Saturday, December 22, 2012

Do we want a rootin' tootin' gun-totin' nation? / Vayechi

The Book of Genesis closes out with this observation: Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were likewise born upon Joseph’s knees… Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years…. (Genesis 50:23, 26) The Psalmist equates living to see your grandchildren with living a full and blessed life. May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you… live to see your children’s children… (Psalm 128:5,6) The author of Proverbs (traditionally attributed to King Solomon) concurs: Grandchildren are the crown of their elders... (Proverbs 17:6) Joseph life was filled with wealth, power, and success, but also with tumult, pain, and sorrow. His life ends, however, with blessing: he lives to see his grandchildren from both sons, Ephraim and Manasseh.

We are all consumed with thoughts and emotions concerning the massacre at Sandy Point Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Among the 26 victims are 20 children. I think of all that they will never do or become. I think of their families who will not see them grow up, who will never dance at their weddings. We generally think that if we do not live to see grandchildren, it is because we grownups didn’t live long enough, not because the children were murdered at such a tender age.

Does it take the deaths of 26 people – 20 of whom are young children – for us to wake up to the crucial need for gun control reform? And if not, how many more will be massacred before we outlaw assault weapons, large ammunition clips, military bullets, and insist on background checks for all purchasers of fire arms? Can even the staunchest pro-gun people argue that anyone needs a Bushmaster that shoots 30 bullets in 15 seconds, or with modifications, in 3 seconds?

Now we are subjected to the perverse spectacle of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre calling on Congress to assigned armed police officers to every school in America. (Slate estimates this would cost $5.5 billion per year.) Not tougher gun laws, LaPierre predictably exhorted, but guns inside schools. At a press conference, he said: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” His twisted reasoning goes like this: "We must speak for the safety of our nation's children. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses, even sports stadiums, are all protected by armed security. We care about our president, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents. Members of Congress works in offices surrounded by Capitol police officers, yet when it comes to our most beloved innocent and vulnerable members of the American family – our children – we as a society leave them every day utterly defenseless. And the monsters and the predators of the world know it and exploit it."

What a warped perspective. But wait, it gets worse. All over the country, gun aficionados are popping up to recommend that teachers be trained in firearms and bring guns to school. Within days of the shooting, there was an attempt in Michigan to pass legislation permitting gun owners with additional training to carry firearms onto school property. Are those who propose this craziness not familiar with friendly fire, human error, and the possibility that those who carry firearms might, themselves, become embroiled in a difficult and highly emotional life situation, and lose control? To me this is sheer insanity. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, the American Federation of Teachers agreed.

Sen. Diane Feinstein of California responded succinctly and sanely: "Should we have a conversation about school security? Yes. Should we have a conversation about mental illness and the culture of violence? Yes. But we can't ignore the common denominator in all of these deadly massacres: Access, easy access to killing machines.”

May we all live to enjoy the blessing of grandchildren, not only because we live long enough to bounce them as babies on our knees and to dance at their weddings, but because they live long, full lives, as well. Perhaps that is one reason we bless our children each Shabbat through Jacob’s precious grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh:

On that day Jacob blessed them, he said, "In time to come, Israel (the Jewish people) will use you as a blessing. They will say, 'May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20)

May our children grow to become like Ephraim and Manasseh, and like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. May they grow to adulthood in health and happiness, and live full lives and see their grandchildren come into the world. May they inherit from us not a world that is increasingly becoming an armed fortress, but rather a world of greater peace and tranquility. Do we truly value human lives? Our platitudes are meaningless in the face of lax gun control regulations that make a mockery of our nation’s claim to respect the sanctity of human life. We may talk the talk, but now it is time to walk the walk.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, December 17, 2012

Really? / Vayigash

Yet another despicable case of child sexual abuse in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community (in this case, the Satmars of Brooklyn). Nechemya Weberman is charged with 88 count of sexual abuse and misconduct for forcing a girl, who came to him for spiritual counseling, into engaging in oral sex and acting out porn films. The abuse began when the girl was 12 years old. This case features the usual disgraceful and shameful features we have come to recognize among such obsessively insular groups: the community harassed and threatened the victim’s family when they reported the abuse to civil authorities, the father’s business went under, and the family was shunned.  The community threw the full weight of its support in favor of Weberman, even raised funds for his defense.

We’ve heard this trop before. This much is repugnant enough. As the commercials say, “But wait, there’s more!” Weberman’s defense attorneys have spun the story to paint Weberman the victim, and the girl an angry, vindictive child who is furious because Weberman told her parents she had a boyfriend when she was 15. Defense Attorney George Farkas is reported in the Washington Post as saying, “There was only one answer [to explain why the girl accused Weberman of sexual abuse]. Vengeance and revenge against Nechemya Weberman, and through this, to bring down the entire community.”

Really? A young girl — raised in a nearly hermetically sealed environment — seeks vengeance against not only one man, but an entire community, not because she was sexually molested, of course (since the defendant denies he is guilty) but because he told her parents she had a boyfriend. Really?

Prof. Ian McKee is a social psychologist at Adelaide University in Australia. He asked: Why do some people seek revenge while others do not? It turns out, not so surprisingly, that our social attitudes determine our vengeful tendencies.[1] He tells us, “People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status. They don’t want to lose face… [they] tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values.”

“Motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status.” Does that sound like an apt description of this young girl? Hardly. She and her family took an enormous risk in reporting the abuse to the civil authorities, and they have suffered as they must have realized they would.

Let’s consider now Joseph, who is in a situation that could entail seeking revenge. This week’s parashah opens with an impassioned speech by Judah, imploring his brother Joseph not to extract revenge on the brothers by imprisoning their youngest brother, Benjamin, because that would break their father, Jacob’s, heart. In 17 verses, Judah mentions their “father” no fewer than 14 times. When Judah stops talking, Joseph is speechless.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Genesis 45:1-2)

Joseph does an immediate about-face. Realizing that the imprisonment he has visualized for Benjamin is little different from what his brothers did to him in throwing him in the pit, he changes course. Remember what Prof. McKee said? Vengeful people tend to be “motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status.” Joseph — not the girl in Brooklyn — fits this model. Yet Joseph forgives his brothers:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you… So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, the ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4-5, 7)

Why does Joseph drop his sweet dream of revenge? What’s going on here? After all, research scientists Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and Brian Knutson of Stanford University have demonstrated, using PET scans that measure blood flow through the brain, that people experience satisfaction, and even greater degrees of cooperation with others, when they mete out “altruistic revenge.”[2] And perhaps there is a sweet taste, but it is transitory.

In the longer term — beyond the immediate moment of revenge — does extracting revenge make us feel better? If the goal is catharsis, revenge is a dead end. Dr. Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate University, along with Daniel Gilbert of Harvard and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia concocted a game in which groups of people were convinced to invest in something equally, but the secret experimenter in each group defected and earned nearly twice the amount everyone else in the group did.[3] Some groups were given the opportunity to spend money to take revenge against the defector and virtually everyone offered the opportunity for revenge took it. After all was said and done, the feelings of all the participants were surveyed and the results may surprise you. Here it is in a nutshell, and it’s fascinating: those who had engaged in punishing revenge felt worse, although they had expected to feel better; those who hadn’t engaged in revenge thought they would have felt better had they been given the opportunity for revenge, but ended up happier than their revenge-taking peers.

Dr. Carlsmith suggests that what’s at play is how we spin the importance of the initial event that inspired thoughts of revenge. If we cannot take revenge, we devalue the significance of the triggering event. (Remember Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes?) However, if we do take revenge, the importance of the event becomes inflated in our minds and, as Carlsmith put it, “Rather than providing closure, [revenge] does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh.” Or, as John Milton (1608-1674) expressed it: “He that studieth revenge keepeth his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.”

Perhaps Joseph encapsulates the wisdom of the 19th century humorist, Henry Wheeler Shaw, who quipped, “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”

So the next time we are provoked into contemplating revenge, we might do well to remember Joseph and Kevin Carlsmith and Henry Wheeler Shaw: In the short term revenge may be sweet, but in the long term it leaves a pretty sour aftertaste. Want revenge? Go ahead and forgive; you’ll have the upper hand.

But what about the girl in Brooklyn? She is now married and turned 18 this month. Clearly, when the accusation was made to the authorities, she had neither the profile of one who seeks revenge, nor the means to revenge. She had everything to lose and nothing to win. George Farkas’ contention that she seeks revenge against Weberman and the entire community is ludicrous. Really.

But if Shaw and Milton are correct, should she forgive the man she says abused her repeatedly over several years? Given that he is in denial, expresses no remorse, and has not offered an apology, forgiveness is not now on the table. This is a different case. Joseph was in a position of safety and strength; she is most decidedly not. Given that, it appears that the defendant’s attorney’s attempt to present the accused as the victim, and the child as the vengeful fabulist, is pathetic and contemptible. If the court sees fit to vindicate the girl and send Weberman to jail, we can rejoice that he will no longer be able to molest children. But that’s not vengeance. That’s justice. Really.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Social Justice Research, vol. 138, no. 2, May 2008.
[2] Science, August 2004.
[3] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no. 6., May 2008.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Above, beyond, within — it’s all the same / Miketz-Chanukah

Recently, an acquaintance told me of someone he knew who suffered an indescribably excruciating loss: her child died of cancer. “My friend was so angry with God,” he told me, “that she decided not to believe in God any more. So now she is an atheist because she’s angry with God.” She was angry with the God she didn’t believe exists?

In a similar vein, in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, when Yossarian accuses God of being a clumsy, bumbling incompetent, Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screams at Yossarian to stop.

“What the hell are you getting so upset about?” [Yossarian] asked her bewilderedly in a tone of contrite amusement. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I don’t,” she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.

When I heard the story of the woman who rejected God in the wake of the terrible lost her child I thought: How sad that this woman was engaged in an emotional war against God, who didn’t cause her child’s death and could not have prevented it. As a result, she could not turn to God for strength and solace when she most needed comfort.

Our ancestors described God in very human terms: Torah speaks of God’s hands and mouth, anger and love. The God of the Torah is both anthropomorphic (at times taking the form of a human being) and anthropopathic (possessing human emotions). As the Rabbis later said, Torah speaks in the language of human beings. The metaphors of the Torah are our ancestors’ way to explain their experience of the divine.

We all need to believe in something beyond ourselves. We need to be part of something bigger and grander, something meaningful and enduring. God — however each of us chooses to conceive God — fulfills that need. God endows us with value in this fabulously and frighteningly vast universe where we might otherwise think ourselves insignificant. God — however we envision or experience the Divine — affirms our holiness, our free will, and our capacity for good.

And we’re not alone. Even Pharaoh needed God. Yes, the pharaoh of Egypt who believed himself to be god and whose people worshipped him as god, needed God — that which is beyond even him.

Joseph is brought out of Potiphar’s dungeon to interpret the dreams of an agitated and distraught Pharaoh. Dreams of cows and corn, first healthy and full followed by gaunt and scrawny specimens that devour the robust. Clearly these are dreams fraught with meaning, and Pharaoh is frantic to unlock their secret. Joseph rescues him from his anxiety by explaining that Egypt will enjoy seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine so severe, the excess and stockpiles of the first seven years will run out quickly.

“Accordingly [Joseph advises Pharaoh], let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom, and set him over the land of Egypt. And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. Let all the food of these good years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected under Pharaoh’s authority as food to be stored in the cities. Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.” (Genesis 41:33-36)

Pharaoh, pleased with Joseph’s sage advice, turns to his courtiers and asks, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” (v. 38) What an astonishing question! Pharaoh attributes to Joseph ruach Elohim, “the spirit of God”? But isn’t Pharaoh himself the god of Egypt?

There is more:

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you.” (Genesis 41:39)

Pharaoh recognizes God as the source of wisdom, a wisdom far superior to his own or that of his wise men, magicians, and courtiers.

And even more: Pharaoh confers on Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah, which the JPS translation understands to be Egyptian for “God speaks; he lives” or “creator of life.”

Even Pharaoh needs God. This does not mean that we must adopt at face value the image of God or the litany of beliefs about God expressed in Hebrew Scripture. Truth is, there are many contradictions even within the text itself. But we, no less than our ancestors, and no less than our children and grandchildren, need to believe in something beyond ourselves, something that lends immediate purpose and enduring meaning to our lives, something that makes each of us holy. That “something” is God.

The Maccabees did not hold to the biblical view of God. They did not expect God to wage war on the Syrians, or fight their battles for them. They did not wait for God to lead them into war, a pillar of cloud or fire. They credited God after the fact with their victory, but it is clear that they understood God to have inspired their courage and perseverance. The apocryphal book of Second Maccabees is composed of two letters; the language is formal and formulaic:

Those in Jerusalem and those in Judea and the senate and Judas,
To Aristobulus, who is of the family of the anointed priests, teacher of Ptolemy the king, and to the Jews in Egypt, greeting, and good health. Having been saved by God out of grave dangers we thank Him greatly for taking our side against the king. For He drove out those who fought against the holy city. (II Maccabees 1:10-12)

When we use language to describe a subjective emotional or spiritual experience, or to convey complex ideas, we employ imaginative metaphors — there is no other way to express ourselves through language. Religious language is poetry, capturing both the heights to which our lives and souls soar, and the depths to which we sadly descend. To say God is “above” or “beyond” is no different than to say that God is “within.” Each is a metaphor. We can speak of God as “He” or “parent” or “ruler” when we intend the life force of the universe, the animating power of existence, or the totality of the universe. We need our minds and imaginations to catch wing on the poetry of religious God-talk, not become stuck in the quagmire of “literalism” that reduces grand and glorious conceptualizations to paltry and impoverished pictures.

It is imperative that we not permit certain fundamentalist and socially conservative elements of our society to claim a monopoly on the term “God” and the right to define and interpret God for us all. In essence, they are claiming to own a copyright to God — only they know what God said, wrote, and meant. Even Pharaoh doesn’t do that. Their copyright on God then entitles them to impose their will — neatly attributed to God, of course! — on others, on us. It is time to say “No more!” to this insulting and insidious game.

 Happy Chanukah!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, December 7, 2012

Whatever were the Rabbis thinking? / Chanukah

Here is the narrative I was taught about the terse and enigmatic pronouncement concerning Chanukah in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud): The Rabbis would have preferred to have expunged Chanukah from the Jewish liturgical lexicon and practice for two reasons: First, because the war that Chanukah commemorates was a civil war between assimilated Jews who were more than willing to trade their national identity and practices to blend into the Greco-Roman world, and anti-assimilationists. Second, the Rabbis were pacifists and abhorred the idea of celebrating even the victorious outcome of a war. So the Rabbis chose not to tell the history of Chanukah — according to the narrative — and instead concocted a cute little story about a cruse of oil that miraculously lasted eight times as long as expected to serve as a symbol of the miracle of Jewish survival. Problem is: there is no evidence the Rabbis hated Chanukah (arguments from silence are notoriously weak), and they were certainly not pacifists. Judaism is a peace-loving tradition, but not a pacifistic one; there are times when fighting a war is necessary, and there is no question that the war of the Maccabees was one of those times.

Rather than speaking from silence, I want to explore with you the textual legacy of our Sages and try to explicate their wisdom for us. The passage in question comes from the masechet (tractate) Shabbat 21b. My commentary is interpolated:

Our Rabbis taught: The commandment of Chanukah requires one light per household; the zealous kindle a light for each member of the household; and the extremely zealous -- Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced [by one each day]; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. Ulla said: In the West [Eretz Yisrael] two amoraim, R. Yose b. Abin and R. Yose b. Zevida, differ concerning this: one maintains, the reasoning of Bet Shammai is that it should correspond to the days still to come, and that of Bet Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone. But another maintains: Bet Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival [of Tabernacles; i.e. Sukkot], while Bet Hillel's reason is that we increase in matters of sanctity but do not reduce. Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There are two old men in Sidon: one did as Bet Shammai and the other as Bet Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to the bullocks of the Festival, while the latter stated his reason because we promote in [matters of] sanctity but do not reduce.

The choice between increasing lights (Bet Hillel) and decreasing lights (Bet Shammai) mirrors our sense of holiness: are we looking back at what was but is now lost, or to the future and what can be?

The argument between the schools of Hillel and Shammai — one among dozens in the Talmud — concerns the mechanics of lighting the chanukkiah (Chanukah menorah). The reason for their different schema is what is important, and the more significant difference is the anonymous opinion given last: For Bet Shammai the candles mirror the Sukkot sacrifices that would have been made at the appropriate time in the Temple had not the Syrians overrun and defiled it.

Why Sukkot sacrifices? By the time the Israelites reclaimed the Temple, it had been three years since the Jews had been able to bring sacrifices. Sukkot was the most recent festival they had missed (nearly 2-½ months before). The Sukkot sacrifices were crucially important both because of the expressions of thanksgiving for the harvest expressed during Sukkot, and also because of the prayers for winter rain that commence during Sukkot in the Land of Israel would hopefully insure a robust harvest in the coming year.

For Bet Hillel, the candles are about holiness, not sacrifices. The Syrians threatened the entire Jewish enterprise. Had they succeeded, Israel — like so many other small Semitic nations at the time — would have been wiped from the map, if not from history. Were that to have happened, the Jewish mission would have ended then and there. A tradition that teaches the sanctity of every human being, and the spiritual value of sanctifying time, events, and relationships — and ultimately, everything — would have been lost.

By the time this passage was written in Babylonia, the destruction of the Second Temple had happened several centuries before. For the Rabbis who recount the disagreement between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, the Temple is long gone, and although they prayed and longed for its rebuilding, and composed prayers and structured prayer services to replace the sacrifices, they understood their true situation: the Temple will not be rebuilt for a long time. In favoring Hillel’s scheme, the Rabbis chose to identify the candles with the Temple lamps and ner tamid, symbols of the eternal relationship between God and Israel, rather than with sacrifices of the past. The message of the candles points ahead to the Jewish People’s future and Judaism’s purpose rather than back.  We increase in sanctity; we don’t decrease. Judaism, they are telling us, is not an ancient relic; it is a living, breathing, vibrant tradition that teaches us to bring holiness into the world, and carries us through whatever the future brings our way. The Rabbis thereby transform Chanukah from a festival of nostalgia into a celebration of the holiness we can yet bring into the world in the future.

Our Rabbis taught: It is incumbent to place the Chanukah lamp by the door of one's house on the outside; if one dwells in an upper chamber, place it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to place it on the table. Raba said: Another lamp is required for its light to be used; yet if there is a blazing fire it is unnecessary. But in the case of an important person, even if there is a blazing fire another lamp is required.

Placing a chanukkiah in the window publicizes the miracle of Chanukah — reminding everyone of the crucial importance of religious freedom. We need religious freedom now as much as ever.

Allen D. Hertzke writes in The Future of Religious Freedom: Global Challenges (Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 292): “I divide civilizations into two groups: open civilizations and closed civilizations. An open civilization does not see itself as the only civilization. It respects other civilizations and supports a world order where multiple civilizations can coexist. In contrast, a closed civilization sees itself as the only true civilization and tries to eliminate all other cultures to establish a world order with a single dominant civilization.” The Hellenists constructed a closed civilization. They outlawed Shabbat, circumcision, and kashrut in their quest to expunge Jewish particularity from their empire.

Religious freedom is crucial for an open civilization and only an open civilization can guarantee human rights and support democracy. The crucial importance of religious freedom cannot be overstated. Placing the chanukkiah — with its attention-getting flames blazing in the darkness — in a visible, public location, trumpets the message of religious freedom.

Peter, Paul, and Mary got it right in “Light One Candle,” their beautiful tribute to Chanukah. Here is the first verse:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children
With thanks their light didn't die;
Light one candle for the pain they endured
When their right to exist was denied;
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand;
And light one candle for the wisdom to know
That the peacemaker's time is at hand!

The Rabbis give us the barest and briefest summary of the history of the war.

What is the reason for Chanukah? For our Rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev begin the days of Chanukah, which are eight, during which lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils in it, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they [the Hasmoneans] searched and found only one cruse of oil which possessed the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient oil for only one day's lighting; yet a miracle occurred there and they lit [the lamp] for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recitation of Hallel and thanksgiving.

The Maccabees did not choose particularity over universalism; they combined the two. Jewish vibrancy, dynamism, and success require careful and thoughtful compromise: we cannot live alone and apart from the rest of the world, but neither should we absorb practices and values that dilute the best of Jewish ethics and spirituality. Our goal should be to absorb the best of the wisdom available and adapt it to Jewish tradition.

The Syrians defiled the Temple, the most sacred place in the world for Jews. They tore down the altar, splattered pig’s blood around, and desecrated scrolls of Torah. They erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple precinct. We might think that after such desecration, the Temple could never be redeemed, purified, and sanctified again. But it was. The Maccabees cleaned it out and rededicated the Temple to God; the word Chanukah means “dedication.” The Temple’s purity was restored. The sacred can be defiled, but it remains sacred. A Torah scroll that is pasul (damaged and unusable) does not lose its sanctity; it is buried in sanctified ground, not thrown away. The redemption of the Temple teaches us that we should not regard anything and especially anyone — including ourselves — as beyond redemption. It’s a message we need to hear again and again.

Finally, the Rabbis mention the Hasmoneans, the dynasty that arose from the Maccabees. In the narrative I learned about Chanukah, they were the “true Jewish heroes” who adhered rigorously to Jewish observance, while others were eager to shed it. Therefore, the Maccabees fought not only the Syrians, but also assimilationist Jews allied with the Hellenists. Shades of a civil war. Peter, Paul, and Mary allude to this aspect of Chanukah, as well:

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe;
Light one candle for those who are suff'ring
A pain they learned so long ago;
Light one candle for all we believe in,
That anger not tear us apart;
And light one candle to bind us together
With peace as the song in our heart!

And indeed, we find ourselves today in a situation where segments of the Jewish community deride, devalue, and invalidate others.

However, it is an over-simplification to view the struggle of the Maccabees as being between assimilationist Jews and anti-assimilationist Jews, as if it were all or nothing. That is not historical reality. The Maccabees were neither fully particularistic, nor were they entirely universalistic; they understood the need for balance. Jewish survival requires a compromise between particularism (in the extreme case, clinging to our culture and traditions and shunning all else) and universalism (in the extreme case, swinging the doors wide open and jettisoning everything that is identifiably Jewish). When we bless the Torah at a public reading, we say …she-na-ta b’tocheinu cha-yei olam / Who has implanted within us eternal life. I don’t think this has anything to do with notions of spiritual immortality; I understand this to mean that we, the Jewish People, are eternal. We have survived, and will continue to not only survive but also flourish, because we have adopted and adapted the best of our host cultures, while maintaining our particular traditions and values.

The use of power is a dicey — and unavoidable — component for the survival of a nation. The question is not whether, but how, power is employed.

Liturgically, Chanukah is acknowledged by reciting Hallel and expanding Modim. In addition, a special Haftarah from the book of the prophet Zechariah is designated for the shabbat during Chanukah. Zechariah was among those who, after the Babylonian destruction of 586 B.C.E., under the patronage of Cyrus the Mede, king of Persia, rebuilt the Temple. The passage we read (2:14–4:7) opens with a pronouncement of God’s promise to return to Zion (as God “returned” to the rededicated Temple) and describes the preparation and purification of the High Priest (mirroring the cleaning and purifying of the Temple). The prophet’s vision of the Temple menorah signals the chanukkiah. The Rabbis left us one more salient message by the choice of this Haftarah, which includes these words:

Not by might, and not by power, but by My spirit — said the Lord of Hosts. (4:6)

The single cruse of oil, like the candles we kindle in our chanukkiot, represent not raw human power, grit, and determination, but human strength powered by God’s glory. If we operate from a place that exalts human power alone, every manner of atrocity and horror can and probably will result. But if we operate from a place of God’s spirit — holding close God’s presence in our hearts and minds — then if and when we have to go to war, we will do what we must, but no more. And when we don’t need to go to war, we will avoid it, and at all times pursue peace. Today’s Israeli army is the finest example of a military guided by ethics. No other country discusses, investigates, and worries more about the behavior of its military. Here are a few things to read:
 Let’s let Peter, Paul, and Mary close out this drash.

What is the memory that's valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What's the commitment to those who have died?
We cry out "they've not died in vain,"
We have come this far, always believing
That justice will somehow prevail;
This is the burden, This is the promise,
This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out,
It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears!

You can see and hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing “Light One Candle” here.

Happy Chanukah!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Risking it all / Vayeishev

Our Sages hyperbolically equate the act of humiliating a person in public with murder. Talmud equates it with murder, declares it worse than sexual immorality, and a barrier to olam haba:

A tanna recited before R. Nachman ben Isaac: "He who publicly shames his neighbor, it is as though he shed blood." Whereupon he remarked to him, "You speak the truth, because I have seen [such shaming]-- the ruddiness departing and paleness coming over [the victim]”… Rabbah ben Bar Chana said in R. Yochanan's name: "It is better for a man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than to publicly shame his neighbor"… [David said before God] “…he who publicly puts his neighbor to shame has no portion in the world-to-come." (B.Baba Metzia 58b)

Strong words! For the Sages, human dignity trumps just about everything else. Then how is it that in this same discussion, a woman who prostituted herself -- and seduced her father-in-law with extortion in mind -- becomes the Rabbis’ example of piety, one who was willing to choose death for herself before she would publicly humiliate another?

Mar Zutra ben Tobiah said in Rab's name -- others state, R. Chana ben Bizna said in the name of R. Shimon the Pious -- others again state, R. Yochanan said on the authority of R. Shimon ben Yochai: "Better that a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly shame a neighbor." Whence do we know this? From Tamar, for it is written, ...when she was brought forward, she sent to her father-in-law...(Genesis 38:25)." (B.Baba Metzia 59a)

 The back story: Judah’s firstborn son is Er. Judah marries him off to Tamar, but Er dies before having children, so Judah gives his second-born son, Onan to Tamar according to the law of levirate marriage. Onan refuses to impregnate Tamar:

Then Judah said to Onan, “Join with your brother’s wife and do your duty by her as a brother-in-law, and provide offspring for your brother.” But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother. What he did was displeasing to the Lord, and [God] took his life also.

(And yes, the term onanism, meaning coitus interruptus, derives from this story.)

As the Torah understands levirate marriage, it is Judah’s duty to give his third son, Shelah, to Tamar as a husband, but Judah does not fulfill his obligation because he fears for his son’s life.

Therefore, many years later, Tamar dresses as a harlot and waits along the route Judah will surely take to visit his sheepshearers. Judah takes the bait, but Tamar extracts a pledge for the payment Judah promises: his seal and cord, highly personal items. Tamar conceives and months later, when she was found to be pregnant, Judah says, Bring her out and let her be burned (Genesis 38:24). She is promised to Selah and although Judah has no intension of honoring their betrothal, Tamar is nonetheless about to be accused of adultery. Hypocrisy often knows no bounds.

Here is where the allusion to Tamar made by R. Yochanan (on the authority of R. Shimon ben Yochai) becomes clear. Rather than publicly reveal the identity of the man who impregnated her, Tamar sends the seal and cord to Judah privately, lest she humiliate him before his clan.

Judah recognized [the seal and cord], and said, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38:26)

Tamar chooses her own humiliation, and risks execution, to protect Judah from public humiliation. How many of us could do that?

When we speak of risk today, we are often speaking about financial investments and business ventures. Malcolm Gladwell tells us in “The Sure Thing” (New Yorker, 1/18/2010) that successful entrepreneurs avoid uncertainty and look for “the sure thing.” The image of risk-taking entrepreneurial cowboys is mythical. Warren Buffett has written, “I put a heavy weight on certainty. If you do that, the whole idea of a risk factor doesn't make any sense to me. Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing." (The Warren Buffet Way, 1994)

Outside the business world, risk-taking often involves ethical situations. Tamar knows what she was doing, and it involves an existential risk. Many of us say we would risk our lives to protect our loved ones, but how many of us would risk our lives to prevent another from public humiliation, or for some other ethical principle we cherish?

Tamar gives birth to Perez (Genesis 38:29), the direct ancestor of David (Ruth 4:18-20). King David was the mashiach (anointed one), the original model for our image of the messiah. Tamar is richly rewarded for her courageous, compassionate, and principled risk-taking, yet she has no way of knowing that she is the progenitor of the line of David, and as tradition holds, some day the messiah.

What risks are you willing to take, and for what principles? When would you be willing to risk your own life? While I hope none of us ever truly faces such a situation, it’s something to ponder.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman