Saturday, April 27, 2013

Natural miracles / Behar-Bechukkotai

Miracles: You do not have to look for them. They are there, 24-7, beaming, like radio waves all around you. Put up the antenna, turn up the volume - snap... crackle... this just in, every person you talk to is a chance to change the world... (Hugh Elliott, Standing Room Only weblog, May 6, 2003)
The Israelites have lived for many years in the wilderness, sustained by manna that rains down from heaven six days a week. Each Friday (erev shabbat) God provides a double portion because they rest, and do not gather, on shabbat. In parshat Behar, God tells the Israelites through Moses that their days of dependency will end when they enter the Land.

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest of gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. (Leviticus 25:3-5)

This is a description of the sh’mittah — sabbatical year. As we rest every seventh day, the land lies fallow and rests every seventh year. An agricultural society in an arid region depends entirely upon rain this must have been a terrifying idea. It’s hard enough to plow the rocky terrain and weather periodic drought.  If they couldn’t farm the land, how would they eat? Torah addresses this concern in the very next verses:

But you may eat whatever the land, during its Sabbath, will produce — you, your male and female slave, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all it yield. (Leviticus 25:6-7)

But will that suffice? God anticipates this understandable anxiety:

If you should ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessings for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.  When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. (Leviticus 25:20-22)

In the Wilderness, the Israelites receive a double portion of manna before the Sabbath — just enough to meet their needs. In the Land, when the fields lie fallow during the sabbatical year, produce will nonetheless sprout — more than what they need. Torah considers manna to be a miracle, but what about the produce of the fallow fields? Would you consider this a miracle, a combination of nature and miracle, or nature asserting itself?

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) ponders this question in light of the Israelites asking, “What will we eat?” Does their question bespeak the Israelites’ failure to trust God despite manna, breakfast of champions, delivered each morning to their tents? Or, as S’fat Emet understands it, are the people asking whether they will be sustained by miracle or by nature? He tells us:

The answer was that their sustenance would come about by means of “blessing,” and blessing is somewhat closer to nature [than is a miracle].

He explains further:

Really, Jews should understand that miracles and nature are all one. In fact there is no miracle so great and wondrous as nature itself, the greatest wonder we can know. When this faith becomes clear to Jews, it is no longer any problem to be fed by miracles. Only If you should ask: “What will we eat?’ then I will command the blessing.

The S’fat Emet goes on to confirm that a miracle is, as we would think, an “uplifting; this is the way of conducting the world that is lifted out of the natural state.” He tells us that not all generations are equally deserving of miracles. For those whose trust in God is strong, “nature and miracles were all the same to them. That is why God performed miracles for them.” Perhaps this view is shaped by a passage in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) concerning a man for whom a most unnatural miracle occurred: a widower left with a newborn grew breasts to feed the child. The Bavli recounts:

One Rabbi remarked: How great this man must have been that such a miracle was performed for him. But his colleague retorted: On the contrary! How unworthy this man must have been that the order of creation was changed on his behalf. (Shabbat 53b)

Crab Nebula (Hubble Space Telescope)
Rabbi Arthur Green explains the S’fat Emet’s meaning:

This passage offers a glimpse into a very interesting theology of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural. The only ones for whom God provides miracles are those who don’t notice them as such, those whose faith is so great that for them nature and miracle are all one. For the rest of us, God does not perform miracles, presumably because we do not deserve them, lacking the faith to take them in our stride. But the upshot is that there are no miracles encountered by their recipient as such. “Miracles” stand out only afterward; the miracle is named as such by a lesser generation. Those of greater faith know such happenings simply as part of the natural/divine whole, a way of being that cannot be divided into “natural” and “supernatural.” (The Language of Truth, p. 204)

The natural order proceeds by it own laws. Miracles are not deviations from nature, but rather the perceptions of people looking back at events that have taken on great significance for them.

Galileo peering through his telescope
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger (d. 1905) lived in an age of science. Although quantum mechanics was not formulated until the first decade of the 20th century, at the end of his life, consider this: Galileo proved Copernican heliocentrism in the early 17th century. Robert Boyle published the gas law in 1662. Isaac Newton had published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, laying out Newtonian Physics in 1687.  Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen and wrote about electricity already in the 18th century (though some consider his greatest feat to be the invention of seltzer). The existence of molecules and atoms were known in the early 19th century thanks to John Dalton and Amedeo Avogadro. Scientists were exploring and explaining our world on every level: from the grandeur of the cosmos to particles of matter too small for the human eye or even the microscope to view and everything in between — all before the S’fat Emet was born.
Depiction of carbon atom, the basis of life on earth
I wonder how being born into a world of burgeoning, vibrant scientific inquiry shaped the S’fat Emet’s theology.  It appears that the S’fat Emet adapted Kabbalistic theology to the new truths of the physical world, as scientists understand it. Or perhaps put better: he understood and explained Torah through not only a Kabbalistic lens, but through a scientific and rational lens as well. He recognized that there is no such thing as a miracle in the sense of an abrupt abrogation of the laws of physics. The physical universe is governed by nature, a marvel so enormous it is miracle enough for us all. What we conventionally call a “miracle” is an expression of meaning that people assign to an event some time after it happens, as they look back and recognize it as unexpected, momentous and significant, and accordingly ascribe particular religious meaning to it.
The horrific events in Boston this month reminded many of us that normalcy, including the quotidian of life that we are tempted to brand “boring,” is miraculous when we are able to see the ordinary as a blessing (as Leviticus 25:21 does). The breath of life, our capacity to use our minds and bodies, the safe return home at the end of the day of our loved ones, our ability to put food on the table and sleep with a roof over our heads — these are daily miracles.

The S’fat Emet’s intellectual honesty in telling us that there is no different between nature and miracles does not compromise his spirituality. And perhaps that is one of the most important lessons here. The Scopes Monkey Trial is sadly still being tried in the courtroom. We live amidst an array of fundamentalists who view science as a heresy and try to force “Intelligent Design” into the curricula of public schools, and other absurd ideas in the public square. Ponder this — from December 2010 — for a minute:

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) has proposed a 2012-2013 budget that includes heavy cuts to some key department while giving a $43 million tax break to a massive creationist theme park.

In his plan, Beshear calls for a 6.4 percent cut to Kentucky's higher education department, a 2.2 percent cut to the State Police force and sizable cuts to other agencies in what he calls an effort to cut the budget to the bone. 

No one would have called the S’fat Emet and his Hasidic community (the Ger Hasidim) “modern” or anything but strongly orthodox in their religious practice. Yet the S’fat Emet not only recognizes and respects the reality science reveals, but revels in it, teaching us that science shows us that the world as it is abounds in miracles.

We should take note. There is no fundamental [yes, pun intended] conflict between science and religion unless we choose to interpret our sacred texts to create such a conflict. God’s universe is a unity; the laws that govern it are in and of themselves miraculous.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, April 20, 2013

When honor is unconscionable and dishonorable / Emor

This week’s parashah, Emor, includes a potentially dangerous and toxic verse:

If the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, she has disgraced her father and is put to death through burning. (Leviticus 21:9)

We are all familiar with the horror of so-called “honor killings”:

Hiyam Souad, 23, of Gaza was strangled by her father and brother in their home because she was there with a young man who lived nearby.

Nilofar Bibi, 22, of India was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 14. She escaped. Her brother found her, dragged her into the street, and decapitated her saying, “She sinned and had to be punished.” The family supported his effort to uphold the family “honor.”

In Kingston, Ontario, an Afghani couple and their 18-year-old son brutally drowned the couple’s three teen-age daughters (ages 19, 17, and 13) and the husband’s first wife in a polygamous marriage because the girls weren’t obeying all the rules that had been set for them.

Unfortunately examples abound. I cannot imagine anything more dishonorable than killing one’s own child. It is violence erupting from ego, from concern for one’s image above all else — even above human life. It is narcissism at its absolute worst.

The verse with which we began does not use the word “honor” (kavod in Hebrew), but the defilement (m’chalelet) it speaks of affects the father’s honor. When the verse says “harlotry” (liz’not) it could mean prostitution (see Genesis 38:15 and Leviticus 19:29) or promiscuity (see Genesis 38:24 and Deuteronomy 22:21). In either case, Torah makes it clear that the daughter’s unseemly behavior reflects poorly on her father who is a priest. Two observations: First, burning is rare in Tana”kh (the Bible). We find it in three other cases: Judah demands that Tamar be executed by fire; Leviticus 20:14 stipulates burning for a man who marries both a woman and her mother; and we are told that the Israelites both stone and burn Achan and his household for appropriating spoils that had been dedicated to God (Joshua 7:25). The very fact that burning is so rare tells us that Torah considers the kohen’s daughter’s crime enormously significant. Second: the punishment (burning) is not commensurate with the crime. Prostitution and premarital sex are not punishable crimes, and burning is not prescribed for adultery. The concern clearly is, as the verse states, her father’s honor.

We are long past the period of the active priesthood. That ended in 70 C.E. with the destruction by the Romans of the Second Temple. No doubt, if there were a Temple standing today, only the most fanatical and psychopathic among us would even suggest that such a “law” could be carried out. For those who insist that we must obey the requirement of the verse, as well as those who are troubled that the verse exists at all, I offer the old and reliable Jewish staple: interpretation. Here is how Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev explains this deeply troubling verse in his commentary Kedushat Levi:

We already know that when someone in our domain of the universe commits a sin that this leaves a corresponding “stain” or defect in the celestial domain. In practice this means that sins committed on earth strengthen the forces of the kelipot (peels), that is, the forces that surround holiness and thereby make it less effective or ineffective, much as a peel prevents us from getting at the fruit within it. The best remedy available to repair this spiritual damage is by burning it in fire. “Burning” need not be a physical process but can be service to the Lord with so much enthusiasm that it bursts into “flames.” (Kedushat Levi, Emor on 21:9)

Levi Yitzhak reads the verse as an allegory. The “daughter” represents a person’s soul that is subject to the influences of the yetzer tov (inclination to do good) and the yetzer ra (inclination to do evil). “Harlotry” happens when we give in to the yetzer ra and make wrong choices. Our choices do not affect us alone; there is a ripple effect to everything we do because everything is interconnected. Ultimately the entire universe suffers the effects of the evil each of us does.

Kabbalists describe God’s holiness, which they understand as having been shattered in a cataclysmic cosmological explosion, as a myriad sparks of divine light or holiness or goodness, each trapped within a kelipah (pl. kelipot: peels, shells, husks — something that traps its content within). Kelipot are the evil that conceals holiness. Another way to think about kelipot is that they are the spiritual, emotional, and psychological obstacles that separate us from our better selves.

Kelipot are often identified with idolatry. In the case of those who engage in violent and despicable “honor killings” the object of their idolatrous worship is themselves and their images: pure narcissism. They hold their self-image more valuable, more important, more sacred than even the life of their child.

It is easy to condemn “honor killings” but how many of us are tainted (as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak put it) with this sort of idolatry? How many of us worry that our children will not reflect well on us, and out of this primacy speak to, pressure, and direct them in matters of love, marriage, education, and career in ways that serve our purposes more than theirs? How many of us worry how our spouse or partner reflects on us? Or how our house, car, clothing, or other material possessions reflect on us?

In the end — after all kelipot, facades, and excuses are stripped away — the only thing that reflects on our honor is us: our choices and our behavior. Are we reinforcing kelipot, and preventing God’s holiness from shining into our lives, or are we obliterating the kelipot and freeing holiness to enter the world, thereby adding to the stock of goodness in the world? Remember that ripple effect? It happens as much with good as with evil.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, April 15, 2013

Aiming for the inside track / Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

It is sad but true that Christianity has a long history of denigrating first- and second-century Judaism as dry “legalism,” by which is meant an excessive and misguided emphasis on strict law to the exclusion of spirituality, on obedience to the minutiae of mitzvot rather than on having faith in God’s grace. The charge, first launched in the ancient world got an enormous boost from Immanuel Kant, who claimed Judaism lacks not only reason, but also worse, ethical content, in comparison with Christianity.

A helpful article in Time Magazine summarizes it this way:
For centuries, the discipline of Christian "Hebraics" consisted primarily of Christians cherry-picking Jewish texts to support the traditionally assumed contradiction between the Jews — whose alleged dry legalism contributed to their fumbling their ancient tribal covenant with God — and Jesus, who personally embodied God's new covenant of love.
(The same article explains the sea change that has taken place in the world of Christian scholarship in recent years. The article continues: “But today seminaries across the Christian spectrum teach, as Vanderbilt University New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, that ‘if you get the [Jewish] context wrong, you will certainly get Jesus wrong.’” This is highly encouraging progress.)

Certainly Torah speaks a great deal about commandments and God’s behavioral expectations of Israel. It’s difficult to imagine any moral religious, political, or social system that lacks criminal, civil, business, and family laws to regulate human interactions. In some societies, both ancient and modern, it is the prerogatives of the powerful and wealthy that laws are designed to protect. In the Bible, the laws aim to protect the needs of the most vulnerable, which is not to say that it always succeeds by our 21st century moral standards. The covenant between God and Israel is characterized by God’s concern not only with how we treat one another and strangers in our midst, but also with how we treat the environment and how we worship God.

In this context we find this exhortation in Parshat Acharei Mot, echoed in many places in Torah:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their statutes. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 18:1-4)
What Egyptian and Canaanite practices does Torah have in mind? The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) says that these verses refer to the religious practices of Egypt and Canaan, limiting the scope of the verse. Further commentary makes it clear that this is not ironclad rule. When Jews live in a host country, Talmud (B.Gittin 10b) tells us that civil law is binding; the principle is dina d’malkhuta dina  - “the law of the land is the law.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) drew a different distinction: “We may imitate the nations among whom we live in things that are based on reason but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”

The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) takes an entirely different approach in his explanation of this passage, one that appears to address the Christian charge of “dry legalism,” so rife in his lifetime. He tells us that this is a difficult passage to understand. We might think it refers to illicit or perverse sexual liaisons (as some classic commentators maintain), but were that so, why does Torah specify the deeds of Egypt and Canaan alone? And why be concerned only with forbidden sexual acts, when the impermissible sexual behaviors are delineated in detail throughout the remainder of Leviticus chapter 18? The S’fat Emet writes:
Rather, the intent is that in all our deeds we not do things as they are done in Egypt and Canaan. Every deed has an inner and outer side; the [inner] root of all things is surely in holiness, since all was created for God’s glory. This innermost point has been given to Israel. That is the meaning of the teaching, Let all your deeds be for the sake of heaven (Pirke Avot 2:12).
The S’fat Emet is telling us that if we have the right mindset, every act can be l’shaym shamyim (for the sake of heaven). The laws of Egypt and Canaan were carved into stone — they were merely rules; the mitzvot of God are engraved on the heart — they possess the potential for holiness. He writes:
We have also explained that through the commandments one draws life into all things. Hence performance of mitzvot animates the life force in us and calls the sacred into our lives. That is why, he reminds us, berakhot (blessings) recited before performing a mitzvah include the words, “…who made us holy with his commandments…”
Jewish practices, then, should not be a matter of rote observance and obedience (what the S’fat Emet calls the “outer side”), but rather of sacred intension and connection with the divine (the “inner side”). Jewish observances should not be an end in themselves, as so often happens when people get caught up in counting, comparing, and competing. Mitzvot should be a means to engaging with the divine, of drawing the sacred into our lives, of sanctifying the moments of our lives. As the S’fat Emet reminds us, the words “…who made us holy with his commandments…” can help us to get it right, so that our practices are saturated with religious and spiritual meaning and value. Quality over quantity. Meaning over mass. Holiness over hollowness.

This is not easy to accomplish, but if we can punctuate our lives with sacred moments and acts, the depth of our practice will increase, and we will be drawn in further to the world of meaning that mindful Jewish practice creates. This week, or this coming shabbat, choose a particular mitzvah or tradition and spend some time preparing by learning more about it and considering what meaning it can have for you. How can it enlarge your perspective, boost your spirit, enhance your life, elevate your neshamah (soul)? What religious or spiritual message can it convey to you? How can it bring you closer to those you love, and to God? Try just one this week. Next week try another. See what happens.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, April 8, 2013

Be a vessel and a vehicle / Tazria-Metzora

There is a terrible flood. With the waters rapidly rising, Sam goes out onto his porch and sees that the street is covered with nearly two feet of water. A neighbor comes by in a canoe. “Get in, Sam,” he says. “I’ll take you to safety.” “No thanks,” Sam replies. “God is compassionate. God will rescue me.” Some hours later, the waters have nearly submerged the first floor of his house, so Sam climbs to the second story and leans out a window. Rescuers in a powerboat come by and say, “Get in.” “No thanks,” Sam says, “God is compassionate. God will rescue me.” Some hours pass and now Sam climbs onto his roof to escape the rising waters. A helicopter spots him and lowers a rope with a harness. The pilot yells down, “Put this on. We’ll take you to safety.” “No thanks,” Sam says once again, “God is compassionate. God will rescue me.”

If you’ve heard this joke, you know the ending. If you haven’t, you’ll hear it in a bit.  But first, here’s how Parshat Tazria begins. As you read these verses, what questions pop into your mind?

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman brings forth seed [i.e. gives birth] and bears a male child, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual flow. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. (Leviticus 12:1-2)

I can imagine a host of questions about impurity and childbirth, but curiously the hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in his Torah commentary Kedushat Levi asks a completely different and unexpected question: Why is a baby boy circumcised on the eighth day? He knows perfectly well that God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:9-12), but why the eighth day and not the seventh or ninth day?

The reason Levi Yitzhak asks this question comes straight from Torah:

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days… (Genesis 17:11-12)

 God commanded Jewish men to circumcise themselves — which Abraham did — but then ordained that baby boys be circumcised on the eighth day. No eight-day-old baby can circumcise himself, or even arrange for someone else to do it for him.  Kedushat Levi tells us:

We have learned in the Zohar (II, 13) that God created the various universes in order that he be perceived by his creatures as rachum v’chanun (compassionate and gracious). On occasion, God’s compassion is awakened by acts performed by the Jewish people…

Tractate Yebamot in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) enumerates what these acts are. They are the prayers of the righteous (in particular the matriarchs) who entreat God for a child.

What we learn from this is that although God initiates compassion and grace, God prefers human input, that is, when people demonstrate their belief in God by praying to him for their needs.

For Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, the image of the woman giving birth, opening herself up, opening her womb (rechem) is the image of a human being in need opening him or herself up to God as a recipient for God’s compassion (rachmanut, from the same root as rechem) and grace. This need, in turn, inspires God to be compassionate and gracious. Human compassion sparks divine compassion. Levi Yitzhak is explicit:

The overall message… is that when God’s compassion is awakened through action by human beings, it is strengthened immeasurably.

How often does it happen that when we ask someone, “How are you?” they respond with “I’m okay” or “I’m surviving” or “It could be worse” — and we then nod and move on? How often does it happen that someone describes a difficulty in his or her life and we reply, “I’m sorry — I hope things get better for you,” and then we move in another direction? Are we listening? Are we responding? Are we awakening the divine compassion? But perhaps you’re thinking: shouldn’t God be awakening compassion in me?

The divine flow of compassion is always available; we can tap into it at any time. 

 However the expression of divine compassion comes not by magic, but through us when we respond to the person before us who is need of compassion; it is we who channel it, we who make it real in the world. God’s compassion requires a vessel to deliver it to those who need it. We are to be those vessels, those agents of delivery — God’s UPS, USPS, FedEx. How important it is to listen and recognize when someone needs a listening ear and compassion; our response awakens the divine compassion within ourselves so that we respond.

  There were two neighbors who contended with one another every day. The woman would open her front door each and every morning and exclaim, Barukh ha-Shem! Blessed is God!” Her next-door neighbor would yell at her, “There is no God!” Every morning, “Barukh ha-Shem! Blessed is God!” “There is no God!” This went on day after day, week after week. After many months, the poor woman ran out of money and could no longer buy groceries for herself. One morning, she opened her door to find a large bag on her doorstep bulging with groceries. In amazement and gratitude, she picked up the bag and said, “Barukh ha-Shem! Blessed is God!” Her neighbor yelled out, “There is no God! I brought you those groceries.” The woman smiled at him – for the first time – and said, “Thank God for you!”

Returning to Kedushat Levi, we might ask: Why then is an infant circumcised on the eighth day, before there is any possibility of his fulfilling the mitzvah himself? Levi Yitzhak here reads our verse (above) this way: “when the woman [who here represents all human beings in need of compassion] brings forth seed [which Levi Yitzhak understands to mean the desire to arouse heavenly compassion] she will give birth [that is, awaken divine compassion].” Here Levi Yitzhak brings a midrash (Tanchuma, Tazria 5) in which R. Akiba claims that human creative deeds are more impressive than God’s actions. God creates life, but a human must cut the umbilical cord for a baby to live. What is more, a boy’s foreskin is removed not because God’s creation is lacking in some way, but because human action is so important. And finally, why the eighth day? This is the earliest physically safe time to perform the operation without endangering the child’s life. Levi Yitzhak tells us:

By performing this commandment at the correct time, the father or mohel becomes the instrument that opens the gates to God’s compassion in the celestial realm.

Another channel for compassion to flow between heaven and earth is opened at the earliest possible moment by a human act of compassion.

Kabbalists like Rabbi Levi Yitzhak see the verse in its entirety as an allegory for a higher truth beyond the pshat (contextual meaning). We cannot wait for God to pop into our lives and directly dole out compassion. Compassion flows from God, but we are the delivery vehicles and, when we treat others with compassion, we strengthen the divine flow of compassion. Given that one act of compassion usually begets or inspires another, this makes perfect sense. We call it “paying it forward.” That’s how the world works, how it’s supposed to work.

We left Sam on his roof waiting for God to swoop in and rescue him. Well, he died in the flood and went to heaven. When he stood before God’s throne he said, “God, I counted on your compassion to save me. Why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “Sam, first I sent you a canoe, then I sent you a powerboat, then I sent you a helicopter. What more do you want me to do?”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman