Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Phony theology?" Really? Read again / Parshat Tetzaveh - Shabbat Zachor

Last week we all witnessed the spectacle of a serious candidate for the Republican nomination announce on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the Democratic president of the United States operates by “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” Rick Santorum’s attempt to explain and mitigate the offensive sting of his ill-advised words helped little. Beneath them lies the arrogant and hubristic claim to have a lock on God. Santorum knows God; he knows the “correct” interpretation of the Bible; and above all, he knows how the Bible should steer American policy. Anyone who thinks differently has a “phony theology.”

So, you know the Bible, Mr. Santorum? I suspect that you’re actually clueless. Let’s examine with text in hand. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Tetzaveh, is usually read on Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat prior to Purim. On the surface, we might think that the connection between Tetzaveh and Purim is clothing since Tetzaveh is virtually all devoted to the vestments and ordination of the priests, and Purim is celebrated in costume. But it’s far deeper, and contrasting the two reveals far more.

Parshat Tetzaveh tells us that the High Priest wears elaborate vestments (breastpiece, ephod, robe, fringed tunic, headdress, and sash -- Exodus 28:4). You can’t miss him. His tunic is trimmed with little golden bells. Torah explains: Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out… (Exodus 28:35). In addition, the High Priest wears a headpiece of pure gold engraved with the words kodesh l’Adonai (“holy to God”), reminding everyone that the priest is set aside for service to God.

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) is God’s dwelling place on earth. God’s presence wholly and palpably fills the space:
When Moses had finished the work [of the Tabernacle] the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon in and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)
Here in the Book of Exodus and elsewhere in Torah, we find a theology of a God who requires complete devotion, obedience to Torah, and daily sacrifices. The people live by God’s Torah and when those who interpret it -- the priests -- are stymied, they consult the oracular urim v’tumim and God supplies an immediate answer in real time. In return, God protects the people. This is a theology of a God who is immanent, active, involved.

In contrast, God is nowhere mentioned in Megillat Esther. Not once. Not even a cameo appearance. Mordecai and Esther do not consult God. They do not expect God to save them from the genocidal machinations of King Achasuerus’ prime minister, Haman. Mordecai tells Esther that she -- and not God -- is the only hope of the Jews. Esther conceives a plan to save her people without consulting God or priests. Here is a theology of a God who is not a player, who is hidden.

Which is the “real” biblical theology? Is God immanent and active, or transcendent and hidden? Can we set America’s policies -- national and international -- by “biblical theology”? (Clearly, we ought not, but it should be clear that we cannot.)

The Rabbis struggled with God’s absence in the Book of Esther. In an attempt to prove that God is at least in the background, in b.Chullin 139b they ask: Where is there reference to Esther in the Torah? Their answer: v'anochi hasteir astir panai ba-yom ha-hu - “I will surely hide my face on that day” (Deuteronomy 31:18). In other words, God works behind the scene. God’s presence is implicit in his absence. And indeed, many experience God that way. But this is a far cry from the theology of Exodus.

The God of Exodus is exceedingly powerful and redeems Israel from slavery, parts the Reed Sea, and brings them to Mt. Sinai. The God of Esther may dwell in the heart and mind, but does not actively interfere with history in order to save Israel. Those are wholly different ideas about the nature of God. The Rabbis make a nice attempt to reconcile the discrepancy between the theology of Exodus and the theology of the Book of Esther. But it’s just that: an attempt to reconcile the two because, in truth, they are entirely different.

So, Mr. Santorum, which is the “real” biblical theology? Are you qualified to pass judgment? Or do you just use religion -- and your sanctimonious presumption of a monopoly on truth -- to bash your political opponents?

The genius of Torah and indeed all of Tana”kh (Hebrew Scripture)-- like the genius of Talmud -- is that it scrupulously and consciously preserves differing opinions, perspectives, and experiences of God. There is no imperious claim to one truth. Torah -- both Written and Oral -- nurtures a quest for holiness that has gone on from generation to generation for more than 3,000 years. It invites us to join the ongoing conversation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A wilderness love affair / Parshat Terumah

When my children were young, I reveled in making their Halloween costumes each year. It was an act of love to work with fabric, yarn, buttons, glue, and hardware to transform them into a frog, or Piglet, a wizard, or Alice in Wonderland. The more time and effort I poured into it, the happier I was imagining their delight in wearing the costumes.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites bring gifts to build the Tabernacle. They bring the most remarkable things:
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. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:1-8)
The Israelites’ donations are gifts of love, as were the costumes I made my children, albeit on a much smaller scale. The Israelites transformed their gifts into an ark with its cover and cherubim, a finely crafted lampstand of gold, and the Mishkan (Wilderness tabernacle) with its many layers of coverings. The Mishkan was a work of love.

But for the Rabbis, it was far more than a token of love. It was a bridal chamber. How? The Rabbis expressed the relationship between God and Israel in many ways including king/people, shepherd/flock, parent/children. But in the deepest recesses of their souls, the Rabbis envisioned a love relationship between God and Israel -- because that is the deepest relationship we experience in our lives.

In the midrash Mekhilta, R. Yose imagines that Mt. Sinai is the site of Israel’ wedding to God:
Rabbi Yose said: Yehudah used to expound The Lord came from Sinai (Deuteronomy 33:2). Do not read it this way, but rather read it “The Lord came to Sinai.” I, however, do not accept this interpretation, but rather, The Lord came from Sinai to welcome Israel as a bridegroom goes forth to meet the bride. (Mekhilta, Bachodesh to 19:17)
The Mishkan, then, is where the married couple set up housekeeping. For our Sages, it is a place of love and consummation. And so we find this fascinating passage in which the son of R. Yehudah haNasi is eager to marry his bride and consummate the marriage, but embarrassed before his father about these feelings. His father, R. Yehudah haNasi,, assures him that God felt the same way:
He [Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] went and planned for his son’s [marriage] into the family of R. Yose b. Zimra. He [R. Yose] agreed [to support his son financially] so that he could go and study for twelve years in the House of Study. They passed [the bride] before [Rabbi’s son]. He said: let it be six years. They passed her before him again. He said: let me consummate the marriage [now] and then I will go. [R. Yose] was ashamed before his father. [Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] said to him: My son, you have your Maker’s inclination! At first it is written, You will bring them and plant them in Your own Mountain, [the place You made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary (mikdash), O Lord, that Your hands established] (Exodus 15:17). But then it is written, Let them make me a sanctuary (mikdash) that I may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). (Ketubot 62b)
As Rabbi Yehudah haNasi reads Exodus 15:17, God initially intends that the marriage to Israel will be consummated in the Temple in Jerusalem -- but that will not be built for many generations. Then God has a change of heart (just like the son of R. Yehudah haNasi who does not want to leave his bride for 12 years, or even 6 years before consummating the marriage). Exodus 25:8 tells us that God instructs Israel to build a Mikdash (sanctuary) in the Wilderness so God can “dwell among them.”

Our ancestors expressed their love for God by bringing gifts to the Tabernacle. How do we express our love for God? Or do we even speak in terms of love?

We seem to have lost the religious poetry of such imagery, and the emotions it conjures. How many of us would think of a synagogue and the study house as a bridal chamber? How many of us would speak about God or prayer using sexual metaphors? Perhaps because we live in a society still strongly influenced by Calvinism, we have lost the poetic magic of our ancestors. We think of ourselves as far more sophisticated than our ancestors, but a soulful and creative imagination is a sign of sophistication, too.

Love is to be celebrated. Love connotes commitment to a relationship, intensity of feeling, mutual learning. We understand it for our relationships with people. Can we bring that experience to our relationship with God -- and all God’s creation? What would it look like to truly love God and God’s creation?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Following rules, breaking rules, and making rules / Parshat Mishpatim

Okay, I admit it. I have an antinomian streak. I hate stupid rules, a taste acquired in junior high school. When I got to high school, I was determined that stupid rules would enslave me no longer. Within a week, I broke a school rule. (More on that later.) I was summoned to the office of a vice-principal. I described my experience in junior high and hence my refusal to follow stupid rules. He asked me how I defined “stupid rules.” I told him that it was easier to define good rules that I was more than happy to follow: they are the ones that ensure an orderly learning environment where everyone’s rights are respected, and safety is protected. He sat quietly for a minute and said, “Good enough. I’ll back you up, but please - don’t violate them flagrantly, okay? That will make my life more difficult.” We had a deal and shook on it.

Parshat Mishpatim begins the Torah’s formal listing of commandments. Rules. There are 53 mitzvot in Mishpatim. Only Ki Tzeitzei has more.

Over the centuries, since the focus in Judaism is on “doing” rather than “faith,” more and more restrictions have been added to the compendium of laws that has come to be known as halakhah. The creative process of decision-making was transformed into a rigid and calcified list of rules with the writing of law codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Arukh, etc.) culminating in Mishnah B’rurah, which gathers together the most rigid and restrictive opinions available. Dr. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has written of the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Arukh:
Both these great codes of Jewish Law are very un-Jewish in spirit. They present halakha in ways which oppose the heart and soul of the Talmud, and therefore of Judaism itself. They deprived Judaism of its multifaceted halakhic tradition and its inherent music. It is not the works themselves which are the problem but the ideology which they represent: The ethos of codifying and finalizing Jewish Law. (“Conversations,” Issue 7, May 2010)
This approach to halakhah has crowned rigidity king and bred judgmental subjects. It stifles the inherent creativity and flexibility of genuine halakhah.
Law codes have also had the undesirable effect of engendering observance for the sake of observance. Or worse: I once heard two women talking. One remarked that she had done a chesed (kind deed) for someone. How nice, her companion remarked. Yes, she agreed, I’ll have a bigger chelek (reward in the world-to-come). How appalling! In her mind, the reason to be kind to another human being is because God will reward her in the afterlife. We shouldn’t be surprised that the culmination of this corrupted understanding of halakhah is called halachipedia -- no joke, this one I couldn’t make up.

Such rigidity is among the factors that led to a rift in the Jewish community between those who are rigidly rule-oriented and those who, having rejected that approach, reject many wonderful Jewish observances. And of course, there are many Jews, Orthodox and Liberal alike, between these poles.

Halakhah does not mean an eternally fixed set of laws, however loudly some may proclaim it does. It’s not a set of rules: required, forbidden, and permitted. Halakhah is a process for deciding how to live in this world -- as a human being with ties to family, community, human kind, and God -- in response to the highest and deepest values our tradition has espoused: human dignity, compassion, justice, and the inherent worth of all God’s creatures, as well as God’s Creation. It involves sacred text, tradition, precedent, human reason, and human knowledge of the world.

By its nature, halakhah is a process of case law because every situation is unique. Here’s a question raised recently by a colleague: A person who is prepared to convert to Judaism is hydrophobic (afraid of water). The process of conversion involves total immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). What to do?

One rabbi I know says the conversion may not go forward: without mikveh, no conversion. Another rabbi says that human dignity and compassion override the requirement of immersion. (Here’s the punch line: the first opinion belongs to a Liberal rabbi; the second belongs to an Orthodox rabbi.) The first approach -- forbidding the conversion without mikveh -- strikes me as Judaism reduced to rules; the second -- recognizing the circumstances of this unusual situation -- strikes me as genuine halakhah, a thorough consideration of all the factors and ethical values involved.

Parshat Mishpatim begins with laws concerning slavery and indentured servitude, a common practice in the ancient Near East that deeply troubles us today -- and with good reason. The thrust of the Torah is to move toward and encourage emancipation. Perhaps this is Torah’s way of telling us not to become enslaved by the mitzvot themselves. Keep the process of halakhah alive and vibrant, responsive and compassionate -- ensure it remains a process so it can respond to our deepest needs.

Back to my first violation of the rules in high school. I was assigned to a study hall third period in the typing room. Each desk was dominated by an enormous, heavy manual typewriter. There was no workspace. I found a quiet resource room where I could get a lot of studying done and had been going there every day instead. However, I’d been marked absent every day from study hall. When the vice-principal heard my explanation, he said it was fine with him. I’d rather have you study than fool around, he said. But he needed to change the room assignment on my schedule in the computer, or the problem would continue. Alas, the resource room did not have a room number because it wasn’t a classroom. I don’t think this is possible, he said glumly. So make something up and give it a number, I suggested. He entered a non-existent room number into my schedule and voila, I was free to study in the resource room during third period. Now that’s the creativity and responsiveness of genuine halakhah!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman