note that Korach uses these “facts” to undermine Moses and Aaron on utterly irrelevant grounds. Armed with facts, Korach purposefully diverts attention from the truth.

In our 24/7 media cycle, we are continually plied with facts. It’s often difficult to separate facts from truth. Bombarded with facts, we lose sight of the truth. It’s a major sorting activity.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, June 12, 2011

We learn what we live / Parshat Shelach Lekha

“Children Learn What They Live” hangs in kindergartens and pediatricians’ offices. Have you seen it (you can read it below)? In the 39 years since Dorothy Law Nolte penned this poem, it has come to be a classic parents’ primer.

The theme of parshat Shelach-Lekha is a riff on this poem: if people live with freedom, they learn to feel empowered. After all, we learn what we live. The Israelites, born and raised in slavery, socialized and acculturated in the tar pits of Egypt, find themselves suddenly and miraculously free. But not having lived freedom, they do not yet feel empowered. Inside they are still slaves at heart.

The ill-fated reconnaissance mission into Eretz Yisrael predictably falls flat on its face. Although the 12 spies bring back a promising report…
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit [referring to a cluster of grapes so enormous it took two men to carry it].” (Numbers 13:27)
they also report:
“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 inhait the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:28-29)
This latter intelligence spooks the people. Despite Caleb’s and Joshua’s assurances that Israel is fully capable of taking possession of the Land, the people panic. They break into terrified wailing and crying, imagining their quick demise at the hands of the gigantic and powerful inhabitants of the Land.

Torah tells us that God responds by angrily telling Moses,
“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” (Numbers 14:11-12)
Where have we heard this before? When Israel built the Golden Calf, God became enraged and threatened to wipe out the nation and start anew with Moses (Exodus 32:9). Here, as there, Moses implores God to forgive the people, and God accedes, with a huge caveat:
And the Lord said, “I pardon, as you have asked. Nevertheless, as I live and as the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world, non of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; non of those who spurn Me shall see it…” (Numbers 14:20-23)
The generation born in Egypt is doomed to die in the wilderness. The next generation, born in freedom, will inherit the land of their ancestors. This generation will taste, breath, and live in freedom; they will be empowered. They will be what they live.

Why doesn’t God get this? Why does God insist it’s “all about him”: they’re spurning God, they’re disobeying God, they lack faith in God…? How about: they lack faith in themselves? I can already hear you saying: “You’re judging a book that is more than 2500 years old by 21st century sensibilities and values. Not fair.” And you are correct. But at the same time, I worry about the troubling and off-putting portrait of God Torah paints making it so difficult for so many Jews to take Torah seriously.

To the extent that God is viewed as a cosmic parent, God is taken as a model parent (Avinu Malkeinu). We must dissect our sacred text and separate our ancestors’ expression of their experience from what we know of human psychology, self-esteem, and morality. Moreover, it’s not just about children. As adults, we absorb and deliver to ourselves messages about our value, worth, and abilities all the time. Do we choose as friends and companions people who exhibit the traits we aspire to, allowing them to model for us what we seek in ourselves? Do we empower ourselves?

Let’s take a look at what the passage above says about our relationship with God and our role as parents and mentors:
  1. Israel has tried God: Of course they did. How else can they learn to feel empowered if they don’t challenge authority, flap their wings, and push the edges of the envelope? We should encourage our children to engage in safe experimentation. Our children’s ventures into novelty are not a rejection of us; they are affirmation that encourage and empower them to be thinkers and explorers. You owe it to yourself to do the same: try something new, see if it works, learn more about yourself. Within our tradition there is a nearly inexhaustible supply of opportunities and varieties for study, religious practice, and community. Break out and try something new.
  2. Israel has disobeyed God: Ditto on this one. The Torah’s emphasis on obedience is troubling because it paves the way for a practice of Judaism that is all about permitted/forbidden and devoid of spiritual exploration. What is more, it emphasizes the negative. All good parents know that it’s far smarter to praise what is good with a reason. In other words, rather than being alert to opportunities to punish, be vigilant for opportunities to mark what is right: “Thank you for helping your sister. Did you notice how happy you made her? You’re a big help to me.” Mitzvah goreret mitzvah. The goal of religion – and Judaism in particular – is to empower, enable, and encourage people to choose good, not slam them with guilt and ridicule for doing what we have decided is failure. Of course there are things that are unquestionably wrong (hurting others verbally or physically, stealing, cheating, deceiving and so on) but in the main, there are far more opportunities to affirm good choices. In Torah and among traditional commentators, the “sin” of the Israelites has far-reaching ramifications. Rav Kook even wrote in 1908 that the Jewish people suffered repeated exile and humiliation because of the horrendous sin of their ancestors.
  3. Israel has spurned God: Is there a parent who hasn’t heard the words, “I hate you!” Is there an adult who didn’t utter or mutter them long ago? The notion that God demands absolute affirmation is insulting to God. I often tell people who rail against God in the face of the loss of a loved one, “Go ahead, it’s perfectly alright to yell at God. God can take it and will still be here for you, a source of love, strength, and comfort. Your pain is God’s pain – go ahead and share it.” Our Rabbis understood this. In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 69) they envision God saying: “Hate Me and revile Me, but do not ignore Me.” All relationships have their ups and downs. The important thing is to stay in relationship.
  4. Israel lacks faith in God: lo ya’aminu vi (Numbers 14:11) is customarily translated “they have no faith in Me.” I confess that I don’t understand the concept of faith if it means to believe in something I neither comprehend nor experience but, as the saying goes, “take on faith.” I do understand the concept of trust and confidence based on past experience and reason. Some people use the terms interchangeably, but I find there is value in making the distinction. Faith is absolute: either you have it or you lack it. Trust, however, must be earned. It is true that the Israelites have experienced God’s redemption (the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Reed Sea, the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai), but this is all in the past three months. Perhaps they are wondering: where was God when we were enslaved for 400 years? Perhaps the real problem was that Israel lacked faith/confidence/trust in themselves.
Torah reflects our ancestors’ experience of God, their world, and themselves. It is not necessarily our experience. Sometimes there is wisdom to be gleaned from recognizing the values and insights of our time that distinguish us from them. But as always, Torah stimulates sacred conversation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Children Learn What They Live
Dorothy Law Nolte, 1972
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Location, location, location / Parshat B'haalotcha

My son Danny recently ran his first half-marathon. The family piled into the car at 5 am and drove out to cheer him on. The organizers promised a bus to bring spectators to the 9-mile mark to cheer on the runners, and then to the end point to watch them cross the finish line. Everyone piled onto the buses except us – there was no room left. So we hopped into our car knowing only where the finish line was, but not the route of the race. We realized that if we crossed the path of the race, the road would be blocked off and we wouldn’t be able to get through. So we plugged in our new GPS and within a minute or two it told us exactly where we were, where the finish line was, and allowed us to survey the area to find a best route. Too late! Just as we were approaching a turn-off we were sure would take us out of the path of the race, a police officer stopped us. Everyone in front of us got through. Ours was the first car stopped. I’ll finish this story in a few minutes. For now, however, the experience of having the GPS find us and “look around” to chart a route has me thinking about location.
B’haalotcha is a rich Torah portion with so much worth discussing. This week, however, I want to look “behind” this chronicle of Israel’s early journey through the Wilderness and, with a literary GPS, ask: Where is the Tent of Meeting located? Where is God?
Here are some verses from this week’s parashah. Moses, overburdened by leading the every-complaining Israelites, has reached the point of despair. God instructs him to gather 70 elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting where God will share some of Moses’ spirit with them so they can share the burden with Moses. As you read these verses, ask yourself: Where is the Tent located? Where is God?
Then Adonai said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there… (Numbers 11:16-17a)

Moses went out and reported the words of Adonai to the people. He gathered seventy of the people’s elders and stationed them around the Tent. Then, after coming down in a cloud and speaking to him, Adonai drew upon the spirit that was in him… (Numbers 11:24-25a)

Two of the representatives, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them – they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent – and they prophesied in the camp. An assistant ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” (Numbers 11:26-27)

Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:30)
A careful reading with literary GPS turn on reveals two things:
1. The Tent is located outside the Israelite encampment, at its periphery.
2. God abides in heaven above and descends only to speak with Moses on occasion.

If you’re still not sure, here’s a passage from the Book of Exodus:
Now Moses would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp. It was called the Tent of Meeting, and whoever sought Adonai would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand, at the entrance of each tent, and gaze after Moses until he had entered the Tent. And when Moses entered the Tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the Tent, while [God] spoke with Moses. (Exodus 33:7-9)
Pretty clear, isn’t it? The Tent is outside the camp, and God comes down only to speak with Moses when the occasion requires.

Now please consider these passages. Again, using your literary GPS, ask yourself: Where is the Tent located? Where is God?
Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: The Israelites shall camp, each man with his standard under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:1-2)
The Torah next describes precisely which four tribes were to camp in each cardinal direction with respect to the Tent of Meeting. The Tent is located in the center of the Israelite encampment.

And this:
When Moses had finished the work [of erecting the Tent], the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of Adonai rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:33b-38)
Here, once the Tabernacle is completed, God moves in permanently. The hovering cloud reflects God’s continuing, abiding Presence.

What we find in Torah are two very different views. In one, the sacred space is located outside, at the periphery of the community. God comes and goes from the Tent. It is the community that is central.

In the second view, the sacred space is located in the center of the community, and God is permanently ensconced in that space. The sacred space for God is central.

The second view – the Tabernacle located in the center and God permanently ensconced – bespeaks stability and continuity. In short, security and permanence. It prefers the status quo, fixed roles, and hierarchies: we know who may enter each precinct of the Tabernacle or Temple, when, and why, and expect it will always be thus. Why? Because it is the Tabernacle/Temple – the institution and its rituals – that is central.

The first view – the Tabernacle located outside the camp and God visiting as needed – bespeaks flexibility, portability, and freedom. It is a view that invites exploration and change, pushing the boundaries of what is toward what might be. Why? Because it is the community – its pressing needs and concerns – that is central.

Perhaps surprisingly, the first view is of a largely transcendent God (God is mostly “out there” or “above”) and the second view is of an immanent God, residing within the community.

If I were to guess, I would say that the second view came first: When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a centralized cult, with an established priesthood, rituals, and hierarchy of authority. People understood God to be immanent – a permanent dweller in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps they looked back on the Wilderness years through this lens. They accordingly believed that God would always protect Jerusalem. But that did not happen. The First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and much of the population was either killed or dragged in chains into Exile in Babylonia – wrenched from their land, bereft of their Temple, in a state of shock. Perhaps they looked back on the Wilderness experience and envisioned a different organization: the community was central, and the Tabernacle at the periphery. God was not permanently in the Holy of Holies (now destroyed) but rather still in heaven, portable, and able to be with the People Israel wherever their journey took them. That view must have been comforting.

We are the inheritors of both views: the view of status quo- stability-continuity, and the view of community-flexibility-portability. Both perspectives are deeply imbedded in our tradition and consequently in our psyches. Both perspectives are continuously in tension. We desire permanence, stability, continuity and security. Yet we are a countercultural religion, always questioning, pursuing freedom, and pushing the boundaries for humankind. As we “move” in our thinking, God accompanies us – our moral and spiritual GPS.

We see these views come into conflict when we face questions like: Can we hold a service outside the synagogue? Is it okay to join a chavurah, or should everyone belong to a synagogue? Are alternative ways of davening and celebrating holy days acceptable, or are they “inauthentic?”

If we are careful not to take either worldview literally, but understand the values, ideals, and hopes behind them, we can find the balance we need – as individuals, in our families, and in our communities – between continuity and change. Both are part of our tradition – each in generous measure. “We should continue to do it this way because we’ve always don it this way” is weak justification, just as is “We should never do it the way others before us did it.” Our religious GPS locates sacred space within and without.

The postscript to my son’s half-marathon: When the police officer stopped us, it was clear we could not arrive at the end point in time to see Danny cross the finish line. Jonah (my younger son) quickly calculated how far we were from the finish line and, based on the time elapsed, predicted that his brother would show up where we were stalled in a few minutes. So I hopped out of the car in time to see my son coming around a curve. I cheered him on and even snapped a half-decent photograph of him. The GPS served us well in the end.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, June 6, 2011

"To infinity and beyond!" / Shavuot

When Buzz Lightyear trumpeted those memorable words, “To infinity and beyond!” in Toy Story, the absurdity delighted us and the phrase instantly became iconic in our household. When it appeared in the title of an article published by a prestigious university, however, we were not laughing. One of my kids remarked sardonically, “Someone’s not quite clear on the concept.”

Infinity means without limit. What does “beyond infinity” mean? In the realm of engineering and science it means, “Someone’s not quite clear on the concept.”

Perhaps in the realm of religious experience and belief, which of necessity we speak about metaphorically, the phrase has meaning. “Infinity” can pertain to space or time.

Imagine with me a God that is the Ground of Being. Imagine a God that makes existence possible – not just your life and mine, but the existence of anything at all, as well as everything that is. And because this God makes existence possible, God also makes possible emergent life and phenomena that never before existed: genuine novelty. (Is that what a miracle is?) And because this God makes existence and emergence possible, this God makes morality, creativity, beauty, and love possible. We experience what God makes possible all the time: us, our ability to experience the world, our ability to make moral decisions, our ability to love, our continuous change and evolution as individual people, our fundamental and inseparable connection not only to this gloriously beautiful blue marble, but to the entire universe. All that is and all that is possible reside in God. All that is and all that is possible are God. God is the infinite possibilities of our world, and also beyond: the very Ground of Being that makes those possibilities possible.

This is not how God is described in Hebrew Scripture. There we meet a God who is a Being with a will, who exerts power, who interacts with this world, and who prescribes that we be just (yet fails to rain down justice from heaven).

This is not the neo-Platonic God of medieval thinkers like Saadia Gaon and Solomon ibn Gabirol: perfect, distant, wholly immaterial and transcendent, at a great remove from our world, emanating the universe through a series of lesser beings. God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful).

This is not the neo-Aristotelian God of Maimonides – the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Active Intellect – that is wholly removed from our world and utterly disinterested in us.

But perhaps this is the God of Rabbi Akiba (~50 to ~135 C.E.). Perhaps.

The Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 29b) describes the very moment Moses stands at the peak of Sinai and God is poised to give him Torah. Moses is suddenly and mysteriously whisked to heaven (“to infinity and beyond”) where he sees God “tying crowns” on the letters of the Torah (these are the only decorations permitted in a scroll of Torah – please see the graphics attached to this blogpost for examples). Moses asks why God is delaying matan torah (the Giving of Torah). God explains that in the future, a man named Akiba ben Yosef will interpret not only the words, but also the letters and even the crowns. He will enlarge on the meaning and possibilities of Torah. The letters may be said to have meaning, but the decorations? Infinite possibilities. Moses is astounded. He wants to see such a man. God says, “Turn around,” and when Moses does he finds himself sitting in the eighth row of R. Akiba’s academy. R. Akiba is teaching his disciples Torah – with interpretive possibilities unimaginable to Moses. Poor Moses cannot understand a single word or concept he hears. Moses’ spacial journey to “infinity and beyond” is now also a temporal journey “to infinity and beyond.” He has transcended linear time; he sees that all that is, and all that is possible, is contained in God’s Torah because it emanates from the God of possibility.

Moses is the “lawgiver” because he transmitted God’s Torah to Israel. For Moses, Torah is a sacred book of God’s will for Israel. R. Akiba was, to our Sages, the “new Moses” because he could delve into the text in order to go beyond the text through interpretation and creative application. For Moses, Torah is the moment and place where infinity irrupts into our lives and takes us to possibilities beyond.

Who hasn’t sat daydreaming and wondered what else they might do and be. Our imaginations are limited to our experiences and our minds. But there exist possibilities we have not imagined and that do not yet exist, yet they abide in God, the author of Torah.

For some, Torah is a book, a text given long ago on one particular occasion in one particular place that forms the basis of Jewish law and practice. It is static. It simply is and it is our job to find out what it already means. But for R. Akiba Torah is a relationship between Israel and her God, a process of becoming Israel, for we are always remaking ourselves as humans and as Jews. Plato reports (Cratylus 402A) that Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” So too you are not the same person you were a moment ago. Our experiences and our decisions change us continuously. The same is true of Torah. Torah is dynamic because it is relational – the ever-evolving relationship between Israel and her God. God understands this – God ties crowns on the letters of the Torah to insure that Torah will not become calcified – fixed in time or space – thereby reduced to a mere text.

For so many, Torah is merely “the instruction book of life” or “God’s revelation of how we are to live our lives” (actual quotes from actually rabbis). That’s the Moses approach. A friend told me recently of her brother, who rejected religion in college, and is now part of a rigid Orthodox community. Despite an Ivy League education that would have taught him to be intellectually curious and analytical, everything now is a matter of permitted and forbidden. There is neither inquiry, nor inquisitiveness, nor creativity in his Torah. His parents, who have always kept a kosher home, have adopted greater and great stringencies to accommodate him, yet he keeps finding more. They can no longer meet his needs. He no longer eats in his parents’ home. Where is kibbud av v’em (honor your father and your mother) in this? How is this a living Torah? Recently at a family gathering on shabbat, another rabbi began to make Havdalah, and the brother objected because it was one minute away from the time he calculated to be “correct.” Does he think that our Sages could measure time to the minute? Does he think they thought that important? Does he think that they would have condoned his disrespect for another rabbi for the sake of one minute? His Torah is a “God’s little instruction manual” and no more.
Torah is so much more. Yes, we study Torah to help us make decisions about how to live our lives because we are always becoming who we will be. Torah is the People Israel’s living, breathing covenantal relationship with God. It is our way of being Jews in the world and becoming better Jews. This is the R. Akiba approach.

For R. Akiba, the Revelation at Mount Sinai that we celebrate on Shavuot is a moment outside time. Torah is a relationship outside space. Because God is both within time and space, and also beyond time and space, when we experience God, we too experience “infinity and beyond.”

Because Torah is relational, it was not given once at Mount Sinai. It is given again and again – in every moment – a flow of divine energy, love, creativity, and moral possibility. The river flows on, always changing, never the same. We have but to dip our buckets in and savor the sweet water of Torah – mayim chaim (“life-giving water”).

Chag sameach!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Things are not always what they seem: the ordeal of the Sotah / Parshat Naso

In medieval Europe and elsewhere, trial by ordeal was often imposed to adjudicate a person’s innocence or guilt when evidence was lacking. It was viewed as judicium Dei – a procedure in which God would judge, and either condemn to death, or exonerate the innocent by protecting the accused from the ordeal or performing a miracle on behalf of the accused. Often, the victims were women accused of witchcraft or adultery, and their ordeal involved either fire or water: walking nine feet over red-hot metal, removing a stone from a pot of boiling water (or oil or lead), submersion in water with a millstone fastened around the neck (a favorite sport of witch hunters in the 16th and 17th centuries). Trial by ordeal is attested as far back as the Code of Ur-Nammu (ca. 2100 B.C.E.) and the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 B.C.E.).

Many have said that this week’s parashah, Naso, features trial by ordeal in parshat ha-sotah (the portion about the suspected adulteress). I disagree.

Torah tells us that if a man is overcome by jealousy, believing his wife has had an extramarital affair, but there is no evidence and there are no witnesses, yet he is still consumed by a “fit of jealousy” (Numbers 5:14), he can subject her to the trial of the sotah.

If this were a trial by ordeal, we would expect it would determine her innocence or guilt. But if we read Torah’s description carefully, it becomes clear that the trial is designed to acquit.

