There are two funny images I like to circulate this time every year as we approach the Passover holiday. The first is a cartoon of a truck with large text on the side reading “Morty’s Passover Cleaning.” On the driver’s side door is the word “chametz” inside a circle with line struck through it. Underneath the large “Morty’s Passover Cleaning” text on the side of the truck it reads:
Orthodox $89.95, Conservative $49.95; Reform $19.95.
The second image is of a person’s office cubicle and it’s completely covered in aluminum foil. Even the desk chair, computer, keyboard and mouse are completely covered in aluminum foil. Most likely this photo was taken of the scene of an office prank, but I like to circulate this photo with the question, “Do we go overboard when it comes to Pesach cleaning?”
Let’s look at the first photo. Is there some truth to this? I always maintain there has to be some truth to a joke for it to be funny, so let’s say that on the whole, yes, Orthodox Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Conservative Jews and Conservative Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Reform Jews. Perhaps, this image strikes us as offensive, but we’ll unpack that in a moment.
I remember as a kid before we got granite counter tops watching my mother cover all the counter tops in tin foil and then redoing this process each morning of the holiday because some of the tin foil had ripped the night before causing little sections of the white Formica counter to be revealed. This was done despite the fact that our house was completely spotless after having been thoroughly cleaned for the holiday. The thinking was that the counter is of a porous material and would have retained some of the chametz from the year which would contaminate our Passover food.
Do we go overboard for Passover?
We all spend exorbitant amounts of money on this 8-day holiday (only 7 days in Israel) to get special food that has been labeled kosher for Passover. We take Spring cleaning to the next level and then up a few more levels to make sure there is no chametz in our homes. We stockpile enough Kosher for Passover food to feed an army as if we’re planning to never return to a grocery store ever again or that the supply of matzah may run out. Are our intentions misguided? Most rabbis encourage congregants to fully embrace the strictures of Passover, and I certainly want everyone to observe the holiday with fervor and joy, but I question what can only be characterized as the intense OCD-like tenacity with which we tackle the minutiae of Passover observance. After all, our ancestors in Europe weren’t buying kosher for Passover bottled water!
There are certainly some core laws of Passover that we’re all familiar with. These include avoiding the consumption or possession of chametz, eating matzah, drinking four cups of wine or grape juice at the Seder, and telling the story of the exodus while imagining that we, ourselves, had left Egyptian slavery on the journey toward freedom. The most important mitzvah or commandment of Passover, however, is one that we no longer follow. The Tradition commands us to eat the Passover sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Korban Pesah.
We are instructed to eat this Pascal sacrifice or offering in a state of ritual purity and that’s what I think we should focus our attention on as we prepare for Passover. We should spend more time trying to achieve this state of ritual purity that our ancestors strived for when eating the Pascal sacrifice, and less time stressing out with the minutiae of chametz. I hear a lot of stories of people spending days cleaning under couches and in crevices on the kitchen floor. However, it’s important to remember that dirt is not chametz. If crumbs have been hiding in the cracks under your cabinets, that’s called garbage not food.
To eat of the Pascal sacrifice we have to be spiritually pure. Our souls have to be cleaned out. The idea is that we should transcend our everyday experience of life and place ourselves on a higher spiritual plane. You see, in Judaism we have an elaborate system of purity and impurity. Think of these as order and chaos. Our world is made up of order and chaos — both are essential. We must seek out order as a way to put limits on the chaos and make the world a better place for us and for our descendants.
Each year as we’re preparing for Passover, our Christian friends are preoccupied with Lent. This time of Lent is also a spiritual cleansing time when they give something up that they love. A good friend of mine gives up drinking alcohol during Lent each year. His wife gives up all sweets — no candy, no sugary soda, no sweet desserts. Some people give up using profanity, or smoking, or video games. Lent is a time for people to clean up their act so to speak. While I’m not proposing Jews begin observing Lent, I do think that the idea of this spiritual cleansing is in line with the notion of becoming purified in order to eat of the Pascal offering — and that is precisely the focus of Passover.
Maybe we use the Passover preparation time to consider what we need to do in order to improve our lives. Maybe we should spend more quality time with our spouse and children, dedicate more volunteer time to local nonprofit organizations, set aside more money for tzedakah each year. Passover occurs about 6 months after the High Holidays so it’s really an opportune time for us to do a spiritual checkup anyway. We can do a midway audit on our Jewish New Year’s resolutions.
Pesach has become a holiday of cleaning and scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming. And that’s all fine and good — who doesn’t appreciate some heavy Spring cleaning this time of year. But the real experience that God expects of us is for us to do some spiritual Spring cleaning. To rid ourselves of the negativity — the spiritual chametz — haughtiness, arrogance, the ego.
We should be striving for renewal in our hearts, and not simply in our homes or specifically in our kitchens.
As we shop, clean, pack, unpack, set the tables, and prepare the elaborate Seder meals over the next week, we should be mindful to place the emphasis of the holiday on the correct place. Chametz isn’t dirt or dust or garbage. It’s that which we must rid ourselves of in order to be of pure souls for this significant festival. We may no longer eat of the Pascal offering and we only discuss it at the Seder, but let us remember that our ancestors took this task very seriously. Give up something this year for the Jewish Lent. Rid yourself of that which you’re not proud of and would be better off without. Discard the metaphysical chametz while you’re getting rid of the literal chametz. Kedoshim Tihiyu — And then, we shall be holy and closer to our God.
If I close my eyes and sit quietly, I can still picture the expression on her face. My breath catches in my throat. I remember the tiny sob that escaped as I tried to say, “Amen.”
Two weeks ago, I experienced a spiritually charged moment in synagogue. In my experience, that’s pretty rare. Like many people I know, I enjoy the social aspect of attending synagogue and endure the lengthy services and sermons. I feel closer to God in silent mediation.
However, on the morning of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah, every word of the morning prayers seemed to be infused with divine energy. Dalia has autism and is non-verbal; she cannot communicate with words what this moment meant to her. Still, her excitement was palpable throughout the service. It was unlike any Bat Mitzvah and just like every Bat Mitzvah I’ve attended, only more so: more joy, more crying, more coming together as one community.
Dalia’s mother, Rebecca, and I forged a friendship when she approached me more than a year ago. She thought my input both as a mother and rabbi would help her as she designed a ceremony that would accommodate her daughter’s special needs. I’ll never forget our first lunch meeting; Rebecca brought a legal pad filled with notes and questions that she had essentially already answered. I reassured her that she knew, better than anyone, what Dalia could learn and achieve.
Two weeks ago, after countless hours of preparation and endless attention to detail, including several rehearsals, Dalia showed just what she was capable of doing. Using her communication device that was programmed with visual supports/prayers from Gateways’ resources and wired to the synagogue’s sound system, Dalia sang the blessings before and after she signed the Shema as her Torah reading: “Praised are you, God, Giver of the Torah.” The congregation of more than 150 honored guests answered, “Amen.”
As a mother, I know what this rite of passage meant to Rebecca. We both want our children to feel they have a place in the synagogue and in the Jewish community. As a teacher, I share Rebecca’s belief that “kids with autism are so capable, it just takes time and patience to help them succeed in their own way.” Each of us strives to fulfill the biblical instruction, “Teach a child according to her path; she will not swerve from it even in old age.” (Proverbs 22:6)
One reason Rebecca encouraged media coverage of Dalia’s Bat Mitzvah is she hopes that parents of children with autism who Google “autism” and “bat mitzvah” will see Dalia, will see what can be possible for their children to accomplish.
I also have hopes. I hope to see Dalia, and other kids with autism, in our synagogues all the time. I hope to see articles about their b’nai mitzvah in my Facebook newsfeed all year, not only during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. I hope to experience more joy, and more crying, as each child finds his or her path to Torah.
On Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.
Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.
When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original Star Trek with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.
Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.
Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.
Spock was gently teased by his friends for not having emotions – but it was clear that he DID have them. As a half-Vulcan, he had been raised to value reason, but his internal struggle was not to have emotions, it was to understand them and have them serve reason. And they did. It was his refrain of “fascinating,” that underlined the ethos of Star Trek—differences, whether of the skin or the heart, were of interest, to be sought and understood. One of my favorite episodes, The Devil in the Dark, has Spock mind-meld with essentially a living rock—the Horta. The episode starts with the assumption that it is dangerous and violent, and only Spock’s intervention allows them to ultimately understand the real issue—that the Horta is a rational creature protecting her young.
Throughout the years of the show and the films, these values showed through: he was fascinated by not only human reactions, but by those of all the peoples that they encountered. His friendships with Kirk and McCoy were deep and lasting—full of humor, in which the character of Spock made himself the knowing straight man—and full of love.
IRL, we know that in fact, reason can’t exist without emotion: we have a good bit of accumulated data that shows that people whose brains are damaged in a particular way so as to impair their emotions are unable to make choices because they cannot weigh one thing against another. Values, it turns out, require emotions to drive them. This is the reason that Star Trek remains so potent despite its green scantily dressed alien ladies and highly amusing production values: it gives us hope for ourselves, hope for a future in which we can look at our differences and say, fascinating.
We loved Spock because, in a way, all of us are Spock. We fail to understand the people around us, struggle to fit in, strive to know ourselves and often fail to see that all the things we fight so hard against are part of what make us loveable. We hope that our differences will make us useful to someone, that some gift of ours will be valued. In his portrayal of the lonely alien who fits in nowhere- Nimoy brought the best of himself, and his values, and gave them to us. Thank you Mr. Spock, and thank you, Rav Nimoy. Because that’s Torah.
As has been said by a number of quicker people than me: We are, and always will be, your fans.
I’ve been looking for meaningful full-time work since crash-landing in Philadelphia in August. After living in Boston for eight years and being known and seen as a resource in the community, I suddenly found myself a stranger again, trying to make it as a rabbi in a new city – one full of other talented rabbis, no less.
I am impatient to move from Point A to Point B: from part time work to full time work, from assistant rabbi to rabbi, from teacher to director of education.
We easily fall victim to the idea that we’ll only be happy when we find ourselves in the perfect situation: the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect house. This is what a friend of mine refers to as “the myth of arrival.”
If we stop and pay attention, we notice both the world around us and our sense of what we need and want are in constant flux. No situation will ever be perfect, and if it is, it won’t be. Opposed to our obsession with “making it,” this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, proposes we focus on the journey.
When the Jerusalem Temple existed, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were each harvest festivals which culminated with people bringing offerings to the Jerusalem Temple. We no longer make a pilgrimage to a place like the Temple, but we do make a sacred journey through time: from the barrenness and desolation of winter to the mucky renewal of spring, and the color and heat of summer. During each of the three agricultural festivals, God instructs, “none shall appear before Me empty handed” (Exodus 23:15).
According to this week’s reading, the pilgrim travels to the Temple on Passover: “for in it you went forth from Egypt”: each year, we start by recognizing that we are journeying from slavery to freedom and to clarity.
What are we to carry with us?
On Sukkot, the pilgrim brings “the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”; and on Shavuot the pilgrim brings “the results of your work in the field.” As we make the first tentative steps on our journey, we gather the first fruits of our labor, relishing in our small successes: the dissertation proposal, the first performance, the fact we even got up early to write. We then bring the results of our work in from the field.
We pause three times each year to savor our accomplishments.
The Torah also instructs, “They shall not appear before God empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). During this dark, cold time of year, the Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given. To recognize if we have been using our gifts we will have something to offer. Our role in this journey is to serve That which is Greater than Us by using our unique gifts – as gardeners, artists, caretakers, healers.
A midrash that connects our verse to the Book of Ruth (a text about Shavuot) says that “every place the people of Israel entered, they did not leave empty-handed.” This commentary suggests that God does not ask us to bring anything in particular, but is simply promising us that if we fully enter our lives, “none [of us] shall appear before Me empty handed.”
For now, as much as I look forward to finding meaningful full time work next year, I am also beginning to remember to cherish my small successes: the moments I sense warm connections forming with my patients and their families in my hospice work; the time I am making to write in the morning; the joy I feel when my teaching lights up my students’ faces with insight.
Perhaps what is most important is to “arrive” by being present to what is in-between Point A and Point B – to the journey of life, itself.
Parshat Shmot which we read this week contains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of the Torah. By putting it in its psychological context and reading it as psycho-drama, we may comes to terms with it and uncover its deeper meaning.
Moshe Rabanu (Moses our teacher) grew up in the royal palace of Egypt and was raised by the daughter of Pharoah. As a youth his connection to his birth family was apparently non existent, or tenuous at best. He was nurtured among the Egypt aristocracy – dressed like them, talked like them. He was educated like them and indeed was one of them. Yes, he harbored some vague memory of his biological roots, which comes to the fore in a late adolescent identity crisis. He goes forth from the palace to “see his brethren”. Deeply touched by their desperate plight, his empathy is aroused and he strikes out at a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and kills him. The crime is witnessed by none besides the Hebrew slave that Moshe had rescued, but none the less the next time he approaches the slaves he is taunted for his crime. Word of his act reaches the Egyptian authorities and a warrant is put out for his arrest. Moshe is forced to flee to Midian.
He becomes a man without an identity. The Israelites with whom he might have thought to reconnect, have stabbed him in the back. The Egyptians with whom he shares a common culture have turned against him. He is forsaken and utterly alone. In Midian he is taken in by the local idolatrous priest and begins life anew. He marries Tzipora, his benefactor’s daughter. Moshe gains a family and an identity – he becomes a Midianite shepherd. The memories of Egypt recede, as do those of the enslaved Hebrews. For approximately sixty years Moshe lives a quiet life in Midian.
And then his simple life is shaken to the foundation by the Voice that echoes out of the Burning Bush, the Voice that forces him to unearth the distant memories that he has all but forgotten. He hears about the bondage and suffering of his long lost brethren, about a covenant forged by Abraham with a mysterious and hidden God who now commands him to return to Egypt, stand up to the despotic Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land.
Moshe is reeling, sent into a psychological spiral by this frightening Voice and its utterly outlandish demands. How could he return to the land that made him a fugitive and to the people that rejected and betrayed him? What connection could he possibly forge with those distant wretched slaves? Why would he want to leave his comfortable life and identity and become a crusader on a suicidal mission? So Moshe refuses to accede to the demands of the Voice. But it is unrelenting. Moshe stands his ground but the Voice does not back down. Yes – no. Yes – no. They go back and forth. Five times God comes at him. And at the end of the encounter, God reiterates His request/command and disappears … and Moshe is left utterly alone. If he intended to refuse one last time, there is no one there to hear his refusal.
Will he go back to Egypt? We do not know and either does he. He is completely confused, hurt, lost. He packs up the family for a journey in order “see if his brethren in Egypt are still alive”. Not a word about leading them out of slavery, for he does not know what he will do. And neither does he know any longer who he is at all.
“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at his legs, saying, You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me. He then released His grip upon him, and she added, Bridegroom of blood – to the circumcised!”
Moshe experienced God as trying to kill him. Perhaps waking up at night in a cold sweat, after thrashing about for hours in the darkness while wracked by nightmarish questions of personal identity and doubts concerning his own adequacy, Moshe can take it no longer. He cries out in anguish in the dead of night. Tzipora awakens, realizing that her husband is in the throes of a complete breakdown. She takes things into her own hands, in a flash circumcising the couple’s young son, thereby making a powerful statement and showing her husband where his true loyalty must lie. We are of the circumcised she tells him, the blood covenant of circumcision will define who we are from this point forward. My husband – let there be no more equivocation, says she to him.
And Moshe at that moment experiences catharsis. The tension is broken. He now knows with utter certainty who he is and what he must do. The doubts are gone, the tensions resolved. Everything becomes clear. It is as if God has released the death grip upon him and he has been granted a new identity, and new lease on life. The man Moshe comes full circle and returns to his roots and to his true self. Through the sacrificial act of Tzipora, Moshe is transformed from a Midianite shepherd into the leader of the Israelites. The bridegroom of circumcisional blood will now make his way to the people whose identity will be cut in their flesh. And the Israelites will be redeemed!
Although we’re a bit beyond the portion, there’s been a lot of social media chatter about Dinah – possibly because of the December airing of a television version of the novel by Anita Diamant. I mostly ignored it until a friend asked me about Dinah’s age (without going too far into it, if you follow the timeline laid out in the Torah plainly, she must have been VERY young, possibly a child. She probably isn’t, though) – at that point, I somehow found myself drawn into thinking about this very disturbing story.
There are many difficult passages in the Torah, and the rape of Dinah is among them. Nevertheless, I find the idea of turning what is clearly a forced sexual encounter into some kind of love story (as Diamant does in The Red Tent) – to be very difficult indeed.
Dinah’s role story turns around the first four verses of chapter 34 of Genesis. It is clear from the text that Dinah was violated. In verse two it says,
וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ:
“He saw her, Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land; and he took her; he lay with her; and he humbled her.”
What confuses the matter is that this verse is then seemingly followed a declaration of love:
וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָה וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָה
“His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.”
The number of disturbing things about this story start multiplying rather quickly here:
A man kidnaps and rapes a young woman, possibly a very young teen; he then, after forcing her, tells her he loooves her and has his father make an offer for her. Her brothers are outraged. They come up with a plot, telling Hamor that they can’t give her to the uncircumcised and that they’ll let his son marry her only if everyone circumcises themselves. Hamor sells this to his fellow citizens by noting how rich they’ll all get if they intermarry with this wealthy clan. The brothers of Dinah wait until the men of the city are weak from their surgery and then slaughter them, taking their sister home. When Jacob complains that their actions make him look bad, they respond, “הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ” – Shall he make our sister like a whore?
The “modern” take on this story is that it is about the disgust for exogamy. But a closer reading reveals something different.
It seems unlikely that Shechem was that besotted by a young girl – even a young woman – with whom he was unlikely to have had much interaction. And in fact, he clearly doesn’t “love” her before he violates her. The son of the prince may want her for the moment- but not, probably, because he loves her, but rather because abductions are a tried and true way to marry someone whose family won’t consent (in many cultures- some even today). He wouldn’t have known much about Dinah – but he – and his father – clearly knew whose family she was a part of. And there is some confirmation from the text itself (which a number of commentaries pick up on) that it was not just Shechem, but the entire city, who are implicated in this vile crime: “Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and plundered the city that had defiled their sister. (34:27)”
Note also the focus on family in the verses: “Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land” and “Dinah the daughter of Jacob” – even though the story begins by calling her “Dinah the daughter of Leah.” As the daughter of Leah, who is not, of herself, wealthy, she is not too interesting. As the daughter of the wealthy Jacob, however, she is someone the son of a prince might be interested in acquiring. So he takes her. And he does it in such a way that – in the Hivite culture- makes her impossible to take back. She’s now someone – they presume – that her family must get rid of, because surely they can’t give her to anyone else now.
But the brothers of Dinah don’t hold that view. To them, she isn’t a pawn in a family dynasty, perfect for cementing an alliance between the city and a wealthy clan that can bring in a lot of money. To her brothers, she is not to be sold. Her brothers may be awful – and there’s a case for that – but clearly they cared about their sister. They didn’t say “shall our family name be blemished?” or “Shall our line be tainted?” but “shall our sister be treated as a whore?”
In other words, they refused to let her body be a pawn for financial exchange. Her brothers, unlike the Hivites, are saying that they don’t care what the state of her virginity is, they won’t stand for this behavior, and won’t write her off as ruined. Remember, the circumcision is a ploy. They have no intention of leaving her there, regardless. And they know that Hamor wants this deal, and will do whatever it takes to get them to settle there because he wants not their family, not their God, but their wealth.
Compare this episode to those of Dinah’s paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Both were claimed as sisters in order to avoid the threat to Isaac and Abraham that might have been posed by the local prince desiring them. In the case of Sarah, in fact, Avimelech does take her. One might even think of Dinah’s brothers’ actions as a corrective to these earlier episodes. In the case of Sarah, God has to rescue her: and perhaps, indeed, Dinah’s brothers do one better – in Sarah’s case, God goes to a great deal of trouble to make sure that Sarah isn’t defiled by Avimelech – in Dinah’s case, the brothers make it clear that they don’t care – she is their sister, regardless.
Our society also has its Shechems – we read in the news constantly about the ways in which womens’ bodies are treated as objects, and not a month went by in the past year without a story of how a high school or college student was sexually assaulted – and how it is the victim, not the perpetrators, who so often pay the price. In that atmosphere, I find it troubling to turn a story of rape into a romance.
The story of Dinah is still one of its time: we never hear what Dinah thinks, or feels; we don’t really know what happens to her beyond the speculation of the classical midrash. But we know that at the very least, her brothers care enough to protect her, and go against an entire society – and indeed their own father- to bring her home.
Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
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I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”
Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.
Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.
As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.
In the section of the Torah relating the events leading up to the much anticipated reunion of Jacob and his estranged brother Esav, we are told that Jacob is left alone to spend the night. He is left alone – without his large family – in the darkness to contemplate his fate when he would once again come face to face with his brother. In this night of utter aloneness a man wrestles with Jacob until the break of dawn leaving him injured.
It is possible that the Hebrew term alone (levado) actually means a sense of despair. And while biblical commentators have theorized that the being with whom Jacob wrestled was either an angel, God or even Esav himself, my own interpretation is that Jacob wrestled with himself. It was depression.
Jacob was not really alone on that fateful night. His loved ones were just on the other side of the river, but he felt alone. He had a large family who loved him and he had great wealth, but he was struggling with his inner demons. Feeling anxious and alone, our patriarch was left in the dark to wrestle with himself.
Depression often goes undetected and untreated. In the United States, between two and four percent of people suffer from clinical depression translating to about 17.5 million Americans. Like Jacob, they too are wrestling internally and praying for healing and recovery. We must constantly remind them that there is hope and there is help.
As dawn breaks, Jacob’s opponent begs him to let go. Not until you bless me, Jacob says. From that point on, Jacob is transformed and known as Israel. Transformation is possible, but it comes out of a difficult struggle.
Our responsibility is to recognize and accept those who are wrestling with depression. We must listen to their cries for help and be present for them. The loss of Robin Williams, a truly gifted performer, is painful for everyone who was entertained by him. Let us work to help others who suffer from depression before it is too late.
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A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to staff a table at the Chicago Jewish Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of people from the Chicagoland Jewish community. During the course of the day, a member of a missionary Christian organization came to my table to proselytize. Putting aside for this blog post the assumptions that motivate a person behind the act of proselytizing, I found fascinating his use of quotes from Tanakh to justify his theological position. It was not the first time I’ve encountered his approach but for whatever reason it struck me that day.
If there was one way to describe his approach I would call it flat. In the traditional Jewish approach to reading the Bible, the text becomes alive with generations and generations of commentary and layers of understanding. If one would map out a Jewish approach to reading Tanakh as a topographical map, it would contain mountains and hills, valleys and plains. In the contrary approach, as exemplified by that missionary, the text is read without context, without commentary and without depth. The words are understood simply through the bias and lens of the contemporary reader. In interacting with this missionary, and with others like him, it is as if we are operating with two different sets of language and do not share a common vocabulary and reference points to have a meaningful conversation.
However, are there times when it is called for to read the Tanakh absent commentary and rabbinic depth? Even as Jews who inhabit a Biblical world of mountains and hills, are there moments when we can gain from seeing the text as flat?
An example of the power of reading the text flattened: The Hebrew Bible mentions multiple times the need to uphold the rights of the immigrant in your midst (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17, Ezekiel 47:21-23 as just a few examples). It is one of the most dominant themes throughout the entire text. Yet, we know that the rabbis understood this oft-repeated injunction to refer to the legally defined, ger toshav—resident alien, a much more limited category with many specifications and requirements than the broad category of immigrant. Does the flat reading of those many verses in the Tanakh still contain an ethic of how we treat the vulnerable in our society?
I believe they do. There is a power to the text even separated from the traditional Jewish exegetical approach to understanding it. When we conceive of the study of the Talmud we classically divide Talmudic literature into two broad categories: halakha (law) and aggada (homiletics or “everything else”). The aggada is no less valuable than the halakha even if one can not derive specific practical steps from it. The aggada frames the way we view the world and how we conduct our moral selves. Similarly, there are times when reading Tanakh flatly, without the richness of commentary, can inform our moral and ethical selves and help us frame the society we live in. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote in his work, The Nineteen Letters:
“… we must first acquaint ourselves with Judaism through the source which it, itself, offers, the only documentation and evidence about itself that it has salvaged from the wreck of all its other fortunes: the Torah. And through the Torah we must attain, also, an understanding of Israel’s destiny. For is not Judaism an historical phenomenon, and is not the Torah the only account of its origin, of its first appearance on the stage of history and of its existence for a considerable length of time thereafter? … Before we open it, however, let us consider how to read it. As a subject for philological or antiquarian research? … As Jews we will read this book, as a book tendered to us by God in order that we learn from it about ourselves, what we are and what we should be during our earthly existence. We will read it as Torah— literally, ‘instruction’ —directing and guiding us within God’s world and among humanity, making our inner self come alive.”
This I believe is the value of approaching the Hebrew Bible and reading it on its own terms. There are limits to that endeavor, as that missionary at the Chicago Jewish Festival demonstrated, but just because there are limits does not mean it is not a worthwhile practice.
One of the conversations that I had early in rabbinic school about how we connect to the wisdom of Torah has always stayed with me. While still in London, at Leo Baeck College, Professor Lisa Grant, Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College, New York, visited for a week and opened the doorway to a deeper kind of engagement with Torah for me. Perhaps it was because, at that early stage of rabbinic studies, we were deeply engrossed in trying to understand what the text actually said, or perhaps it was because we were immersed in the early history of our people at that time. But that kind of intellectual and academic immersion, while important, had distanced me from what, for me, were the more significant questions – how does the Torah of our texts connect to our lives today?
Dr. Grant asked us to be mindful of two different ways to make those connections. Both were legitimate, but our choice of which strategy to employ in different learning settings could make a huge difference in how we helped others connect to the wisdom of our tradition. “Do we start with life, and then seek to connect those life experiences to Torah, or do we start with the text of the Torah, and then seek to connect that text to something in life?” she asked. Over and over again, when seeking to make Judaism come alive for those to whom the text of Torah is too foreign and, perhaps, too frightening a place to start, I’ve found the way in through the Torah of our lives.
When I sit down with a bar or bat mitzvah student to begin to study their Torah portion with them, I always emphasize the importance of teaching both kinds of Torah to the congregation. That’s what we’ve always done – even when we read hard-to-penetrate ancient midrashim, we find Rabbis of old who were seeking to share observations about human nature, or the kind of world they lived in, and connect these observations back to Torah. Revelation continues to unfold, over and over again, when we are able to make those connections come alive today. And so, with those students, I usually begin by trying to get to know them a little better – to find out what they are passionate about, what activities they do, what issues they care about or organizations they have volunteered with so that, when we open the Torah commentary and start to read, we can do so with an eye out for those connections to the life of the student.
What does life to Torah look like? Looking back on your life so far, can you think of a conversation that you had with someone, or someone who opened the door to a new experience for you that sent you in a whole new direction? Or, looking back, you recognize that there was a time in your life when you were heading one way and, just because of a particular interaction – maybe a ‘chance’ encounter – you now recognize that there was a moment when you changed track to be on the path you find yourself now? I can think of many such moments in my life: the friend who encouraged me to go to my first Reform Jewish student event; the woman who introduced me to the music of Debbie Friedman; the room mate who asked me the right questions in the right way that, eventually, enabled me to come out as a lesbian, first to myself and then to others…
In the Torah, these kinds of experiences are moments of angelic encounter: the man that Hagar meets in the desert who, when she tells what she is running from but does not know where she is running to, tells her what direction she must go in next; the man that Joseph encounters in the field when he’s seeking his brothers, who points him to where he can now find his brothers, without whom the rest of his story with all its ups and downs might never have unfolded; the man who wrestles all night with Jacob, helping him to come to terms with his past and accept a new sense of identity… these are all understood to be “angels” in rabbinic tradition.
Why does it make a difference to teach and share about these connections between life and text? There are many answers to that question. For me, connecting to an ancient wisdom text that is part of my faith heritage has the power to enrich the meaning of the everyday events of my life. It also gives me a language with which to acknowledge the innate holiness of what otherwise might be dismissed as ordinary. We can simply speak of important influences in our lives, life-altering moments, and changes that we made. Or we can speak of “angelic encounters” – labeling the energy that was present in a particular encounter or experience as powerfully connected to the path of our life experience. I know that, for me, I’m more likely to feel and notice the spiritual power of those experiences if I have language to label them as something special and noteworthy. I am more likely to recognize that there is Torah in the ordinary, everyday of my life.
This is but one example of how, beginning by noticing the Torah of our lives we can find ourselves in the human drama played out in the Torah of our texts. There are so many more. When we can bring these two Torahs together, we see the power of Jewish wisdom to help us navigate and make meaning of our lives.