Friday, January 25, 2013

The Hur Locker

It's fitting that we read the portion of Beshallach on the 15th of Shevat, Jewish Arbor Day, encountering Joshua for the first time (Exodus 17:9). He will be the one to ultimately bring the Israelites into the Promised Land and plant its trees. However, he is not the only prominent figure to debut in this portion; in the following verse, we read: "So Joshua did as Moses told him and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron and Hur went up to the peak." Moses, 80 years young, needs support for his arms as he raises the staff of God, but whom does he choose? His 83-year-old big brother, Aaron, and the mysterious Hur.

A quick consultation of the First Book of Chronicles, Chapter 2, tells us that Hur was from the tribe of Judah, a first cousin of Aaron's father-in-law, Amminadab. He would seem to be the last of his generation, the grandchildren of those who came down to Egypt with Jacob in their youth. Why does Moses recruit men older than he to assist him? 

Let us set this question aside for a moment as we consider another interesting genealogical detail from First Chronicles. In Chapter 7 (22-27) , we find that Nun, Joshua's father, is the son of Elishama, a tribal prince. Thus, we find Moses recruiting a prince's grandson and a prince's cousin. And what of Aaron himself? When he is introduced (Ex. 4:14), he is referred to as "the Levite," and we later see that Aaron is in practice the prince of the tribe of Levi (Num. 17:17-18).

As Moses ascends to the peak, he is not looking for home health aides. Instead, he is assembling a triumvirate, representing the three clans who will dominate Jewish history: Judah, the house of Joseph and Levi. This pattern repeats throughout the millennia: Samuel, Saul and David establish the monarchy; Solomon, Benaiah and Ahijah the Shilonite build the First Temple; Mordecai, Ezra and Nehemiah build the Second; Elijah and the scions of Joseph and David are destined to build the Third. It all follows the Horeb template, established by Moses.
With the elections over, Israel's politicians must now come together to form a government. It can be a narrow coalition, or it can be a broad one, drawing from different sectors and segments of the population. If we follow the Horeb template, the next government of Israel will be the one that represents all of its citizens. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Prince and the Elder

Three days ago, we read the Torah portion of Bo. (Don't worry, we can still talk about it until sunset today.) Throughout Chapter 12, the central part of Bo, we find some very distinguished terms: "the entire Israelite congregation... per paternal house" (3), "assembly" (6), "by your families" (21) and "by their hosts" (51).
All of these words are found in the first chapter of the Book of Numbers: "Raise the head of the entire Israelite congregation by their families, by their paternal houses" (2); "And they assembled the entire congregation" (18); "And the Israelites will camp, each one by his camp and each one by his banner, to their hosts" (52). There we find that Moses and Aaron are assisted by the tribal princes, but the fact that the Torah uses these genealogical terms in the preparations for leaving Egypt tells us that the princes are already fulfilling this function. They are not mentioned explicitly until the next portion, Beshallach, in the passage of the manna (16:22), but when the Israelites are organized by family, paternal house and host, it is clear that these tribal leaders are exercising their authority. 

What happened to the elders? As we saw previously, they are not impressed by Moses' sign in Exodus 4, and they in fact challenge him and Aaron in Exodus 5. In the next chapter, Moses finds that he has lost the people as well. God is about to tell him what to do, but the Torah interrupts the flow of the story to list the genealogy of Moses and Aaron (vv. 14-28). Then God sends Moses to Pharaoh once again, but with an important addition: "Bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt by their hosts" (6:26); "I will take my hosts, my people, the Israelites, out of the land of Egypt with great acts of justice" (7:4). Perhaps Moses has lost the elders, but there are also princes, and as the Torah informs us, the first among their ranks, Judah's Nahshon son of Amminadab, is Aaron's brother-in-law! So they have a backup plan.

What separates the princes from the elders? The princes symbolize top-down patrician leadership, and their paradigm is the monarchy. The elders symbolize bottom-up meritocratic leadership, and their paradigm is the Sanhedrin, Israel's ancient supreme court and parliament. At the height of the excitement of the Exodus, we know that there is a rift among the leaders and the original plan has been set aside, so it's not exactly surprising that later on, there are crises and complaints. If Moses and the elders had been able to work together, who knows what would have happened to the generation of the desert!

Today are the elections for the Nineteenth Knesset; this is the time to think about proper leadership, superior leadership, leadership which comes from the people, based on ability and talent, not on nepotism and connections. There is a place for princes (or "presidents", in modern Hebrew), but it is the elders who can represent the people and pass laws to benefit them. Happy Election Day!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Five Stages of Israeli Voting

Today is the fifth American inauguration since I've been able to vote there, and tomorrow will be my fifth Israeli election since I've been able to vote here. It seems like an opportune time to take the reader through the evolution of one Israeli voter.

1) Denial: This is awesome! Thirty parties instead of two, a voting booth sponsored by letters A through Z, an actual blue cardboard box to put your popular post-it in--it's so cool. I'll definitely find a party that represents me!

2) Anger: I can't believe that my party didn't get in/ is out of the coalition/ is in the coalition but sold out its constituents. You bastards! I am not falling for the same trick twice--I'll vote for the other guys. Or, you know, the other other guys. Or maybe the Pot Survivors Party. I've got options!

3) Bargaining: C'mon, isn't there one issue I can trust someone on? I'll accept your hacks and your deputy ministers of sanitation, just keep one promise! Please?

4) Depression: It doesn't make a difference, does it? We have no states, provinces or districts. Even if the party I vote for gets in and sits in the government, I have no address to turn to. F- it, who'd I vote for last time? I wouldn't even vote if we didn't get a day off.

5) Acceptance: Serenity now. I can't worry about who will form a government with whom or which back-benchers will be left in the Knesset to actually pas legislation. I have to vote with my heart, damn the consequences.

So where has this led me? Well, it's MLK Day, so I'm going with a fiery reverend who dreams of integrating the black community with society as a whole. He's been condemned, vilified, excommunicated, hounded and threatened, but he still holds his head high. He believes that a free nation cannot prosper with a permanent underclass. He knows the best way to fight racism is with fortitude and dignity. He wants you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. His name is MK Rabbi Haim Amsalem. My vote may get his party over the threshold, or it may not. I've accepted that, and life is much better that way.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Abominable Jewman

The term abomination, to’eva, is one of the most loaded words in Scripture, used in sexual, dietary and commercial contexts. However, the term first appears to describe Egyptian, not Jewish, mores. At the end of Exodus 8, in the midst of the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh offers a compromise to Moses: "Go, sacrifice to your God in the land.” Moses replies: "We cannot do so, for the abomination of Egypt we sacrifice to Lord our God. If we sacrifice the abomination of Egypt before their eyes, will they not stone us?” The standard approach is that “abomination” is a term for pagan gods, and a number of commentators point specifically to Aries, the Lamb, which is the astrological sign of Nisan, the month of Passover and the Exodus.
But there is a little problem here: if the Egyptians worship the lamb, why not bring goats? And if they worship all tzon, flocks, i.e. sheep and the goats, why not bring cattle? Even after the plague of darkness, Moses says (10:26): "And we do not know with what we will worship Lord until we come there." Moreover, we see in this week's reading that the Egyptians treat these animals as property (9:3): "Behold, Lord’s hand will have been upon your livestock in the field: upon horses, upon donkeys, upon camels, upon cattle and upon flocks.” Then, of course, we have the awkwardness of the situation: is Moses really trying to negotiate while mocking Egypt’s gods?
The fact is that “the abomination of Egypt" first appears in the book of Genesis. Before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, the Torah (43:32) observes, "For the Egyptians are not able to eat bread with Hebrews, as this is an abomination for Egypt.” After he reveals himself, he instructs his brothers (46:34): “And you shall say, ‘Your servants have always been men of livestock, both we and our forebears,’ so that you will reside in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is the abomination of Egypt.” The abomination is not the animal, but the person who deals with it. We find echoes of this in our sources as well, in which shepherds are considered particularly unreliable, even compared to cowherds (Sanhedrin 3:2, Yevamot 16a). The Rashbam puts it this way (Bava Batra 128a): “Cowherds are not well-versed in the law, but shepherds are not mentioned at all because they are wicked, as the average herders of smaller animals are thieves, unacceptable for any legal function.” In Egypt, we find “officers of livestock,” as Pharaoh says to Joseph: “And if you know that among them are men of valor, appoint them as officers of livestock over that which is mine” (47:6). These officers are part of the Pharaonic power structure, but shepherds, the loners and drifters who have little use for central authority, are dangerous and therefore contemptible. Joseph's ruse is too clever by far, as the Egyptians not only isolate the Jews, they demonize them as well.
If so, "the abomination of Egypt” is not the sacrifice, but the sacrificer, the Proverbial (15:8, 21:27) “sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination.” Moses basically says to Pharaoh: in Egypt, we Hebrews are repulsive and hateful, bandits and villains, animals and untermenschen — do you think they'll let us sacrifice within the sacred precincts of the land of Egypt? So long as the Israelites are in Egypt, they cannot serve God openly.
For thousands of years, Jews accepted their hateful status in the eyes of the nations, being considered robbers and swindlers — that was fine for us, as long as we were left a small place, a ghetto of Goshen, where we might keep our identities and names. However, this is an untenable situation. Second-class citizenry ultimately leads to oppression, slavery and, all too often, genocide. The abominable Hebrews become the proud Israelites only when they declare: we are not men of livestock; we are men of valor.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sodom and Gemara

There are many misconceptions about Judaism's attitude towards homosexuality. The biggest is that Sodom was destroyed for what we call sodomy, which Ezekiel clearly refutes (16:49). But there are also some later, post-biblical sources which have been used to attack Orthodox Jews who have urged a more open attitude toward gays in the community, such as my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (see , which was then translated into Hebrew, which one major Israeli news website then rather hilariously translated back into English).
The argument goes like this: both the Talmud (Chullin 92a-b) and Midrash (Genesis Rabba 26:5) openly decry gay marriage--the former cites banning it as one of the few things non-Jews do right, while the latter blames Noah's flood on allowing it.
Really? Let's look at the first source: "Ulla said, 'These are the thirty commandments which the sons of Noah accepted upon themselves, but they only fulfill three: a) they do not write a ketuba for men; b) they do not weight dead meat in the market; c) they respect the Torah.'"
What is a ketuba? Essentially, it is a prenuptial agreement, designed to protect widowed or divorced women from being left destitute. The text does not make clear whether we are talking about two men marrying each other or men in general who are marrying women. Yes, Rashi takes the first approach, but he himself does not conclude whether the "dead meat" referred to in b) is of human or animal origin. Moreover, this is presented among the things which humanity (the sons of Noah) "accepted upon themselves," not those which they were commanded by God. Finally, this passage appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (AZ 2:1) in the name of an earlier sage, but without the three exceptions.
What about the Midrash? "Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi [Judah the Prince]: 'The generation of the Flood was not washed away until they wrote hymenaios for buggery and bestiality.'" Hymen, of course, was the ancient Greek god of marriage, and hymenaios is a genre of lyric poetry and song in his honor. One can imagine what kind of songs these might be. Yes, there are some who translate this term as "ketuba", but the etymology does not support it, not to mention the ridiculous image of writing a prenuptial for a sheep! If making lewd jokes about gay sex brings a Deluge, there are more than a few yeshivot which might want to look into flood insurance.
The relationship of Judaism with homosexuality is a fraught one, but we do ourselves no favors by reading our texts casually and peremptorily.