Sunday, April 29, 2012

The lie about “lying with a man” / Acharei Mot - Kedoshim

I am sick and tired of hearing people pontificate on how same sex marriage will degrade the institution of marriage. How could two men or two women who want to enter into a long-term, committed relationship degrade marriage? Sounds like a confirmation of marriage to me. I am also disgusted by the way certain political elements in this country work assiduously to make opposition to same-sex marriage the dominant domestic issue in political discourse, thereby distracting us from discussing what is truly important: poverty and economic justice, housing and homelessness, education, reproductive rights, biomedical ethics, crime and violence, campaign finance reform, health care, and any of a number of issues that affect the quality of life for millions of Americans.

I might as well jump in with two feet.  This week’s Torah portion includes the infamous verse Leviticus 18:22:  Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman (mishk’vei ishah); it is an abhorrence (to’evah). This verse, perhaps more than any other, has been misinterpreted and used to justify abuse of, and discrimination against, homosexuals. The presumed biblical prohibition against homosexuality has taken on a life of its own; its history is sordid and ignominious. You hardly need me to recount case after case of people beaten and killed because of their sexual orientation. The Torah is not to blame for all this abuse; human beings who misinterpret it and condone violence most certainly are.

What exactly does Torah prohibit? The honest answer is that no one is entirely certain. First a few questions:
  • If homosexuality is an “abomination,” why does Torah say nothing about lesbian erotic relationships?
  • Verse 22 is phrased differently than most of the other verses in chapter 18, which begin: Do not uncover the nakedness of… -- why is that? Verse 22 has an unusual phrase: Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman. Why is it included with these other prohibitions?
  • What is a to-evah (often translated “abhorrence” or “abomination”)?
Leviticus in the Septuagint, an early Greek translation

Taking these questions in reverse order:

“Abomination” and “abhorrence” are strong words; the English terms evoke strong emotions. But what is a to’evah? Generally, a to’evah is an act that is learned and volitional. Deuteronomy 14:3 says: lo tokhal kol to’evah, generally translated “You shall not eat anything abhorrent.” But it is not the animals we are not permitted to eat that are abhorrent. They are part of God’s creation. It is the act of eating them that is abhorrent. Similarly, Deuteronomy 7:25, 26 speaks of idolatrous images that threaten to ensnare the hearts and minds of the Israelites: to’a’vat Adonai Elohekha hu (“it is abhorrent to the Lord your God”). It is clear that what is abhorrent to God is the activity of worshiping other gods. Torah dismisses the idols and images of the people of Canaan as meaningless objects; it is their worship that offends God. Proverbs 6:16-19 tells us: Six things the Lord hates; seven are an abomination (to’evah) to him: a haughty bearing, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a mind that hatches evil plots, feet quick to run to evil, a false witness testifying lies, and one who incites brothers to quarrel. Each of these is learned and volitional -- either immoral acts in themselves or leading to immoral acts.

What then is the to’evah in Leviticus 18:22? It has only recently (in the span of human history) been widely acknowledged that homosexuals are homosexual from birth. It is not a “choice” to become homosexual any more than it is a choice to become heterosexual. Leviticus 18:22 does not condemn homosexuality as an innate component of one’s biology. If it did, we would expect to find a similar prohibition against lesbian eroticism, but there is none in Hebrew Scripture. Yet Leviticus 18:22 does condemn a particular act. What is that act?

Many interpreters have offered the opinion that Leviticus 18:22 prohibits anal intercourse between men. (See, for example the commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 692, edited by Eskenazi and Weiss, and the responsum authored by Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner for the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee for Jewish Law and Standards.) I am inclined to accept this interpretation and add that as I read it, the prohibition is limited to one sexual act, and one sexual act alone: penetration. But I am not comfortable stopping there, because the Torah describes it most particularly as mishk’vei isha - as one lies with a woman. The entirety of Chapter 18 is addressed to men and all the sexual partners they might take. The problem with taking a male sexual partner is not homosexuality, but rather that a man puts another man in the position of being a woman: the weaker, inferior partner who lacks male prerogatives in a patriarchal society. I note that Leviticus 20:13 condemns both to death. Why would this be? The man who receives, and the man who penetrates, both participate in emasculating the receiver, in confusing the separation between male and female that is so strongly emphasized in Genesis chapter 1 and throughout Torah, which is often occupied with classifying and categorizing plant and animal species, and which time and again expresses concern over the blurring or crossing of these boundaries.

Now, in the 21st century, we should ask: Does a homosexual relationship demean one partner? Clearly the answer is no. Am I dancing out on the edge of a limb with this approach? Consider this: Many congregations still prohibited women from receiving aliyot and reading Torah because of this teaching in the Babylonian Talmud:

Our rabbis taught: All may be numbered among the seven [who are called to the Torah on Shabbat for aliyot] -- even a minor and even a woman. But the Sages said: A woman may not read from the Torah on account of k’vod ha-tzibbur (the dignity of the congregation). (Megillah 23a)

Women should be permitted to bless and read the Torah in public, but k’vod ha-tzibbur, the dignity of the community mitigates against it; in other words, women may not have aliyot or read Torah lest men be embarrassed that a woman can read Torah while they cannot. That is a social situation that no longer pertains. In a world where men are taught by female professors in college, and use female doctors, lawyers, and consultants, we need not worry that their dignity will be impinged upon by a woman blessing or reading Torah. In the same way, the Torah’s apparent concern about a man being put in the “position of a woman” no longer pertains either.

I will not dignify the claim that homosexuality is “unnatural” with a response, but there is one objection that is worth considering, and it is found in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 51a). Ben Kappara drashes to’evah as to'eh atah vah (“you stray thereby”), an interpretation based entirely on the sounds in the word. Rashi and Tosafot explain that a man who devotes all his energy and attention to a sexual relationship with another man may abandon his wife and family. This would have dire consequences for the family and the community. Here, too, there is no problem because homosexual couples can, if they choose, establish households and raise families, participating in the life of the community and blessing it with their presence.

My personal view is that the government should get out of the business of marriage altogether. Government should do no more than register civil unions. Let religious and other groups define marriage in any way they like, and confer whatever status and ceremony they choose on the couple. Meanwhile, let us welcome families -- whether homosexual or heterosexual -- into our communities and support them all in their endeavor to enjoy the blessing of marriage, raise the next generation, and contribute to society.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Samaritan version of Leviticus

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Interpretation: "truth" and consequences / Tazria-Metzora

Among those who didn’t need to be attentive in physics class because they know how the universe really works:
  • Pat Robertson blamed the devastating tsunami that rocked Japan on homosexuals.
  • Numerous Christian clergy found it necessary to tell us that Hurricane Katrina was “God’s judgment” against an “evil city.” Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, pronounced Hurricane Katrina, ”God's punishment for President Bush's support of the August 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip.” Numerous Christian clergy in the United States agreed.
  • And it’s not just natural disasters: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and considered a scholar of Islam, pronounced, “Throughout history, Allah has sent people to the Jews to punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was orchestrated by Adolf Hitler."
Do Pat Robertson, Ovadia Yosef, and Yusaf Al-Qaradawi have a pipeline to God? Do messages from God arrive in their inbox? Where does such an arrogant, self-righteous theology come from? It derives from the dark pits of their own souls, not from holy texts. All holy texts must be interpreted -- indeed there is no text that is not interpreted -- and interpretation means there are options. Every interpretation is a choice and those who promulgate them need to consider the ramifications of their interpretations, indeed every religious idea they put forth. The claim to unassailable and irrefutable "divine truth" -- closed to rational and ethical scrutiny -- is no longer morally acceptable. This week’s Torah portions provide a fine example.

We read the combined parshiot of Tazria and Metzora in Leviticus this week.

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scale affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus 13:2)
This is the dreaded “leprosy" Torah portion. Please don’t dread it -- I’m hoping you won’t by the end of this drash. It’s worth mentioning that it’s not about leprosy at all. It’s about tzara’at, and that’s not the same thing. Tzara’at includes any of a number of skin conditions, visible and therefore easy to spot.

There are two Jewish paths of interpretation that we’ll examine here. The first is awful and the second is wonderful.

The first finds expression in tractate Arakhin (15, 16) of the Babylonian Talmud:
Rabbi Yossi Ben Zimra said: Whoever speaks gossip - tzara'at infections come upon him… Reish Lakish said [quoting Torah]: This shall be the ritual for a metzora [person afflicted with tzara’at] - this shall be the ritual for the motzi shem ra (gossiper).
The Rabbis here make a connection between the metzora (the afflicted person) and motzi shem ra (one who gossips) -- purely because they sound similar. In other words, tzara’at is a punishment for engaging in gossip, a variation of “you’re being punished for your sins.” The mysterious tzara’at -- which has no discernable cause, and comes and goes in an equally mysterious fashion -- is taken to be a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady.
This idea is expressed elsewhere. On the communal level, Deuteronomy is filled with this theology: God punishes the people if they violate the Covenant, and rewards them if they adhere to it. On the individual level, Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite, witnessing Job’s suffering and knowing all the disasters that befell him, says, Think now, what innocent man ever perished? Where have the upright been destroyed? As I have seen, those who plow evil and sow mischief reap them (Job 4:7-8).

As important as it is to condemn gossip, this is an unfortunate way to do it because it also condemns every person who suffers as a sinner punished by the hand of God. It is a cruel and judgmental theology. It is human concerns about “fairness” and punishment projected onto God.

A second and far more honest and compassionate option, derives from Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5 (46a). The context for this mishnah is important: the discussion concerns how to deal with the executed body of a criminal. Here’s someone whose moral behavior actually did bring on his suffering. Rabbi Meir, reflecting on this human suffering and degradation, tells us,
When a person is in pain, what does the Shechinah [God’s divine presence] say? “It is My own head that aches; it is My own arm that hurts." If God is grieved over the blood of the wicked that is shed, how much more so over the blood of the righteous.” (Sanhedrin 46a)
Rabbi Meir is saying that God is not responsible for human suffering. In fact, God suffers right along with us.

This is how I understand the discussion of the metzora. Human suffering requires a human response. What should that be? For an answer, we turn back to our parashah and two find two pearls of wisdom.

The first pearl: Torah does not recognize a sharp line between what is religious and what is medical; they are intertwined and inform one another. Modern science has come to realize this truth: mind and body are not separate entities at all.

The second pearl: Torah describes in detail how a priest comes to investigate a report of tzara’at. If the person is found to have tzar’at, he or she is isolated from the community for seven days (no doubt out of fear it is contagious). After seven days, a priest makes another examination. Throughout the person’s ordeal, a priest comes to him regularly. The priest, who is the most esteemed and authoritative person in the community, ministers personally to the sufferer. The priest’s presence may well have been healing. Presence is a powerful healer. With Rabbi Meir’s radical insight into God’s experience of human suffering, consider this: Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (Nefesh Ha-Hayyim 2:11) said that healing happens when we realized that God suffers with us. It is not only the priest who visits the afflicted; God is there too.

God does not cause suffering. God is not in the suffering. God is in the healing. God is in the power invested in each of us to mitigate the suffering of another.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, April 13, 2012

Too many trees here - where's the forest? / Shemini

What do Mickey Mantle, John Elway, Kevin Johnson, and Phil Esposito have in common? It’s not their sport. It’s the number on their jerseys: 7. The number seven pops up everywhere. If you’re a mathematician, 7 is a double Mersenne prime. If you’re a historian, the Seven Hills of Rome or the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World may come to mind. Literature lovers: Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. James Bond is agent 007 (shaken, not stirred). And perhaps most importantly, in the seven Harry Potter books, students study for seven years at Hogwarts; there are seven secret passages leading out of Hogwarts, and Harry Potter sports a 7 on his Quidditch jersey. In Jewish tradition, seven is the number of creation because the world was created in seven days, rest being an integral part of creating (workaholics take note).

The Israelites have just spent seven days celebrating the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as priests. These seven days brought the Tabernacle -- nexus of heaven and earth -- into operation.

Now it is the eighth day. We speak far less often about eight. In Genesis, the eighth day is the first day of a completed creation. A boy is circumcised on his eighth day; bringing him into the Covenant on the eighth day completes him. Eight is the number of completion.

Parshat Shemini begins:
On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel… (Leviticus 9:1).
What happens on the first day of the completed Tabernacle?
Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down from making the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of wellbeing. (Leviticus 9:22)
Aaron blesses the people, and after that offers the sacrifices

The Rabbis, however, pick up on an ambiguity in the Hebrew. They suggest (in b.Megillah 18a) that we can read Leviticus 9:22 to say: Aaron blesses the people, having stepped down from the altar where he made the sacrifices; which is to say that Aaron makes the sacrifices first, and only afterward blesses the people.

Does it matter which Aaron does first: bless the people, or offer the sacrifices? I think it does. It’s a matter of setting thoughtful and intentional priorities. Aaron’s orientation is toward the people. He performs the sacrifices on their behalf and for their welfare. The people come first; ritual comes second in service of the people.

Judaism is action and ritual oriented. We do Jewish. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen has studied the American Jewish community for more than four decades. He recently wrote that the term “Jewish identity” is outmoded and freighted with baggage. Cohen prefers “Jewish engagement” or “Jewish involvement.” Engagement and involvement are about doing.

Prioritizing doing above meaning carries the danger that doing can become an end in itself, a higher priority than the religious meaning of the ritual.

Parshat Shemini also includes the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). They are clearly spelled out. The Rabbis expanded them, innovating the complete separation of milk and meat that includes plates, flatware, and cooking utensils. But it didn’t stop there. Over the generations, more and more restrictions have been added until we reached a level so absurd it is almost laughable -- almost. When tiny crustaceans called copepods, which are largely invisible to the naked eye, were discovered in New York City tap water in 2004, several rabbis from Brooklyn declared water from the faucet treife. Families were scrambling to install water filters costing upwards of $1500, or purchasing pricy bottled water. Did they really believe that keeping God’s covenant requires this? Is this the purpose of kashrut, to foster an endless raging river of restrictions? The rules have taken on a life of their own. Can’t see the forest for the trees.
For me, the purpose of kashrut is to provide a distinctly Jewish means of reminding myself that everything -- even the seemingly mundane and animalistic activity of eating -- can be sanctified. Kashrut is also a means to identify with Jews through time and space.

We have recently celebrated Pesach, and that provides yet another example. We clean away the chametz. Of course it’s impossible to find every crumb, so tradition provides a formula to recite the evening before Pesach begins, that declares any inadvertently remaining chametz to be as dust. The Rabbis knew that it is impossible to remove every speck. Reasonable and sensible. There needs to be a limit. Yet there are people who not only change over all their pots and dishes, but actually swap out their kitchen counters and take an acetylene torch to their ovens! By the time you have cleaned to this degree -- and there’s still the shopping and cooking to do! -- how can you have the time or spiritual energy to contemplate the meaning of Pesach in your life? Short of swapping out kitchen counters and lighting acetylene torches, there are people who refuse a cup of tea at a friend’s or matza brei until the eighth day. Ironically, prioritizing ritual over meaning makes us slaves to ritual for a festival that celebrates our redemption from slavery. So consumed with trees, it’s possible to miss the forest.

Ritual serves a purpose. It’s an expression of meaning, a means to bringing people together, a way to sanctify the mundane. But it was never an end in itself.

It’s all about priorities. What’s most important? Aaron has it right: blessing the people comes first, because the sacrifices are for their sake. Ritual that serves people is wonderful; ritual that enslaves them is not.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, April 2, 2012

Asking the right questions makes all the difference / Pesach

Have you ever had an MRI? If so, you have Isador Rabi, Nobel laureate in physics, to thank. Rabi, the son of poor immigrants, reported that his mother made him a scientist. Every day when he returned home from school, rather than ask (as most mothers did), “What did you learn today?” Rabi’s mother asked, “Izzy, did you ask any good questions?”
At Passover family gatherings around the globe this week, the youngest child stood -- often on a chair -- and recited the Four Questions. Adults applauded approvingly, and the Passover seder proceeded for hours discussing, debating, and answering those questions and others generated along the way as we relive Redemption in an effort to bring it about. As a youngster, I wondered why asking the Four Questions -- written in the haggadah, learned by rote, and repeated verbatim every year -- figured so prominently in the seder service. As an adult, the reason is clear: Asking questions is as vitally important for Redemption as it is to science. Questioning is the beginning of wisdom.

Knowledge, progress and redemption depend upon our having the wisdom to ask the right questions.

The Catholic Church has announced that providing health insurance that covers the cost of contraceptives is a violation of its religious beliefs, since Catholic doctrine opposes the use of birth control. The religious beliefs and commitments of the people who happen to work at Catholic institutions (schools and hospitals, for example) is immaterial to them. The right of their employees to make personal health care decisions privately according to their own consciences and religious commitments -- a right afforded by the Constitution -- is similarly irrelevant to them. This is a hot button topic in the news as the country debates the Affordable Care Act. Here are questions to ask: Where in all this debate is discussion about health insurance providing vasectomies? Why is male birth control not being discussed? And if it’s not, then the issue is not really birth control.

Many conservatives have voiced vociferous opposition to abortion. The rhetoric has gotten pretty nasty. We’ve seen demonstrations, accusations, even attacks on clinics and physicians. Here are questions to ask: Have you seen any of those so vehemently opposed to abortion campaigning for safe, effective, and available contraception? Have you seen any of them lining up to adopt unwanted babies? If not, then the issue is not really abortion.

So here’s my question: What is the real agenda of those who would deny women their constitutional rights to contraception and abortion services? It’s not about when life begins, or the rights of a fetus, or what “be fertile and increase” means. It’s about a full-throttle regressive effort in America at the beginning of the 21st century to return to a time when men, and not women, had command of women’s bodies and procreation.
Clearly, both men and women are affected by the availability of safe contraception and abortion, but certainly not equally. Birth control and abortion have empowered women to make choices that have enabled them to move into the public sphere, wielding influence and power.

The spectacle of an all-male clergy panel appearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the contraceptive coverage rule is not merely shocking; it’s alarming and shameful.
Have we stepped into a perverse time machine and returned to an age in which male clerics -- some of whom were celibate! -- made life decisions about women’s bodies? From all appearances, that is the direction many would like to move. We’ll need to rewrite the lyrics for the Weather Girls’ 1982 hit, “It’s Raining Men.” The new version will be entitled, “It’s Reigning Men.”

Redemption is the singularly most important message of Passover. We re-enact our ancestors' redemption to remind ourselves that however bad things get redemption is possible. It is possible to rise from a place of vulnerability, weakness, and suffering, to a place of strength and healing. The Egyptians controlled the bodies and productivity of the Israelite slaves. It is time -- alas, still -- to redeem women’s rights over their own bodies and reproduction.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman