Monday, April 28, 2014

The original meaning of "Being Stoned" / Parshat Emor

Geography quiz: Where is Brunei? I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. It’s on the northern coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, nestled into Malaysia, which is north of Indonesia. In February, just two months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry, who had visited the tiny sultanate of Brunei not once, but twice last year, applauded the country’s “excellent cooperation” and “robust relationship” with the United States. “The depth and value of this relationship was plain for me to see during my two visits to your wonderful ‘Abode of Peace’ last year,” Kerry waxed poetic, referring to the sultanate’s official name, Negara Brunei Darussalam (“Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace”). Two weeks after Kerry’s visit, Brunei’s sultan Hassanal Bolkiah revealed his intension to implement the shari’a penal code: those who commit a smorgasbord of crimes, including blasphemy, will be stoned to death.

Switching gears for a moment, but only for a moment, let’s look at the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus tends to be laconic, tersely tossing out rules and standards for sacrifice. The two narratives it contains are strange and disturbing. Chapter 10 recounts the measure-for-measure deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu who are consumed by fire after making an unauthorized incense offering. This week’s parashah, Emor, features the second narrative of Leviticus: the brief account of the blasphemer who is stoned by the community, which to the modern ear sounds ancient and barbaric. Here it is:

There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between the half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan—and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:10-16)

The names mentioned (and not mentioned elsewhere) seem to propel the narrative: Shelomit means “peace” or “wholeness,” supposedly restored to the community by the execution of the blasphemer, the grandson of Dibri, a named derived from the root meaning “speak,” which is how his crime was committed, who comes from the tribe of Dan, which means “judgment,” certainly a prominent feature in this tale. But what exactly happened here? Did the man accused of blasphemy curse God directly? Did he curse the man with whom he was fighting using God’s name? Did he merely pronounce God’s name aloud? And why are we told that his mother is Israelite and his father is Egyptian? Why does this matter involve the entire community—and Torah goes to the trouble to tell us that citizens and non-citizens alike participate? The answer to most of these questions is: we don’t know what this man did that was blasphemous, but we do know the response.

The story is disturbing; the very idea of stoning a human being, regardless of the crime committed, is cruel, and revolting. It is shocking that Brunei in the 21st century would move backward in time to primitive barbarism. The fact that stoning is mentioned (or even mandated) in an ancient and revered book—indeed, sacred literature—does not mitigate that assessment. If anything, it compounds the horror.

Already 1,700 years ago, the Rabbis of the Talmud agreed. In an amicus curiae (friend of the court brief) on the subject of execution filed with the Supreme Court of the United States, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs and the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists noted:

…a close examination of the rabbinic interpretation of the Biblical text discloses that approximately 2000 years ago the rabbis of the Talmud agreed that execution must be carried out quickly and as painlessly as possible. They also agreed that an execution should not mutilate or disfigure the body of the condemned person. The relevant passages from the Talmud demonstrate that the rabbis sought—with the scientific knowledge and means available to them in their time—to formulate the quickest, least painful, and least disfiguring methods of execution that the technology of the day would allow within the framework of Biblical texts.

The Rabbis rejected stoning because it is savage and inhumane. In the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) Sanhedrin 45a they “reinterpret” the biblical mandate to require that the condemned criminal be pushed from a platform set high above a stone floor such that the fall would result in instantaneous, and hence painless, death. But they went further still: the Rabbis effectively did away with capital punishment by placing restrictions and impediments to carrying it out. Capital punishment remains “on the books” but we cannot meet their standards to carry it out.

Stoning of the sort described in Leviticus is reportedly ( either practiced or legally authorized in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Mauritania. Obviously, all these countries are Muslim, or predominantly Muslim. Yet the Qur’an does not mention stoning and specifically stipulates 100 lashes for adultery (Surah al-Nur 24:2-9), they crime most often punished by stoning in these countries. What is more, it is only implied in the Hadith that stoning is acceptable in a passage that understand both that capital punishment was not carried out in the Jewish community, and that Muhammad did impose stoning, though current scholars debate whether stoning was actually carried out.

The Jews came to Allah’s Apostle [i.e., Muhammad] and told him that a man and a woman from amongst them had committed illegal sexual intercourse. Allah’s Apostle said to them, “What do you find in the Torah about the legal punishment of Ar-Rajm (stoning)?” They replied, (But) we announce their crime and lash them.” Abdullah bin Salam said, “You are telling a lie; Torah contains the order of Rajm.” They brought and opened the Torah and one of them solaced his hand on the Verse of Rajm and read the verses preceding and following it. Abdullah bin Salam said to him, “Lift your hand.” When he lifted his hand, the Verse of Rajm was written there. They said, “Muhammad has told the truth; the Torah has the Verse of Rajm. The Prophet then gave the order that both of them should be stoned to death. (‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar said, “I saw the man leaning over the woman to shelter her from the stones.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 4, bk. 56, no. 829[1])

Regardless of whether Muhammed had people stoned, and regardless of whether the Qur’an or Hadith authorizes stoning, Muslim religious leaders today can, and must, think for themselves. Several notable Islamic clerics, including Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Yousef Saneii, and Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Bojnourdi, are on record opposing it. They have condemned stoning as “un-Islamic.” Ayatollah Hussein Mousavi Tabrizi has argued that the demands of the modern age call for an end to stoning. Others argue that the practice embarrasses Islam and for this reason alone should be discontinued.

The popular invocations of religion and culture to defend indefensible barbaric acts hold no weight here. The claim that ancient religious texts must be read literally as divine directive without human interpretation is nonsense (and not even possible). The claim that religious law is static and immutable denies that it is linked to justice, and justice requires us to look both at each case separately and at our evolving understanding of justice, ethics, and human behavior. Those who hide behind a screen of shari’a law (or Church law or halakhah, for that matter) reveal only their brutality, and in the case of stoning, subject Islam to the condemnation of the world. While women have been a primary focus of stoning, homosexuals will soon become the focus of raving lunatics energized by hate and empowered by religious claims—but not at all fueled by God and certainly not infused with holiness. 

All religious traditions have it within them to examine and reassess their practices and beliefs and make ethical changes; therefore all have the moral responsibility to do so continually.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Hadith collection attributed to Persian Suni Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari (810-870 C.E.), considered one of the three primary collections of hadith. The term “Sahih” means “authentic” or “correct.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Starve Molech, Feed Peace / Kedoshim

On Thursday night, April 17, three masked men torched the entrance to the Abu Bakr al Sadik Mosque in Um Al-Fahmm in northern Israel. They wrote “Arabs out” with spray paint on an exterior wall before setting fire to the entrance and then fleeing like the cowards they are. Israeli police have expressed confidence that they will catch the people responsible, and I hope they do. The previous Tuesday the Deir Rafat Catholic monastery in Bet Shemesh was discovered to have been vandalized with spray-painted epithets including: “America is Nazi Germany,” “Price Tag — Peace Agreement,” “Jesus is a monkey,” and “Mary is a cow.” The tires of four cars were also slashed.

The reference to “price tags” identifies these acts of vandalism with a strategy of the extremists in the settler movement to exact revenge against Arabs who attack Jews, and the Israeli government for freezing settlements. Viewed through a broader political lens, the attacks were a response to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit earlier in the week; this fringe group opposes efforts to make peace, believing no sincere peace agreement is possible. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents; they are merely the most recent. In the past, extremists have targeted even Israeli military bases.

The Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal succinctly encapsulated the attack on the monastery: "This is bad for the state of Israel, it is bad for us, it is bad for everybody. In this Holy Land we do not need these actions. Especially these actions against a monastery where we have sisters just praying for peace. They are not involved in any politics, so this really is a bad sign and we regret it very much.”

Indeed, all people of good will regret such incidents, but even more deplore them and revile those who engage in them. Here in America, we would rightly call these hate crimes: such behavior is morally reprehensible and entirely outside the scope of what Torah requires of us as Jews. This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

Attacking mosques and monasteries is not what people commanded to be holy do. It is what thugs do. Profuse expressions of self-righteous religiosity do not make one holy. Devout adherence to strict rules of ritual observance does not make one holy. Hatred of those who are “other” does not make one holy.

Torah tells us what makes us holy and how to fashion a holy life:

You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I the Lord am your God. Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I the Lord am your God… When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruits of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another… You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of the laborer shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord… (Leviticus 19:3-4, 9-16)

These verses come from chapter 19 of Leviticus. Scholars have dubbed the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus “The Holiness Code.” You may have noticed that the first three commandments that frame the chapter are (1) revering one’s parents; (2) keeping shabbat; and (3) not engaging in idolatry. This frame establishes a profound religious worldview: our goal is to establish a society based on respect for family, appreciation of God’s creation, and clear values and priorities that steer us away from the myriad idolatries that blind us to genuine holiness.

You may also have noticed that virtually all the rest of chapter 19 points to human relations: how to treat others with respect and compassion—doing so is a reflection of how we regard God. Bottom line: loving God requires that we treat other human beings with respect and recognize the divine spark within them. That’s easy when they are our friends and neighbors and treat us decently. There is no reason to think that the congregants of the mosque or residents of the monastery do otherwise, but even if they do not, this is not an excuse to engage in the type of “price tag” behavior both deplorable incidents exemplify. Torah bids us—indeed commands us—to reach out and build bridges to others through honesty, decency, and compassion—not to set explosives to blow any potential relational bridges sky high because we are engaged in our own political and religious idolatries, as the extremist settlers are.

I am not including pictures of the torched entrance to the mosque or the graffiti on the monastery in this blog post because they don’t deserve additional publicity. They are repugnant. Rather I’m including other pictures and examples of bridge-builders:

  • Amal Elsana Alh'jooj [Amal-Elsana-Alh'jooj.jpg ], is a Bedouin and Israeli citizen who
    Amal Elsana Alh'jooj
    founded the Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation. Among her many successes, she started a joint Israeli-Arab school in Beer Sheva called Hagar in 2006. Hagar describes itself as “a spring-board for social change.”

Galil School

  • Hands of Peace ( is an interfaith organization founded by Gretchen Grad (bond trader turned peacemaker) that seeks to develop leadership and peacemaking skills among Israeli, Palestinian, and American teens by bringing them together to get to know one another, talk openly and sincerely together, and befriend one another. (Take a look at the video here.) 
    Hand in Hand teachers
  • Neve Shalom-Wahat Al-Salam (“Oasis of Peace” in both Hebrew and Arabic) is a Jewish-Muslim village located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that was formed in 1970 on land donated by the Catholic Church.
  • Neve Shalom-Wahat Al-Salam  ("Oasis of Peace") School

  • There is an Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (, numerous Arab-Israeli dialogues in Israel as well as Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups throughout the United States, and even a group called Comedy for Peace.

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. There are many more groups and programs that deserve mention. You can find many of them listed here. All are bridge-builders. The work hasn’t always been easy. But is there really any other ethical path? Torah tell us, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) not because it is easy, but precisely because it is so difficult yet so necessary.

In parshat Kedoshim we are told that God forbids us from giving our children to Molech. Who or what is Molech, and what is this prohibition about? I Kings 11:7 knows Molech to be an Ammonite deity to which people sacrificed children, a practice King Josiah abolished. It is likely that “Molech” is an amalgam of the consonants mem-lamed-kaf (meaning “rule” or “sovereign”) and the vowels of the word boshet (meaning “shame”). The Torah commentary Etz Hayim explains: “Molech represents the demonic, destructive face of religion, the cult of death and human sacrifice… It is the polar opposite of everything the Holiness Code stands for.” (p. 701) Engaging in ideologies of hatred and vengeance—elevating them so they rule one’s life and dictate one’s behavior, is shameful—deeply shameful. Torah tells us that one who gives his offspring to Molech defiles God’s sanctuary and profanes God’s holy name (Leviticus 20:3).

It is easy enough to catalogue the episodes of abuse and violence perpetrated against Israel and her citizens. And without any doubt, Israel has the right and sacred responsibility to defend and protect her citizens. But acts of gratuitous hatred, violence, and vandalism are offerings to Molech. They are shameful and unworthy of anyone calling himself or herself a Jew.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Putting Pesach in a Pot / Passover 2014

In between cleaning out chametz, and cooking batches of knaidlach (matzah balls) and charoset (the wonderful sweet concoction on the seder plate that looks like mortar and tastes like freedom), I want to invite you to put the festival of Pesach in a big pot and simmer slowly until you have boiled off the complex and intricate ritual web, so that what is left is the core essence: one single, central, compelling message that bespeaks the entire festival. What is the residue in the bottom of the pot?

You might well be thinking that the suggestion that Pesach boils down to one single, unified message is absurd. If so, please consider the image of a tree: the trunk of the tree is the structural core. It has roots sunk deep into the soil that stabilize the tree and suck up nutrition. It has branches that spread out and sprout leaves to absorb energy from the sun. But the trunk of the tree is the core. If you drill into the core, or take a cross-section, you see everything—ideas, rituals, meaning, values—passing through the cambium, which connects the xylem (inside tissue) and the phloem (outer tissue); the vascular cambium creates a channel for nutrients to travel from roots to branches and the sun’s energy to travel from leaves down to roots. You might think of the residue at the bottom of the Pesach pot as the trunk of the tree.

Each spring, Jews around the globe gather to re-enact the story of the Exodus. But even more than re-enact it, we attempt to experience both the slavery and the redemption of our ancestors anew. What was the experience of our ancestors like? How did it feel to be a slave? Pesach is an exercise in national empathy. We ingest not only knaidlach and charoset, but even more importantly an ancient memory that we convert into the ultimate spiritual nutrition: empathy, compassion, and moral obligation toward others. This is the core of Pesach, this is the trunk of the tree: to shape ourselves into empathetic and compassionate human beings—individually and communally—who, having tasted the bitterness of slavery (even if only through ritual acts and foods) turn from the seder table toward the world around seeking to free those still in bondage.

What are the roots of the tree? The experience of slavery in Egypt, powerfully recorded in the Book of Exodus, elaborated upon in midrash and commentary for more than 2,000 years, and recounted at every seder table. Other peoples claim to be descended from kings, magicians, warriors, or gods, making it nothing short of remarkable that our ancestors locate our beginnings in the degrading and barbaric arena of slavery. Our origin, tradition holds, is not merely humble; the nation Israel was spawned in the brick pits of Egypt and arose out pain and suffering, human degradation, and the aspiration for liberation—thanks to God’s redemptive power.

The branches of the Pesach tree are the lessons and imperatives we learn from our experience: first and foremost, redemption is possible and it does happen; second, to cherish our freedom and all its blessings by living in covenant with God; and third, we are obliged—religiously responsible—to empathetically recognize that others are still enslaved and lend our help so they can leave their Egypt.

Everything about Pesach derives from this root and leads to these branches. Each element trains us to be attuned, sensitive, and empathetic to others; to spot injustice; and to seek ways to reach out to those in pain. Just a few examples:

  • Everyone who has been to a seder knows that near the beginning we hoist a young child onto a chair, whence the child recites four scripted questions and everyone applauds. It is not the hours the child spent learning to read or recite the Four Questions in Hebrew that we applaud, or at least it’s not what we should be applauding. It’s question-asking itself: Asking insightful, penetrating, challenging questions is the beginning of all learning, and the first step toward seeing that the world is not as it ought to be. We train our children to ask questions (especially difficult questions) and not to accept the status quo, especially when it entails human enslavement in its many, many guises.
  • We dip twice: first we dip the sweet karpas (something green and leafy, usually parsley) in salt water: the bitterness of slavery covers over the hopeful green promise of spring renewal. But that is not where we leave things: later in the seder we then dip the marror (bitter herbs) in the sweet charoset; the sweetness of liberation wipes out the bitterness of slavery. The direction of the world is toward repair, improvement, and redemption. If we can see that, if we can believe that redemption is not an unreachable ideal, but a very real goal, then we can be among those who bring it nearer. Elijah’s cup sits out on the table all evening, a reminder that redemption can come, will come.
  • The Haggadah is structured around Maggid—the section of the service in which we are to recount the story of the Exodus. Yet the story is not told in the Haggadah. Yes, there are a few passages from the Torah and some lore from the Talmud, but the substance of the story is not there because it is the job of the grownups present to tell the children around the table the story (1) in their own way, and (2) in a way that is appropriate of those seated around the table. This means that the adults must consider carefully the ages, natures, and needs of the children, as well as the needs of the adults, and determine how best to convey the story so it enters not merely the head, but lodges deep in the heart. Some people dress in costume. Others act out the story, scene by scene. Some write and perform musicals or operas. Most people sprinkle the telling with additional questions and topics for discussion. Whatever it takes to feel that pain of slavery and the ecstasy of redemption is what is called for.

Pesach is all about learning to be empathetic and compassionate.  But it’s not easy to be empathetic. We build walls against feeling the pain of others without even realizing it. We think of others as “strangers” so that we don’t have to feel their pain. In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a physicist and Holocaust survivor named Yitzak who attended a retreat at Commonweal for people with cancer. Yitzak found himself feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable amidst strangers; he didn’t like what he described as “all dis huggy-huggy.” Yitzak’s self-protective wall went up to keep him apart from these strangers. Finally, Yitzak took a walk along the Pacific Coast beach and asked God what his role should be at this retreat. God’s response? In Yitzak’s words: “I say to Him, 'God is it okay to luff strangers?' And God says to me, 'Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don't make strangers.'"

Torah implores us: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20 and 23:9). The prophet Zechariah (7:10) warns us not to ignore or oppress the most vulnerable amongst us: Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.
We make people strangers; God doesn’t. There it is—Pesach in a nutshell, the trunk of the tree: when we cultivate in ourselves empathy, there are no strangers, only people whom God loves and whom God wishes us to love and help, in turn.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman