Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Lone Avenger

Khatam an-Nabiyyin is a title we might give, in a Jewish context, to the last of the biblical prophets, Malachi. He is the final seer of Israel, and his short but powerful book ends with a message familiar to many, read annually on the Sabbath before Passover:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Malachi 3:23-24)
Interestingly, the Midrash (Gen. Rabba 99:10) cites this verse in order to explain the blessings that Jacob gives to two of his sons, as we read just a few days ago. Between the blessings of Dan and Gad, Jacob abruptly makes a desperate plea to God.
When Jacob saw [Samson], he exclaimed, "I wait for your salvation, O Lord" (Gen. 49:17)--not he will bring the redemption, but [one descended] from Gad, as it says, "Gad, a troop shall troop upon him, but he shall troop upon the heel," which alludes to him who will come at the end [lit. 'heel']: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord" (Mal. 3:23). He was of the Tribe of Gad, for that reason it says, "but he shall troop upon the heel."
Samson, the most prominent descendant of Dan, is likened to a viper, and the Midrash offers two explanation: either this refers to his solitariness or his vengefulness, as expressed in his suicidal zealotry (Jud. 16:28): "O Lord God, remember me, I pray you, and strengthen me, I pray you, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes."
Thus, we see Jacob evaluate two potential saviors from among his offspring: Samson the Danite, the serpentine lone avenger, is rejected, his place to be taken by Elijah the Gaddite. However, this does not seem to match up with Elijah as we encounter him in the Book of Kings. He does indeed embrace both solitude and vengeance (I Kings 19:10):
With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant: they have thrown down your altars, they have slain your prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away.
Nor is this a simple declaration. Immediately before this, Elijah ventures into the desert for a Moses-like journey to Sinai--but without the people! And this comes immediately after he encourages them to slay hundreds of priests of Baal.
Perhaps we should consider God's response to Elijah. Elijah sees a tempest, an earthquake and an inferno, but none of these represent the word of God. Instead, it is "a still, small voice." Unmoved, Elijah restates his bona-fides of viperous vengeance and isolation. And then God immediately tells him that the time has come for him to appoint a successor. Elijah's tenure is at an end.
Traditionally, of course, this is not the end of Elijah's mission. He who claimed that Israel abandoned the covenant of God bears witness at every circumcision and every Passover that he was wrong. His role in life pales in comparison to his role beyond it.
This is what Malachi alludes to: the role of Elijah in restoring unity and teaching the people to forgive each other. Samson never redeems himself, but Elijah does, realizing as he trains his replacement Elisha that vengeance and isolation are not the path to redemption. Elijah of Melakhim (the Book of Kings) becomes Elijah of Malakhi (the Book of Malachi).
However, this is no softening or weakening of the divine imperative; the last words of Malachi, the final line of prophecy in Israel, is "or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction." The stakes are unimaginably high. Elijah's mission of renouncing vengefulness and isolation is a powerful calling, upon which the fate of the world hangs, and the commitment to it must be as serious as his former dedication to zealotry. His campaign of love and reconciliation must be bold, uncompromising and compelling.
This week my wife and I had the privilege of welcoming a new child, a ray of light for us in a world which seems so consumed by darkness. We named him Malachi Elijah with the hope that he will do his part, through compassion and comity, to bring that redemption closer. Indeed, it is the ultimate mission incumbent upon all of us.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

While the death of Abraham is recorded in last week's Torah portion, the timeline of his life tells us that Abraham lived to see his twin grandsons, Esau and Jacob, celebrate their QuinceaƱera in this week's reading. OK, they weren't Latina, and the only biblical figure who celebrates a birthday is Pharaoh -- but the fact remains that Jacob overlapped with Grandpa Abraham. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) describes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as convening the first Jewish court to deal with a candidate for conversion.
Timna was a royal princess, as it is written (Gen. 36), "Chief Lotan," "Chief Timna" -- and by "chief," a monarch without a crown is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, 'I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.' From her came Amalek, who pained Israel. Why so? Because they should not have distanced her.
According to this legend, tracing the origins of Israel's arch-nemesis Amalek to the court of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's rejection of Princess Timna, she settles for second best: concubinage to Esau's firstborn Eliphaz. But once again, we must consider the timeline. Abraham dies when the twins are 15, but Esau first marries at age 40 (Gen. 26:34). In the best-case scenario, Eliphaz would be hitting puberty when Esau is in his mid-50's -- some forty years after Timna's application was denied!
So was Timna nursing a grudge for all those decades? That does not seem to be the case; she becomes Eliphaz's concubine in order to join "this people" -- the progeny of Abraham and Isaac.
Moreover, Eliphaz himself has a remarkably good reputation in rabbinic literature. The ancient Midrash Tanhuma (Vayera 38) takes the Proverb (11:30) "The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life" as a reference to Eliphaz: "Because he was raised in Isaac's bosom, he was righteous and merited to have the Holy Spirit rest upon him." A verse from the previous chapter (10:16), "The wages of the righteous are for life [le-hayim in the original Hebrew, so take a shot if you're playing that drinking game], but the earnings of the wicked are for sin and death" is understood by Rabbi Tanhum (Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:20) as contrasting the salutary effects of Grandpa Isaac upon Eliphaz with the deleterious effects of Grandpa Esau upon Amalek.
Thus, Timna and Eliphaz seem to be genuinely righteous people, a surprising origin for Amalek, antithesis of the Jewish nation.
In fact, the conversion case for Amalek remains a contentious one. Though some sources (Rabbi Eliezer, Mekhilta, Exod. 17:16) seem to apply the Timna precedent to all her progeny, ruling out proselytes "from the House of Amalek," Maimonides explicitly says that Amalekites may become resident aliens, accepting the Noahide laws and living in peace with Israel (Laws of Kings, Ch. 6), and an Amalekite ger (a term used for both converts and resident aliens) appears in the Book of Samuel (II 1). Indeed, the Talmud just a few pages earlier in Sanhedrin (96b) states that Haman's grandsons studied Torah in Bnei Brak.
Now, it may be that these sources are not really in dispute, but rather speaking to the nature of conversion. Since Timna sees her union with Eliphaz as joining "this people," making Amalek a unit separate from Esau's other progeny (the Edomites), one cannot approach full conversion as a member of the "House of Amalek." Nevertheless, this does not preclude a biological descendant of Eliphaz and Timna from joining as a regular old Edomite, like any other scion of Esau.
But let's set aside the technical question. What is remarkable here is how much effort goes into understanding the tortured relationship of Amalek and Israel on the aggadic level and exploring the possibility of rapprochement on the halakhic level. After all, to be blunt, Amalek is the embodiment of evil in the Jewish tradition. We are commanded to remember and never to forget "How he met you by the way, and attacked those at your rear, even all that were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God" (Deut. 25:18). Targeting civilians to break the will of the enemy -- that is terrorism in anyone's book. We are commanded to eradicate every mention of Amalek from beneath the heavens. That should be the end of the story, right?
In fact, had the Talmud been blogged, these passages might have elicited some choice comments about these sages' naivete, delusion and self-hatred. Yet even for Amalek, the epitome of irredeemability, we see compassion and even hope for the future. Even Amalek has elements of legitimacy to its narrative; even Amalek has its valid criticisms of Israel. That does not mean that the terror of Amalek is acceptable or justified; but it does require us to do some hard thinking.
If even Amalek deserves this consideration, can we deny it to others?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

