Friday, September 23, 2011

Focus on good rather than sin for a moment / Yom Kippur

Some of us are getting teshuvah-weary -- weeks of soul-searching and facing our moral failings. Teshuvah (repentance) is hard work, and certainly a good, long look into the moral mirror helps. By the time the sun sets on Yom Kippur we will have thoroughly explored the crevices of our souls and embark on multiple confessions of sins we didn’t commit, along with those we did. Our prayers on the High Holy Days help us identity only our deficits. But our holiday liturgy is one-sided.

Certainly focusing on our sins and failings is one path to improvement. But it’s not the only way to become the best version of ourselves we can become. There is much good in each of us. There is much we have done in the past year that speaks well for us in heaven and on earth. Building on our strengths and moral accomplishments is a fine way to improve in the coming year, and a good balance to the confessionals on Yom Kippur.

Think back over the past year. What did you do that makes you especially proud? (It’s perfectly fine to be proud of being a mensch.) Did you go out of your way to help someone in a way that made difference in their life? Were you able to be patient and kind to someone who normally pushes your every button? Were you especially generous with your time or resources on behalf of a great cause? Did you do something as a child, parent, grandparent, or friend that you feel is remarkable for you? Did you fulfill a commitment you thought you might not be able to fulfill?

What you did once last year, you can do twice or thrice this coming year.

The goal is improvement. Perfection has never been a Jewish goal. We’re human -- sometimes delightfully so, and sometimes tragically so. But we are human nonetheless. We do good and we miss the boat. That is in the nature of our biology, and some of the traits we might not like in ourselves evolved over time to assure our survival. But Torah tells us two things to help us channel our natures and our energies positively: First, we have free will. We can decide whether to follow our biological inclinations or moderate them. Second, we are created b’tzelem Elohim (on the model of God).

There are many interpretations of what it means to be the tzelem Elohim (image of God). We generally agree that it means we should be “godly.” But what does “godly” mean? Our Sages struggled to understand it and offer us two perspectives.

The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a) wants to help us in our attempt at self-improvement and tells us that imitating God means doing what God does: clothe the naked (God clothes Adam and Eve), visit the sick (God visits Abraham after his circumcision), comfort the bereaved (God blesses Isaac after Abraham died), and bury the dead (God buries Moses). These are concrete behaviors, acts of chesed (loving kindness) on behalf of others. What concrete godlike acts have you performed this past year? I’ll bet there are plenty you don’t even remember.

The midrash Sifrei Devarim (Parshat Ekev, #13) tells us that being godly means developing the character of God as expressed in the Thirteen Attributes of Exodus 34:6-7 -- and especially the traits of compassion and kindness. What godlike traits have you exemplified in the past year?

Your goodness can be your model for the coming year. What you did last year, you can build on this coming year. Little by little, we move toward our potential and become the best versions of ourselves we can be.

If you’re still in doubt that perfection is not a Jewish value, here’s something more to consider. For the Rabbis, as for Torah, God does not claim perfection. Rather, God models the struggle for self-improvement, the key to which is self-control. Yes, even God is struggling with self-control. The Talmud (Berakhot 7a) shares a teaching of R. Yochanan in the name of R. Yose: Every day God prays, “May it be My will that My compassion will conquer My anger, and that My compassion will overcome My [sterner] attributes, and that I behave towards My children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake I go beyond the boundary of [strict] judgment [and forgive].”

Imagine yourself reciting this prayer each day. Indeed, try it! Here it is, reworked for our use: “Today may I exert my free will so that my compassion conquers my anger, and my compassion overcomes my other attributes, and I treat every person I meet with compassion, and for their sake I avoid being judgmental.”

In the coming year, lead with your goodness. May we all enjoy a year of abundant blessing, and may we all be a blessing to all those around us. Shanah tovah u’metukah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Don't ask why. Ask what now? / Rosh Hashanah

The premier Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is the Birth of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 21). The story of the birth of Isaac evokes new beginnings, promises fulfilled, continuity of the Jewish people, God’s covenant -- all appropriate themes for Rosh Hashanah. It is thought that the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac, chapter 22) is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah because that’s where the Torah is rolled to when we arrive in shul that morning. Yet the Akedah has come to be associated so tightly with Rosh Hashanah that in the Reform movement’s machzor, Gates of Repentance, it is the first morning reading, and Genesis, chapter 1 (Creation, since Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the birth of the world) is offered for the second morning.

Why does the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, loom so large in the Jewish psyche on Rosh Hashanah? At a time when we are engaged in the (often painful) self-evaluative process of teshuvah (repentance), striving to improve ourselves, and praying for life and blessing in the coming year, the Akedah is a stark reminder that everything in life is up in the air, even God’s “plan.” Now, I don’t personally subscribe to a theology that affirms a God who micromanages or even intervenes in the physics of the universe, but I am as keenly aware as you are that life has no guarantees and tragedy can befall us in an instant. In our lives, day can become night, light can give way to darkness, truth can become falsehood, love can become hatred or indifference, and blessings can give way to curses. However well we understand and appreciate the laws of physics that govern the universe, and chaos theory aside, from a human standpoint, the nature of nature is capricious. Perhaps that is the gripping power of the Akedah: the sheer terror it evokes, and the theological challenge it presents. When tragedy strikes, even those of us whose theology does not lend itself to the question “Why?” cannot help but ask it.

Our Sages asked that question as well. Why would a good and loving God require his loyal follower to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice? Torah tells us it was a test: V'ha'Elohim nisa et Avraham / God put Abraham to the test (Genesis 22:1). To what purpose? Abraham has already proven his loyalty. He left Haran -- everyone and everything he had known -- to obey God’s call. He circumcised himself and all the males in his household as a sign of his covenant with God. What more does God need to know? The test is cruel and damaging. How can Isaac ever trust his father again? According to the Sages, Sarah dies when she hears what happened.

The Rabbis struggle with the “Why?” In this drash I want to share with you two of their speculative responses, midrashim that attempt to explain how it came to be that God instructed Abraham to offer up his beloved son as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah.

The first midrash hypothesizes that the idea for the Akedah comes about because of a conversation between God and Satan, the adversary in heaven. Satan’s job is to serve as prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court, bringing evidence of people’s guilt before the throne of heaven. Apparently, he often brings his work home, as this conversation, from the imagination of the Rabbis, suggests:
And it came to pass after these things that God tried Abraham (Genesis 22:1). After what things? According to R. Yochanan, citing R. Yosi ben Zimra, after the things Satan had to say. [Following the feast given] upon the child’s having grown and being weaned (Genesis 21:8), Satan spoke up to the Holy One, “Master of the universe, out of the entire feast that this old man, upon whom You bestowed fruit of the womb at the age of one hundred, out of the entire feast he prepared, could he not have spared, say, one turtledove, one fledgling, as an offering to You?” The Holy One replied, “Is it not true that Abraham prepared the feast in honor of his son? Still, if I say to him, ‘Sacrifice your son to Me,’ he will sacrifice him at once.” Satan said, “Try him.” At once “God tried Abraham.” (b Sanhedrin 89b)
If you’re thinking of the Book of Job, you’re on the right track. Job is composed of two parts. The main body is a long, complex theological poem. A two-part narrative (the first and last chapters) frames the poem and casts its drama in a certain theological light. Chapter 1 tells us that Job’s trials and tribulations come about because Satan makes a bet with God that were Job not prosperous and blessed in every way a man would wish, he would not be loyal to God. The purpose of the bet is to test Satan’s theory. Here we see the same motif, now a familiar trop.

This is why God commands Abraham? The Akedah comes about because of an offhand bet in heaven? God doesn’t doubt Abraham will comply. Abraham certainly doesn’t need the trauma of the test. But God wants to prove something to a mere angel, Satan? God’s caprice -- as the Rabbis imagine it -- is disturbing. If this doesn’t summon theological nausea, I cannot imagine what would.

Here’s another rabbinic attempt to explain why:
…take your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moria and offer him up (והעלהו ve’ha’aleihu) there. They recited a mashal (parable): It is like a king who said to his admirer, “Offer up (חעלה ha’alei) your son on my table.” The admirer, a knife in his hand, brought his son. The king said, “Did I tell you to offer him so as to eat him? I said, ‘Raise him up [exalt him] in love!’” Nimshal (application of the parable): this is what is written: …it never occurred (lo alah alay) to Me (Jeremiah 19:5) – this verse refers to Isaac. (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)
This midrash turns on two possible interpretations of והעלהו ve’ha’leihu. Every translation you will find of Genesis 22:1 will say something like this: “offer him up,” “offer him as a sacrifice,” “bring him as an offering,” etc. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that God wants Abraham to sacrifice his own son, a ritual that requires that Abraham slaughter Isaac and burn him on a pyre. The Rabbis, however, point out that this is not the only way to parse the term. It could also mean “raise him up,” meaning exalt him or lift him up in love. In case you haven’t yet understood this midrash, it’s probably because the Rabbi’s suggestion is so outside the box, your mind cannot make sense of it. They are suggesting that God never asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac at all! Quite to the contrary: God told Abraham to exalt Isaac in love, and Abraham completely misinterpreted God’s instruction. This explanation, while exonerating God from the charge of extremely cruelty, doesn’t exactly let God off the hook. Doesn’t God see how Abraham interprets the instruction? It took three days to get to Moriah. Abraham is not equipped with utensils for making s’mores; he carries wood and a slaughtering knife. And how is it that a God who creates the very universe with words cannot communicate clearly with his loyal follower? (While this is going off in another direction entirely, if God told Abraham to exalt his son in love, and Abraham understood this as a requirement to slaughter him as a sacrifice, we have to wonder what kind of lunatic fanatic Abraham is.)

In the first midrash, the Rabbis posit that God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice due to bar bet with Satan. In the second midrash, the Rabbis suggest that it is a big misunderstanding, a case of poor communication. These two attempts to explain why God tests Abraham in this way are deeply unsatisfying if we presume God is a Being with will, agency, and emotions (foremost mercy and compassion, both of which are severely violated by the Akedah) and the capacity to intervene in the physical processes of the universe.

But if you don’t hold that God is a Being, if instead you subscribe to a theology that says that the universe is in God, and God is in everything in the universe -- which is to say that God is the entire universe and also beyond the universe -- then the very capriciousness and inexplicability of the Akedah makes perfect sense: this is how we experience life in this universe. Terrible and frightening and unexpected things happen. They come out of nowhere. Our attempts to explain “why” only beget more troubling questions and rarely provide comfort. It is Rosh Hashanah and a new year is beginning. We would hope and pray for the blessings of health, peace, love, contentment, and prosperity in the coming year -- may you know all these blessings and more! -- yet we know deep down that the coming year might deal us a curve ball, or worse.

“Why?” is then not the question to ask. Strictly speaking, physics and biology explain why. What we really want and need to know is what an event -- and particularly a painful or tragic event -- means. And here asking the right question is crucial. We should not ask why, but rather “Now what?” In the face of pain and tragedy, either in my life or in the life of another, how will I respond? What will I do? How can I conjure within myself hope and strength? How can I bring comfort to others? If we can respond with compassion, love, patience, and commitment in the face of another’s pain, if we can accept the same from others when we are in pain, we will have responded to, “What now?” and we will have the answer we need.

May the new year bring you and yours, and indeed our entire world, peace and prosperity, health and humanity. Shanah tovah u’metukah!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Blessing and Curses: if only it were that easy! / Nitzavim

My dear friend David lives in Vermont. His partner Yuval raises bees there. Yuval’s bees produce honey unlike any I’ve eaten -- the flavor is most definitely a taste of heaven. Last spring, David gave me a jar of Yuval’s honey. I saved it until our son Danny married Leora. There is a tradition that newlyweds put honey, rather than salt, on their challah each shabbat during their first year of marriage. I wanted Leora and Danny to taste Yuval’s honey on shabbat as they entered married life together -- may it always be sweet. Alas, the jar was empty before many shabbatot had passed, so if Yuval is reading this drash, maybe he’ll send another jar to Maryland? We wouldn’t say no.

Bees are fascinating creatures. Yuval took me on a tour of the hives in his backyard when I was visiting a year ago. One bee lodged itself in my hair. Alarm bells went off in my head. I wanted it out immediately. This tiny, impressively industrious, and amazingly prolific creature was a dangerous threat. (No, I’m not allergic to bees, but who wants to be stung?) What had seemed a blessing a moment ago now seemed like a curse.

Yuval, like all beekeepers, has learned how to work around bees. He is skilled in extracting the sweet honey without being stung in the bargain. It’s a real trick to separate the sweet from the sting, the blessing from the curse.
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and the keep God’s commandments, laws, and rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about the enter and possess… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and earth, blessing and curse. Choose life -- if you and your offspring would live -- by loving the Lord your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19-20)
First, Torah is saying we have free will and we have choices. So far I’m on board. Second, Torah is saying that not all choices are equal because some lead to blessing and some lead to curse. Okay, I’m still onboard, though with the caveat that fortune and misfortune can happen despite our choices because it’s a big, complicated universe. Third, Torah is saying that adherence to God’s “commandments, laws, and rules” will assure a good life. Is there a clear cut set of rules to follow to assure an avalanche of blessing and protection from all curses? We need not look far to discern the answer to this question: obviously not.

Let’s return a moment to the bees. They live in what for animals is a sophisticated society and they exhibit complex interactive behavior that amazes even biologists. Yet their decisions to extract pollen from flowers, transfer it to other flowers, impregnate the queen bee, and produce honey are not conscious free will choices. It’s instinct. They sting in response to perceived threat. In none of these do the bees make what we would consider a free will moral choice. They cannot choose between blessing and curse.

But sometimes, neither can we. We don’t always know which path to take in life. Should I accept a certain job offer? Should I stay in a certain relationship? Should I move to a new community? Should I respond to something someone said that rubs me wrong? How should I allocate my time, energy, and skills? How should I invest my resources? Should I have a certain surgery or medical treatment? Sure, I want to choose blessing and avoid curse, but it’s rarely as simple as Torah seems to suggest.

The bees know what to do. They act on instinct. They live in hives where the name of the game is the survival of the queen, not the individual bee. We, however, are calculating a dozen factors in the big decisions we make and sometimes losing sleep over what the outcome will be. How do we know if we’re choosing blessing or curse? Is there anyone who hasn’t been there?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could wind the tape forward and peek into the future to see the outcome of our decisions? But we cannot know the future -- even God cannot know the future -- because it does not yet exist. If God knew what we would choose, we would not have free choice. So God offers us the best choice, we choose, and then we wait to learn the outcome.

The best we can do is to make a decision with eyes open, good intentions, and full integrity. If we have done that, and it doesn’t turn out well, it is not God cursing us. It is the reality of living in an unpredictable world of probabilities, not assurances. If things don’t work out well, we still have choices to make, and with each choice God stands ready to show us the best option. All we can do is our best. In the end, that’s good enough because doing our best -- and knowing we did -- is a genuine blessing.

So Yuval, how about blessing us with another jar of your honey?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, September 12, 2011

Winning the Lottery / Ki Tavo

Leroy Fick was on food stamps. Still is. And that is despite the fact that last spring he won $2 million ($850,000 after taxes) in Michigan’s “Make Me Rich” lottery. Fick continued to use food stamps after he won the lottery. (In Michigan this is completely legal because eligibility is based on income but not assets. Rest assured that Michigan lawmakers are scrambling to close this loophole.) Fick believes he is entitled to continue to receive food stamps.

In parshat Ki Tavo, we find an unusual passage -- unusual for two reasons. The first reason is because it comes with instructions to recite it aloud (and indeed, we still do every year). The second reason is because of what the passage does, and does not, include in a 100-word summary of 440 years of Israelite history.
You shall then recite as follows before the Lord Your God: “My father [probably Jacob] was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers [Jacob’s clan] and sojourned there [400 years]; but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” You shall leave it before the Lord Your God [this is the first tithe, which went to the priests] and bow low before the Lord Your God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty [this refers to the second tithe] that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household. (Exodus 26:5-10)
This passage, known is Arami oveid avi (the first three words in Hebrew), is familiar to us because it is found in the Pesach haggadah and plays a central liturgical role in the seder. When the Sages (Mishnah Sotah 7:2, 3; also Bikkurim 3:7) discuss it alongside the very small number of Torah passages that are to be recited on one occasion or another, they tell us that Arami oveid avi must be recited -- verbatim and in Hebrew -- by each person bringing first fruits to the Temple. It’s a fairly long passage to memorize (except for you thespians who are so adept at memorization), so the Sages tell us that a prompter was available to help those who could not recite it by heart. Not surprisingly, needing a prompter was embarrassing, so the modus operandi was changed: everyone was prompted so as not to make distinction between those who could and those who could not.

Now please consider the content. Here’s what the passage includes:
  1. Jacob’s clan went down into Egypt.
  2. The Israelites were in Egypt 400 years.
  3. Jacob’s clan grew into a populous nation.
  4. Slavery and oppression.
  5. The people called out to God and God responded.
  6. God brought Israel out of Egypt, displaying enormous might.
  7. God brought Israel to the Promised Land.
  8. You must bring the first fruits of your harvest to God via the priests in a designated place.
  9. Bow before God.
  10. Party hardy in Jerusalem and enjoy the bounty of the Land. Include in your celebration all those who do not have a harvest of their own.

Most surprisingly, here’s what it doesn’t include:
  1. The redemption at the Reed Sea.
  2. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
  3. The many, many experiences of the Israelites in the Wilderness during their 40 years there.
Why does Torah provide this compact summary of more than four centuries, yet leave out essential parts of the story? And why does Torah prescribe this seemingly incomplete summary to be recited aloud? I think that perhaps a hint of the answer to the second question is found in the first.

The Israelites are standing on the border of Eretz Yisrael, prepared to enter and take possession of the Land. Once settled, the very first thing they are to do is bring the very first fruits of their labor to God. A précis of the recitation might sound like this:
You went down into Egypt merely a clan, and were oppressed slaves for a long time. Through a stupendous show of might, God brought you up out of slavery in Egypt -- where you had nothing -- to this Land, which you will now possess. Be sure to do 2 things when the Land first yields its harvest to you: (1) thank God; (2) celebrate and enjoy, but be sure to include those who do not have what you have.
It seems to me that the recitation accomplishes two things. First, it establishes concretely the Israelites’ independence and self-sufficiency. Before, all depended on God. In the Wilderness, God fed them. Now they will work the Land to feed themselves. Now much depends on them. God has given them the tools to create a just and compassionate society, and is turning the reigns over to them. It’s important to get it right, and when they fail, to make a course correction.

The second purpose of the First Fruits Ceremony is to ward off a sense of entitlement. People who have never possessed much more than the clothes on their backs, and whose parents were slaves in Egypt, will soon possess land. They are about to win the lottery. How easily they could fall into thinking that God who sustained them in the Wilderness with manna, quail, and Miriam’s well, will continue to provide for them in a similar way because that’s how it works for Israel. The Israelites are not divinely or otherwise entitled to a bounteous harvest. It comes through their hard work.

At the same time, it is God who makes possible life and growth. When we give thanks to God, expressing appreciation for what we have, we come to realize that our lives are filled with blessings. And more: we are happier and more generous people. Sometimes the very best antidote to unhappiness and dissatisfaction is to quite literally count our blessings (try actually writing them down and see what happens!). Another wonderful antidote is to go out and do something for someone in need. Both antidotes work wonders. And that is precisely what the passage instructs. Take another look at verse 11:
And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty [this refers to the second tithe] that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.
When the Israelites recite the First Fruits passage, they become mindful of their many blessings and experience gratitude. This leads them to rejoice and enjoy what they have produced thanks to God and with their own hands. But more, they share their blessings with those who are more in need than they, the strangers in their midst.

The First Fruits Recitation is an exercise in mandatory gratitude leading to joy and generosity. Pretty cool, no?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Project Torah Runway / Ki Teitzei

When I was young, my favorite piece of play equipment was the monkey bars (remember them?). I spent many happy hours flipping and spinning on the monkey bars in the backyard. School, however, was another story: girls could not play on monkey bars because we were required to wear skirts or dresses. I told my third grade teacher I would wear shorts instead of a skirt to school. She told me that was forbidden. Eventually, I started wearing shorts under my skirt. My teacher disapproved but there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
Legend and history are filled with stories of cross-dressing. Achilles’ mother dressed him in women’s garb to clandestinely enter the court of Lycomedes without being noticed by Odysseus. “The Odyssey” describes Athena dressing as a man to help people. In ancient Norse mythology, the hero Frotho dresses for battle as a warrior maiden, while the god Odin dresses as a female healer to seduce Rindr.

Hua Mulan (5th century; not clear if she’s fictional or historical) donned a soldier’s uniform so her sick father would not have to serve in the Chinese army. Joan of Arc (15th century) led the French into battle with the British dressed in mail. Catalina de Erauso (17th century). Jazz pianist and saxophonist Billy Tipton (20th century) was actually Dorothy Lucille Tipton but few knew this until after his death.

Ki Teitzei tells us:
A woman must not put on man’s apparel (k’li gever), nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing (simlat isha); for whoever does these things is abhorrent (to’evah) to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Most societies have prohibitions and taboos related to cross-dressing. According to Torah, God doesn’t like cross-dressing (except on Purim) either. In fact, cross-dressing is termed a to’evah (“abomination”). That is very strong language. Torah views the universe through the lens of dualism, everything and its opposite (light/dark, good/evil, Israelite/gentile, male/female). Torah strongly favors keeping things in their “proper” category and not blurring the presumed clear-cut boundaries of God’s creation. Can you imagine my teacher’s reaction when I came to school wearing culottes? Yentl would have kicked out of my third grade class.

Torah seems determined to keep the distinction between men and women clear and visible. If we sift through later commentaries on this verse, as summarized by Rashi (10th century) and codified in the Shulchan Arukh (16th century), we see that the underlying concern of many interpreters is that cross-dressing can lead to sexual immorality: women might don the clothing of men and go out to socialize among men, and vice versa. Sefer ha-Chinukh (13th century, Spain, anonymous) summarizes the concern succinctly: "The root of this mitzvah (commandment) is to keep us from sexual sin... there is no doubt that if men and women's clothing were the same, they would mix and the earth would be filled with impropriety” (mitzvah #564). I wonder if they considered that perhaps cross-dressing was about something other than sex? Think Yentl again. Or think comfort.

Of course what constitutes “male” and “female” attire differs widely from locale to locale, and generation to generation. This makes Torah’s concern very elusive. Are jeans in the province of men? I don’t think my husband would want to wear mine, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to see him in them. Is the category of the garment (e.g., jeans), the style, the color, or something else that makes it “male” or “female”?

Torah’s concerning with restricting everything to its “proper” category, and the Rabbis’ concern about preventing possible sexual immorality aside, we know that the world is not black or white -- it is mostly gray. Sexuality and orientation do not lie in distinct “his and hers” baskets, but rather along spectra. Today, we understand far more than previous generations. We acknowledge and (ought to) treat with respect people who are bisexual, transgendered, and queer. They are how they are, just as heteronormative people are how they are. What matters is who they are.

We can easily dismiss Torah as reflecting a pre-scientific unenlightened time. But before we do that, we can note three things:
  1. Torah is unclear. What is the precise meaning of k’li gever (men’s gear)? Some have said it means men’s military appurtenances meaning that women cannot become warriors. What is simlat isha (women’s wear)? Is it clothing or hairstyle? Again, there are differing opinions. There is not even agreement on what to’evah (abomination) means.
  2. The commentators use the caveat of local custom. Some have said that the Torah’s concern is that men should not shave their hair (under their arms and in the pubic area) as women in some localities do, unless that is local custom. There is no pinning this one down. Interpreters recognize that this is about fashion customs, and customs differ from place to place.
  3. 3. In Judaism, the principle of k’vod ha-briot (human dignity) trumps just about everything, and certainly the vague concern expressed in Deuteronomy 22:5, and the rather unlikely scenario Shulchan Arukh and Sefer ha-Chinukh are worried about.
Rather than worrying about fashion and style -- and how they are labeled -- we should focus on scrupulously protecting human dignity, celebrating human individuality, and cultivating respect for the natural diversity of God’s creation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bring on the bribes / Parshat Shoftim

From the grab bag of news stories during the past week:

A former federal agent at Midway International Airport was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for taking thousands of dollars in bribes to allow foreign workers to stay in the United States illegally.

An attorney arrested earlier this month after accepting $50,000 in cash as part of a payment made in exchange for the lawyer's promise to tamper with a federal grand jury investigation was indicted this afternoon by another federal grand jury.

A judge sentenced the former mayor of the small Arizona border town of Nogales on Monday to 3.5 years in prison for bribery and seven years of probation for fraud… The former mayor was arrested last September at his office in the town of 25,000, about 60 miles south of Tucson, after a five-month FBI investigation. He was accused of accepting bribes to award city contracts without the normal bidding process and to protect contracts already in place.
Accepting a bribe is not only illegal, it undermines the very legal system by doing an end run around it: those who are entrusted with carrying out the law impartially are, themselves, in collusion with those trying to abrogate it. Bribery compromises justice for everyone.

Parshat Shofetim (which means “judges”) opens with a direct attack on judges who accept bribes:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all your settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (Deuteronomy 16:18, 19)
Torah then summarizes concern with arguably the most famous verse in all Torah: Tzedek tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice, shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why is the word tzedek / justice repeated? Perhaps to remind us that it’s bad enough if individual members of society commit bribery, but if judges accept payola, the entire system of justice is corrupted from the foundation up.

Our Sages discuss this matter of accepting bribes in the Talmud (b. Ketubot 105b).
The discussion opens with a marvelous verse from Proverbs 29:4 -- A king sustains the land through justice, but a fraudulent man [or: one who loves gifts] tears it down. The Sages then their take concern about judicial corruption further, ramping up what a judge is required to do twice.

The first ramping up concerns the emotional state of the judge. R. Dimi cites the verse above in the name of R. Nachman b. Kohen. We might have expected the verse from Proverbs to say, "A judge sustains the land through justice." Why is a king mentioned? R. Dimi brings the teaching of R. Nachman b. Kohen: a judge should be like a king who is not in need of anything (and hence bribes are meaningless to him and do not tempt him) rather than like a priest, who depends upon the people’s tithes to sustain himself and his family, and is therefore far more susceptible to bribes.

The judge’s emotions are obviously a major factor, so the Rabbis continue in that vein:
Raba said: What is the reason for the prohibition against accepting a gift? Because as soon as a man receives a gift from another, he becomes so well disposed toward him that he becomes like the man himself, and no one sees himself in the wrong… R. Papa said: A man should not act as judge either for one whom he loves or for one whom he hates; for no man can see the guilt of one whom he loves or the merit of one whom he hates.
R. Papa alerts us to the fact that our partiality is compromised by our own emotions: when we love or hate someone, when we consider someone a friend or an enemy, we cannot render impartial judgments. No surprise there. The judge must supervise and control his emotions -- about himself -- in order to immunize himself against taking bribes. This is hard enough, but the Rabbis are not finished.

An anonymous statement attributed to the Sages introduces the second ramping up:
Our Rabbis taught: You shall take no bribes -- there was no need to speak of a gift of money [i.e. that is obvious, therefore Torah must be teaching something different] but rather: Even a bribe of words is forbidden.
Judges must guard against verbal bribes because this could undermine his ability to be impartial. What is a verbal bribe? The Gemara provides several examples. The first is recounted by Ameimar and might strike us as trivial.
Once while Ameimar was engaged in judging a case, a feather flew down and settled on his head. A man approached and removed it. “What is your business here,” [Ameimar] asked him. “I have a lawsuit,” he replied. [Ameimar] replied, “I am disqualified from acting as your judge.”
Mar Ukba recounts an even more seemingly trivial case: someone spat on the ground in front of Mar Ukba and a man approached to cover the spittle. Mar Ukba recused himself. More examples are brought, each one involving not the suggestion of a bribe, but rather the appearance of the suggestion of a bribe. For example: R. Yishmael b. R Yose’s tenant farmer brought him a basket of fruit each Friday, but once dropped it off on Thursday. When R. Yishmael inquired about the change, the man said he had a case before R. Yishmael and thought: by the way, I’ll bring fruit to my master. The fruit was not a gift; it was something the tenant farmer brought each week. But in bringing it early, he got R. Yishmael’s attention and suggested that perhaps the judge might consider the early delivery while judging his case. Needless to say, R. Yishmael b. R. Yose recused himself.

The Rabbis tell us to work on our emotions about ourselves, but also guard against our feelings toward other people.

The Rabbis bring these seemingly trivial examples to emphasize the importance of Torah’s requirement to have impartial courts and judges in order to deliver genuine tzedek. They are building geder la-Torah, a fence around the Torah, to protect it from infringement.

The concept of building a fence around the Torah is well known. Here is one mention of the principle in the Talmud:
It has been taught: R. Eliezer b. Yaakov said: I have heard that the bet din (court) may [when it deems it necessary] impose flagellation and pronounce [capital] sentences even where not [required] by the Torah; yet not with the intention of disregarding the Torah, but rather in order to put a fence around it. (Sanhedrin 46a)
Here’s an example of a “fence law.” Torah forbids work on shabbat, but the Sages forbid handling an work implement on shabbat, since doing so could lead one to unthinkingly the tool it in the usual manner.

In the case of bribery, the Rabbis exhort judges to go beyond refusing bribes. They should condition themselves emotionally to feel they neither need nor want the bribe, and they should recuse themselves from a case if there is a verbal suggestion of a bribe, however small and insignificant it may seem.

In the public realm, the message is obvious: public officials of all sorts should avoid even the appearance of wrong doing in order to stay away from genuine bribes and destructive corruption. You hardly need me to cite examples for you of those who did not (although I did at the beginning of this drash). Sadly, there are all too many.

What’s the message for us? The exhortation and examples provided by the Rabbis remind us that we must do work up front -- to cultivate a mindset of concerning our own needs and desires, to control our feelings toward others, and avoid even seemingly trivial events that give the appearance of accepting a bribe -- in order to be able to turn down real and enticing bribes and stay far from corruption. As we wind our way through Elul and approach Rosh Hashanah, we try to be more reflective and introspective in an effort to improve ourselves. That is the hard work and wonderful opportunity the High Holy Days offer us. Each of us has something to work on. In what areas would you benefit by proactively train yourself to think and behave differently? Elul is a wonderful time to begin.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman