Friday, May 31, 2013

Shelach: When Moses lost his mojo

Many and sundry are the crises of the generation of the Exodus, but they usually follow a predictable pattern: 1) the wandering Israelites act out; 2) God wants/ begins to punish them; 3) Moses intercedes; 4) God is mollified; 5) the journey continues. Wash, rinse, repeat--actually, skip the rinse; water is precious in the desert. And then we get to the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14).

"We were supposed to get seedless? Look, I'm not going back now."
"We were supposed to get seedless? Look, I'm not turning back now."
In this week's Torah portion, the pattern is broken. Certainly, Moses is historically successful, in that he saves the rest of the Jewish people from being immediately wiped out, but the generation that he led out of Egypt is condemned to die in the wilderness, and the journey to the Promised Land, now in its second year, will last four decades. What sets this crisis apart from all the others?
The most glaring distinction is the naked blade dancing in the Israelites' nightmares (14:3): "Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder." The concern is not the quality or quantity of food or water, but death by sword. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when, after being decreed to wander for forty years, some Israelites decide that they are ready for conquest, despite Moses' warning (ibid. v. 43): "For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the LORD, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword." They ignore him and are thoroughly beaten.
Still, it is clear that the people are brave enough to face these enemies on the battlefield; in fact, just over a year prior, at Rephidim, "Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword" (Exodus 17:13). Even amid the brief civil war over the Golden Calf at Horeb, Moses finds loyalists eager to fulfill the command, "Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, and slay every man his brother, and every man his fellow, and every man his friend" (ibid. 32:27). In fact, the same four individuals lead both at Rephidim and at Horeb: Moses, Aaron, Hur and Joshua. When ten of the Spies slander the Holy Land here, their opposition is none other than Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua. And who is Caleb? None other than Hur's grandson (I Chronicles 4:4, 15). In fact the Talmud notes that Hur's unambiguous opposition to the Golden Calf got him killed (Sanhedrin 7a), while Caleb used subtlety to reclaim the rhetorical momentum from the Spies for Moses (Sota 35a). So why does the Gang of Four fail here?
You can have that whip when you pry it from his cold, dead hands.
You can have that whip when you pry it from his cold, dead hands.
Let's look at the preceding portions of the Book of Numbers. Throughout them, we see an army being organized, the term showing up no less than 63 times. It is no longer an ad hoc force, like that at Rephidim or Horeb; it is strictly regimented and tallied, and it clearly excludes one tribe: Levi. In the census, the encampments, the traveling, the dedication of the altar, the dispatching of the spies, Levi is excluded. Of course, this is because Levi forms its own "army," the special forces which guard, transport and maintain the Tabernacle; but it is not surprising that the other tribes feel disheartened, especially considering that the Levites in particular are the fearless troops who answer Moses' call after the Sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites are worried about their lives, their wives, their children--and Moses the Levite does not know what to say to them, since his children and grandchildren will not be on the battlefield. This time, he cannot convince them. 38 years later, we find a very different picture. Moses sends Phineas, Aaron's grandson, to war with the rest of the Israelites (31:6), and Moses himself goes to war against Sihon and Og (21:34).
We are no longer a tribal society, but the principle remains the same: a nation cannot be cohesive and complete unless the challenges of protecting and serving the public are shared by everyone. There are, of course, many ways to serve; but a society in which certain sectors disassociate themselves from the burdens of the nation must inevitably dissolve.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sorry, Rabbi, it's not OK

Yesterday, the Jewish Press published a remarkable piece, "Molestation Cases Must Be Handled by G’dolim, Not by ‘Experts’" by the unfortunately-named Rabbi William Handler. Even the JP editor seemed uneasy about it, introducing this article with the information that the author "was also a supporter of Rabbi Yisroel Moshe Weingarten, convicted of molesting his daughter." (I think we can drop the "Rabbi" now.) Handler's basic argument is this: sure, child molestation is bad, but child protective services are evil.
Let's just be happy his first name isn't Richard.
Let's just be happy Handler's first name isn't Richard.
It is not surprising that Handler is ultra-Orthodox, what is called haredi here in Israel (although both these terms are imprecise). The right wing of Orthodoxy subscribes to the theory of Da'as Torah, which has its very own Wikipedia page, and this approach boils down to 1) every question in life (fashion, economics, politics, etc.) is essentially a religious question; 2) these questions can only be answered by the g'dolim, the "greats" among contemporary Torah sages. I'm not sure how far this extends. House on fire, call the g'dolim? Car stolen, call the g'dolim? Cancer, heart attack, syphilis, call the g'dolim?
But this is not solely a haredi issue. We modern Orthodox have little to be proud of in this arena. Consider the hottest topic in modern Orthodoxy: whom to nominate for Chief Rabbi of Israel. Should it be 76-year-old Rabbi Yaakov Ariel or 53-year-old Rabbi David Stav? While the latter is considered more liberal, he is a member of Forum Takanah, designed to deal with sexual harassment in the religious community, of which Rabbi Ariel is president. This organization was relatively obscure until the Rabbi Mordechai "Mutty" Elon scandal broke three years ago.
"Just because my nickname is Mutty, should they hound me? Like a dog?" would not work in Hebrew.
"Just because my nickname is Mutty, should they hound me? Like a dog?" would not work in Hebrew.
It turns out that Takanah learned of abuse allegations in 2005, but they decided to solve this problem by designing guidelines to keep Elon away from students. This led to the bizarre situation in which he was technically dean of Yeshivat HaKotel, but was not physically present in the yeshiva--or the city.  How'd that work out? As one might have guessed, Elon broke the rules, and he's been on trial in Jerusalem Magistrate's Court for the past six months for various sex crimes against male students of his. And people applauded Takanah's "bravery" in going to the media five years later!
Perhaps you're thinking that Takanah is some relic of a benighted time when we didn't really "get" sexual abuse. Probably the era when Emmanuel Lewis had to tell us to "Say NO, then GO and TELL." Actually, Takanah was founded in 2003. Yes, 2003, the same year that three rabbis got up at my alma mater, Yeshiva University in New York, to beg public forgiveness for their bungling of the Baruch Lanner case.
Who would have thought that the inventor of the alias "Harry Dingo" would end up on the sex- offender registry?
Who would have thought that the inventor of the alias "Harry Dingo" would end up on the sex-offender registry?
Then-rabbi Baruch Lanner was a high-ranking official in the youth group of the Orthodox Union, as well as a high-school principal. Rumors had long swirled about his sexual inappropriateness (mostly towards female students), so in 1989 three YU rabbis convened a rabbinical tribunal, found him guilty and issued a harsh sentence: guidelines for his conduct. Sound familiar? Lanner, of course, violated these rules, and the state of New Jersey stepped in, convicting him of aggravated sexual contact and child endangerment in 2002.
So how do we combat this phenomenon? By memorizing one line and repeating it until it echoes throughout every yeshiva, synagogue and Jewish institution: "Sorry, Rabbi, it's not OK."
It's not OK to create organization to stand in between sexual-abuse victims and the professionals who are trained and ready to help them.
It's not OK to vilify those who have dedicated their lives to helping survivors or to silence those who speak out on their behalf.
It's not OK to convene ad hoc rabbinical tribunals in order to devise guidelines unfounded in science, law or religion to "solve" the problem.
It's not OK, Rabbi Stav or Rabbi Ariel or whoever gets this job, to maintain the status quo. There is only one reason not to go to the authorities, and that is to protect the abusers. The choice should be clear, g'dolim.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Gun Control and the Court of Beersheba

My six-year-old son likes to abbreviate words, so the Hebrew term for synagogue, beit knesset, is often shortened to knesset, leading to an oft-heard declaration which literally and hilariously translates as, "I want to go to Parliament with you." The Knesset, capitalized and unitalicized, is, of course, our unicameral legislature, modeled on the 120-seat Great Knesset of the Second Temple Era. But I think my son may be on to something.
In fact, beit knesset (as well as, for that matter, the Greek term synagogue) means "house of gathering," not house of prayer. Mondays and Thursdays in Second-Commonwealth Israel were days of kenisa, the gathering of all the villagers in county seats to present their grievances to the court (Rashi, Megilla 2a, s.v. Ela I). So where did people go to study Torah? That was the province of the beit midrash, the study hall. Indeed, the Midrash (Genesis Rabba 97:7) sees a tribal distinction: the tribe of Simeon was designated to serve as scribes in the beit knesset, while the tribe of Levi was dedicated to serve as teachers and scholars in the beit midrash. Scribes were the court stenographers of their day, and they were a necessary part of any Jewish court fulfilling its judicial and legislative functions.
This brings us to Beersheba, capital of the Israeli southland and the ancient tribal territory of Shimon. Elsewhere in Genesis Rabba (54:33), the Midrash credits the Patriarch Abraham with the founding of the first Jewish court--in Beersheba. After the Kierkegaardian trauma of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham sends his heir off to the beit midrash of Shem and Eber, and afterwards "They arose and went together to Beersheba" to apply what Isaac had learnt (Midrash Lekach Tov, Gen. 22:19). Generations later, the Prophet Samuel follows this example when "he placed his sons as judges for Israel... judges in Beersheba" (I Samuel 8:1-2).
Fast forward to this past Monday, when Israelis were shocked to hear about a mass shooting at a bank in Beersheba: there were four victims, and the shooter took his own life. Contrary to what Wayne LaPierre would have you believe, mass shootings (as opposed to terror attacks) are a new phenomenon in Israel. Within 48 hours, our Knesset began formulating plans to tighten our gun laws and keep our public places safe, an idea with appeal across the dozen parties in our parliament. How many votes will it take to pass new legislation? A simple majority of the members present. No filibusters, no vetoes, no conferencing. That , after all, is the way a beit knesset is supposed to work. I only wish the land of my birth, America, could learn that lesson too.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Deluge at Sinai

Shavuot, which begins tonight, is the most obscure and the most opaque of the major Jewish holidays. Its Greek name, Pentecost, doesn't help much, since it simply means "Fiftieth," while its Hebrew name is even less specific, as it simply means "Weeks." (In this case, it's seven of them.) "And you shall make a Festival of Weeks for yourself, firstfruits of reaping wheat" (Ex. 34:22).

Reaping in joy

For thousands of years, Shavuot has been associated specifically with the Giving of the Torah. The math is relatively straightforward: since we start counting the days and weeks from Passover, Shavuot inevitably falls in the first week of "the third month," which we now call Sivan. The account of the Giving of the Torah opens with "On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt--on that very day, they came to the Desert of Sinai."

However, this unique phrasing, "on that very day," points us toward an even earlier event (Gen. 7:11-12):

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month--on that very day, all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

That magic number of "forty days and forty nights" recurs only at Sinai. However, beyond the textual clues, there is the actual date. There is a dispute as to whether the Ten Commandments were given on the 6th or 7th of Sivan (Talmud, Shabbat 86b), but regardless, this puts the Convocation at Sinai calendrically smack in the middle of the forty-day deluge which begins "on the seventeenth day of the second month." 

Interestingly, neither Steve Carell nor Russell Crowe is in sight.

At first glance, it's hard to see what these two events have in common: deluge and desert, destruction and instruction, revocation and revelation. However, a centuries-later event (I Samuel 12:17-19) may help shed some light on this:

"Is it not the reaping of wheat today? I will call to Lord, and He shall send thunder and rain; that you may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in Lord's sight, in asking you a king." So Samuel called to Lord; and Lord sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared Lord and Samuel. And all the people said to Samuel, "Pray for your servants to Lord your God, that we die not: for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask us a king."

Threatening the Israelites with rain amid the wheat harvest because of their great wickedness, Samuel knows exactly what he is doing, referring back to the unique justification for the Flood: "And Lord saw that man's wickedness was great in the land" (Gen. 6:5). For him, the request for a human king represents the ultimate act of defiance. After all, wasn't the whole point of the Convocation at Sinai to eschew the rule of man and embrace the rule of God? Five verses earlier, he berates them, "You said to me, 'No, but a king shall reign over us,' when Lord your God is your king!" In Samuel's eyes, this is a revolution against revelation, an attempt to reverse what happened at Sinai, an attempted coup which he must stop. Indeed, he compels the people to echo their desperate plea to Moses at Sinai (Ex. 20:15 [19]; Deut. 5:21 [25]) to intercede with God, lest they die. 

But the Giving of the Torah at Sinai is not a historical event; it is meta-historical. It is irrevocable and irreversible. Why does God tell Samuel to go along with the people's request? The answer, of course, is the preceding book of the Bible, the Book of Judges. Though the theory of eschewing human governance is theologically enticing, the Book of Judges shows us a society in which "there was no king in Israel; every man did what was straight in his eyes" (17:6, 18:1, 21:25). Human sacrifice, rape, civil war--tribal Israel was an unending frat party. It turns out that people need a government which they can actually see, imperfect though it must necessarily be.

"This Saul guy may not have been my best choice..."

Indeed, Shavuot's designated scroll, Ruth, opens "And it was in the days that the judges judged," presenting a society where decadence and destitution exist side-by-side, and it ends with the birth of David, Samuel's last, best legacy, a king who brings justice to the entire land. In fact, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Hagiga 2:3), Shavuot is the day when the Land of Israel sees its first peaceful transfer of power, with the death of David and the coronation of Solomon. The king is dead, long live the king.

Shavuot is a day that has its roots in uprooting, in cleaning the slate for a new world. It is a world based on the divine Word, but ultimately built by human hands.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Mounting Tensions

Long before the Temple was built or Jerusalem was named as its location, its conditionality and impermanence were made explicit in this week's Torah portion, "And I will make desolate your holy places" (Lev. 26:31). Nevertheless, the Mishna (Megilla 3:3) says, "Their holiness persists in their desolation." 

That's why the climax of the Six-Day War, which we will commemorate this coming week as Jerusalem Day, is Motte Gur's declaration "The Temple Mount is in our hands!" But soon we handed administrative control back to the Waqf, an organization with a scary name that simply means "trust" or "endowment," under the aegis of Jordan. They forbid Jews from praying on Mount Moriah, leaving us down in the foothills, back at the Western Wall (Kotel), which is a retaining wall of the mountain, not a remnant of the Temple proper. 

Finding Moria is the easy part; it's getting inside that's the challenge.

Still, it's the closest we can get, and that's why every president, pope and pop star who visits comes to the Wall. They all don their paper kippot and stick their paper kvitlach between the stones. 

And the women? They have their own half of the Wall, and I mean half in the most metaphorical and non-mathematical way, as in "How the Other Half Prays." The men drape their talitot, wrap their tefillin and read their Torah scrolls in their quorums (quora?) of ten. The women at the Wall don't do any of those things.

But the Women of the Wall do, albeit only on the first day of each Hebrew month. Not all go in for tallit and tefillin, but they are there for a communal female experience. Some men of the Wall are less than happy about this, as freely expressed by shouting, cursing and throwing chairs. Why are these men preying instead of praying? Why are they inspecting what's going on beyond the mehitza (partition) which is designed to prevent them from gazing at women? The world may never know.

Men of the Wall actually praying
 Don't worry, the police are always close at hand--to arrest the Women of the Wall. Or detain them. Or question them. They're usually released the same day, which is nice. So it has gone on for a quarter-century, despite various court rulings supporting WoW.

The latest ruling has ignited quite a furor. Denied on appeal, the government is now trying to find a compromise. One suggestion is creating a third, mixed-gender section for prayer. Of course, considering the mixed-gender tourist section, this would actually be the fourth. Or considering the covered men's section, where those with a Y chromosome can find shelter from rain or sun, this would be the fifth. Oh, there's also the consideration that WoW are suing for the right to pray as women, not with men. So... section six?   

Of course, you'd hardly know that from social media. Not an essay, article or post goes by without a string of comments criticizing WoW's sanity, sanctity, sexuality or fashion sense. But those are just the commenters; what about the authors? Let's examine two conspiracy theories making the rounds. 

 1) Women of the Wall want to tear down the mehitza and set hours for single-sex prayer.
Actually, no. This isn't a public pool, it's the Kotel. WoW has never said anything of the sort. What is this based on? I tried to corner a Facebook friend of mine on this. He told me to Google it. Nothing came up. Then he sent me a link to a Tikkun article, but WoW's sole documented complaint about the mehitza was that it was doing a poor job of keeping them safe from chairs, garbage and spit being launched at them. Then he hemmed and hawed and said he must have seen it somewhere and somewhen on Ynet, a local news site. And that was the end of our conversation. 

2) Women of the Wall supported the Temple Mount Faithful, then stabbed them in the back. 

Actually, no again. WoW did classify their respective cases as "apples and oranges" this week. You see, the Temple Mount Faithful want to restore Jewish prayer (and sovereignty and architecture) on the Mount and have sued for the right to pray at our holiest site. Well, not quite, because we're all ritually impure nowadays, so they want to pray at our eighth holiest site, the Temple Mount, since the top seven are off-limits. (Oh, and most rabbis think the Temple Mount is off-limits too, for what it's worth.) One of my colleagues, who goes by the Twitter handle of Adderabbi, wrote about the irony: Jews can't pray on the Temple Mount because Arabs might riot, while WoW can't pray at the Kotel because Jews might riot. Then he tweeted them a link, along with a tagline. They responded, and here's the exchange, which he loves to share.

@Womenofthewall and the Temple Mount Faithful would make strange bedfellows
@Adderabbi we couldn't agree more! At the end of the day our fight is a fight for religious freedom.. FOR ALL!

Did you catch it? See, they agreed when he said that WoW and TMF "would make strange bedfellows." That means that their cases are equivalent, right? And then they said something about religious freedom for everyone, which means... which means... What does it mean? If they had said something about the Temple Mount, or addressed geography at all, or said "all Jews," that would certainly make things less ambiguous. They must have issued a press release, right? No. Stated it publicly in an interview? No. Posted something on their site? Well, that they did, namely Adderabbi's blog post, at least its first few lines and a link to the rest, dubbing him a "WOW supporter." Well, I think that's legally binding, then. Wouldn't want to be a welsher (apologies to my Welsh readers). If you can't trust individual direct tweets and links, where will it end? Will liking something on Facebook no longer be a binding contract? I weep for our future--excuse me, if we're talking about the Wall, I should be Wailing.  

Speaking of the future, it is Jerusalem Day on Wednesday, and then the new moon on Friday. I hope the only fireworks will be the ones the municipality planned. 

Say, what exactly are all these people ardently fighting to pray for? Oh right, peace.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How Homosexuality Is Different in Our Times

Ten days ago, we read a super-sized Torah portion in the middle of Leviticus, containing 144 verses, two of which are quoted endlessly.

You shall not lie with a male, [as] lying with a woman: it is abomination. (18:22)
And if a man lie with a male, [as] lying with a woman, both of them have committed
abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (20:13)

That's one translation, at least. But every time I encounter these two verses, I feel I understand them less, and not just because society's understanding of homosexuality has changed so much over my lifetime (and I'm only 35). There are so many textual riddles here. Why does the Torah use a sui generis term for this sexual encounter in Chapter 18? Incest is referred to as "uncovering nakedness," adultery and bestiality as "putting your seed," but this is different. It's certainly not unique in being termed an abomination, because this term is applied to all of the listed sins in the final verse, which all share the status of hok, decree, fiat, a royal edict beyond logic (as Yoma 67b states). Or what does "as lying with a woman" mean, especially considering that a virgin is defined (Numbers 31, Judges 21) as one "who has not known [a man, as] lying with a male." The word "as" doesn't even appear in the Hebrew text of any of these verses. What does this all mean?

I don't know, but others certainly maintain that they do. Last week, Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein (henceforth RDGR), wrote on the Hirhurim blog a post entitled "Why Homosexuality Is Different in Our Times," which is basically a battle-cry for hardline Jewish opposition to homosexuality in this permissive era. I use the term "battle" because he does, a dozen times, alongside a parting call "to wage the war" and references to both morality and casualties (four times each).

But not like that. Unless you're girls; the Torah is fine with marrying your uncle.

I wasn't sure what he was suggesting, and I noted that, despite what some of our ancient sources say, we hardly talk about eradicating Amalekites or zealously striking down intermarriers from the pulpit. Should we adorn synagogues with "Hashem Hates Homos" placards, shunning their relationships and families? He responded (promptly and politely):

Yossie, Nice to hear from you. I don’t have any reason to believe that God hates homosexuals, but I do know that God doesn’t want homosexuality to occur, in any of its forms. As you could see from earlier comments, I don’t think homosexual families are any big boon, and it’s not a question of charging into people’s bedrooms– they are bringing their bedrooms to our attention, and very insistently so! And, by the way, other than the barriers of dina de-malchuta, the fact that we don’t have a Davidic king, etc., I’m not sure why you’re so comfortable dismissing simple halachot on the books, just like any other ones. That ease of rejection is such a big problem in the Jewish world– so many of us, as this discussion shows, no longer feel bound by plain, simple, undisputed halachot.
Now that's a Davidic king. And he's off to wage war!
So, there you have it, shucks, if it weren't for dina de-malchuta (civil law) and historical misadventure, we could apply these halachot (laws) simply! Now, you may think that perhaps RDGR doesn't believe that homosexuals exist, as some people don't believe in getting pregnant from rape. There are certainly fundamentalists of a number of faiths who believe that "We don't have gays," as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put it.  However, RDGR clearly believes that gays do exist, as he states in the very same comment:

My plan is that anyone who decides or realizes that he is a homosexual resign himself to a life without sex, and then find a way, in consultation with confidants and therapists, to build as fulfilling a social life as possible...
Thus, homosexuals exist (by decision or realization), "but I do know that God doesn’t want homosexuality to occur, in any of its forms." So why does He keep making them?!

The irony is that RDGR is, of course, right in his titular assertion: homosexuality is different in our times. Forty years ago, saying "I'm gay" meant self-identifying, in the eyes of society, medicine and the law, as mentally ill, never to marry, never to raise children, committed to orgies at the best and pedophilia at the worst. The average straight person had no other concept of gayness. Now, as we straights have changed, saying "I'm gay" is usually the opening to something religious conservatives claim to love: "I'm gay and I want to raise a family;" "I'm gay and I want to marry the person I love;" "I'm gay and I want to participate in a community of faith." It's not about loving men, but about loving a man.

That is the world we live in, or at least that's the world which we will be living in soon. That's the reality of "our times." Orthodox Judaism realized half a century ago that charging into people's bedrooms wasn't going to keep anyone religious and it certainly wasn't going to attract anyone new. Now is not the time to start. RDGR may be summoning us to battle, but I won't be party to his recruiting.