Saturday, February 23, 2013

The divine anger-meter / Ki Tissa

How many us who are blessed with children have turned to our partner in a moment of anger or annoyance and said, “Your son…” or “Your daughter…” If we haven’t said it, surely we’ve heard it. Why say “your” rather than “our”?

God, the “cosmic parent,” does this and more. The Lord spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely…” (Exodus 32:7-8). The Israelites have built the Gold Calf, so suddenly the Israelites are Moses’ people, and it is Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt? Not long before it was, And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians (Exodus 6:7).

Why does God now say that it is Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. Perhaps God now regrets that move and wants to disassociate from it. This is another instance among many in Torah of God going from zero to sixty in a millisecond on the Anger-meter in response to something the Israelites do, and what is more, this bout of anger is followed by the threat of utter annihilation.

Israel, in worshiping the Golden Calf, has seemingly rejected God. At least that’s how God sees it. In return, is God to some small degree rejecting them? Is the underlying psychological purpose to distance oneself from the offending child, Israel? Or is it to distance oneself out of anger and resentment, in which case it is punitive in nature?

Perhaps you have observed, as I did when my children were very young, that when I displayed anger, my children were fixated on my emotions rather than their own behavior, and that eclipsed any possibility of holding a productive conversation.

If you peruse a book or website on parenting, you will find this advice: Anger is a biological reaction generated in our amygdala. In the case of children who provoke our anger, we often feel the need to get them under control, but a more appropriate response is to sidestep the amygdala’s input as much as possible, and get ourselves under control first. After all, when our children are fraught with anger, we first help them regain self-control so they can face what caused the anger rationally.  But the whole problem with anger is that we are out of control to some degree, so how are we supposed to do that?

The Rabbis discuss the issue of God’s temper and the danger inherent in God’s anger in b.Berakhot 7. There God visits the High Priest, R. Yishmael b. Elisha, in the Holy of Holies and asks him for help. R. Yishmael gives God a blessing and a prayer to recite in order to get control of his anger.  What’s curious and perhaps even shocking here is that R. Yishmael plays the role of parent, and God (the cosmic parent) plays the role of the child.

A similar role reversal happens in the incident of the Golden Calf in this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa.
The Lord further said to Moses, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
I hear in God’s insertion of “let Me be” a subtle or perhaps masked plea to Moses to, in fact, do the opposite: Don’t let me be. Don’t leave me alone. Don’t let me continue on this path of destruction. Torah continues:
But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. (Exodus 32:11)
Moses has turned God’s words around: they are Your people whom You brought out of Egypt. That is to say: You have a deep and abiding commitment to them, God. Do not distance yourself. Come back.

Moses continues:
Let not the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus 32:12)
Here Moses helps God step back from the divine anger that shrinks God’s view, and take a broader view. What will others think? What will they say? How will God look? And finally, having calmed God down and helped God to think rationally, Moses delivers his final and culminating pièce de résistance — and it does indeed prove irresistible to God:
Turn from Your blazing anger [Moses tells God] and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” (Exodus 32:12-13)
Moses brings God back into emotional proximity with the Israelites and helps God regain a sense of balance. God is now cool, calm and collected.
And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people. (Exodus 32:14)
Moses, like R. Yishmael b. Elisha has taken on the role of the parent calming down the furious child. Here, too, in parshat Ki Tissa, we find a kind of role reversal.

What is the message here for us? Certainly Moses is a role model for us in his ability to help God overcome intense fury and destructive intention. But God, too, is a role model for seeking and accepting help. God doesn’t need to consult Moses. God could wipe out the Israelites with the smite button on his keyboard without ever speaking to Moses. But here, as in the story recounted in b.Berakhot 7, God seeks help and allows another to rescue him from his own inclinations. Can we do the same? Can we do as Moses did for someone else?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, February 18, 2013

The beautiful underbelly of liminal lunacy / Purim

Some years ago, in a Jewish museum, I saw a photograph of villagers in a small town in Eastern Europe dressed in Purim costumes. Not so strange if they were Jews, but they were not. The Jewish population of the town had been utterly decimated during the Holocaust. Not one survived. Yet every year on Purim, the Gentiles of this town don Purim costumes and dance in the streets in commemoration of their lost neighbors, whom they had not made any effort to save. What a bizarre reversal!

I dug through a lot of images to find this one. Striking, isn't it?

But perhaps this is no more bizarre than the holiday of Purim as Jews celebrate it: wearing costumes and masks (often grotesque) to shul, making a cacophonous racket during the reading of scripture, buffoonery and drunken revelry, children taking the places of rabbis and teachers… Does this sound Jewish?

Purim in Jerusalem
Purim reflects the experience of liminality. A liminal moment is one at a boundary or threshold, neither here not there, neither this nor that. Hermes, the Greek god, was liminal, shuttling between Zeus and mortals, mortals and the underworld, the underworld and Zeus; Hermes operated at the boundaries. I recall the summer between high school and college as a liminal period in my life: I was no longer a high school student, but not yet a college student. Moving to a new city throws one into a liminal state. Friends in California described to me their congregation’s search for a new rabbi and it is clear that the entire community is in a period of liminality, betwixt and between.

Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner wrote that during liminal periods social hierarchies are temporarily dissolved or reversed, and the continuity of tradition is unstable and not assured. Normal social relationships, structured hierarchically by power, authority, and status, give way to a period during which social position is not a function of connections and power. This can go in one of two directions: (1) Communitas, which is equality and a leveling of social positions; and (2) Status Inversion, where the powerless become powerful, and those in authority come to have none. Purim is packed, through and through, with inversions and reversals[1]:

  • The Gentile queen is jettisoned and replaced by a Jewish woman.
  • Esther is a Jew, but pretends to be a Gentile, and saves herself not by concealing her identity, but by revealing it.
  • Mordecai saves King Ahasuerus from assassination, but Haman (not Mordecai) is promoted to vizier or prime minister.
  • Haman, the prime minister, must lead Mordecai, the “lowly Jew,” through the city dressed in the king’s robes and riding the royal steed.
  • Haman is hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.
  • Haman’s property (plundered from the Jews) is given over to Mordecai and his position in the palace is reassigned to Mordecai.
  • Haman is, in the end, vanquished by a woman (and a Jewish woman, at that).
  • The true hero — who displays the greatest ingenuity, cunning, and courage — is a woman. Not a man, and not God.

Our celebrations reflect these reversals:
  • Drinking in synagogue is not only allowed, but even encouraged.
  • Noisemaking with groggers — however intolerable — is a must. 
  • Children are permitted to run wild.
  • Male and females often cross-dress (despite the prohibition in Deuteronomy 22:5).
  • To the extent that there is a synagogue service at all, it is often a parody of Jewish prayer (I once rewrote ma’ariv in the style of Dr. Seuss).
  • Leading up to the holiday we share “Purim Torah” — humor that parodies everything and everybody, even Torah, Talmud, and revered scholars and leaders.

Historically, Jews have often been marginal, vulnerable, at the threshold of danger. Liminality has been a prominent feature of our experience in the world. The folk tale quality of The Book of Esther is highly appealing. The evil and powerful enemy is routed. The Jews rise up against their enemies, prevail over them, and even kill a good many. In the end, the Jews end up with Haman’s wealth and authority. What could be better? Raise a glass in celebration!

Purim shpiel

The role of God in Esther is yet another reversal. Throughout Hebrew Scripture, God has the power, calls the shots, and reserves the role of savior. But God is never mentioned in Esther. Human courage and ingenuity win the day, though not without great peril. In several midrashim, the Rabbis attempt to insert God into the story.

A midrash on Psalm 22 paints the scene for us of Esther’s visit to King Ahasuerus’ throne room. The king sits on his throne pining for Vashti, his queen whom he had executed. Note that Esther — at this dangerous and liminal moment — is saved by standing in a liminal location, the fourth of King Ahasuerus’ seven courts.

Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help (Psalm 22:12). When did Esther speak these words? At the time when Ahasuerus decreed to destroy, or slay, and to cause all the Jews to perish (Esther 3:13). At that time, Esther came into the king’s house without permission, as it is said, Esther… stood in the inner court of the king’s house (Esther 5:1). The king had seven courts: Esther went through the first court, the second, and the third. But as she came into the fourth court, Ahasuerus began gnashing his teeth and grinding them in rage, and said, “Oh for those who are gone and cannot be replaced! How I wished and implored the queen Vashti that she come into my presence! And because she would not come, as it is said, But the queen Vashti refused to come (Esther 1:12), I decreed death for her. But this one comes like a harlot without permission!” Since Esther was standing in the middle of the fourth court, however, the guards of the outer courts had no right to lay hands upon her because she had already gone beyond their authority, while the guards of the inner courts had no right to lay hands upon her because she had not yet come into their authority. R. Levi said in the name of R. Hama: It was on account of Esther that David composed a psalm containing prayers in which both creatures above and below praise the Holy One Blessed be God: the psalm beginning Hallelujah, praise You the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the heights (Psalm 148:1) At that moment Esther spoke the words, Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help (Psalm 22:12). (Midrash Tehillim Rabbah 22:24)

Esther’s physical liminality mirrors her existential liminality.  Purim is, in some senses, a colossally crazy celebration of liminality. But we also mark many liminal moments and places with far more sublime rituals. The mezuzot on our doorposts mark the threshold of our houses, the juncture between homes and the outside world: liminality in space. Havdalah marks the boundary between holy and mundane time: liminality in time. Shiva is liminal time between the burial of a loved one and returning to the world; mourners remain sequestered in their homes: liminality in religious status and inner emotions. Standing under the chupah: liminality in social status. And perhaps mikveh is the ultimate liminal ritual. One enters the water in one state and emerges in another — one can even enter a Gentile and emerge a Jew.

Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner and many others (in particular sociologist Arpad Szakolczai) have written about two sides to liminal periods: The ugly underbelly is their inherent danger. The door is open to insidious tricksters and charlatans, charismatic leaders who exploit the moment for their own gain. Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin jump to mind.

The beautiful side is the inherent potential for constructive change during liminal periods. When rigid hierarchies and social structures are dissolved, new possibilities emerge for political, cultural, and religious changes in the malleable, liminal moment. Modern Zionism among the early chalutzim is an example of an extended liminal period. The pioneers created communitas in the form of kibbutzim, and shaped new political and cultural norms.

Purim in Tel Aviv

The caterpillar must emerge from the cocoon — risking its life in its liminality — to become a butterfly. If liminality is unsettling, and often unavoidable, it is also exhilarating because it carries on its wings the possibility of change. We’ve all experienced it. If we can aim for constructive change, and not be overcome by fear, the beautiful underbelly of liminality can be a blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1]Jeffrey Rubenstein has pointed out many of these in his article: “Purim, Liminality, and Communitas,” AJS Review, Vol. 17, No. 2. Autumn, 1992, pp. 247-277.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Which way to the Tabernacle? / Terumah

Parshat Terumah illustrates the quintessential problem of studying Torah in the modern age: what are we to believe? Terumah describes the mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle) in such fine detail that many people have constructed models on the basis of the description in Exodus. Every part of the structure and apparatus is delineated, right down to the sockets that connect the planks of the Tabernacle, and the colors of the threads in the tapestry that covered the Holy of Holies. Yet scholars debate whether there actually was a Wilderness Tabernacle, or whether what we read in Terumah is an imaginary retrojection of the Temple in Jerusalem.

So we might ask: what value is there in spending our time exploring the minutiae of the mishkan if it hasn’t existed for more than 1200 years and perhaps never really existed at all? Abravanel (1437–1508) explains:

Do not think that the commandments about the Tabernacle, which do not apply to us here in the exile, have no value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Genesis 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.

Torah is sacred scripture. Rather than asking, “Did it happen?” when we cannot discern the answer with certainty, or most likely the answer is no, is far less helpful than asking, “What does it mean? What can we learn from this?” So my question is: What does the description of the mishkan teach us about how to live our lives?

Terumah opens:

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelites: take/accept (ikchu) for Me gifts; from every person whose heart so moves him. And this is the contribution (v’zot ha-terumah) you shall take/accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yards, 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. (Exodus 25:107)

The verb in the first two verses is ikchu, which is usually translated “accept” but which actually means “take.” The classical commentators noticed this. Nachmanides, for example, acknowledges the literal meaning of ikchu and tells us:

According to the true interpretation, v’zot (“this” in v. 2) refers to the Shekhinah and the wisdom provided by it, as when God said to Solomon, Because you want this (zot) and have not asked for wealth, property, and glory… but you have asked for the wisdom and the knowledge to be able to govern My people… (2 Chronicles 1:11).

Nachmanides (1194-1270) tells us that “this” in our parashah can be understood to refer to the Shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence in the world. He notices that the wording is peculiar. God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites, but then describes what the Israelites are to do, not what Moses is to say to them. He reads the verse this way:
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Israelites. They will take/accept for Me [as a] gift…
 Nachmanides then explains “from them” by citing a marvelous passage from midrash Exodus Rabbah, which reads “take/accept for Me” as “take/accept Me”: It is not that the Israelites bring donations to the Tabernacle, but that the Tabernacle is the locus where God gifts Israel with the Shekhinah. The midrash tells us:
“The Holy One told Israel, ‘I have sold you My Torah, and I, as it were, am included in the sale. The gift will be Mine and I will be with it, as in My beloved I mine and I am his (Song of Songs 2:16).’” (Exodus Rabbah 33:1)
Abravanel got it right: there is much to glean from Torah that seems not to apply to us today. The mishkan is only superficially “where God lives” — everything lives within God, and the mishkan is the place where the Israelites come to be reminded of, and experience, God within. The in-dwelling presence of God (the Shekhinah) dwells in them. We all need reminders of our holiness and our potential to sanctify the world around us. It’s hard to keep that in the forefront of our minds when life is not pure unalloyed joy, but rather punctuated with chores and challenges, pressures and deadlines, sickness and conflicts.
Leonard Cohen captured the challenge beautifully in a verse of his famous song, Hallelujah, popularized by the movie Shrek and recordings by Jeff Buckley and KD Lang:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah
The mishkan was the place where a person could come and say: I did my best, but it didn’t amount to much; but that doesn’t diminish my value and potential. It was the place a person could “feel” and “touch” God because the mishkan was so tangible: a place of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Even with all one’s imperfections, foibles, and failings, the mishkan provided a place one could stand “in the presence of God,” sing Hallelujah, and praise God — the holy spark within each soul — with a full heart, and recapture that sense of the Shekhinah dwelling within.
It is entirely human and natural to need something concrete to remind us of what is intangible: the divine spark and sacred potential within. Do you have a place, or memory, or song, or quotation that is your mishkan, transporting you to where you can spiritually stand in God’s presence, recognizing God’s presence in you? Is there someone who is your mishkan? Is there something you do that revitalizes your soul and reminds you of your value? Visit your mishkan as often as possible, as often as you need. Abravanel was right — Torah is a book of “elevated wisdom and divine teaching.” It speaks to us eternally.
(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pleasure Principle / Mishpatim

In the cycle of Torah reading, we just read the Ten Commandments and recounted the revelation at Sinai. Now Torah begins to enumerate the laws that constitute Israel’s covenant with God. Parshat Mishpatim is a compendium of a wide variety of laws. Each one is worthy of study and discussion, but here’s one that catches my eye right now:

If [a man] marries another [a second wife], he must not withhold from this one sh’eirah (her food), k’sutah (her clothing), and ona’ta (her conjugal rights) (Exodus 21:10).

I’ve tipped my hand by translating ona’ta as conjugal rights. Etz Hayyim, reflecting on the literal meaning of onah, which is “ointment,” points out that understanding the term to mean conjugal rights is already found in ancient translations of Torah and certainly the Rabbis understood it this way, as well.

But perhaps that’s not what Torah had in mind? Perhaps it means that women are entitled to the basics of food and clothing, but also a little extra, ointment being a luxury? It has been pointed out by scholars too numerous to count that for the Bible, marital sex is for the purpose of procreation. This hyperbolic teaching from the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) lacks all subtlety:

R. Eliezer stated: One who does not engage in propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood, for it is said, Whoever sheds man's blood by man shall his blood be shed (Genesis 9:6), and this is immediately followed by the text, And you, be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7). R. Yaakov said: [it is] as though he has diminished the Divine Image, since it is said, For in the image of God made humanity (Genesis 9:6), and this is immediately followed by, And you, be fruitful [and multiply] (Genesis 9:7). Ben Azzai said: [it is] as though he sheds blood and diminishes the Divine Image, since it is said, And you, be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:6) [after both Whoever sheds man’s blood… and For in the image of God…). (b.Ketubot 63b)

Moreover, scholars tell us, permitting a woman only to her husband ensured that a man knew for certain that he was the biological father of the child he was raising. This has provoked many to criticize the institution of marriage as being created for men to control the sexuality and procreativity of women.

There’s no doubt that the Rabbis were concerned with propagation. If the verse from Mishpatim with which we began had had that in mind, it would have been the man whose rights were stipulated. The verse would say that even if a man took a new wife whom he preferred, his first wife would still owe him intimacy. 

But it doesn’t say that. It says that if a man takes a new wife, he still owes his first wife intimacy.  Women have conjugal rights, but men do not. In a world that has consistently said “men have needs” but never that women do, as well, this is most surprising — and refreshing. The Sages become quite specific in discussing the matter in the Mishnah:

If a man forbade himself by vow to have intercourse with his wife: Bet Shammai ruled that [she must consent to the deprivation for] two weeks. Bet Hillel ruled one week. Students may go away to study the Torah, without the permission [of their wives for a maximum of] 30 days. Laborers: one week. The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are [as follows]: For men of leisure: every day. For laborers: twice a week. For donkey-drivers: once a week. For camel-drivers: once in 30 days. For sailors: once in six months. These are the words of R. Eliezer. (b.Ketubot 5:6, daf 61b)

In short, the Schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree about how long a man may withhold sexual intimacy from his wife. Their assumption, however, is that she has a right to it, and he may not utterly deny her. R. Eliezer puts teeth on the matter, specifying times. Apparently R. Eliezer was a keen advocate of early retirement. But the very variance between Hillel and Shammai, and between men of different vocations, makes it clear that we are talking about sex for pleasure and fulfillment here, not just procreation. Women are entitled to intimacy because it gives them pleasure and happiness. Accordingly, the Gemara goes on to chronicle in detail, the dangers of leaving one’s wife for long periods of time, even to study Torah, and the disasters that ensue.

Although intimacy in marriage is not only sanctioned, but also mandated, in Jewish tradition, our experience in the broader world has had a tremendous affect on the arc of Jewish religious attitudes toward sex and sexuality. The Talmud already speaks of the yetzer ra, often translation “evil inclination” but probably better translated “aggressive life force.” The yetzer included the sex drive, which unchecked, could wreak havoc.

In Christian Europe, the firmly entrenched Hellenistic notion of a split between body and soul crept into Jewish views. Christianity taught that the body was seen as a dangerous source of sin that must always be kept under tight control, sex top on the list of behaviors that threaten the soul. Certainly rabbinic authorities never condoned severe forms of asceticism, but they did absorb a general sense of distrust of the body and strong preference for spiritual endeavors over carnal pleasures.

Maimonides, whose life spanned both the Christian and Muslim worlds, made clear in Moreh Nevuchim 2:36 (Guide for the Perplexed) his opinion on sex. Not only is it shameful and depraved, but he also went so far as to deny that marriage and procreation are obligatory at all. Rambam is not alone in harboring a fundamental distrust of sexual activity. The widely circulated Iggeret ha-Kodesh (a book on marriage, sexual relations, and holiness) objects to Maimonides’ narrow view, arguing that God created sexuality and the sex drive as part of the human body, and therefore they cannot be disgraceful. Nonetheless, many authorities, including Iggeret ha-Kodesh, counseled fulfilling one’s duties, but no more and none that I know of applauded sexual pleasure.

That is, until mysticism crept into the Jewish consciousness, and Lurianic Kabbalah put sexual pleasure front and center because sexual coupling mirrors Yichud, the union of Male and Female aspects of the godhead. The physical pleasure of sexual intimacy was understood to have a spiritual dimension; indeed, the spiritual aspect was the ultimate goal. Mysticism took off like wildfire, spreading far and wide through the Jewish world, reintroducing the notion of pleasurable sexual intimacy, but alas, the dominant culture’s mistrust of sex and premium on “spiritual” pursuit over “carnal” behavior held strong.

It is time — indeed past due — to consciously examine our attitudes toward sex and sexuality and consider their source. Are they consonant with Jewish values? Jewish tradition has held, as early as the Torah, and continuing through the rabbinic period, that properly channeled sexuality, for both procreation and pleasure, is a divine blessing. A simple verse — Exodus 21:10 — opens up a world of conversation; it’s a great place to start.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman