God and Competing Goods

January 12th: Va’era
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

It is hard to know when the opening dialogue in this week’s Torah portion takes place. It seems the kind of conversation that would be part of the Burning Bush story three chapters ago. There, in Exodus 3, God tries to convince Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the Israelites’ freedom. Moses has all kinds of reservations, but, eventually, he accepts God’s mission. That was all last week. Now, as we begin the new portion in Chapter 6, we seem to be right back in that same dynamic: God is again trying to persuade Moses of the importance and eventual success of the mission:
“God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord (YHVH). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my Name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord!’” (Exodus 6.2-8)

The repetitiveness could mean that this passage is another version of the original charge God gives to Moses. Or, it could be a pep talk. Though Moses is a man of faith, the task God sets for him is difficult and overwhelming, and even heroes need regular encouragement.

In any event, we have the situation of God trying to explain to Moses the origin of their relationship and the nature of the Divine. God wants Moses to understand all the factors at play in Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

There are many Midrashim commenting on these encounters and this special working relationship, but I find one particularly helpful.

As God is explaining the whole Exodus plan to Moses, Moses realizes that this is going to take a long time. It’s just some twelve chapters in Exodus—or fifteen minutes during the Passover Seder, but God’s timetable in Exodus from the Burning Bush to the Red Sea is about a year. A year! On the one hand, freedom is wonderful. But, on the other hand, cannot God work faster? Moses challenges God on this extended time plan, and God has a mixed reaction. God’s right hand of justice lashes out to kill Moses for his impudence in daring to challenge the God of the Universe. However, God’s left hand of compassion catches the right hand before it can inflict any damage: God realizes that Moses is not challenging out of disrespect but rather out of concern for the suffering of the Israelites—some of whom may not survive to see freedom.

This Midrash teaches us a lot about God—and about our aspirations of godly behavior. Sometimes, our moral decisions involve the difference between right and wrong, but, sometimes, we must choose between two rights. Sometimes, values and principles that are good compete with one another, and we are forced to adjudicate the tension. Do we not see this in God’s situation with Moses? God is absolutely just, but God is also absolutely compassionate. What does God do when justice and compassion struggle? What do we do when we are faced with competing goods or competing principles? The answer is not easy, but we can feel close to God in this moral reasoning: working our way through the issues and principles is a godly thing to do. Indeed, God has put us on this earth to do this kind of moral wrestling. Thus can we help God to be manifested in the reality of the world.

I conclude with another Midrash. Since we are created in the image of God, and since we are supposed to pray, the question is asked: Does God pray? Of course! God prays just as we do—and, in the imagery of the Tradition, with Tallit and Tefillin. The question then becomes: For what does God pray? God prays that the Divine Sense of Justice (Midat HaDin) will always be overcome by the Divine Sense of Compassion (Midat Rachamim). Else, the world could not continue. God realizes our inadequacies, but God loves us nonetheless. God pulls for our moral progress and offers encouragement and instruction and inspiration. We’re all in this together: God and humanity!

Joseph and Revenge: Seeing the Defeat of His Foes

December 22nd: Vayigash
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the standard components of many films--action films, murder mysteries, and even some period piece films (like adaptations of Jane Austen novels)--is when the bad guy gets his/her comeuppance. When the Death Star blows up in Star Wars, both in episodes 4 and 6, when the villain in every James Bond story gets blown up, or even in Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh sits fuming in her parlor alone—whilst Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy enjoy their wedding, there is something immensely satisfying about revenge. When the scales of justice return to balance, when Evil is punished, and when the heroes emerge from darkness, we feel great relief and, dare I say it, joy!

One would expect this kind of thing in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Though Joseph’s youthful behavior is immature--prancing around with his coat of many colors and tattling on his brothers, he certainly does not deserve being sold into slavery. And so, after many years of abandonment and suffering, and after a number of years of power in Egypt, the appearance of his brothers begging for food must bring up a host of memories and emotions. The reader anticipates some kind of revenge. 

There are those who would say that the game he plays with them--interrogating them and then insisting that their youngest brother, Benjamin, return with them for more grain, and then framing him for theft when he does return--is a kind of revenge, but one can also see this as a kind of test. Have they developed, Joseph wonders, some moral maturity and responsibility? Have the experience and consequences of betraying their brother taught them anything?

In any event, Joseph does not take revenge. He gives them grain and invites them to live in Egypt. He arranges for good grazing land for them in a place they can call their own. He continues his largesse even after their father dies. As the Torah puts it, he speaks to them reassuringly and with kindness, “Fear not. I will sustain you and your children.”  (Genesis 50.21)

Would we do the same in such a situation? Would we welcome our families, or would we ignore them? Would we treat them well, or would we make them suffer? Though few have had the same experience as Joseph, many of us have had situations where revenge seems to be in order. How do we deal with this inclination?

The Psalmist (92.12) gives an interesting subtlety: “I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes, hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.” His ideal is to enjoy their difficulties but not to be the agent who brings them about. Of course, Psalm 92 is speaking about God's justice and God's long term victory. Though we may suffer from the evil deeds of evildoers, God will have the eventual victory. “Though the wicked sprout like grass, though all evildoers blossom, it is only that they may be destroyed forever—while You, O Lord, are exalted for all time!” (Verses 8-9) The evil may think that their victory over good people is permanent, but God will be the victor in the end, and their wickedness will ultimately do them no good. We could call this a kind of revenge projection: we do not do revenge ourselves, but we trust that God will bring about justice—and we look forward to enjoying the news. 

Perhaps it might be helpful to think about God's feelings on such matters. We may enjoy hearing about the downfall of evildoers, but does God? Does God enjoy punishing them? The Tradition, through the Prophets, the Midrash and the Machzor (the High Holy Day prayer book), insists that God does not. God hopes for repentance. God wants it and only dispenses justice reluctantly. Remember the quotation from Ezekiel 18.23 that we read every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.” The Machzor adds, “Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You.”

 Perhaps Joseph is thinking in these terms when he realizes who these shabby Hebrew shepherds are. Perhaps he looks at them with godly eyes, disappointed that they behaved so badly in the past, but hoping that they have improved—hoping that they have become more godly.

He could also be thinking in more eternal terms—realizing that this is all a test of his faith and goodness. There is certainly the traditional line of thinking in which the slings and arrows of fortune are less important than the way we respond to them. Remember Rabbi Jacob’s counsel in Pirke Avot (4.16): “This world is like an anteroom before the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the anteroom so that you may enter the banquet hall.”

 There is also the possibility that Joseph realizes that he has an opportunity for some excessive kindness—kindness to those who do not deserve it. As Rabbi Jacob continues (Pirke Avot 4.17): “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World-to-Come.”

 There is also the possibility that Joseph has a bit of the prophet in him and sees his own tribulations as important building blocks in God’s greater plan. We have evidence of this purview in something Joseph explains to his brothers in Va’y’chi (next week’s Torah portion). When they are fearful that, after Jacob’s death, Joseph will exact their long awaited and deserved punishment, Joseph says simply, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50.20)

I certainly do not want to get in the way of your movie viewing—and really enjoying it when the bad guys get what is coming to them. However, when it is our turn for revenge, it might be helpful to think in some of the terms ancient Joseph might have had ruminating around in his head. Our enemies are children of God, and God is hoping they will repent and improve. Perhaps we should try thinking such godly thoughts; perhaps some forbearance and patience may be our noblest response.

Living Our Dreams

December 15th: Miketz and Chanukah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Both the Torah and the Haftarah speak about dreams. In the Torah portion, Pharaoh has dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. He hears about a Hebrew lad who can interpret dreams, and he invites Joseph from the prison. “I have had a dream,” Pharaoh explains, “But no one can interpret it. Now I have heard of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” Joseph corrects the Pharaoh, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Joseph seems to have matured and developed some humility. He is also aware that his “gift” is from God, and, of course, that God is the one sending both the dreams and the interpretations.

As it turns out, Pharaoh’s dreams come true, and the preparations proposed and supervised by Joseph save the day. Dreams, in other words, involve a message, a situation, and a response.

In the Haftarah for Chanukah, Zechariah 2.14 – 4.7, we also have a kind of dream, the prophetic dream of Zechariah that flawed human beings can do better and live up to the holiness of their rank and position. The prophet also speaks of God’s unblinking attention to their behaviors and the fact that rank does not protect one from the demands of morality or holiness: “‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

The Jewish thinking on Chanukah reflects these stories with a curious tension. On the one hand, we are urged to realize that all of our blessings come from God. We are mere vessels for the Shefa, the Divine Flow of Energy and Blessings. This is expressed in the second Chanukah blessing—the one on the occasion: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha’olam, she’asah nissim l’avotaynu bayamim hahem baz’man hazeh. / We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of All, Who did miracles for our ancestors at this season in those days.”  Note that the blessing speaks of plural miracles—nissim/miracles and not nes/miracle. Yes, we have the story of the miracle of the oil, but there was also the miraculous nature of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus and his Greek Syrians. It was an impossible fight, but God gave us the victory.

On the other hand, there was a sense among some Sages that the victory called for praise of the human beings who rose to the occasion and liberated our people from the oppressor. Yes, God gives us blessings, but human agency is necessary. We have to bring our own blessings. I do not know the origin of the dreidel game, but this sensibility seems to be reflected in its catchphrase, Nes gadol hayah sham / A great miracle happened there. Here, it is a single miracle, nes.

 Throughout our history, there has been a tension between waiting for miracles from God and taking care of ourselves. And, in the aftermath of the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (and lots of our people) in 70 CE, and the debacle of Bar Kochba’s Rebellion of 130 CE, the Sages actually militated against militant self-defense. Their attitude was most un-Maccabean, but it reflected their belief that physical resistance was futile—that it would only make the Oppressor more angry. Better, they counseled, to be faithful and patient. God would eventually send the Messiah and things would be glorious. In the meantime, just “hunker down” and be faithful to God and our religion.

This all changed radically in the 19th Century as Jewish Self-Defense groups began in Eastern Europe. Many of these individuals were also Zionists, and they brought this taking care of ourselves approach to the Land of Israel. While some were waiting for the Messiah, these Chalutzim (pioneers) saw the redemption of the Jewish people in the physical restoration of the Land and the defense of the Yishuv (Jewish inhabitants). It was a marked change in the Jewish approach, and it is a philosophy and way of living that has made the modern State of Israel possible and successful.

Theodor Herzl said, “Im tir’tzu, ayn zo agadah,” which is usually translated, “If you will it, it is no dream.” In the case of the modern Zionist movement, the dream came true because the people undertook themselves to make the vision a reality. They willed it, and they backed up their will with action.

Pharaoh’s dream called for action, and Joseph was able to guide the response that enabled Egypt and much of the world to survive. Zechariah’s dream called on the people to improve themselves—to live up to the ideals of holiness, honesty, and righteousness that God makes possible. The Maccabees had their dreams and so did the modern Zionists. In all these cases, the dreams were more than fantasies that come in the night. They were moments of awareness that called for clarity and strategic response.

Our lesson here is both simple and complex. When we have moments of clarity and inspiration—moments where dreams come forth, let us consider the possibilities that these dreams hold for us and endeavor to make them come true with our dedication, our good thinking, and our deeds.


Potiphar's Wife and the Latest News

December 8th: Vayeshev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah is always relevant to our lives, but, sometimes, it seems like it is ripped from the headlines. In Vayeshev this week, we read about sexual harassment and false accusation, and we find ourselves hoping that the Torah can give us some guidance. When Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt (another outrage!), he is bought by Potiphar, a courtier of the Pharaoh. God blesses Joseph and make everything he does prosper—thus making him a favorite servant. In fact, Potiphar “made him his personal attendant and put him in charge of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned…” This is good. However, “Joseph was well built and handsome. After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, ‘Lie with me,’ but he refused. He said to his master’s wife, ‘Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except yourself, since you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?’ And much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield to her request to lie beside her, to be with her. One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. When she saw that he had left it in her hand and had fled outside, she called out to her servants and said to them, ‘Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud. And when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and got away and fled outside.’ She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home…When his master heard the story that his wife told him…he was furious. So Joseph’s master had him put in prison…” (Genesis 39.4-20)

The story assumes and Joseph states that adultery is wrong. It is both a sin against God and a sin against Potiphar. In terms of Potiphar, it is both a violation of the trust he has placed in Joseph and a violation of the ancient understanding that a wife is owned by her husband. Having an affair with her would be a crime against her husband. We moderns, of course, look at women differently. Rather than the property of either a father or a husband, we see women as autonomous human begins who should be equal to men. However, the autonomy and equality of women do not change the wrongness—the sinfulness—of adultery. Nor do our modern ideas change the fact that adultery breaches sacred trust. The question of adultery may seem a bit out of place in the current discussion of sexual harassment, but the fact is that many of these incidents would never have happened if the perpetrators took marital fidelity seriously.

The story of Joseph and the current spate of prominent men being accused of sexual impropriety are deeply troubling. These stories touch on some of our deepest fears—being abused and victimized by someone more powerful that we, and being falsely accused. There is clearly much to be said, but I would suggest the following principles to guide our thinking.

(1)   Sexual harassment is wrong. The standards of equal opportunity and liberty are clear: sexual favors should not be a condition of employment. Using the hierarchical power of a work, educational, or government structure to cajole or force sex is immoral, illegal, and usually against company policy.

(2)   The term sexual harassment is very expansive and can cover a number of problematic behaviors—some more serious than others. As explained in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, some sexual harassment behaviors are in and of themselves and immediately wrong, while others are a matter of personal judgement and preference. For example, it is wrong to make sexual behavior a condition of work or to physically assault a co-worker. However, it is not necessarily wrong to hug someone or to tell an off-color joke. It only becomes wrong if the offended co-worker expresses his/her discomfort officially, and the hugging or telling of off-color jokes continues.

(3)   Each case is individual—with its own unique context, behaviors, and motivations. It is unjust to group all these incidents together and say things like, “All men are…” or “All women are…” The adjudication of each case—in companies, in court cases, and in public opinion—should be based on the facts of each individual case.

(4)   Given the sexual energy that courses through humans and human interactions—and the various postures and attitudes of flirting or not flirting and sexual availability or non-availability, the fact is that misunderstandings and mixed signals are pretty much inevitable. Whether in high school, college, social situations, or the work place, individuals should be wary of assuming other people’s thoughts or attitudes regarding sexual activity. And, individuals should be wary of bringing any kind of coercion to these kinds of encounters.

(5)   While it is important to take seriously claims of victimization, saying that it is a moral imperative to believe victims’ claims seems a dangerous principle. We all know that some people lie—and for a variety of reasons. And, we all know that different people can regard the same behaviors with widely differing interpretations. Automatically believing someone who feels victimized is not a very judicious approach. There has got to be a way to evaluate claims without blaming or re-victimizing victims and without leaving innocent people vulnerable to false accusations. In other words, justice requires due regard for truth, subtly, and miscommunication. Justice requires diligence to facts and not resorting to platitudes or generalizations.

(6)   Repentance should always be a possibility. We are taught that God welcomes our teshuvah—that it is possible to ask forgiveness and find a path back. This obviously involves acknowledging that one has done wrong and caused damage. And, this obviously involves stopping the sinful behavior. And, this obviously involves asking forgiveness of the individuals who have been harmed.

As I read each scandal, I find myself wondering, “What was this guy thinking?” Was he an amoral manipulator who felt that his power and status entitled him to sexual favors? Was he a hapless fellow who thought inaccurately that he was a “player” and therefore desired by all he met? Was he misreading the signs of sexual availability—just figuring that the other person was interested? Or, was he guilty of insensitivity, thinking that something unfunny was funny, something witless witty, or something grotesque subtle and persuasive? We do not really know about the sinners in the spotlight, just as we do not really know the thoughts of Potiphar’s wife. All that we should know is that coercion in sexual matters is wrong, as is false accusation. In this remarkably sensitive area of life, we need to be very careful and treat the sensibilities of our fellow human beings with great respect.


God's Love For Us, Despite Our Unworthiness

December 1st: Vayishlach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The Torah portion this week starts with some high anxiety. Jacob is returning to the Land of Canaan (at the instruction of the Lord) and sends word to his brother Esau. As you may recall, there was some hostility between the brothers when last they met. Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau’s response was to threaten Jacobs’ life. So, with maturity and wealth and the passage of some twenty –one years, Jacob is hoping for a peaceful welcoming. The anxiety explodes when the messengers return with this news: “Esau himself is coming to meet you, and he has 400 men with him.” (Genesis 32.7) It does not say “400 armed and angry men,” but that is what Jacob seems to hear.

Greatly frightened, he divides his retinue into two camps—so that, at least, one can escape, and then he turns to God in prayer: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you!’ I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.” (Genesis 31.10-13)

Part of Jacob’s pitch is to remind God that this return trip is only because of God’s instruction. “You’re sending me on this journey. It isn’t to get me killed, is it?” Added to this is the promise, mentioned twice in a fairly brief prayer, that God has promised to take care of Jacob and his growing family—to “deal bountifully” with them. A massacre would spoil everything—for God (and us)! Yes, Jacob is using every argument he can muster. “Please, O Lord, save us!”

Nestled within his plaintive plea is a note of theological import. “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant…” We usually think of unworthiness as something we are supposed to feel at Yom Kippur, when we ask for God’s forgiveness yet another time. However, this is an important theological concept that is a pillar of Judaism and a distinguishing concept from our sister religion, Christianity.

We often hear our Christian friends (especially the missionaries) speak of our sinfulness as being so significant that we can never do enough good deeds to outweigh our inherent unworthiness. Their answer is God’s grace—a love and forgiveness which people do not deserve, but that they get anyway through God’s overwhelming love and, of course, through the agency of believing in Jesus. The Jewish answer is that God knows about our imperfect nature, forgiving us when we sincerely repent and working with us in making better decisions.

In both, there is the notion of God’s love for us despite our unworthiness and how that love keeps us in God’s good graces. In Jewish theology, two terms are used to describe this concept, chen and chesed. Chen is usually translated as grace—and is the basis of many popular Jewish names: Hannah, Johanna, Ann, Johanan/John, and Henry. Chesed is usually translated as mercy or loving kindness. “The idea that God does not forget the undeserving is usually expressed by the divine quality of chesed; for instance, in II Sam. 7:15 (God's mercy will not depart from David's offspring even if they commit iniquity) and in other places like Isaiah 54:8. Since Christianity adopted the Pauline emphasis on grace and considered Jesus Christ its main vehicle, the English term grace has been avoided by Jewish writers, even though its antecedents in the Hebrew Bible are firm and formidable.” [CCAR Responsa Committee]

In Jacob’s prayer, the word used is chesed, and our translation renders it as kindness. This is similar to the use of the word in Simon the Righteous’ famous saying in Pirke Avot (1.2): “On three things does the world stand: on Torah, on Worship, and on gemilut chasadim, Deeds of Lovingkindness.” The famed archeologist and President of the Hebrew Union College (and cousin of Rabbi Jonathan Brown), Dr. Nelson Glueck, wrote his whole dissertation on this word and its many understandings (Das Vort Hesed). He maintains that the use of the word chesed involves a covenant of love or loyalty. It is not just kindness for kindness’s sake, nor is it a random, unconnected kind of decency. Chesed is kindness that is part of a relationship—and an expression of the devotion in the relationship.

As a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob is already part of that covenantal relationship with the Almighty. He also has his own covenant with God—spoken by God during the dream of the Stairway connecting Heaven and Earth, and affirmed by him the next morning. Jacob is thus reminding God of their relationship and affirming his own devotion.

An individual’s devotion to God--both in our time and in ages past—is a fluid commodity. We waver in our attitudes about God and the spiritual, and our behaviors often reflect that inconsistency. It is part of the human condition for we are called upon to live in both the spiritual and the physical worlds. Nonetheless, we are taught, God’s love for us, both chesed/kindness and chen/grace are ever-present and ever-strong. Though Jacob and we may not always remember it, God is with us, helping us, and pulling for us to be successful.

Making Fences Around the Torah

November 24th: Vayetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the most curious phrases (and concepts) of Rabbinic Judaism is making a fence around the Torah (asu s’yag latorah). It is found in the very first passage of Avot (Pirke Avot) and is part of the “genealogy” of Rabbinic Authority: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.”

 Just as a fence around a yard or house protects it, many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments in the Torah. These developments were not seen as additions or subtractions (prohibited by the Torah in Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1), but rather as aids in maintaining the integrity of the mitzvot. I like to think of it with an image from my childhood. Many long driveways were lined with oak trees, and often the oak trees had tiny picket fences around them. A careless driver would break the fence and not the oak tree.

Of course, it is important to remember that the fences are not the oak trees—that the Rabbinic enhancements are not of the same status as the mitzvot themselves. For this distinction, the Talmud speaks of some rules as being d’Oraita, revelatory (from the Torah itself), and others as being d’Rabbanan, innovations of the Rabbis.

Many debates have been conducted over the last 2000 years about building such fences—and how sacrosanct they are once they have been standing for years. As you can imagine, the struggle since the Enlightenment over progressive Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist) has often been concerned with these developments—these fences—that have defined much of our Jewish sensibility.

Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro gives an interesting view of this ancient notion in his 1993 book, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot. He rewords the Avot 1.1 advice as follows: “Make a fence for Torah. Distinguish historical form from timeless Truth; dare to change the first to uphold the second.”

Historical Form? Timeless Truth? What in a tradition that prizes tradition is negotiable? What are reasonable reforms? Under what conditions is reform appropriate—and even authentic? How can one throw out the bath water without injuring the baby?

An example comes in the way that this week’s Torah portion describes a Jewish world very different from our own. This is the Parashah where Jacob leaves his home and journeys to his relatives up in Syria. Falling in love with his cousin, Rachel, he works for seven years to earn the bride price to pay for her hand. When it comes time for the wedding, however, Uncle Laban has other plans. He gives Rachel’s sister Leah to Jacob as a wife, and, in a sequence which begs for explanation, Jacob does not realize that he has wed the wrong sister until the morning after their marital night. The initial Jacob-centric sense of the narrative makes us feel bad for Jacob since he was cheated—and has to work an additional seven years for Rachel, his first choice. However, our main sympathies ought to go to Leah, fraudulently pushed into a marriage where she is never truly loved—and forced to compete with her sister for the affections of their mutual husband.

Fortunately, this kind of marital arrangement is no longer our Jewish way. For one thing, the consent of the bride was mandated in Rabbinic Law. For another thing, there is now an inspection (b’decken) before the ceremony. And, the ancient custom of polygamy was discontinued. It was an interesting Halachic decision. Since the Patriarchs and Kings of Judah and Israel had practiced polygamy, Rabbenu Gershom (960-1040) did not feel it appropriate to forbid it—and thus disrespect the Tradition. So, working with the fence around the Torah concept, he merely constructed a “fence” around the Biblically allowed practice of polygamy by enacting a temporary ban (for 1000 years). This temporary ban seemed permanent, but it so happens that it expired around the year 2000. So, is it still in force? Some continue to follow it as a universally accepted custom. Others say that 1000 years is not limited to 1000 actual years—that the term implies permanence.  

In any event, the point is that the seeds of what we now call egalitarianism and feminism were already beginning to germinate in antiquity. Fairness and respect and compassion and autonomy are timeless truths that militated against customs that once seemed unchangeable. As our religion has developed through the ages, we see a gradual changing of the fences when new or different fencing became necessary. The social forms or mores—historical forms—that once included forced marriage and polygamy were changed as we gradually worked on the timeless truth of respect and autonomy for each individual human being.

This reminds me a Midrash taught by Rabbi Eugene Mihaly of the Hebrew Union College. The text is the story of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. He is aglow with inspiration and holiness, but the sight of the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf throws him into a fit of rage. He casts the tablets to the ground and shatters them into hundreds of pieces. Other than the obvious anger or a sense that such idolaters do not deserve God’s commandments, Rabbi Mihaly quotes the Midrash and posits a slightly different scenario. “Why did Moses cast the Tablets to the ground?” he asks. “To teach us that, sometimes, in order to save Torah, one must destroy Torah.” That is why, when God refers to the incident of the Tablets “asher shibarta—which you shattered,” we read it as “ashray shibarta—I am happy that you broke them.” Sometimes, in order to save Torah, one must destroy Torah.

As Rabbi Shapiro puts it—and as our Tradition has shown over and over again, making a fence around the Torah can involve distinguishing historical form from timeless Truth, daring to change the first to uphold the second.

The Stories Before Our Story

November 17th: Toldot
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Translation is always an interesting proposition. Just put four or five different translations of the Bible side by side, and you’ll see the curious variations of the traditional text—all of which are correct! For example, Genesis 1:1 can be rendered “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” or “When God began to create the heaven and the earth.” Both are accurate translations, but the difference in philosophical or spiritual implications can be excellent fodder for discussion.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the translation question comes up immediately. The opening words are “V’eleh tol’dot Yitzchak ben Avraham,” and the traditional English translation, going back to the King James translation of  1611, is “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son.” This is literally accurate. Eleh means these, and toldot means generations, but is this what the ancients really meant? What follows this introduction is not  a genealogy but rather the story of Isaac’s family. Thus do more modern translators, beginning with the 1962 Jewish Publication Society edition, render it, “This is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

Of course, the story is not actually the story of Isaac so much as the story of Isaac’s son, Jacob. We start with Isaac and Rebekah and their hope for a child. We continue with the birth of the twins, Jacob and Esau, but everyone else is pretty much a co-star. Jacob has the leading role for the next twelve chapters. (This changes in Genesis 37 when we have “Eleh toldot Ya’akov / These are the generations of Jacob”—which is really the story of Joseph!)

The spiritual point here is that the story of Jacob begins with the words, “This is the story of Isaac.”  Jacob’s origins and connection to the previous generation are thus declared, and a lesson for the nature of individual human identity is thus presented. We are who we are not only because of our own human uniqueness; we are influenced by and are the continuation of those who came before us.

This essential Jewish teaching—and human truth—was brought to mind this last week at the funeral of a long-time member, Henry Hoffman. His two sons spoke at the funeral, and both Ed and Bennett began their reminiscences of their father with memories of other elders who had passed on. Some were members of the family. Others were part of their social circle. All were role models, and the connection was that their beloved father was part of a tradition of caring and responsibility and righteousness. Hank clearly made his own unique contributions to the ongoing lessons of the generations, but it was deeply beautiful to see the context in which Hank’s sons saw their father’s life. He was part of a tradition of menschlichkeit, and he did that tradition proud.

Think about the people who influenced you—who taught you how to be a mensch. There were parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. There were cousins and neighbors and family friends. There were teachers and rabbis and scout leaders and coaches. Some were better than others, and some, frankly, might have provided examples of how not to behave. However, when we reflect upon the internal voices that remind us of what we should be—noble, responsible, good, compassionate, honest, persistent, patient, appreciative, and reverent, it is profoundly appropriate to realize the chain of tradition that brings these values to us.

When we speak of the line of our tradition, we begin with and mention by name Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah, but the spirit of the text is that this noble and ancient line continues in each and every generation. Just as they are our past, so are we their future. Ours is an historic tradition, and the tug of tradition calls on us to live up to the holy aspirations of our ancient and continuing tradition.

The modern Jewish composer Doug Cotler expressed this sense of continuity in his song, Standing on the Shoulders:

“In the garden there’s a tree
Planted by someone who only imagined me.
What love! What vision!
I marvel at the gift, no fruit could be sweeter than this.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

 As my people went from land to land,
Something passed from hand to hand.
And it isn’t just the words and stories
Of the ancient laws and golden glories.
It’s the way we study the Book we study.
It’s the way we study the way.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

Today my life is full of choice
Because a young man raised his voice,
Because a young girl took a chance.
I am freedom’s inheritance.
Years ago they crossed the sea
And they made a life that’s come to me.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

So in the garden, I’ll plant a seed,
A tree of life for you to read.
The fruit will ripen in the sun.
The words will sound when I am gone.
These are the things I pass along:
The fruit, the Book, and the song.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.”

Our Place

November 10th: Chayeh Sarah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Abraham and his family are semi-nomadic shepherds, and the stories of their sojourning—i.e. moving periodically from one camp site to another—mention many places in the ancient Middle East, all the way from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Of particular note in Genesis are their experiences in Shechem, Beth El, Hebron, Moriah/Salem, and Beersheba. As they lead their flocks to different pastures, no place seems particularly permanent. God moves with them, and they call on God wherever they happen to be.

This all changes when Sarah dies, and Abraham wants to own the spot where she will be buried. Though the Lord has given the whole Land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron is Abraham’s first real estate transaction and the first sense of permanent place in the Land. Though Abraham continues sojourning, his permanent place is at the Cave of Machpelah, and he returns (is returned) there when he is gathered to his people. It is the same for Isaac and Rebecca, and for Jacob and Leah. Machpelah in Hebron in Canaan becomes their place.

In last week’s portion, when Abraham discusses with God the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have a similar idea as the story’s conclusion. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) This seems to be a simple notation of movement. Just as Abraham has walked his guests (The Lord and two angels) out along their way, Abraham simply returns to his encampment—his place—after the conversation.

However, Jacob Weiner, our recent Bar Mitzvah, sees in this phrase something more significant, and it is my pleasure to share with you Jacob’s teaching on “And Abraham returned to his place.” The following is from Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah D’var Torah:

“There are three other possible interpretations. The first considers a recent transition in Abraham’s life. Previously, he has had a more compliant attitude. He has agreed with all of God’s decisions, though they were sometimes difficult for him. Now, he has adopted a more realistic attitude. At the time this story takes place, Abraham is still adjusting to his newfound realism, and this is his first time seriously challenging God. It’s a leap for Abraham, and it may be making him a bit uncomfortable. After confronting God, he needs to return to a more comfortable level. In other words, he has to ‘return to his place.’

A second interpretation begins with a problem, a koshi, in the text: Why does Abraham not try to go lower than ten, say five? I have my own Midrash, which is a story meant to resolve such difficulties, to answer this question. Perhaps after God says that he would save for the sake of ten, Abraham is about to ask if God would save for the sake of five. God knows that the answer was no. To avoid any disappointment on Abraham’s part, God says sharply ‘Abraham! Go no further! For if there is not ten there is not hope for Sodom! If there is no holy community, I can do nothing but evacuate the righteous. I will not sweep away the innocent with the guilty; nor will I preserve the myriads of guilty for a handful of innocent. Go no further!’ Abraham is taken aback by this harsh rebuke and backs down immediately – returning to his place.

The last interpretation involves an idea of moral debit. Whenever you do a good act or make a sacrifice for God, you get some moral cash put in your account. Whenever you commit a bad deed, your account is charged. Whenever you need a little help, you can draw on your account. Abraham has accumulated a large sum, most recently through hospitality to the angels and for going through circumcision willingly. Abraham, being the good person that he is, doesn’t use his surplus for himself. Instead, he petitions God for the lives of the Sodomites. However, his supply of moral cash is not unlimited. By the time he gets to ten, he has all but run out of bargaining power, and thus has to back down, and return to his place.

So, which interpretation is correct? In my opinion, the final interpretation - the moral cash - is the most powerful and most true for me. That interpretation teaches us an important lesson. Abraham the prophet, the father of Judaism, chooses to use his leverage with God to try to save those he didn’t even know. He could ask God to double the size of his flocks, and God would do it. But the fact that he chooses to use it for the sake of total strangers who may not even be good people teaches us about Tikkun Olam - fixing the world. Just like Abraham’s charitable use of his moral cash, we too should be charitable: to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to free the captives, to help the helpless. As Abraham is willing to spend his entire supply of leverage with God to give the gift of potential salvation to multiple cities, so too should we give the most we can to help those less fortunate than us.”

Thanks, Jacob. This is a beautiful lesson and one we should all appreciate.

Bartering With The Lord

November 3rd: Vayera
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the discussion between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, we have one of the most important theological passages in the whole Torah. The conversation takes place just after God and two angels visit Abraham and Sarah and announce that, in a year’s time, Sarah will give birth to a son. As Abraham walks his guests out to the road, God ponders whether or not to discuss the Sodom and Gomorrah situation with Abraham. Thinking that Abraham needs to understand—so that Abraham can teach the rest of the world about God’s justice, the Holy One tells Abraham what is getting ready to happen. Then, Abraham comes forward and says, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of the all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18.23-25)

There should be a lot of tension at this point, while Abraham and we wait for God’s response. Will Abraham’s point stand, or is he utterly wrong about God? Though the Torah never says that God formally agrees, the continuation of the discussion implies that God accepts Abraham’s point: “The Judge of all the earth will deal justly!” Thus does God enter into Abraham’s negotiation about the minimum number of righteous people necessary to save the city.

 If one believes that God wrote or dictated the Torah, then here we have it from the Lord God of all the Universe: God is always just. If one believes that the Torah is the work of human beings, writing in a state of inspiration, then we have the expectation very clearly stated: God is just and fair. In a sense, God has no choice but to be just. Later thinkers may wonder at this understanding of the Divine, but this belief in a just God is a cornerstone of Biblical theology. Indeed, it is against this standard that many theological arguments have been conducted. (See the Biblical Book of Job, Rabbi Isaac Luria’s Kabballah, and Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.)

 The conclusion of the discussion between God and Abraham—after God agrees that, should there be ten righteous people, Sodom will not be destroyed, takes the form of a seemingly innocuous passage. “When the Lord had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.” (Genesis 18.33) Paired with the introduction to the famous discussion—that Abraham “walks along with God and the angels to see them off,” this would simply mean that Abraham walks back to his tent, perhaps to talk to Sarah about the amazing visit. But, given the depth of Biblical interpretation, could there be a deeper meaning to the phrase, “Abraham returned to his place?”

I have never really thought much about this passage, but Jacob Weiner, our Bar Mitzvah this week, sees in it some very interesting possibilities. I do not want to reveal his Midrashic treatment before he gets to share it at his Bar Mitzvah, but I ask you to think about the question. After such a dramatic, potentially dangerous, and theologically significant encounter with the Lord, what could “Abraham returned to his place” mean? What lessons can it teach us?  Think about it this week, and I’ll share Jacob’s insights in next week’s Torah essay.

Sending Us on God's Perilous Errands

October 27th: Lech Lecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the most meaningful quotations I have ever read comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s essay, The Earth is the Lord’s:
“Our life is beset with difficulties, yet it is never devoid of meaning. Our existence is not in vain. There is a Divine earnestness about our life. This is our dignity. To be invested with dignity means to represent something more than oneself. The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget what he represents…We are God’s stake in human history. We are the dawn and the dusk, the challenge and the test. How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands. We have been offered as a pattern of worship and as a prey for scorn, but there is more still in our destiny. We carry the gold of God in our souls to forge the gate of the kingdom. The time for the kingdom may be far off, but the task is plain: to retain our share in God in spite of peril and contempt. There is a war to wage against the vulgar, against the glorification of the absurd, a war that is incessant, universal. Loyal to the presence of the ultimate in the common, we may be able to make it clear that man is more than man, that in doing the finite he may perceive the infinite.”

How strange to be a Jew and to go astray on God’s perilous errands! Could Heschel have been thinking, in crafting this metaphor, of God’s call to Abram? “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12.1-3)

The Midrash elaborates on this simple instruction and has Abram preaching his new religion like a missionary. Indeed, the verse about the retinue that Abram brings with him to Canaan is said to reveal his successes as a proselytizer. 
“Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12.5). The Hebrew word translated as “acquired” is actually the word for “make,” ‘asu. The Midrash uses this to teach that Abram converted lots of people in Haran—and that converting someone is like re-creating them.

Both converting people to Judaism and setting a moral example are parts of our Jewish mission: we are to bring the Torah way of thinking and way of life to the attention of the world. Exodus 19 describes our role as a “kingdom of priests and holy people,” and Isaiah 42 speaks of our intended role as “a light unto the nations.”

In the Pittsburgh Platform, a founding document of Reform Judaism in America, our mission was characterized like this: “We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.” Though phrased in rather grandiloquent 19th Century prose, the message that comes through is that we brought this religious truth to the world, setting in motion its propagation through not only our religion but also the religions which we inspired!

Another understanding of role comes from the 20th Century philosopher Henry Slonimsky, of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In an essay entitled, Judaism and the Religion of the Future, he writes: 
"How can we view our long history of narrow escapes without becoming demoralized? We have to tell ourselves a story that makes sense out of being perennial refugees. Stephen Strauss describes our forced emigrations as holy acts.  They fit into a divine plan for the amelioration of human civilization. He writes: ‘… the Kabalists [sic] tell [a tale] of God’s remorse after he destroyed Babel and the peoples of the world were sequestered in their own languages.  It was good to chasten their pride, God mused, but perhaps humanity would lose as well the true notion that they were of one race. Each of their tribes will think humanity is limited to a certain set of customs and a certain sound they make with their mouths. So God decided to create a people who passed through all the others yet remained itself, and that, the Kabalists say, is the source of the long exile into the nations that the Jews have endured. Speaking any tongue, under any flag, and in whatever antic gowns, the Jew, as the messenger to mankind, remains.’ What the tale means is that the nations of the world can relearn the true notion of one humanity by having their humanitarianism tested in the treatment of the Jews. If they learn to live with differences instead of attacking those who are different, then the Jewish message is carried to mankind. But if the lesson is not learned, then we Jews must experience the same event that stands at the beginning of our history as a people—the flight from oppression

In other words, God’s agenda--the purpose of God’s perilous errands—is not restricted to the Jewish people. God’s goal is the moral perfection of all the world—and of all the inhabitants thereof. Thus are we Children of Abraham sent out to the world to become blessings, and thus do our Prophets speak in terms that are both Jewish and universalistic: 
“It shall come to pass, in the end of days, that the Mountain of the Lord’s House shall be exalted above the hills. The nations shall flow unto it, and many peoples shall say: Come ye, and let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob. God will teach us holy ways—that we may walk in holy paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2.2-3 and Micah 4.1-2)

Not Like the Generation of Noah

October 20th: Noach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Though I had heard it hundreds of times, I never really understood the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty until I was a grown-up.
     Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
     Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
     All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

As we are growing up, lots of things go wrong. We fall. We fail. We try things and don’t get them right. We drop things. We bump into things. We miss. And, so often, to calm our frustration, we heard the words, “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” And many times, it is okay. Things can be fixed. We can get up. We can try again. We may even succeed. Sometimes, it is okay. Sometimes.

But, sometimes, things cannot be fixed. Sometimes, we do not get a second chance. Sometimes, it is not okay.

I remember a friend commenting on her anxiety as her daughter started driving. “Now,” she said, “with that 3000 pound car, she can do some real damage.” As we’ve all learned, some mistakes in driving can be corrected. Some cannot.

I think of these things as I read the story of Noah and the Ark—or, at least, the introductory paragraphs. The story actually begins at the end of last week’s Torah portion. 
“The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the Lord regretted that He has made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.’ But Noah found favor with the Lord.”  (Genesis 6.5-8)

There is not a lot of specificity in this evaluation, and so my tendency is to wonder what exactly was so bad that humanity deserved destruction.

The explanation in this week’s Torah portion is not much more helpful.
"The earth became corrupt before God: the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. Make for yourself an ark…’” (Genesis 6.11-14)

We do not know much about the specific crimes—what it takes to incur such Divine wrath, and we also do not know much about Noah’s distinguishing behavior. All the Torah tells us is: 
“This is the line of Noah—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age: Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. God seems very clear about what constitutes evil and what constitutes a savable life, but, as we try to plot lives that will curry God’s favor and not invoke God’s destructive fury, we are left with an element of mystery. What are we supposed to do? What are we supposed not to do?!

The Torah is full of advice on leading holy lives—teaching us both moral and ritual mitzvot. The moral commandments push us to live lives of integrity and righteousness, and the ritual commandments push us to open our awareness to our place in the cosmos. They can all be very helpful, and we can look forward to the Divine instruction that our yearly Torah cycle offers.

However, beneath all of the advice and commentary, the story of Noah reminds us that the stakes in life can be very serious. There are some mistakes for which there is no remedy. There are some situations in which we simply do not get another chance. There are some mistakes or missed chances or sins that cause real and lasting harm. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” cannot remedy or fix or undo some of our misdeeds.

And so, the story of Noah reminds us that we need to approach our lives with careful consideration. Careful consideration!


The Ongoing Communication of Torah

October 13th: Simchat Torah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we conclude Deuteronomy on Simchat Torah, why do we re-start everything and begin reading Genesis again? Haven’t we already covered everything?!

Our constant repetition of the Torah is a sign of our devotion to God and to our tradition of holiness, but, there is more.

We are taught that God knows everything—because God created everything—and that Torah is the way we access the Mind of God. Some Sages teach that every possible bit of knowledge is included in the Torah—in the seventy levels of interpretation for every word and letter. Many moderns may not go this far, but there is a case to be made for the attitude that Torah gives us as we approach the many kinds of information available to us. Whether we learn scientific facts or technological possibilities or artistic insights, the mindset we develop in studying Torah can help us approach all our new information with equanimity and holiness. Perhaps this is what the ancient Sage, Ben Bag Bag, meant in his famous advice about the Torah: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” (Avot 5.22)

There is also the awareness that different messages come through to us in subsequent readings. Look at all the Midrashim: some rabbi somewhere noticed something different about a passage, and the world of interpretive possibilities grew. Hillel was not the first person to read the passage about eating the matzah and bitter herbs and lamb together. Jews had been reading that verse for centuries! However, he heard the word together in a new way, and we have the Seder’s Hillel Sandwich.  He was also not the first person to read about the seven year limitation for debts, but he was the first to fix that seven year limitation to individual debts—as opposed to a rigid time period for all debts, and he thereby made loan money available to people even as the sabbatical year drew close. We are the beneficiaries of all these sprouts in the field of God’s wisdom. 

There are also our own varying sensitivities and insights. As we go through life, we understand things differently based on our experiences. A passage which meant one thing to us twenty or thirty years ago may have a significantly more profound message for us today: we are not the same as we were.

God and the Tradition are also working with the fact that the members of each generation need to learn the lessons of life for themselves. We may try to teach them the wisdom we’ve gained—just like our parents and grandparents tried to teach us, but only some of this accumulated wisdom gets through. Why? It is impossible to understand love or temptation or rage or devotion until you’re actually experiencing it. When they or we are finally in a place to understand the lessons, our Tradition offers them again through the yearly repetition of the Torah’s insights and wisdom. Stated another way, God gives us second or third or fourth chances at finally understanding things through the ongoing communication of Torah. Who knows what lessons await us? Who knows what we shall be able to hear this time around?

The Flow of God's Energy

October 6th: Sukkot

Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The special Torah reading for Sukkot is Exodus 33.12 to 34.26 and includes the famous passage where Moses begs to see God’s Face: “Moses said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence (Face)!’ But, God answered, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the Holy Name, and I will show you the grace that I grace and the compassion that I show, but you cannot see My face, for humans may not see Me and live.’”

I’m not critiquing God’s literary technique, but I think I would have said it differently. I would have started with, “You cannot see My face,” and then explain, “But, I will make all My goodness pass before you.” But, of course, I’m not God—as should be very clear to everyone after all these years….

Nonetheless, this nechemta—this caveat of kindness—is, to me, the most important message. While we cannot see the essence of God, we can see the effects of God—and these blessings are all around us.

Reb Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) instructed his disciples in what he called “transparency:” that the Presence of God can be seen in every creation. Consider the people with whom you have contact in your daily life. Every single one of them is a creation of God with God’s imprint—a spark of Divinity—within. Some people’s image of the Divine may be more apparent than others’, but we are urged to look closely at every other person or object and see the creative spirit of God. The Hindus speak of this when they bow to each other and say, “Namaste: the god in me bows to the god in you,” but we monotheists may prefer, “The Image of God in me bows to the Image of God in you.” If we can develop this vision, we can see God’s goodness before us—and realize the truth in God’s promise to Moses.

We can also “see God” in the blessed events of human life. This was the message in the passage in the old Union Prayer Book (1940): “To the seer of old You did say: You cannot see My Face, but I will make all My Goodness pass before You. Even so does Your Goodness pass before us in the realm of nature and in the varied experiences of our lives. When justice burns like a flaming fire within us, when love evokes willing sacrifice from us, when, to the last full measure of selfless devotion, we proclaim our belief in the ultimate triumph of truth and righteousness, do we not bow down before the vision of Your Goodness? You live in our hearts, as You pervade the world, and we through righteousness behold Your Presence.

Another sacred text can help us to an awareness of God’s energy in our lives. In the Talmudic discussion of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, a question is asked about the minimum one must say to adequately thank God. When one has time or the knowledge to say the full blessing, one should. However, if one is rushed or ignorant or infirm and cannot say the full blessing, what is the minimum acceptable? The answer is: “B’rich Rachamana, Malka d’Al’ma, Maray d’hai pitah. Blessed is the Compassionate One, Ruler of all the World, Master of this food.” This ancient blessing was adapted by the modern spiritual leaders, Rabbi Shefa Gold and Cantor Jack Kessler, to include the following interpretation: “You are the Source of Life for all that is, and your blessing flows through me.”

 Not only does God’s goodness pass before us, it also is manifested through us.

As we leave the intensity of the sanctuary—and all of the important things we have prayed or learned during the High Holy Days, let us focus on the outside world, looking through the walls of the Sukkah to see the goodness of God and the sacred opportunities for service.


Written on Rosh Hashanah, Sealed on Yom Kippur

September 29th: Yom Kippur
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the curious things about our traditional prayers is that, though they can be very challenging, there is nonetheless a persistent urge to keep on praying them. One of the most challenging prayers in the High Holy Day liturgy is Un’taneh Tokef:
Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day: it is awesome and full of dread. For on this day, Your dominion is exalted, Your throne is established in steadfast love; there in truth You reign. In truth You are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal, You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being. This is the Day of Judgment! Even the hosts of heaven are judged, as all who dwell on earth stand arrayed before You. As the shepherd seeks out the flock, and makes the sheep pass under the staff, so do You muster and number and consider every soul, setting the bounds of every creature’s life, and decreeing its destiny. 

 Setting the bounds of every creature’s life?! God really does this? Is our fate for next February or May being decided right now?! Then the prayer gets positively graphic: 
On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted.

But repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree. 

 This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. It is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You. 

There is something terribly disturbing about this prayer, and, yet, it also seems to speak a kind of ancestral truth. It is a prayer that is frequently discussed at study groups on Yom Kippur: it bothers some and seems necessary to others.

Here is a piece written for our Machzor that considers the logic of the prayer and the Jewish sensibility in praying it every year:
As much as we are masters of our own fates—making decisions and living with the consequences, there are also times when greater powers toss us around like small boats on a stormy sea. Whether the “storm” is caused deliberately by God—as a punishment or a test—or by the vagaries of the natural world, we find ourselves victims or objects of the slings and arrows of fortune. Are events pre-determined, or do we have free will? This ominous prayer, Un’taneh Tokef, has for some 1500 years represented our people’s grappling with this question. We know that many of our decisions make a difference, but we also know that greater powers impact our lives in significant ways. We pray that the greatest of powers eases our way and makes our challenges manageable, and we pray that the decisions we make will be good ones.

Praying and Working for Perfection

Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuva
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There is something Messianic about the High Holy Days. Though Jewish Tradition has us waiting and praying for the coming of the Messiah, there are things we can do to hasten the day. What are these things? They are the mitzvot we are supposed to do all the time. In other words, we have a role to play in the perfection of the world; our good and holy deeds can pave the way for the Messiah.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the closeness to God it can bring, here is a hymn that speaks of the glorious future that we pray will come soon—and that we can help to bring. It was found in the Machzor Vitry, an 11th Century High Holy Day prayer book from France. No author is listed. The English translation is by Israel Zangwill, a Jewish public intellectual and man of letters in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It is slightly adapted.

All the World
All the world shall come to serve You,
And bless Your glorious Name.
And Your righteousness triumphant
The islands shall proclaim.
And the people shall go seeking
Who knew You not before.
And the ends of earth shall praise You
And tell Your greatness o’er.

They shall build for You their altars,
Their idols overthrown,
And their graven gods shall shame them,
As they turn to You alone.
They shall worship You at sunrise,
And feel Your Sovereign might,
And impart their understanding
To those astray in night.

With the coming of Your victory
The hills shall shout with song,
And the islands laugh exultant
That they to God belong.
And through all Your congregations
So loud Your praise shall ring,
that the utmost peoples, hearing,
Shall then Your greatness sing.

L'shanah Tovah!


We Were All There, At the Mountain

September 15th: Nitzavim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When the Torah says, “You are all standing here this day before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29.9), the nature of the occasion and the constituency of the audience are both a little ambiguous. Is it a new covenant ceremony as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land? Is it a farewell lecture of Moses—reminding them of their national history? Is it a rehashing of the revelation at Mount Sinai? Is it a kind of initiation ceremony for the new generation, born in the wilderness after Mount Sinai? Or is it a ritual re-creation of the revelation intended to remind everyone of the covenant with God that is still in effect?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to speak about the power of ritual re-creations in religion, referring to them as peak experiences domesticated. An important event happened long ago, but we want to feel its power and influence today. To accomplish this, we construct a ritual—some stories, some holy texts, some ritual process involving movement, chanting, special clothing, and even some food. They all revolve around the central purpose of putting us back in that moment of greatness or inspiration or insight.

This might have been a moment of great emotion for Moses and the Children of Israel—what, with Moses’ retirement coming up and the entrance to the Promised Land about to begin. There is every reason to see this grand gathering as a transition ceremony concluding one chapter of the national life and looking forward to the next. And yet, as the portion has been handed down for so many centuries, it has taken on the feeling of a re-creation-ritual in which these new Israelites (the ones born in the desert) and all the Israelites of subsequent generations see themselves as standing at another mountain, Mount Sinai, and hearing the voice of the Eternal as we entered God’s covenant.

When we read this passage in synagogue this weekend, this peak experience domesticated will certainly be on the agenda. And, when we read it again on Yom Kippur, we can again see ourselves at the mountain, hearing and responding to the Lord God.

As for the constituency of the audience, the text gives us both specificity and ambiguity: 
“You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your tribal captains, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; that you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and join in an oath which the Lord your God makes with you this day; that the Eternal may establish you today as a holy people, and that the Lord may be to you a God, as has been said to you, and as has been sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29.9-14)

The listing is pretty comprehensive, but, at the very end, we have the cryptic, “It is not with you alone that I make this covenant and this oath; I make it both with those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with those who are not here with us this day.”

Who exactly are “those who are not here with us this day?” The logical answer is that some people didn’t make it out of the camp that morning. With 600,000 or so people, you figure someone is ill, or taking care of the ill, or in a state of ritual impurity, or on guard duty, etc. The point here is that everyone in the community is included, whether he or she is physically present for the covenant ceremony.

However, our Sages picked up on this phrase and saw in it a much more mystical possibility. They taught that every Jew of every generation was present at Mount Sinai. Every Jew of every time was standing right there, hearing the voice of God and accepting our holy mission.

This would mean that our ritual recreation of this peak experience is really a matter of remembering something we all already know—because we were all there. So, rather than it being like a historical re-enactment (like the yearly Washington crossing the Delaware River event), this is more like a couple playing a tape of their wedding and feeling that special love again—or someone playing a tape of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and once again feeling the closeness to God from that special, special day.  

We were all there, so we can all, at some level, remember.

But, what about the converts—all those individuals who have chosen Judaism and joined our people in the intervening centuries? The answer is that they were there, too. All Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai. All Jewish souls heard the thunder of God’s voice. All Jewish souls of all time were there to affirm the covenant with the Most High.

In other words, those who have chosen to convert to our faith already had Jewish souls. They were just born to non-Jewish families. As much as they loved and respected their birth families, their Jewish souls yearned to be with other Jews, and they gradually found their way into the Jewish community, spiritually settling into the religious home that their souls were seeking all along.

Thus do we stand together in this day, alongside all those people with whom we stood so long ago. Sinai is not just a story; it is a seminal moment of our lives—a pivotal and holy moment of our souls’ development. We have been somewhere special. We have witnessed God’s Presence ourselves. And, we are called to respond to this awesome memory in the way that we live our lives.


Living in the Promised Land: Politics & Religion

September 8th: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

“When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it…”  (Deuteronomy 26.1) Thus begins Parshat Ki Tavo and the mitzvah of taking first fruits and sharing them with God, with the Priests and Levites, and with orphans and widows and strangers. God’s blessings are gifts which should be shared with others.

Of course, for almost 2000 years, this particular mitzvah was impossible. Very few Jews lived in “The Land,” and therefore most Jews had to celebrate this mitzvah theoretically and in a different context. Thank God that this is no longer the case, and Jews can now both enter the Land of Israel and live in it, bringing Judaism’s holiness to the Holy Land.

Among the many challenges facing the modern State of Israel is religious diversity. There are many different approaches to Judaism and Jewishness among the Jews of Israel, and there are often conflicts about who is in charge and how will Judaism officially be practiced.

A lot of news was generated this summer over the issue of access to the Kotel, the Western (retaining) Wall of the Temple Mount. When the Kotel was regained in 1967, it could have been assigned to the Ministry of Antiquities as a historical site. However, politics being what they are, it was assigned to the Ministry of the Interior (and Religious Affairs) and thus was classified as a “synagogue” and given to the Orthodox Rabbanut to manage. In Orthodox synagogues, men and women pray separately, and so the two sides—a men’s and a women’s—became the new arrangement. (Formerly, before the Kotel was seized and desecrated by the Jordanians in 1948, men and women had prayed there together.)

For the past several years, a group of courageous and determined feminists, The Women of the Wall, has gathered on the women’s side every Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) and tried to lead a public service and read Torah. There has been a lot of resistance by the Orthodox, and, things have gotten pretty ugly on more than one occasion. It has been an example of the lack of religious freedom in Israel for non-Orthodox Jews. Then, a coalition of civil liberties activists, representatives of a range of Jewish “denominations,” and some high ranking governmental leaders worked on the problem and came up with a solution. Instead of two sections, the Kotel would have three: one for men, another for women, and a third for mixed groups and Liberal Jewish worship. The details were all hammered out, and everyone was on board, but, at the last minute in June, some Orthodox political parties threatened to withdraw their support from Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and the whole plan collapsed.

A lot of people had a lot to say, and the controversy reverberated around the Jewish world. Unfortunately, the Liberal branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—are too often marginalized in Israel, denied government funds, and thwarted by a wide range of Orthodox strategies. It is a continual struggle.

And yet, the story of Liberal Judaism is Israel is not a tale of woe or failure. There has been a lot of progress—a lot of success, and I want to share with you a recent statement of Rabbi Micky Boyden, one of the long-time leaders of Progressive Judaism in Israel. He writes:

 When one reads about the way in which Bibi backtracked on the Kotel agreement and the disgraceful manner in which the Women of the Wall are treated by the police and security personnel, one could be mistaken for believing that Reform Judaism is having a bad time of it in Israel.

If you add to that the dislike that many feel for Israel's right-wing/religious coalition government, one can see why many Reform Jews in North America and elsewhere are lukewarm about the Jewish State. That having been said, the High Holydays are approaching and it is time to put the record straight.

Reform Judaism in Israel is, by and large, an amazing success story. Thirty years ago there were only a handful of congregations and not one single purpose built Reform synagogue anywhere in Israel apart from at Leo Baeck in Haifa and HUC in Jerusalem. We were viewed as an American outpost, whose supporters were almost entirely from English speaking countries. There were maybe two or three couples a year who dared have a Reform rabbi officiate at their wedding.

 Fast forward thirty years. There are some 50 Reform congregations across the country. Religious pluralism is part of the landscape much to the dislike of the charedim. Many Reform synagogues are being built on public land. The Reform Movement in Israel conducts over 200 conversions per annum. Those who have converted through us are recognized as Jews by the State of Israel and registered as such in the Interior Ministry's population register. We
are inundated by couples wishing us to officiate at their weddings. These requests, and indeed all of the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at which we officiate, come from so-called "secular" Israelis disgusted by the religious establishment and looking for a liberal Jewish alternative.

Of course, many people don't like Bibi. (I know one or two people who aren't that happy with Donald Trump either!) However, that doesn't stop us from loving our country and working for a better tomorrow.

Ownership: Rights, Responsibilities, and Limits

September 1st: Ki Tetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Some sections of the Torah seem to be a random assortment of commandments, a kind of holy hodgepodge. Each mitzvah can certainly be understood on its own terms, but, sometimes, finding an overarching theme can help us to understand the mindset of our ancient ancestors and their moral code. In the case of Ki Tetze, one of the themes one can identify is that of property. Who owns what? What are the owner’s obligations and prerogatives? What is the relationship between the property of an individual and other people in the community.

Here are some of the mitzvot involved in this general theme:

21.10: In the course of war, women can be captured, but they cannot be abused. If a man desires a captive woman, he must marry her and give her the full rights of a wife.

21.15: If a man has two wives, he must treat both fairly, and he must give the eldest son his birthright—even if that son’s mother is less loved than her co-wife.

21.18: If parents have a “wayward and defiant son” who will not mend his evil ways, the parents shall bring him to the community to be stoned to death.

21.22: If someone is to be executed by impaling, his body must be buried the same day.

22.1: If you find lost property, you must return it to the owner or take care of it until the owner is found.

22.4: If you see someone else’s ox or donkey fallen on the road, you must help it up.

22.5: Woman may not wear men’s clothing, nor may men wear women’s clothing.

22.6: When you find a nest of eggs or hatchlings with the mother bird, do not take the mother along with the eggs or hatchlings. Send her away.

22.8: When you build a new house with a flat roof, put a parapet around the roof so no one will fall off.

22.9: Do not plant two species of plants together in a field.

22.10: Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together.

22.11: Do not wear cloth combining wool and linen.

Clearly, many of the mitzvot are far from our way of thinking. The mindset in which some of them are even thinkable—much less holy—is far from our sense of ethical behavior. They represent the difficult passages which tradition has had to interpret—and which I have discussed these past three weeks. Others, however, possess a rudimentary fairness and decency which makes us proud. Indeed, even in the midst of situations which we see as heinous (forcing captive women into marriage, stoning undisciplined children), there is an attempt, in an ancient and harsh society, to insert some decency and fairness.

In the case of the captive woman, forcing a woman into marriage is horrible, but one can see an attempt by the Bible to improve upon the custom of battlefield rape. A similar tendency can be seen in the passage about having one’s son stoned to death. Here it is in its entirety:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) Whereas, in other societies, parents owned children and could do with them what they wanted, the Bible establishes a set of very specific and frankly unlikely circumstances before such a stoning can take place—and it puts the ultimate judgment on the community and not on the parents. Killing in a fit of fury is not the way it works. Parents may own their children, but their autonomy is not without limits.

Indeed, this is the message in all of these passages and in the portion, in general. People own things—property, material possessions, livestock, and even people. (Remember the ancient notion that fathers owned their wives and their children. Why else would fathers give their daughters away at weddings?) But, God establishes limits on what we can do with what we own. There are standards of decency, respect for the property of others, respect for the comfort of animals, and respect for the natural order. As we learn over and over again in the Torah, the gifts we are granted by God are dependent upon how we treat them.

Let me close with two pieces which illustrate this sensibility. One is a Midrash from Ecclesiastes Rabba, and the other is from Kahlil Gibran, the modern Lebanese-American poet.

From Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13:
“When Adam and Eve were created, God took them on a tour of the Garden of Eden. The trees, flowers, animals, and birds were so beautiful that they sang out, ‘How glorious are Your works, O Lord! In Wisdom have You made them all.’ Then God said, ‘My children, all these creations are gifts from Me to you and your children forever. They are yours to enjoy and yours to protect.  If anyone ever ruins them, there will be no one else to come after and repair the damage. This world is yours. Please take care of it.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7.13)

“On Children,” from The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, 1923:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.”



Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part III

Shof’tim: August 25th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

What do you do when a text you revere and hold holy has passages which go against your notion of goodness and morality? Do you figure that your understanding of ethics is faulty and accept the holy command? Or, do you reject the whole book, figuring that anything with such an unfair or unrighteous decree must be wholly bad? Or, do your interpret the problematic passages in ways that defangs their poison. This third path, as I have observed over the last two weeks, is a long and venerable tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

These interpretations have generally involved non-literal readings of the passages, and we found, for example, that both historical records and Biblical records suggest that the Israelites did not destroy the Canaanite population when they moved into the Land—despite the command to do so in Deuteronomy and the report that they had done so in Joshua. We also considered the context of difficult passages, and found that understanding them in situ renders them much less hostile.

This week, I want to speak to the motivation of various interpreters/commentators and how it can play a major role in the messages found in holy texts.

The historian Ellis Rivkin used to note an interesting fact in regard to Christian and Muslim anti-Semitism. Though both religions have a long history of anti-Jewish teachings and actions—sometimes heinously cruel, neither Christianity nor Islam has ever united their disparate elements in the mission of ridding the world of Jews and Judaism. The record of anti-Semitism in both religions is remarkably spotty. When one king or sultan or bishop would embark on a campaign against Jews—burning the Talmud, massacring a village or a valley, or expelling all Jews, another Christian or Muslim leader down the road would welcome the Jews and treat them well.

If eliminating Jews or Judaism is a real pillar of either religion, why would there be this division of religious purpose? Dr. Rivkin’s reading (and that of many Christian and Muslim scholars!) is that neither Christianity nor Islam is inherently anti-Jewish or anti-Judaism. This suggests that the anti-Semites in both religions are doing some interpreting of their own, finding hostile messages because of their own motivations or agendas—and not those of the holy texts themselves.

What, Dr. Rivkin asked, would be a trigger for taking generally ignored anti-Jewish passages and using them for great evil? Looking at case after case of anti-Semitic episodes, Dr. Rivkin noticed a pattern. Every time, Christians or Moslems mounted a major onslaught against Jews or Judaism, it was connected to an economic crisis. Though generally ignored, anti-Semitic passages were been dredged up in the midst of financial disaster and used by demagogic religious leaders. In some cases, the demagoguery was to project blame from the real culprits to an easily other-able group. In other cases, the demagoguery was used by one group to steal money from another.

Let me give two examples. Though the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula expelled both Muslims and Jews during the 15th Century, the only Jews remaining in Spain after 1492 were converts to Christianity—sincere converts. Many became priests, nuns, and even bishops. But, when a major economic crisis hit Spain, all of a sudden, Tomas Torquemada and his Inquisitors, based in one major Spanish economic center, discovered a whole network of secret Jews—all from the other major economic center. Despite all those romantic legends about persecuted Jews secretly practicing their religion, the only evidence for this secret Judaism comes from (1) claims by the Inquisition and (2) confessions exacted under torture. All these Jewish families who wanted to practice Judaism could have fled with the others—both during and following the 100 years of the Expulsion. The ones who stayed accepted Christianity and were real Christians. They were known as coming from Jewish parentage, and many occupied a position in Spanish cultural and intellectual society similar to the way New York Jewish intellectuals have been so influential in America. However, there is no evidence that any of them were anything other than loyal Christians. This pernicious myth of secret Judaism was used to dispossess the leadership and wealth of a major Spanish economic center so that the other center—Torquemada’s—could emerge wealthier and more powerful.

A second example comes from Russia in the latter part of the 19th Century and the terrible pogroms that caused great suffering and lots of emigration. The real problem was an extravagant imperial budget being financed by taxing a pre-industrial economy. The Russian tax base was much lower than that of Western European kingdoms, and the Czar had to tax much harder to enjoy an opulent life—and to run the Empire. Blaming the heavy tax burden on the Jews was a way of deflecting the criticism that eventually led to the various Russian Revolutions. Life in Russia for Jews was not wonderful, but the imperial regime fomented the discovery and use of anti-Semitic texts to inflame the peasant mobs.

The same pattern can be seen in countless European and African and Asian outbreaks of anti-Semitism. The hostile passages are there in the Christian or Muslim texts, but they are not important to the faith. The salient factor is the attitude or motivation of the religious leaders who, all of a sudden, find the passages and use them to promote other than religious agendas. It is a cynical and manifestly ungodly use of religion, and it has brought great suffering to the world.

And so, as we look at our own difficult passages, the key is to remember that ancient documents need to be interpreted for both ancient and modern readers—and that our interpreting needs to be done with kind, just, and godly motivations.

Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part II

Re’eh: August 18th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Last week, we considered how one can revere and follow Holy Scriptures while holding back or editing out some of its problematic passages. I gave the example of Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible” where he cut and pasted what he considered to be the gems of Christian teaching and left out the rest. Given that the Bible is an inconsistent work—with a variety of instructions and principles, some contradicting others, Jefferson joined in a long tradition of commentators who interpreted their way around offensive or ungodly passages. I observed that this tradition exists in Islam as well as Judaism and Christianity. Interpretation is vital to discerning God’s wishes.

The passages in Deuteronomy that provoked my discussion are the ones that command the Israelites to annihilate the native Canaanite population. These instructions are found many times in Deuteronomy, and their successful execution is reported in Joshua. And yet, the historical, archeological, and even Biblical records show that such a mass extermination did not occur. The point I drew last week is that the ancients did not regard these passages as marching orders or literal history. This is another kind of literature.

By the way, the one part of these instructions which the Israelites did apparently carry out—at least, in part—is a destruction of Canaanite idols and religious sites. The commandment is in this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 12.2-3): “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” And, sure enough, there are archeological ruins in Hatzor (northern Israel) showing burned Canaanite temples, with idols whose heads have been chopped off.

The subject this week is the context of ancient texts. Historical perspective and an understanding of context can often render problematic passages much less insistent on ungodly behavior.

In Christianity, the Jewish sages known as Pharisees are much maligned. Why? The Gospels tell of Pharisees arguing with Jesus, and later generations regarded these arguments as disrespectful. What many Christians do not know, however, is that Jesus himself seems to have been a part of Pharisaic Judaism—the movement that brought us the Rabbis, the Mishnah, the Oral Law, and the World to Come. The Pharisees (Pietists/Separatists) were scholars who made studying and teaching the Torah their life’s work. Part of the study involved discussing how various passages, laws, and principles were to be understood. Sometimes, these discussions got pretty animated, and one might refer to them as arguments. A historical reading of the Gospel stories shows a group of Pharisees (Jesus included!) discussing interpretations of Sabbath Law: what one can and cannot do on the Sabbath. In none of these arguments is Jesus voicing an opinion outside of Rabbinic/Pharisaic Judaism. He is simply putting forth one Pharisaic view, and the other Pharisees are arguing back with others. In the context, Jesus was just another Pharisaic Jew, discussing or arguing about Halachah. However, when these stories were told decades later, after Paul had crafted Christianity not from the historical Jesus but from his spiritual vision on the road to Damascus, Jesus was no longer seen as another teacher with whom one could discuss the Torah. At that point, Jesus was considered divine, and his words were to be obeyed and believed. The different context created the traditional Christian disparagement of the Pharisees—one which can still be heard in some Christian churches.

In the case of some very anti-Jewish passages in the Koran—passages that have recently made the news, it is important to remember the struggles of the founder of Islam. As with all religious innovators, Mohammed faced some fierce opposition from the authorities of his time, and, at one point, when his life was threatened, the Prophet took refuge among the Jews of Medina. They welcomed him and protected him for quite a while. Later, when he achieved success in his new understanding of religious monotheism, he expected those Jewish tribes to join him. When they refused, an armed conflict ensued, and he unleashed a torrent of anger on those Jews. Many were killed, and, to modern readers of the Koran, it can look like a blanket attack on all Jews of all times. This is not the inevitable interpretation of the Koran, but the passages are there if an interpreter chooses to use them in demagoguery.

For a truly shocking Jewish passage, let us turn to the Talmud, to Yevamot 61a. Here the rabbis are discussing the ritual impurity caused when someone dies, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai draws a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, saying, “The Jewish people are called Adam (men/humans), but Gentiles are not called Adam (men/humans).” Does this mean that Judaism does not consider non-Jews to be fully human? Do we not learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5: “All humanity was created as one person, the original Adam of Genesis, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. And also, to promote peace so that no one will say that ‘My ancestors are greater than yours.’”? All humans come from the same ancestor, Adam. All are created in the image of God. All people are human beings.

What then are we to make of Yevamot’s statement that Gentiles are not human? The passage is in the context of assigning ritual impurity in the presence of a corpse or buried body. Jewish corpses are buried in clearly designated cemeteries so that a priest can easily avoid walking through them. However, given that Gentiles do not always observe the Halachic burial rules—and that land use changes over centuries, it is possible that any place one walks could be over a long lost non-Jewish burial. Hence, ritual purity is always in doubt, and the Rabbis need a way to accommodate Jewish priests walking through the world. Though clearly not a theological point, they establish this legal fiction—that Gentiles are not human—in order to protect the ritual purity of a priest whose path covers what might have, at one point, been a place of burial.

In every other instance, Gentiles are clearly considered human—human and beloved children of God. So, when looking through the Talmud, it is possible for an unlearned reader to read a passage out of context and come to a totally incorrect conclusion about Judaism.

Let us remember that every communication originates in a particular context and for a particular purpose. If we want to understand a text, we need to understand its context and purpose.