Friday, September 1, 2017

Game of Throes

This has been a difficult week for many people who consider themselves to be in touch with bedrock principles of morality, as they ask the question: Am I OK with incest now?
Incest, after all, is supposed to be something we can all agree on. This week's Torah portion takes hot stepmoms off the table: "A man shall not take his father's wife, so that he does not uncover his father's nakedness" (Deut. 22:30). It's repeated and expanded on next week (27:20-23):
‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen. 'Cursed be anyone who lies with any kind of animal.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ ‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ ‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
However, the world's most popular television show (though some authorities rule "It's not TV, it's HBO") has a different view on the issue of incest. Game of Thrones' premiere episode ended with a boy thrown out a window for witnessing a man having sex with his twin sister (daughter of his father AND daughter of his mother). And that man, Jaime Lannister, is arguably the hero of the show, or at least the one who has exhibited the most growth over seven seasons. His sister Cersei is now the first ruling Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Still, audiences were supposed to be repelled by that relationship. Surely, in the finale of the penultimate season, we wouldn't witness a Game of Throes of passionate incest between our two noblest heroes, Dany and Jon? Well, here's the thing: turns out Dany is Jon's aunt. Oops.
But is it really such a shanda? After all, you've probably heard of a guy named Moses. His parents (Exodus 6:20) were aunt (Jochebed) and nephew (Amram). And the very founders of Judaism, Abraham and Sarah, were brother and sister (Genesis 20:12)--or, at least, uncle and niece (Talmud Megilla 14a). And the Davidic line traces all the way back to Judah sleeping with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38).
Still, all that is pre-Sinai. It's not like anyone would suggest keeping it all in the family in a post-Revelation world, right?
Concerning him who loves his neighbors, who befriends his relatives, marries his sister's daughter and lends a sela' to a poor man in the hour of his need, Scripture says (Isaiah 58:9), Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry and He will say: 'Here I am'. (Talmud Yevamot 62b)
I know what you're wondering: but that's my sister's daughter, what about my brother's daughter? That's a matter of some dispute among medieval Talmudists (Tosafot ad loc.):
R. Samuel b. Meir says the same applies to his brother's daughter; it merely mentions his sister because she plies him with words and it common for him to marry her daughter.
Rabbenu Tam says that it is specifically his sister's daughter, for she shares a temperament with him, as we say, "Most children are like their mother's brother."
To make this even more awkward, these two rabbis were brothers. No word on whether they married each other's daughters.
We get that Game of Thrones portrays a fictionalized medieval feudal society. But how often we forget that the greatest Torah minds of the past millennium actually lived in the real versions of those societies.
So if you want to ship Jon & Dany (on a ship), I get it. But let's hold on to the sexual morality we've developed over the centuries, in which consent and respect are the most sacred values. Otherwise, our journey of ethical evolution will end with the realization that we know nothing.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pure SJW Territory

Look here!
No, seriously, that's what this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, literally means: Look! See! Observe! Over its 126 verses (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and 55 mitzvot, Re'eh covers a lot of ground. And much of it is pure SJW territory.
"SJW," which in online insult "culture" stands for Social Justice Warrior, has become an epithet for liberals and leftists. Caring for the less fortunate is controversial nowadays, so why not mock people for it?
But the title of this post could very well stand for: Social Justice -- Why That's Frum. Frum, religious, mitzvah-observant, traditionally Jewish... these are terms which, for some odd reason, are considered to be antithetical to Social Justice Warrior status, but it is quite thetical. OK, that's not a word, but let's talk about the words which do pop up, over and over, in Re'eh.
ParticipantsBrother/ Sister10
Levite (Teacher)
Granting/ Lending6
It's not that Re'eh doesn't talk about ritualistic aspects of Judaism; it's just that everything in it has a social-justice element. The idolatry which is harshly condemned throughout the Torah is finally explained (13:29): "You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every taboo (to'avat) thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." The fight against ancient paganism is not about theological debates, but the abuse of the defenseless. Just as God's angel told Abraham on Mt. Moriah "Set not your hand against the boy," we must do the same as God's children and representatives (14:1-2).
The laws of keeping kosher are set down, but they are bookended in the following way (14:3, 21): “You shall not eat anything taboo (to'eva)... You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the stranger who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk." The dietary laws are not about creating an ethnically pure society, but inculcating values.
How punctilious we frum are when it comes to separating meat and milk, when it comes to denouncing foreign forms of worship. But when it comes to matters of social justice, should we mock and deride? Re'eh should make us open our eyes.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Every year, as the Hebrew calendar flips from Tammuz to Av, we turn the mourning up to nine--The Nine Days, from the New Moon until after the Fast of 9 Av. "When Av enters, we reduce our joy" (Mishna, Taanit 4:6).
But that same source indicates that the twin tragedies of Tammuz and Av far predate the destruction of the Temple, or even its construction: to the Sin of the Golden Calf during the Israelites' first Tammuz in the desert and the Sin of the Spies thirteen months later, respectively.
This brings us to a famous question: what makes ten of the twelve Spies sent by Moses defame the land? Their bad report when they return on 8 Av spells disaster for their entire generation, but forty days earlier, as they set out, we are told "They were all men who were heads of the Israelites" (13:3) -- terminology denoting conspicuous virtue, according to the Midrash (Tanchuma 4). So what happened? When and why do they go bad?
Halfway through their mission would have been day twenty. Counting back from 8 Av, that would be... 17 Tammuz. The first anniversary of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The yahrtzeit of thousands of Israelites.
This is the part of the Golden Calf tale that we usually ignore, but it's quite brutal (Exodus 32:26-29):
 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
As the Talmud (Yoma 66b) notes, this death toll only takes into account those who were killed directly, by the sword. Many more die from drinking the water into which the Golden Calf had been ground (ibid. v. 20) and still more the from the ensuing plague (v. 35): "And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made."
Marking the first anniversary of that solemn occasion on a scouting mission, far away from family and friends, would have been extremely difficult. What makes it worse is the fact that the tribe wielding the executioner's axe is conspicuously absent. No Levite goes on this mission. Nevertheless, they are supposed to report back to Moses and Aaron, the latter of whom made the Calf and the former of whom ordered their loved ones' deaths for worshiping it. Nor is the situation improved by the two loyalists among the group. Joshua is Moses' aide-de-camp, while Caleb's grandfather Hur was a strong ally. Is it any wonder that the ten Spies who have no reason to be loyal to Moses, who have every reason to defy him, succumb to their post-Tammuz stress disorder?
Trauma begets trauma, on the individual and the national level. It is only natural for Tammuz to give way to Av. To break the cycle of tragedy takes uncommon courage, but that is the only way we can put an end to our mourning.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How do you say "terror"?

There are some words that modern Hebrew has given up on. The Academy of the Hebrew Language may eventually come up with official translations, but language is ultimately determined by the people (which is why its name in Hebrew is HaAkademiya).
"Terror" is one of those words. We refer to the people who commit acts of terror as mechabelim, but "terror" itself, the political/ military tactic, is untranslatable. Google טרור and you'll get more than two million results.
Yet there is a word for this concept in biblical Hebrew, as we'll read this Shabbat: "Do not be terrorized (taguru) by anyone." In the noun form, it's megora. These are the words used by Moses when he instructs the judges to carry out their holy work (Deuteronomy 1:17): "Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be terrorized by anyone, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it." The Sifre explains what this refers to:
Lest you say: "I am afraid of such a person--they may kill my children, they may set my haystack on fire, they may chop down my plantings" -- thus the verse says: "Do not be terrorized by anyone."
Thus said King Jehoshaphat (II Chronicles 19:6): "He told the judges, 'Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the LORD, who is with you whenever you give a verdict.'" "For judgment belongs to God."
Terror is not a new idea. It has always been the enemy of justice. It is only natural for a public official to think about the personal cost of a decision, the danger to their family, homes, fortune. All the more so when a ruling may imperil the lives and property of others.
But what does it mean not to give in to terror? To respond harshly, showing that we're not cowed? That's exactly what the terrorists want, to fan the flames, the proverbial haystack setting the whole field ablaze. To respond compassionately, to show that we will not lose our humanity or fail to see it in others? That seems like callow surrender; don't we sacrifice the humanity of the victims by ignoring their suffering? If we change our routines, the terrorists win; if we got about our daily lives as if nothing happened, we dishonor the victims.
Since we do not have the option of presenting our case to God's prophet, that means we have to inject the divine into our decision-making: That's the first part of the verse: "Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike." It's about impartiality; it's about listening to both sides. Ad hoc policy cannot solve endemic conflict.
This too shall pass, we tell ourselves. The exigent security needs and intolerable insults to the faith will fade and be forgotten. But if we fail to devise judicious and just policies, based on truth and peace, to address the next flashpoint, we will truly be giving in to terror.

Monday, July 24, 2017

King Omar

And so it ends, as it always does: after the bang, we whimper.
The saga of the metal detectors/ magnetometers is over, and we could have done without this retread.
As always, we futz around with the status quo for some noble reason, which leads to unreasonable and unreasoning outrage. So we double down. We're not backing down, they're not backing down. If any among us suggest that maybe we should reconsider--well, let's roll out the list of epithets: kapo, Judenrat, appeaser. And if some of those people are in fact in senior positions in the intelligence services, military AND the police? Well, they're too close to it. You can't talk to Mahmoud Abbas. You can't negotiate with King Abdullah. That would be a sign of weakness.
And then the protests, which will turn violent. They happen every Friday, but we usually ignore them. Three dead, as we heard going into Shabbat. Personally, I was consumed by dread, because I knew it would not end there. It never ends there.
And so we come out of Shabbat to the gory reality of triple slaughter in Halamish. I cannot help but think of the mother, my mother's age, who comes out of the hospital to bury her husband and two of her children, instead of the brit mila they were planning.
And still our government cannot come to a decision. Table it for another day. Take it under advisement.
And then something else happens. A 17-year-old Jordanian with a screwdriver attacks an Israeli embassy guard, who shoots and kills him. And hits his landlord, a doctor, as well. The latter dies in hospital. More death, more blood, more hand-wringing about moral equivalency. And now, since Jordan refuses to let the guard go, we have a hostage too!
My concern is the way people develop a siege mentality. It's very corrosive and counterproductive. I don't get my morality from CNN. If you've seen my posts, I think it's pretty clear that I do not morally equate the murder of the Salomons with the harsh tactics we use against Palestinian protestors. I went into Shabbat with a sense of dread because three Palestinian protestors had been killed, because I knew what would happen next.
Omar al-Abed is a terrorist and a murderer, and I hope he spends the rest of his life in a very small cell. But now our government has made him the Hero of Al-Aqsa, the man who forced Israel to remove the blasphemous metal detectors from Haram al-Sharif. And there's not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that he'll go free in a prisoner exchange before my toddler is old enough to enlist.
So what is the message we're sending? That we'll do the smart thing, not the right thing, but only once enough Jews have been killed or taken hostage? I don't think that's what we want to say, but I don't see how anyone could hear anything else.
After the bang, we whimper.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

We the Sheeple

If Torah portions were countries, Matot would be New Zealand.
No, that has nothing to do with Middle-earth; it's just that Matot has a lot of sheep, more than people. Arguably, it should have a pretty epic Battle of the Five Armies too, but the five kings of Midian are eliminated pretty quickly in Numbers 31. (Down with the Pentarchy!) The Torah then spends 46 verses excruciatingly detailing the fate of the booty, which is tallied ewe first.
And the booty, being the rest of the plunder which the men of war had caught, was six hundred thousand and seventy thousand and five thousand sheep (31:32).
Why is this so important? Counting sheep is a metaphor for an activity so boring it's guaranteed to put you to sleep. Could sheep represent something else? Many of the Prophets liken Israel to God's flock, from Amos to Micah, from Jeremiah to Ezekiel (36:37-38):
I will multiply their people like sheep. Like the sheep for offerings, like the sheep of Jerusalem on her holidays, so will the ruined cities be filled with people like sheep.
Now, if Israel are sheeple (in the good sense), what would be the significance of the number 675,00? Fortunately, if we're looking to get arithmetical, Numbers is the Book for us.
Flip back a few chapters (to 26), and we find a census of the Israelites earlier that year, totaling 601,730. But the 23,000 Levites are counted separately, so let's call it about 625,000.
But immediately before the census, 24,000 fall in a plague (that, by the way, is the reason for war with Midian in the first place). That brings us to 649,000.
Ten chapters before, we are told that fifteen thousand perished in the Korahite rebellion and its aftermath. That makes 664,000.
Now we have to guesstimate. There are two massive plagues that take a bite out of the people: one in ch. 11 when they eat some bad quail ("a very great plague"), and one in ch. 21 when they are beset by snakes ("a great many people died among Israel"). Let's call it a thousand each, which would bring us to 666,000.
(I know, between the lamb metaphors and the 6-6-6, it's getting very New Testament-y in here. But bear with me.)
Now we have to skip back to the Book of Exodus and the first major catastrophe after leaving Egypt: the sin of the Golden Calf in ch. 32. Its worshipers are dispatched by three methods (see Talmud Yoma 66b): by drinking the water with ground-up Calf in it; by Levite swordsmen; by a plague directly from God. The verse only tells us about the death toll from the middle, immediate method, three thousand. But assuming the other two methods had similar casualties, that would bring us to 9,000. Add that to 666,000, and you get 675,000.
This is the heartbreaking part. The war with Midian is Moses' last hurrah. "Wreak the Israelites' vengeance upon the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people" (Num. 31:2). It's only natural for him to record it in painstaking detail, especially the parts with echoes of the past: not only the generation whose children would fulfill their dreams, but the tens of thousands who never got that far. All those who never got to see the Promised Land weigh on Moses' soul -- until he too is buried beside them.W

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Wondy's Tzeniut

Said Rabbi Johanan: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty (tzeniut) from (cf. Talmud Eruvin 100b).
OK, that's a free translation. The Talmud actually refers to hatul, the post-biblical Hebrew word for cat. But in Scripture itself, hatul is the term for a wrap or cloak, and in this summer's Wonder Woman, Diana spends her time off the battlefield in a cloak. No Man's Land in November is chilly, remember.
Meanwhile, the public debate over issues of tzeniut is not cooling down at all. My social-media feed is swamped with disturbing articles about how hot some five-year-olds are, mansplaining pieces on sex separation at graduation ceremonies and Supreme Court cases over slut-shaming mayors. The Wailing Wall wailing is, at its root, about how immodest some men find women at prayer. The debate over dress codes (for women only) has spread from the Knesset to Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, actual sexual abuse at Tel Aviv's Belz Talmud Torah and the denunciation of halachic prenups by American Gedolim (Torah "greats") -- y'know, the stuff which actually sullies Judaism's reputation -- barely registers.
Maybe it's time for a refresher on what tzeniut really is. The favorite verse employed by the modesty police is Psalms 45:13/14:
All honor of the princess is within; her raiment is of golden interlacements.
Sounds a lot like Princess Diana's golden tiara, bracers and lasso -- but I digress. The Talmud invokes this verse three times. The first time, it is to explain why the women of Ammon and Moab are not on the hook for their husbands' inhospitality (Yevamot 77a). But the next two times, the verse provides a hava amina, a supposition, which the text immediately corrects.
You might think that even so she should not go about to earn a living because, as Scripture says, "All honor of the princess is within," but now you know [otherwise].(Gittin 12a)
Rather, this refers to the litigants. Now, do men come to seek justice and women not come to seek justice? You might suppose so... But why would you suppose so? You might say that is not the way of a woman, as it says "All honor of the princess is within," so it tells us [otherwise]. (Shevuot 30a)
In other words, the Talmud goes out of its way to correct the misapprehensions of this verse, lest tzeniut considerations lead us to exclude women from the courtroom or the workforce and saddle them with the responsibility of hosting guests.
And what about the battlefield? There's a verse for that, Joel 2:16: "The groom shall leave his chamber, and the bride her huppa." The Talmud (Sota 44b) says this refers to any war which is a mitzva.
Yes, some people will, in practice, limit tzeniut to a code of dress. They will clutch their pearls over Diana of Themyscira's short skirt and bare shoulders. But there's a reason for Wondy's functional attire. (In fact, the biblical "Gird your loins!" refers to pulling up your hem so your legs are free for battle.) She is the honorable princess, portrayed by an Israeli Jewess, and she will not be forced from the workplace, courthouse or battlefield. Instead, she's fighting for the three pillars of truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18).
Sometimes you can learn a lot more about tzeniut at the movies than in the beit midrash.