How does it work? The husband drags his wife to the priest in the Tabernacle or Temple and accuses her of adultery. He brings a grain offering without oil or frankincense – this is not a joyful occasion. The priest bares the woman’s head. He then brings an earthenware vessel, puts some dust from the floor of the Tabernacle in it, and adds water. Next, the priest writes out the curse of the sotah (straight from this week’s parashah – Numbers 5:19-22) and rubs the very ink – the curse itself – into the vessel containing water and dust. The sotah is compelled to drink this concoction.
Once he has made her drink the water – if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the wife shall become a curse among her people. But if the wife had not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed. (Numbers 5: 27-28)
Let’s pause for a moment, step back, and take a broad view of this bizarre ritual. The husband has initiated a dramatic and public ceremony. His wife undergoes public humiliation (baring her head publicly adds to her humiliation). But what is the likely outcome? I recall as a child being told on many occasions the 18th century English proverb, “We must eat a peck of dirt before we die.” Okay, so a peck is a rather large amount – 2 gallons! – but this adage has been generally understood to acknowledge that a little dirt won’t hurt you. Water with a little dust and dried ink (probably made from some mineral and vegetable products) is unlikely to cause harm beyond a stomachache. We ate far worse at summer camp when I was a kid.

The outcome of the ritual of the sotah, then, is that the woman fared well, exonerating her of her husband’s jealous accusation. Along the way, he had subjected her to public ridicule and humiliation only to be proven a fool and someone the community ought to keep an eye on.

But what if the husband’s accusation were true? What if she were involved with someone else and – in a world without reliable birth control, this is a real possibility – was pregnant by a man other than her husband? The verses quoted above make it clear that, if guilty, the wife would be rendered sterile by the ritual. Yet the reality is that it would be highly unlikely that the concoction she ingested would make her sick, let alone cause the horrors described in the Torah leading to her sterilization or death. What happens then?

Here’s the amazing part: the ritual would still exonerate the wife – God would be considered the final arbiter – and in so doing she would be recompensed with a child (see Numbers 5:28 above). The expectation was that if she were proved innocent, she would immediately become pregnant, and the husband would certainly be the father. It now appears that the ritual of the sotah provides cover for an adulteress relationship. Why would that be the case?

A child born of an adulteress relationship would be stigmatized as a mamzer (bastard, one born of an impermissible relationship), unable to marry in the community except to another mamzer. It is a terrible stigma to bear. The ritual of the sotah assured that the child would be fully protected.

In addition, although ostensibly it was intended as a warning to women not to engage in adultery, in reality it served as a release valve for men given to “fits of jealousy” who might consider violent retribution against their wives. Instead, they could initiate the ordeal of the sotah. Given the likely outcome, in effect, it served as a warning to men to curb their irrational jealousy because a man whose wife is exonerated by the ritual looks like a fool before the community. In a world without prisons, police, and court orders, perhaps this was the best possible way to protect women – and their children – from men inflamed with potentially violent jealousy. The husband, having dragged his wife through this horrible, dramatic, and public ritual, was now embarrassed and under the watchful eye of the priests and the community.

And the child born subsequently – regardless of who was the biological father – was protected by the imprimatur of God.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai tells us that the ritual was discontinued due to the hypocrisy of subjecting women alone to the ordeal, given how adultery had proliferated among men. Mishnah Sotah 9:9 informs us:
When adulterers became numerous, the bitter waters ceased, and Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai abolished them, as it is written, I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for they themselves go aside with harlots, and they sacrifice with cult prostitutes; therefore the people who do not understand shall fall (Hosea 4:14).
(Mishnah Sotah tells us that Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai legislated the ritual out of existence, but according to Tosefta Sotah 14:1, he only records its annulment, suggesting that it had been discontinued before his time.)

The ritual of the sotah, which strikes many of us as primitive, even barbaric, was a clever and sophisticated mechanism for heading off potential violence provoked by the highly dangerous emotion of jealousy in an age where little else was available. It protected not only falsely accused women, but also the children of women who had conceived by another man. What is more, it fell into desuetude because practice and halakhah change with time to meet the needs and sensibilities of a community living in covenant with God. That is as it should be: Jewish tradition is about enabling us to respond to life by bringing holiness and healing into our lives and into this world – there is no one fixed immutable formula for all time to do that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman