Monday, April 28, 2014

Not so fast

When I was in junior high lo these many years ago, our principal propounded an interesting theory. This yeshiva had many issues with the modern State of Israel, and the rabbi claimed that the Zionists had devised a plot with their holiday schedule to undermine traditional vernal Judaism. They set Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in the last week of Nisan, the month of Passover, one in which we eschew public morning, while they put Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) in the first week of Iyar, a month defined by its mourning practices.

This is the most extreme expression of a common canard: fasting in Nisan is inconsistent with the Jewish tradition, so how can you put a day of mourning in the last week of Nisan?

Except, of course, that long before 1953, when the State of Israel established Yom HaShoa, there was a day of fasting in the middle of the final week of Nisan. That dates back to the 40's--not the 1940s, the 740s.
These are the days on which we fast according to the Torah; whoever fasts on them must not eat or drink until evening: on the first of Nisan, Aaron's sons died; on the tenth of Nisan, Miriam died and the Well vanished; on the twenty-sixth, Joshua son of Nun died. (Halakhot Gedolot, ch. 18, p. 232)
This 8th-century Gaonic source is echoed by the early prayer books of Amram Gaon (Order of Fasts) and Mahzor Vitri (ch. 271). The Kol Bo (ch. 63) concurs, but records the date of Joshua's death as the 28th. So, somewhere between the 26th and the 28th of Nisan, there was a strong custom to fast; somewhere between the 26th and the 28th of Nisan, we have Yom HaShoa. Yet we can't mark this day--because of the added mourning customs we've tacked on during this period after the Crusades 350 years later?!

Well, maybe these days were once observed, but surely the decisive compendium of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, wouldn't mention--oh, never mind, it's quoted verbatim in OH 580:2.

OK, let's put aside the technical halakhic question (I'm not aware of anyone who actually fasts on this day anyway). Can the yahrtzeit of Joshua shed any light on Yom HaShoa? I believe it can. Quite simply, Joshua (along with Caleb) is the survivor of the worst generational holocaust in Jewish history. Out of about 600,000 able-bodied men who leave Egypt, only two enter the land. This catastrophe is caused by the propaganda and demagoguery of ten men, the Spies, who break the will of the people in the name of preserving the Chosen Race. For forty years, the Israelites must pay the heavy price of this historic mistake. Finally, once they enter the land, as we read on the first day of Passover (Joshua 5:4), "This is the reason Joshua circumcised them: all the people who came out of Egypt, who were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt." Normally, it is the father who circumcises, but the generation that entered Israel was an orphan generation; Joshua had to foster a fatherless people.

Upon entering the Land of Israel, I wonder if there were any great thinkers who opined that this tragedy was necessary, that only a catastrophe as vast as the death of 603,548 men would allow God to give us such a great gift. If so, they would have been immediately recognized as fools. God promised the Land to Israel on their way out of Egypt, and the holocaust in the desert only served to delay it.

So why do people insist on putting Yom HaShoa and Yom HaAtzmaut on two opposite sides of the scales of theodicy? As my rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was wont to say, if God offered us such a deal, it would be morally repugnant to consider it. The Holocaust must be evaluated on its own terms, not least of which because so many others aside from Jews were slaughtered in it as well. It must be discussed, knowing that it can never be fully explained or understood. Adding it to the list of Jewish tragedies on Tisha beAv, when neither schools nor yeshivot are in session, hardly fits the bill.

I think that the yartzheit of Joshua, who buried more than half a million of his kinsmen, friends and countrymen, is a particularly opportune time. Maybe some other day would be more appropriate. But the vagaries of the Jewish calendar should not be an excuse for ignoring the Holocaust and the profound questions it raises.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

My sister is really hot

So says the Bible. In fact, we read it over Passover, in the Song of Songs (AKA Song of Solomon):
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride... How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine... You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. (4:9-12)
I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride...
Listen! My beloved is knocking:“Open to me, my sister, my darling...” (5:1-2)
Now, you might be thinking, "But SoS is an allegory!" True enough; no one thinks that the unnamed female protagonist (let's call her She) actually has two fawns (7:4) or grape clusters (7:8) strapped to her chest. However, the author does choose to use "sister" as a synonym for "beloved."

A few more hints in the text flesh out the picture. 1:6 states: "My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!" So she has maternal brothers, but apparently no maternal sister, as in 6:9: "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, unique to her mother, flawless to her that bore her." She says of the male protagonist, "O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother's breasts! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me." In other words, if they shared a mother and not just a father, their kisses would be innocent and familial; but since they do not, their interactions are erotic and romantic.

The unusual configuration of Torah readings this year (which won't recur until 2035) means that we read SoS on the Sabbath between the regular portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. They have quite a different view of sororal love, respectively:
You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born abroad... You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. (Lev. 18:9, 11)
If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a hesed, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister's nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment. (20:7)
This seems pretty clear and unambiguous (if not redundant), except of course for the use of the word hesed, usually translated as kindness (or lovingkindness, but not that type of loving), but here carrying some pejorative connotation. Granted, it's a bit jarring to slip SoS between these two passages. But maybe it's a cultural thing; after all, sibling marriages were common in ancient Egypt and other societies. Certainly, the Jewish nation, founded by Abraham and Sarah, would never--
Abraham said, "I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father's house, I said to her, 'This is the hesed you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'" (Gen. 20:11-13)
OK, OK, but that's because of the vagaries of matrilineal descent in Jewish law. Certainly we would never countenance marrying one's full sister, unless--
Come and hear! Why did not Adam marry his daughter?So that Cain should marry his sister, as it is written, "For I said, the world shall be built up by hesed" (Psalms 89:3). But otherwise, she would have been forbidden? Once, however that it was permitted, it remained so. (Sanhedrin 58b)
Well, sure, historically, but once we get past Abraham, Jews start marrying their cousins, like decent folk, not their sis--
"And they took Dinah from the house of Shechem" (34:26)... R. Huna says: she was saying, "But I, where can I take my shame?" (II Sam. 13:13), until Simeon vowed to her that he would marry her. Thus it says, "The sons of Simeon were... and Saul the son of a Canaanite woman" (46:10) Dinah was the “Canaanite woman,” because her behavior was like that of the Canaanites, says R. Judah. (Gen. Rabbah 80:11).
That would be Simeon, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, marrying his full sister Dinah. And fathering a kid with her. Hmmm...
Now, my point with all of this is not to advocate on behalf of incest. It is to point out how complex sexual morality is. We usually assume that the answer to the question "What is the Torah's view on sleeping with one's sister?" is pretty straightforward. It certainly is halakhically (see Shabbat 145b); but when the question is how we think about it, the path gets a little winding and muddy.

That's why it so galls me when people trot out a simplistic view of human sexuality through the lens of the Torah, as David Benkof did in his piece last week. While I respect his personal choices, his portrayal of the Torah's view on the matter leads him to portray the Midrashic idea of Adam being created as a Siamese hermaphrodite as the simple meaning of the text (see Berakhot 61a). Furthermore, it leads him to invoke one reading of 2:24 as the model for marriage, even though the rest of Genesis depicts many other variations on this theme. Then he adds to this the anatomical argument, even though such an approach would lend far more legitimacy to polyandry than to polygamy.

The Jewish concept of sexuality, like so many other things, has evolved over time. We should not pretend that we are still in Eden. Instead, we should use the halakhic tools at our disposal to welcome all who wish to study and pray with us. It's hesed, you know.
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lucky number seven

Poor 7oP. The Seventh Day of Passover seems to get no respect, despite its being a bona fide biblical holiday. It has no special custom, command or ceremony all its own. Compare this to the end of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret; the Talmud (Sukka 48a) already enumerates six special traits of the day in Temple times, to which another half-dozen have been added in the two millennia since. Meanwhile, 7oP remains forlorn, a sort of Anticlimaxodus.
True, tradition tells us (specifically, R. Hanina bar Papa in Talmud Sota 12b) that the 21st of Nisan was the day of the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the subsequent Song of the Sea. But this sequel to the Ten Plagues feels a bit underwhelming: once again, the Israelites face hardened-heart Pharaoh; once again, Moses raises his staff; once again, God performs a miracle; once again, the Israelites are spared and the Egyptians are smitten (but not in a good way). However, since we celebrate at the Seder as freemen, it's hard to muster up much emotion about Pharaoh 2.0. Instead, he seems to fit into the familiar pattern of "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."

But I would like to argue that the events of the Seventh Day are in fact vital and integral to our Passover experience. A week ago, Eylon Aslan-Levy posted "The Ten Plagues and the Ethics of Modern Warfare," in which he argues that "For Moses, the Death of the Firstborn was the nuclear option." I have a number of issues with the piece, but first and foremost, I am dismayed by the portrayal of the Slaying of the Firstborn as some sort of weapon of mass destruction, introducing lethal force into the equation for the first time.

The fact is that in their first appearance before Pharaoh (Ex. 5:3), Moses and Aaron already use threatening language: "And they said, 'The God of the Hebrews has met with us: let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.'" As the Plagues strike Egypt, it's very hard to imagine that there were no casualties from the week-long lack of drinking water, the invasion by wild animals, the death by pestilence of all domesticated animals and a raging plague of boils (a disease which causes limbs to fall off; see Talmud Ketubot 20b).

Still, let's assume that the first six were nonlethal. That still brings us to unlucky number seven, flaming hail. The Torah is explicit about this one (Ex. 9:19-25):
For upon every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die. He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses. And he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field... And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
So Egyptians were dying; more importantly, their animals and slaves were dying for their masters' disbelief. That is equally true of the Slaying of the Firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (11:5)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. (12:29)
Pharaoh, the cause of all this, does not die; all other firstborn of Egypt, including slaves and animals, do.
It may be convenient for us to think of the Slaying of the Firstborn as a powerfully destructive and indiscriminate weapon, but this plague is very personal, as we read in the Haggada: God Himself does the killing. It is not modern ethical warfare; it is ancient tribal warfare, in which Egypt is bad and Israel is good, and no other distinction is relevant. To contend that "Moses took every reasonable step to shield civilians from their leadership’s callousness and indifference to their plight" is laughable.
That is why we need the Seventh Day of Passover. The final chapter of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, shows us an evolving ethic. This time, it is not Egyptian slaves or civilians who suffer, but Pharaoh's war machine (Ex. 14:28): "And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them." As the Psalmist puts it (136:15), "And He hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, for His kindness is everlasting."

In fact, in the Talmud (Megilla 10b), we find:
For the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. And R. Johanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse, "And one came not near the other all the night" (Ex. 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?"
Once we can distinguish between the good Egyptians and the bad Egyptians, we can distinguish between the good and the bad within each Egyptian. Once we can identify the villains, we can have compassion for the enemy. That is the most provocative idea of Passover, and we can only embrace it once we are safely on the other side, on the Seventh Day.

Hag sameah.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

No Private Passover Parties

Where will you be in 21 years? That's the next time we'll do what we did yesterday, reading the portion of Aharei Mot (Lev. 16-18) on Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath preceding Passover. It gives us a chance to examine one of the most unusual mitzvot in the Torah: the prohibition of external slaughter (shehutei hutz).
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the Tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. (Lev. 17:3-4)
Jews of the Exodus generation were not getting their fresh beef from Postville, Iowa; every domesticated animal had to be slaughtered before God.

This restriction is loosened once the Jews cross the Jordan, as described in Deut., ch. 12 and Talmud Zevahim, ch. 14; in the Promised Land, sheep, goats and cattle may be slaughtered just for a barbecue. Moreover, if one does want to make it into an offering, that can be done on private altar, a bama. Only when the sacrificial service is centralized does it become forbidden to bring offerings in one's own backyard.

However, there is one exception: the paschal lamb/ kid.
You are not allowed to sacrifice the passover in any of your towns which the Lord your God is giving you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt. (Deut. 16:5-6)
This leads to one of the most unusual disputes among the ban-counters. Maimonides famously lists all 613 commandments in his Sefer HaMitzvot, and the Sefer HaHinukh expands on them. There is only one mitzva which Maimonides omits but the Hinukh counts (#487): the prohibition to slaughter the passover privately. Maimonides does include the law in Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Passover 1:3), but he apparently views it as a historical footnote, not an everlasting command, as the bama has been categorically forbidden since the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Hinukh disagrees, and he is not alone; 500 years before Maimonides, the Gaonic list of commandments, Halakhot Gedolot, includes this prohibition as one of the 613 as well. Why?

In fact, it is quite bizarre that the passover, of all offerings, must not be sacrificed in one's backyard. After all, the original passover in Egypt (which Shabbat HaGadol commemorates) is commanded in the following way in Exodus 12: "They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house" (v. 3) and "Draw out, and take you a lamb, according to your families, and slaughter the passover" (21). If there's any offering that would belong on a private, family bama, it seems like it would be the passover!

Let's return to Aharei Mot. While in the desert, the Israelites are compelled to bring their animals to the Sanctuary. Whatever one's tribal or familial or socioeconomic status, everyone has to come to this central location. This creates a certain social cohesiveness in the nation of former slaves, a cohesiveness which they had lost in Egypt. True, Goshen had a higher population of Israelites than the other regions of Egypt (a remnant of Joseph's era), but the Hebrew slaves for the most part lived among their Egyptian masters. (That, after all, is why God needs to "pass over" the Jewish houses when He smites the Egyptian homes.)  Thus, this carnivorous centralization serves an important purpose.

But how is it possible to do so after crossing the Jordan? Trekking from Dan or Beersheba to Jerusalem for shawarma is impracticable. Nevertheless, there is one occasion upon which all Israel can come together: the annual observance of Passover. Everyone must come to God's chosen place to offer the passover, and this gives them the opportunity to feel the Exodus experience.

This is fundamentally different from the paschal service in Egypt; at that time, it was more important to establish the concept of independence and autonomy in the nuclear family, an idea which their masters had tried to eradicate. But for every subsequent Passover, the issue is commemoration. We need to feel the experience of forging a nation, to symbolically gather around one fire and become one people. That is why the story we tell at the Seder does not conclude with our departure from Egypt, but includes the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In fact, the famous poem Dayenu ends with the building of God's chosen house--the one place which is irrevocably and unfailingly the focus of our service. No matter our geographical or historical distance from the Temple, every Jewish soul turns to it.

Let's remember this Passover to keep our doors and our hearts open to all those who are in need. After all, we're all in this together.

Friday, April 4, 2014

And a leper shall lead them

The Torah is known as the Five Books of Moses, and with good reason. The most common verse is "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying," which appears seventy times in the Torah (specifically, in three of the five), introducing mitzvot. But Moses is not the only one to be tagged, as we read a few weeks ago, "And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying" (Lev. 10:8).
In that passage, God explains that Aaron and his sons have a special job in assisting Moses--not just Temple service, but le-horot, to guide, teach, instruct and issue rulings for the Israelites, "in order to distinguish between the holy and the mundane, and between the impure and the pure." Le-horot is the infinitive of Torah, and the text goes on to list a half-dozen torot, rules of purity and impurity as they relate to all stages of life and all living creatures. In each case, the passage is introduced with "And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying"--with two exceptions.
As my friend Hillel Deutsch asked last week on Facebook, "The yoledet, however, is introduced via command to Moshe only. (Vayikra 12:1) Why?" The laws of the yoledet, the child-bearer, are indeed addressed only to Moses, which is strange. After all, the new mother is supposed to bring an offering and present it to the priest; Aaron and his sons are part of her purification process.
Even more bizarre is the beginning (Lev. 14:1) of this week's portion, Metzora, which details the purification process of the leper, in which nearly every action is taken by the priest. This too is addressed to Moses only, even though Aaron is cc'ed on the process for declaring a person to be a metzora in the first place. Why should he be excluded here?
Also on Facebook, Yosef Weiner suggested: "Some kind of reference/reprimand to him after the whole not-giving-his-son-a-brit story?" In other words, perhaps Moses is excluded in the first instance because the passage of the child-bearer includes the positive command of circumcision, "And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised." This is a brief restatement of the Abrahamic covenant of Gen. 17, which Moses famously ignores on his way down to Egypt (Ex. 4:24-26).
At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.
Thus, there is a reason for Moses to receive the passage of the yoledet alone; he has unique experience with the consequences of ignoring the covenant, and this is no time to hide behind his brother.
But what about metzora? What personal experience does Moses have with that? Actually, it's in the same chapter (vv. 5-7):
Said the Lord, “So that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous as snow. "Now put it back into your cloak,” He said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 2:1) famously expounds that the torah of the metzora (Lev. 14:2)  is the torah of the motzi shem ra, the slanderer. In fact, Moses' leprous episode is very similar to that of his older sister Miriam in Num. 12. Both express doubt about the trustworthiness of God's chosen, both incur God's wrath, both become "leprous as snow," and in both cases Aaron's advocacy saves them. But not before a seven-day quarantine session, as required for the metzora: Miriam's quarantine is explicit in the verse, but Moses' is explicit only in the Midrash, which states that he spends an entire week at Horeb, by the Burning Bush (Lev. Rabba, Shemini 11). In any case, it is clear why Moses receives the passage of purifying the metzora alone; he is the one familiar with this punishment for evil speech.
Is there any lesson in all this for us? I would like to suggest that the message is actually quite profound. If there's anyone who could claim diplomatic immunity, it's Moses, who is literally on a mission from God. Liberating the Israelite slaves from Egypt is sort of a big deal, as I understand. Yet God takes the time to take Moses to task for two personal mistakes and puts the Exodus on hold. Why? Because if Moses can't put his own house in order before assuming the leadership of Israel, there is really no point to his mission.
It's quite a contrast to the news of the week: one former mayor of Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been convicted of bribery, along with his predecessor, who ascended to the office of Prime Minister of Israel. These are two very different men, but they clearly shared a belief that they were above the law. One can't help but think of Isaiah's words (1:23): "Your rulers are faithless, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows." That's not the Mosaic model. God doesn't give a free pass to the leaders; He demands that they follow the laws they're handing down to everyone else.
There is some comfort, though. (We don't call them isaiads, after all.) Isaiah, himself of royal blood (Megilla 15a) goes on to promise in the name of God: "Then I will give you good judges again and wise counselors like you used to have. Then Jerusalem will again be called the Home of Justice and the Faithful City." It can't come soon enough.