You Oughta Noah

After an indescribable week, this week's Torah portion, Bereshit, is an epic journey from primordial chaos to the last hope of humanity:
And Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Gen. 6:8)
This isn't the first time we've encountered Noah this week. On Sunday, Hoshana Rabba, we prayed for salvation "In the name of he who was perfect in his generations," as Noah is described in the next verse.
Nor is that the first time that Noah popped up in our holiday prayers. In the Yom Kippur service (both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites), he is identified as the first truly righteous individual, whose descendants are blessed and multiplied as a result of his piety.
And on Rosh Hashana, Noah literally takes center stage: in the second of its third unique blessings, known as Zichronot (Remembrances). In fact, Rosh Hashana's official name is the Day of Remembrance, and the first instance of God's remembrance is that of tempest-tossed Noah:
You also remembered Noah with love and You were mindful of him with salvation and mercy when You brought
flood waters to destroy all flesh because of their evil deeds. Therefore, his memory comes before You, God our Lord, to make his descendants like the dust of the earth and his progeny like the sand of the sea. As it states in Your Torah “And God remembered Noah and all of the beasts and the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow over the land and the water calmed.”
What is particularly striking is that this theme is unique to the month of Tishrei. As Jews, we usually hearken back to later figures in Genesis: the Patriarchs, the Matriarchs, the Tribes. However, during this month, we invoke our status as descendants of Noah, a bond shared by all humanity.
This dovetails with the universality of Tishrei.
On Rosh Hashana, all human beings pass before him like young sheep, as it is said (Psalms 33:15), "He fashions all their hearts together, Who understands all their deeds." (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:2)
Indeed, the Torah reading of the day focuses more on Ishmael and Abimelech the Philistine then on Isaac! Even the scapegoat to Azazel on Yom Kippur is understood by the Midrash (Gen. Rabba 65:10) as a reference to Esau. Similarly, according to Talmud Sukka 55b, the bullocks of Sukkot, which add up to seventy, represent the seventy nations of the world. And on Simchat Torah, we once again read about the creation of man as one being, encompassing all colors, peoples and genders.
Thus, it is only fitting that the last Sabbath of Tishrei has a reading that concludes with Noah, father of us all. And the Prophetic postscript is a familiar but oft-forgotten mission (Isaiah 42:6):
I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant of the people, a light of the nations (or goyim).
Now, after the week we've just gone through here, I'm sure many will say that the last thing we need to hear about is the common ancestry of all humanity, the fact that we all trace our lineage back to Noah, the first to forge a covenant with God. But faith doesn't always give you what you want to hear; sometimes, it just gives you what you need to hear.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

No Girls Allowed

Two days from now we will mark the septennial mitzva of Hakhel -- the  assembly, the gathering.
No, not that one.
Not that one either.
On the feast of Booths, at the prescribed time in the year for remission which comes at the end of every seven-year period, when all Israel goes to appear before the LORD, your God, in the place which he will choose, you shall read this law aloud in the presence of all Israel. Assemble (Hakhel) the people -- men, women and children, as well as the resident aliens who live in your communities -- that they may hear and so learn to fear the LORD, your God, and to observe carefully all the words of this law. (Deut. 31:10-12)
The Aramaic rendering of Hakhel is Kenosh, the same root as bei kenishta. You may be more familiar with the Hebrew cognate, beit kenesset, or the Greek-derived equivalent, synagogue. In any case, they all mean the same thing: gathering-place, house of assembly, locus of coming together. This is the essence of Jewish prayer and of a Jewish house of prayer.
In the Talmud (Hagiga 3a), Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah famously expounds, "If the men came to learn,the women came to hear, but wherefore have the little ones to come? In order to grant reward to those that bring them." But are the children dragged along merely to give extra credit to their parents, since watermelons rarely throw tantrums? The biblical commentator Keli Yakar demurs:
I find it untenable, as if he would command them to bear logs and stones to the House of God "in order to grant reward to those that bring them."
Rather, the whole purpose of Hakhel is for renewal (teshuva), as the Sages say (Lev. R. 30:7) that the first day of Sukkot marks the commencement of a new spiritual reckoning...
Now, when Israel repents, we beg God to forgive our sins, asking for mercy in the name of our blameless children, if we are undeserving. Thus, we ask in the prayer Our Father, Our King, "Pity us, our sucklings and our infants," and similarly we ask, "Act for the sake of the little children," etc.
This is what we mean by "in order to grant reward to those that bring them." They say to God: Act on behalf of these little ones who have been brought to the House of God! This is similar to what Joel speaks of (2:16): "Gather the people, sanctify the assembly; collect the elderly; gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast; [let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bridal tent]."
The message is clear: in a time of crisis, in a time of climax, we belong together. That is why it is so troubling when the beit kenesset is used to divide rather than unite, to exclude rather than include. Some flip this argument on its head: children don't belong in synagogue because they're disruptive, and since men "have to go to shul" and women don't have to, those little ones are the "problem" of the latter.
The true "problem" here, however, is that this view, while held as axiomatic by far too many observant Jews, has no basis in the classical sources:
Communal prayer is always heard. Even when there are transgressors among them, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayers of the many. Therefore, a person should join community and should not pray alone whenever it is possible to pray with the community. (Maimonides, Laws of Prayer 8:1)
One should endeavor to pray in the synagogue with the community, but if circumstances prevent one from doing so, one should should specifically pray at the time the community prays. (Shulhan Arukh, OH 90:9)
Praying with the community is undoubtedly preferable, but no one calls it a binding commandment; on the contrary, the likely eventuality that one may not be able to attend is immediately apparent (considering what Maimonides says about his own busy schedule, this may be from personal experience).
Well, OK, maybe it's not a mitzva mitzva, but still it's a guy thing, right? Actually, Maimonides starts off the Laws of Prayer (1:1-2) by explicitly stating that women are just as obligated as men in the biblical command to pray to God daily. Is there a reason that women should not also avail themselves of the great merit of communal prayer? A stunning legend told in the midrashic compendium Yalkut Shimoni (871) talks about a very elderly woman who was kept alive solely by the merit of attending synagogue at sunrise every morning; without it, she died within three days. And it's not just haggadic; Rabbi Moses Isserles writes quite poignantly in a halakhic context (Shulhan Arukh, OH 88:1) about the pain that women feel at being literally shut out from the High Holiday services in the name of excessive "purity."
Put simply, is there something different about the female soul? Not according to our tradition. After all, it's Hannah, mother of Samuel, whose prayer in the House of God is the template for what we do every day.
There is no doubt that prayer has evolved over the centuries, especially in the absence of a Temple. Prayer has been formalized and regulated by the rabbis. But that cannot touch the essence of God's command that all seek him in prayer, male and female. In the context of the month of Tishrei, prayer is in the category of mitzvot equally binding on man and woman, like repentance, like fasting, like Hakhel itself. Woe to him who makes a daughter of God feel unwelcome in our place of assembly, for it is her house too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

We are all Sodomites

Sodom and Gomorrah are two of the most famous cities in the Bible, but Moses doesn't even mention them until the very end of his life, as he describes in this week's Torah portion what Israel will look like if the people violate God's covenant (Deut. 29:23):
The whole land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows there, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in His anger and wrath.
So, like the weather we've had this past week, but smelling much worse.
A few chapters later, Moses describes this is in a more poetic way (32:32-33):
For their vine is from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
    their clusters are bitter.
Their wine is the venom of dragons
    and the cruel poison of cobras.
Interestingly, Moses traces all this cruelty, bitterness and poison to a specific individual or type, "a root bearing poisonous and caustic fruit...when he hears the words of this covenant, he blesses himself in his heart, saying, 'I shall have peace, even though I proceed according to the capriciousness of my heart,' so that the saturated destroys the thirsty" (29:18-19).
Saturated is how, of course, Sodom and its sister cities are first described (Gen. 13:10): "the valley of the Jordan, which was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah." The Jordan Valley is contrasted with "the land of Canaan," famine-prone and always thirsting for rain. Metaphorically, the well-watered are the well-off, and Ezekiel (16:49-50) makes it clear that this is the root of Sodom's poisonous cruelty:
This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom. Pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters, but she would not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. They were haughty and did what is taboo before Me. Therefore I took them away when I saw it.
Yes, like that term taboo (toeva), sodomy (middat Sedom) is often misunderstood. Toeva is biblical, while middat Sedom only appears in rabbinical literature; nevertheless, some have an almost pathological need to associate these terms with sexual orientation and ignore their original context. Take what Maimonides (Laws of Neighbors 12:1) says about the Talmudic definition of sodomy--in the context of partners dividing property:
If one of the partners said: "Give me my portion on this side so that it will be close to another field which I own, so that they will be one large field, " his request is heeded, and we compel the other partner to grant him this privilege. For holding back in such a situation would be the character of a Sodomite.
When one withholds benefit from another out of pure caprice, that is sodomy. The Mishnaic Ethics of the Fathers puts it this way (5:10):
There are four types of people: One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine" is an ignoramus. One who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours" -- this is the intermediate characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a pious person. And one who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked.
Perhaps the most shocking element of that dissection of human personality is not the reference to Sodom, but what "others" refer to it as: "the intermediate characteristic." This is not a dissenting view, as the "others" agree as to the definition of the pious and wicked poles. Instead, this underscores that sodomy is not unusual; it is average, mundane, the default setting. The citizens of Sodom and its daughter cities fall far below this, as their vine produces venomous wine--but it all starts with a shockingly simple and so-so statement: "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours." It is the meridian of mediocrity, telling the thirsty to keep off their well-watered lawn.
The "intermediate" status is one with special resonance this time of year, as the Talmud teaches (Rosh Hashana 16b):
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on the New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from the New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.
Mediocrity is no place to live; one inexorably moves towards one pole or the other. That is why we have the period of the Ten Days of Repentance: for the intermediate. For the average Sodomite. For us.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

So you're a Jewish sex slave

We all struggle with questions of identity from time to time: Who am I? Why am I here? Am I a Jewish sex slave? This handy guide will help you find the answers!
But first, let's explore some things about you.
  1. Are you a Jewish male?
If so, you have nothing to worry about. Unless you steal something and don't have the means to pay it back, in which case the court may sell you as a slave. At that point (Maimonides, Laws of Slaves 3:3):
When a servant is sold by the court, his master has the option of giving him a Canaanite maid-servant as a wife. This applies to the master who purchased him or the son who becomes his master if the master dies. He may give him a Canaanite maid-servant as a wife and compel him to engage in relations with her so that she gives birth to slaves that he conceived.
Don't worry, you don't have to raise those kids you may be compelled to have: like your slave-wife, your slave-children belong to your master. It might be awkward when you see him in shul, though.
2. Are you a Jewish female?
a) How old are you?
b) How does your father feel about you?
Here's why we need to know (ibid. ch. 4): 
A Hebrew maid-servant is a girl below the age of majority sold by her father. When she manifests signs of physical maturity after reaching twelve years of age and becomes pubescent, he does not have the right to sell her... If the father fled, died or did not have the resources to redeem her, she must work until she is released.

So, you might be a Jewish slave, but if you're in the first grade or younger, at least you'll be out to prepare for being a bat mitzva after your six years of servitude run out. Of course, your master may decide he wants to marry you. That's where the sex comes in.

The mitzva of designating a maid-servant as a wife takes precedence over the mitzva of redeeming the maid-servant. How is the mitzva of designating a maid-servant as a wife performed? The master tells the maid-servant in the presence of two witnesses: "Behold, you are consecrated to me," "You are betrothed to me," or "Behold, you are my wife." This may be done even at the conclusion of the six years of her servitude before the setting of the sun. He need not give her anything, for the first moneys were given with the intent that they could serve for the purpose of consecration.From this point onward, he must treat her as a wife, and not as a servant...
How does a master designate a maid-servant as a wife for his son? If his son is past majority and gives his father permission to designate the maid-servant as his wife, the father tells the maid-servant in the presence of two witnesses: "Behold you are consecrated to my son."
So, your master's son does have a say. You, not so much. But at least you won't be a slave anymore!
3. Are you a non-Jewish male?
Then we won't even bring up sex, because masters are presumed to be male, and we don't even want to talk about that. But congratulations on being alive! Had you been captured in battle as a) an adult or b) one of the nations we really don't like, you wouldn't have made it this far.
4. Are you a non-Jewish female?
Hey, it's all cool, assuming you're not from one of the no-no nations. Oh, and you might be "married" off to a Hebrew slave, see above. Oh, and one more thing, as per this week's Torah portion (Deut. 21:10-14).
From time to time, you men will serve as soldiers and go off to war. The Lord your God will help you defeat your enemies, and you will take many prisoners.  One of these prisoners may be a beautiful woman, and you may want to marry her. But first you must bring her into your home, and have her shave her head, cut her nails, get rid of her foreign clothes, and start wearing Israelite clothes. She will mourn a month for her father and mother, then you can marry her. Later on, if you are not happy with the woman, you can divorce her, and she can go free. But you have slept with her as your wife, so you cannot sell her as a slave or make her into your own slave.
See, sex yes, slave no. Best-case scenario, you live happily ever after with your one-time battlefield rapist. (Unless he's a priest, in which case rape yes, marriage never.) Or maybe he rejects you, but then he can't keep you as a slave or sell you. So that's good, right? You can walk free and clear... bound by the Noahide covenant (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:7):
Her captor must be patient with her for twelve months if she refuses to convert. If she still refuses after this interval has passed, she must agree to accept the seven universal laws commanded to Noah's descendants and then, she is set free. Her status is the same as all other resident aliens. Her captor may not marry her, for it is forbidden to marry a woman who has not converted.
Okay, you can't refuse him, but you can refuse his faith... just as long as you don't keep your own (ibid. 9):
A beautiful captive who does not desire to abandon idol worship after twelve months should be executed. Similarly, a treaty cannot be made with a city which desires to accept a peaceful settlement until they deny idol worship, destroy their places of worship, and accept the seven universal laws commanded Noah's descendants. For every non-Jew who does not accept these commandments must be executed if he is under our undisputed authority.
You feel better now, right?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Adorable Abominations

You've heard of the Ten Commandments, but what about the Nine Abominations?
The former we read three weeks ago, while the latter appear in this weekend's Torah portion (Deut. 18:9-12):
When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone that passes his son or his daughter through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whosoever does these things is an abomination unto the LORD; and because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you.
That is the popular translation, at least, for the term used here: toeva.
However, this rendering is highly misleading, just as "Commandment" is a poor translation for an entry in the Decalogue (the term in Hebrew is not mitzva, but davar, a statement, utterance or thing).
See, Cecil B. DeMille should have used this title.
See, Cecil B. DeMille should have used this title.
You see, abomination etymologically means to regard as an ill omen, and divining by omens is on this very list of toevot! Colloquially, it is used to described something which is morally reprehensible, but that hardly fits the term toeva as it is used in the Torah.
It first appears in Genesis and Exodus as a way of describing the cultural differences between Egyptians and Hebrews. "The toeva of Egypt" is used to describe breaking bread with Hebrews, the profession of shepherding (although Egypt itself has vast flocks) and the Hebrew sacrificial rites. Explaining the last of these (Exod. 8:22), Rabbi S.R. Hirsch writes:
Perhaps this is only a diplomatic term, showing consideration for Pharaoh, denoting what the Egyptians regard more than anything.
Wait, toeva is a term of respect? Shocking as it may seem, Rashi says it nearly a millennium before Hirsch, in his comments on next week's portion (Deut. 22:9), as he tries to define kadosh, a term paradoxically used for both sanctification and contamination.
To anything man regards as toeva, either in a positive sense, e.g., something holy, or in a negative sense, e.g., something forbidden, the term kadosh applies.
It seems that we have to go to the South Seas to find an adequate translation for toeva, namely "taboo." The Torah is listing practices which are off-limits for the Israelites. Similarly, when the Torah says in the previous portion "Do not eat any toeva" (Deut. 14:3), it is not calling every non-kosher creature--99% of God's creation--an abomination. Jacob (Gen. 49) compares many of his sons to certain animals, all of which but one are non-kosher; Judah b. Tema (Mishna, Avot 5:20) charges every child of God to emulate certain animals, all of which but one are non-kosher. It is the eating which is forbidden, not their very existence.
However, not all taboos are created equal. A few lines before the prohibition of eating any toeva, the Torah cautions (12:31): "You shall not do so unto the LORD thy God; for every toeva to the LORD, which He hates, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods."
God hates this toeva--so are other abominations adorable? No, but not all cultural taboos are created equal. That is why "anyone that passes his son or his daughter through the fire" is #1 on our list--it is not the first among equals, but inherently different.
In fact, this is the one thing on which Leviticus and Deuteronomy agree. Like Deut. 18, Lev. 18 has a list of "these toevot"--not nine, but eighteen; not sacerdotal, but sexual. There is just one exception--the worship of Moloch: "And you shall not give your seed to pass through for Moloch, and you shall not profane the name of your God; I am the LORD" (v. 21). What the children pass through, as Nahmanides explains, is fire. It is the same as the prohibition in Deuteronomy.
When we get to Lev. 20, which describes the penalties for these acts, there is a clear distinction made for Moloch. All the other offenses have death penalties, but they are virtually inapplicable by human hands, either because the divine court has the responsibility or because these sorts of things do not happen in front of witnesses giving legal warning. But Moloch is a special case, as there is a specific charge on "the people of the land" to bring him to justice: "he shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones... And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he gives of his seed unto Moloch, and put him not to death; then I will set My face against that man, and against his family..." The Talmud (Shevuot 39a) famously notes:
R. Simeon said: If he sinned, what sin did his family commit? But this shows you that there is not a family containing a tax-collector, in which they are not all tax-collectors; or containing a robber, in which they are not all robbers; because they protect him!
When children are being sacrificed, when infants are being burned in the name of God, a moral choice must be made. Is one part of "his family," those who justify his actions, even in the slightest, by hurling terms of hate; or is one part of "the people of the land" who demands justice? This is a fateful decision, for as Rabban Gamaliel explains, pursuing justice and giving no quarter to such outrages is the prerequisite for living here (Sifra ad loc.): "'The people of the land'--the people who are destined to inherit the land by enforcing these very matters."

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

3 strikes, yer (coming) out

Sometimes being well-versed isn't enough.
I've noticed in the two weeks since Obergefell came down, the opponents of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, at least those of the Jewish persuasion, have been changing up their tactics.
It's old hat to cite Lev. 18:22/ 20:13. After all, then one would have to admit that halakhically, all that prohibits is anal sex between males (as Hizkuni ad loc. notes, whetting one's sword would not be included). Also, one might have to admit that various commentators have read the verse differently, not just in modern times but a millennium (Rabbeinu Hananel ad loc.) or two (Bar Hamduri, Yevamot 83b) ago. Those readings may have more philosophical than legal implications, but they're still significant.
Instead, they rely on a trinity of exegetical passages, from the Talmud and Midrash. Let's see them:
#1: Midrash, Sifra, Aharei 9:8
I did not say this [prohibition] except for the statutes enacted by them, their fathers, and their father's fathers. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore it says, "and in their statutes do not follow" (Lev. 18:3).
In other words: Don't walk like an Egyptian. This is the source for forbidding lesbianism in Jewish law (Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relations 21:8). It is a lower-level prohibition than all the others in Chapter 18, the punishment only rabbinical. But what about for non-Jews? Maimonides does not mention it in his list of prohibitions for Noahides (Laws of Kings 9:7), but maybe it's implied by this source. After all, God seems to be criticizing Egypt for it. The only problem is that many of the relationships described in that chapter are perfectly fine for non-Jews. So perhaps the Sifra is highlighting the ones that are universally unacceptable, like polyandry and same-sex marriage? A fine thought, except in between them we have "a man would marry a woman and her daughter"--and a Noahide is allowed to marry his daughter-in-law. In fact, he's allowed to marry his own daughter. No, really, look it up. Traditional marriage, what can I say?
#2: Midrash, Genesis Rabba 5
"They took women of all they chose"--wives of [other] men; "of all they chose"--males and animals.
Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi said: The Generation of the Deluge was not wiped off the face of the Earth until they wrote gemumasiot for males and animals.
Said R. Simlai: Wherever you find promiscuity, collective punishment comes to the world and kills good and evil alike.
Gemumasiot are translated by some as ketubot, prenuptial documents (mainly based on source #3). Well, there you go. People start writing ketubot for gay weddings, and it's all over! But a ketuba is a marriage contract between two people--did people write one for a cow? And why use some bizarre foreign-sounding word instead of a famous Hebrew one for a Jewish concept?
Prof. Marcus Jastrow, in his authoritative Aramaic dictionary, points instead to Hymenaios, a rousing coupling song sung at weddings. Oh, and another volume of Midrash, Leviticus Rabba (23), has a slightly different version of this tradition.
Said R. Simlai: Wherever you find promiscuity, collective punishment comes to the world and kills good and evil alike.
Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Jose: The Generation of the Deluge was not wiped off the face of the Earth until they wrote gumasiot for males and females.
Not males and animals, but males and females. Suddenly, it's the bawdiness of the songs and the licentiousness it reflects which is at issue. Sir Mix-a-lot may yet kill us all.
#3: Talmud, Hullin 92a-b
"And I said to them: If ye think good, give me my hire; and if not, forbear. So they weighed out for my hire thirty pieces of silver" (Zech. 11:13). Said R. Judah: These are the thirty righteous men among the nations of the world by whose virtue the nations of the world continue to exist.
Ulla said: These are the thirty commandments which the sons of Noah took upon themselves but they observe three of them, namely (i) they do not draw up a prenuptial document for males, (ii) they do not weigh flesh of the dead in the market, and (iii) they respect the Torah.
Rabbi Ari Hart already wrote an excellent piece about this passage, and I heartily recommend it. I would just add that it is important to note how difficult it is to make lore into law. Ulla is trying to explain an obscure verse in Zechariah, and there are some striking differences between his conception of Noahide laws and the standard view, explored at length in the seventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin and codified by Maimonides.
  1. Ulla has 30, 27 of which are unidentified, rather than 7.
  2. Ulla says the nations "took upon themselves" these strictures, rather than being commanded by God.
  3. Ulla lists commandments which have no equivalent among the 613 commandments incumbent upon Jews.
  4. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Avoda Zara 2:1), the thirty commandments are not what the Noahides accepted, but what they will accept in the future.
With all this in mind, it is very hard to try to formulate a comprehensive worldview based on Ulla's statement. But he sure doesn't like gay marriage, right?
Well, the first presumption is that Ulla is in fact talking about males who are marrying each other. It may be that he is simply talking about an arrangement in which wealthy females write prenups guaranteeing that they will support their poor husbands after death or divorce.
As Rashi reads it, it's a little bit more complicated. Gay prostitution is accepted in Ulla's locale, gay concubinage is accepted, but gay prenups go too far. Why would this be? A prenup seems to be quite technical. If the issue is making the relationship open, official and ordinary, why is concubinage fine? Concubines were publicly known, their children were recognized--that IS biblical marriage. Solomon's 300 concubines were not a secret.However, if one studies Ketubot, it becomes clear why the ketuba is so important: it is the bedrock of societal gender roles. A female goes from her father's house straight to her husband's house, but what maintains her after the latter's death or divorce? That is why the Rabbis instituted ketuba, to obviate the need for women to step into a man's world. They went so far as to say that any marriage without it was unacceptable. And thus, extending that to males would totally change the social order.
Ulla, as explained by Rashi, accepts the reality of anal sex between men and of that relationship being formalized. He just objects to extending rights, creating a sinecure for a gay paramour. If people really accepted Ulla's statement as halakha--and there are many compelling reasons not to--then their cry would be: sex, yes; marriage, yes; rights, no. Instead they claim the opposite position, as exemplified by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett: “Rights, yes. Recognition, no.”
Ulla's exegesis is social commentary, which is why he points to socioeconomic mores, rather than the essential issues addressed by the Seven Noahide Laws. And when it comes to socioeconomic mores, I don't think we're in third-century Palestine anymore.
So would the sages of the Talmud and Midrash have celebrated this ruling? I highly doubt it. But if we want to figure out how we should react, we must do our due diligence and subject our sources to the strictest scrutiny.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bitter Torah

The last hurrah--or perhaps I should say the last boo--of the Generation of the Exodus happens in this week's Torah portion (Num. 21:5):
The people spoke out against God and Moses, "Why did you take us out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread and no water! We are getting disgusted with this flimsy bread!"
"This flimsy bread" is a reference to the manna. Rashi cites the tradition that the Israelites were alarmed by the manna's four-decade defiance of a law of nature, namely: Everybody poops.
They said: This manna will swell up their bowels, for none of woman born absorbs food without eliminating it too! (Talmud, Yoma 75b)
But that's the manna that the Israelites consumed. What happened to the manna that was not collected? The Torah tells us, "Then, when the sun became hot, it melted" (Exod. 16:21). The Midrash (Ancient Tanhuma, Beshallach 21-22) then picks up the story:
Zabdi ben Levi said. "Two thousand cubits of manna fell every day, and it would last through the fourth hour. When the sun shone upon the manna, it began to melt and formed rivulets upon rivulets flowing down... Once it formed rivulets, the nations of the world would come to drink of it, but it would become bitter and acrid in their mouths, as it says (Num. 11): 'The manna was like a bitter seed.' But for Israel it became like honey in their mouths, as it says (Exod. 16): 'And its taste was of a wafer in honey.'" Since the nations of the world could not drink of it, as it was bitter in their mouths, what would they do? They would hunt a gazelle which had drunk from it, and tasting in them the taste of the manna that came down for Israel, say: 'Blessed is the people who have it so.'"
This is a remarkable narrative. The manna would be wormwood to the non-Jewish palate if ingested "raw," but after being digested by the wildlife, it became delectable. Which is it, the bitter or the sweet?
This is not a technical question about a miraculous food from a three-millennia-old narrative. The manna, "bread from heaven," has great symbolism, as it represents the Torah. At the conclusion of Exodus 16, the story of the manna, a jar of it is ordered to be placed "before the Testimony," i.e. the Ark of Testimony, containing the shattered First Tablets, intact Second Tablets and eventually the first Torah scroll, written by Moses himself. Exodus 16 also has the first mention of "Sinai," as well as the term "My Torah": "I will make bread rain down to you from the sky. The people will go out and gather enough for each day. I will test them to see whether or not they will keep My Torah." Rabbi Simon bar Yohai puts it bluntly in the Mekhilta: "The Torah was given only to manna eaters."
So the question of how the manna tasted to non-Jews actually reflects dueling views of what Torah means for the outside world, nourishing or poisonous.This Midrash adopts both views: the Torah can be noxious to the nations of the world, but if it gets to them in the right way, they may appreciate its sweetness and benefit from it.
One week ago, the vandals who set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee took the latter view to a vile and criminal extreme. The inscription they spray-painted, "And the false gods shall be utterly cut off," comes from the Aleinu prayer, traditionally attributed to Joshua at the fall of Jericho. In other words, this phrase expresses the views of the Israelites as they came into Canaan, a center of child sacrifice and other barbaric practices. To apply it to a house of faith which venerates Abraham, Moses and David is unacceptable. Isn't it time that we embrace the potential celebrated by the Midrash--that the taste of Torah and the Jewish tradition can sweeten and enrich all mankind, especially those of the Abrahamic faiths who share so much with us?
As a Jewish and democratic state, Israel must not fail to swiftly bring to justice the perpetrators, nor can it countenance any violence of this sort, regardless of the faith tradition of the victims. Unfortunately, 43 of these attacks against churches and mosques alike have been carried out since 2009, with not one person prosecuted. That would be an affront in any case; but the lesson of the manna makes it a religious affront as well. Do we really want the nations of the world to taste only the bitterness of the manna?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A plague with a penis is worth more than a treasure without

Are arakhin misogynistic? Leviticus 27, which we'll read this coming Shabbat, sets valuations by gender and age (vv. 3-7).
The valuation you are to assign to a man between the ages of twenty and sixty years is to be fifty shekels of silver, with the sanctuary shekel being the standard; if a woman, thirty shekels. If it is a child five to twenty years old, assign a valuation of twenty shekels for a boy and ten for a girl; if a baby one month to five years of age, five shekels for a boy and three for a girl; if a person past sixty, fifteen shekels for a man and ten for a woman.
This is not one's theoretical worth on the slave market (damim), which of course varies by training, intelligence and aptitude. Hezekiah (Talmud Arakhin 19a) famously states that "An old man in the house is a plague; an old woman in the house is a treasure" to explain why the relative gap narrows after age 60. (Rashi explicitly says that the former is "only a burden," while the latter "can work hard and labor in her old age.")
Yet the "plague" is still worth more (15 shekel) than the "treasure" (10). By stunning coincidence, the maximum valuation of a woman, 30 shekel, is the fine you pay if your ox gores a slave, male or female (Exodus 21:32). Yet the valuation of a male slave (or random non-Jew) is still more than that of a freeborn Jewish woman--50!
What makes this even more perplexing is that this is in the context of the Tabernacle, to which the money is given. The Torah explicitly states that both men and women took an active part in putting the Tabernacle together.
 Both men and women came, as many as had willing hearts; they brought nose-rings, earrings, signet-rings, belts, all kinds of gold jewelry... All the women who were skilled at spinning got to work and brought what they had spun, the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and the fine linen. Likewise the women whose heart stirred them to use their skill spun the goat’s hair... Thus every man and woman of the people of Israel whose heart impelled him to contribute to any of the work Lord had ordered through Moshe brought it to Lord as a voluntary offering.
So why does the "valuation of souls/ lives" (Lev. 27:2) make such a distinction and value judgement?

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Apologetics is hard. Arguing defensively for one's faith is always a dicey proposition, compounded by the fact that one is always fighting last generation's battle.
This was very clear to me growing up in 80s America in an Orthodox Jewish community. In 1985, we finally had an answer for the society of 1955. Now it's 2015, and we've come up with responses as fresh as 1985. (Sorry, as a child of the 80s, I can only think of time in Back to the Future settings.)
Hat, beard, peyos, jacket--1885 was such a mechayeh!
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way contemporary halakhic Judaism grapples with homosexuality. Whenever religious Jews try to talk about gay issues, they end up sounding like recent arrivals from another era. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties make no bones about it: they won't even put a female on their lists, as part of their commitment to 18th-century ideals.
But it's particularly irksome when you encounter some of the opinions offered by members of Bayit Yehudi, the Jewish Home Party, ostensibly representing the dati (translation: let's just go with the barely serviceable "Modern Orthodox") perspective. Party Leader Naftali Bennett, a moderate, explained that same-sex marriage is as kosher as a cheeseburger, while Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, once (and future?) Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs called it "a recipe for the destruction of the Jewish people." Yehudit Shilat, director of the Takana Forum dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse, has stated that since most homosexuals choose to be that way, "advancing the gay-lesbian agenda legislatively" leads to "collective suicide." Bezalel Smotrich reported that he now regrets organizing the Beast Parade in 2006 to compete with the Jerusalem Pride Parade, but he's still a self-identified "proud homophobe" (see, proud is gay-eh in Hebrew; get it?) who declared ("normal," in modern Hebrew, is a synonym for "sane" or "free of mental illness"):
Any person can decide he doesn't want to live a normal life. That's his right. But they don’t have the right — just because they are uncomfortable being abnormal — to demand of us all to redefine the norm and claim "there is no such thing as normal."
And that's not even getting into the mortifying video of Bayit Yehudi candidates responding to the issue of same-sex marriage.

While Shilat did not get into Knesset and the Jewish Home lost 1/3 of its seats, the others are now proudly serving. If two of Likud's current members move on and Amir Ohana, number 32 on the Likud list, takes his seat, I wonder how the gay Tel Aviv lawyer will be welcomed by his party's "natural partners" in the Jewish Home.
For a man who ran on a platform of "No apologies," Bennett surely seemed apologetic when presenting his offer to the LGBT community, "Rights, yes. Recognition, no." He talked about how much he loves all Jews, even the gay ones, and how he served alongside them, but "Look, I've got a kipa on my head! Formalistic Judaism does not recognize same sex-marriage."
I might note that formalistic Judaism does not recognize weddings performed in Cyprus either, but I digress. What does formalistic Judaism actually say? And since it looks like the Jewish Home will, almost against its will, accept the Education Ministry, what will they teach?
It all starts with that perplexing pair of verses in Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13, which we read yesterday in Israel and will be read by Jews abroad this week, prohibiting and penalizing "bedding a male the beddings of a woman." What exactly that means on the literal level is unclear, as I wrote two years ago (Rabbeinu Hananel seems to have suggested the same thing a thousand years ago), but halakhically it definitely forbids anal sex between men. But what if they're not men?
They must both be stoned if they are both adults, as it states: "Do not bed a man," whether he is the active or passive partner.
If a minor of nine years and a day or more is involved, the man who enters into relations or has the minor enter into relations with him should be stoned and the minor is not liable.
If the male [minor] was less than nine years old, they are both free of liability.
(Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relations 1:14)
Here is where the apologeticists' heads explode. You see, they love to explain how the severe penalties for sex between men is really about pedophilia, launching into lusty descriptions of Greek culture. But the fact is that by Torah law, a man having consensual sex with an adult is liable to the death penalty, but one raping an eight-year-old gets off scot-free. This is explicitly laid out in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 54b. Maimonides himself seems bothered by this, so he concludes:
It is, however, appropriate for the court to subject the adult to lashing for rebellious conduct for homosexual relations although his companion was less than nine years old.
Well, that's something. Except of course that the Hinukh, a comprehensive listing of the 613 commandments based on Maimonides' count, thinks another party should be subject to lashing:
If one was a minor below thirteen years and a day, but above nine years and a day, the adult is stoned whether he was the active or passive partner, while the minor is biblically exempt but lashed by rabbinical law.
So, Naftali, I wear a kipa too. And if I lived in a Jewish state that followed this ruling, I would do everything in my power to burn it to the ground. I guess the question is when you're willing to apply the rule promulgated in the last line of the first tractate of the Mishna, Berachot (9:5):
And it says, “It is time to act for God, they have nullified your Torah.” (Psalms 119:126) Rabbi Nathan says, “'They nullified your Torah' – because it is time to act for God.”
The best way to avoid apologetics is to have nothing to apologize for in the first place.

Monday, April 20, 2015

My Rebbe is gone

This morning, we lost one of the greatest Torah minds of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, PhD in English Literature from Harvard, winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Literature last Yom HaAtzmaut.
Studying under Rav Aharon and his fellow Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital (who passed away in 2010), was one of the greatest privileges of my life. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in the moadon, the gazebo where he gave shiur, waiting for the lesson to begin, wondering if I prepared the sources properly with my havruta (study partner), trying to anticipate what paths this once-in-a-generation scholar would lead us down.
In particular, I recall how, nineteen years ago, we were studying the third chapter of Ketubot, dealing with some of the most dense, complex and sensitive topics of sexuality in the Talmud. We had reached folio 39a, which at its top deals with the contraceptive device known as mookh.  Rav Aharon was ready to go on to the next mishna, but I begged, “Rebbe, what about mookh?” “Ah, mookh,” he replied, and then launched into a meticulous analysis of the varying opinions, the parallel passages, the practical conclusions. All that was at his fingertips.
And yet he never relied on his superior memory. Many a time and oft he could be found at his makom, his modest seat at the front of the beit midrash (study hall), poring over another well-worn volume from his library, taking notes, stacking them one after another. Still it’s a wonder that he managed to get anything done there, as there were often students waiting to consult him on all manner of theological, halakhic and personal matters. Some were teenagers, some were middle-aged, but it was Rav Aharon’s way to help you find the answer (or at least refine the question) for yourself. He never sought to be an oracle; his only goal was to teach, to inspire, to challenge.
The first and wisest of them all professed  To know this only, that he nothing knew.  JOHN MILTON, Paradise Regained
The first and wisest of them all professed
To know this only, that he nothing knew.
JOHN MILTON, Paradise Regained

And those were challenging times. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on 4 November, 1995, Rav Aharon led us to pay our respects amid the long line of mourners. Then he delivered a blistering three-hour tour-de-force of a lecture, demolishing the twisted interpretation of Jewish law that had led a former yeshiva student to murder the prime minister while asking the troubling questions of how such a person could come from our midst. Exactly four months later, on the Fast of Esther, Rav Aharon cut short another lecture when he learned of the Dizengoff Center suicide bombing, saying: “This is the time for prayer, not study.” Five years later, when I was injured in the Sbarro suicide bombing in Jerusalem, Rav Aharon called me personally to check on me.
And now my rebbe is gone. Anything I can utter will pale in comparison to what his learned children and students will say tomorrow. Besides, we don’t eulogize on the New Moon, so instead I will offer a small devar Torah.
Today is 1 Iyar, the first day of the second month. It is a prominent date in the Hebrew calendar. This is how the Book of Numbers, which we’ll start reading later this month, opens:
Lord spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year after they had left the land of Egypt. He said, “Take a census of the entire assembly of the people of Israel, by clans and families. Record the names of all the men twenty years old and over who are subject to military service in Israel. Enumerate them company by company, you and Aharon.”
Aharon the Priest is explicitly included in this command. And yet when it comes time to count his own tribe, the Levites, the Talmud (Bekhorot 4a) tells us that “Aharon was not in that counting.” Malbim (Num. 3:39) explains that Aharon had a special mission among the Levites: speaking to the firstborn among them.
At this point in the desert, the holy duties of the firstborn are transferred to the Levites (3:6-12), as God says: “Summon the tribe of Levi, and assign them to Aharon the Priest… I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel in lieu of every firstborn… All the firstborn belong to me, because on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I separated for myself all the firstborn in Israel.”
The Levites replace the firstborn–but what about the Levites who were firstborn as well? Aharon was to help them “redeem themselves”–since he too was a firstborn Levite! (See Rashi and Tosafot ad loc.). Now, what did this mean practically? These individuals were holy regardless, either as firstborn or as Levites, so why was there a formal ceremony to redeem themselves? This indicates that as important as the “what” and “how” are in Judaism, the “why” and “wherefore” are equally significant. Aharon’s mission was to teach the firstborn Levites to see a new aspect of their identity, to realize the multiple worlds they held in their souls.
If Rav Aharon taught us, his students, anything it was to see the complexity of humanity and the world. There are always multiple facets, and we must strive to reveal them.
May his memory be a blessing.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Bless You

The most well-worn pages of our Haggadot are those in the section known as “Barech.” After the Seder night, we have no pressing need for the text of “Dayenu” or “Chad Gadya,” but we still have to say Birkat HaMazon, and as our leavened year-round birkonim have been put away, we pull out our Haggadot. After all, the version we say at the Seder is almost identical to what we say throughout the holiday week—with one exception. Many have the custom, as cited by the Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 479:2), to say an extended HaRachaman, praying for “a day which is fully long, a day when the righteous sit, with crowns on their heads, enjoying the glow of the Divine Presence (Shechina).”
The first part of this insertion is a variation on a theme we know well. Every Shabbat and Yom Tov, we add a HaRachaman that makes reference to Olam HaBa, the World to Come; in each case, it is, essentially, a play on words, as in Midrashic sources, Olam HaBa is referred to as “a day which is fully restful (shabbat)” (Tamid 7:4, et al.) and “fully good (tov)” (Kiddushin 39b, et al). Thus, on the day of Shabbat, we admit that the true Shabbat is elsewhere, and on Yom Tov, literally “a day of good,” we admit that true good is elsewhere. Olam HaBa is also referred to as “fully long” (ibid), or eternal. However, we have already said the regular formula for Yom Tov, so what does this reference add? After all, if any holiday if called “The Long Day,” it is not Pesach, but Rosh HaShana!
Furthermore, what is the reference in the second part of this special HaRachaman? It seems to come from Rav’s famous statement (Berachot 17a): “The World to Come has neither eating nor drinking... rather, the righteous sit, with crowns on their heads, enjoying the glow of the Shechina.” As such, it seems quite out of place at the Seder—is there any meal in the Jewish calendar which involves more eating and drinking? Are we begging God to relocate us to a world where we won’t have to eat so much matza and drink so many cups of wine?
It seems that in order to understand this HaRachaman, we must reverse our hypothesis. We have assumed that it is connected to the day, and its placement within Birkat HaMazon is coincidental; this is, after all, the template for the ones we recite for Shabbat, Yom Tov, Sukkot, Rosh Chodesh and Rosh HaShana. But what if we were to start from the opposite point of view: that this HaRachaman is essentially connected to Birkat HaMazon, and its recitation on the Seder night is coincidental. This would indicate that there is something unique about this meal as a meal—but what could that be?
Let us return to the three-word source for Birkat HaMazon in the Torah (Devarim 8:10): “Ve-achalta, ve-savata u-verachta,” “You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” The Written Torah spells out an obligation only in the case where one has eaten enough to be fully satiated; the Oral Torah expands this to specific amounts, and very small ones at that. In fact, this is God’s response in a beautiful legend in Talmud Berachot (20b). The angels accuse God of being partial to the Jewish people, to which He responds: “How can I not show favor to Israel? I wrote for them in the Torah, ‘You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless Lord, your God,’ but they are so exacting upon themselves, even for an olive’s volume [of bread], even for an egg’s!”
In fact, for every meal we have throughout the year, whether for a mitzva or just for sustenance, we don’t even consider the issue of satisfaction, merely measuring the minimum amount. There is, however, one meal in which we cannot stop until we have fulfilled “ve-savata”—the Seder. We must eat our afikoman, our final portion of matza, which parallels the actual piece of the paschal sacrifice which our ancestors would eat, “al ha-sova,” being satiated. This is the one time when the entire nation fulfills the mitzva of Birkat HaMazon in its most literal sense.
With this in mind, we may return to our HaRachaman. It points out that the long meal of the Seder, where we literally drink and eat our fill, is only a reflection of the true sova, the ultimate satisfaction of being in God’s Presence. Thus, our proper fulfillment of the mitzvot of the Seder night allows us not only to reenact the Exodus, but to reconnect to those practices which define every day of our lives as Jews.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Happy Day Day!

The Twentieth Knesset will be sworn in on Tuesday, and I urge them to take up, as their first legislative priority, the Day Day Bill.
The aim of Hoq Yom Yom is to set aside one day a year to just be a regular day. A regular workday. A regular school day. A regular bowel movement day. Just a day.
There will not be special signs, banners or bunting for this day. No balloons. No specialty napkins, stickers or emjois. No one will send you unsolicited text messages about seasonal charities, business opportunities or lectures. You may go to a cemetery, but only with a black cat at midnight, like a normal person.
There will be no evening or morning sirens, ceremonies or cantorial concerts. And speaking of cantors… yes Tahanun, no Hallel. Yes LaMnatzeach, no Musaf. ONE SHIR SHEL YOM!
It will not be a biblical, rabbinical, Kabbalistic or Zionistic holiday. We will not memorialize anyone getting martyred or married or manumitted. We will not be igniting giant candelabras or giant bonfires or giant fireworks displays or giant piles of stale crackers, pitas and, inevitably, plastic bags. Nor will we be burning or waving any flags. Nor will we be using real hammers to build huts or fake hammers to bop people.
It will not be anything eve or post-anything day. Buses will not stop running at midday or start running at nightfall. Stores will be open, and so will government offices, at their regular hours, those being 10-11 AM and 2-3 PM.
Your children will not need to bring an egg, aluminum-foil-wrapped potato, or random dairy product. They will not come home with a smashed container of honey or piece of matza. They do not need to wear white or blue or orange shirts. But they should wear something, otherwise you will get a visit from the department of children’s services.
We will love our parents, grandparents, children, reserve soldiers, active-duty soldiers, agunot, cancer patients and survivors on this day, because we should do that every day.
We will not pretend to be Ethiopian or Moroccan or Russian or Druze or Canadian on this day. Anyone who wants to celebrate something after normal business hours is welcome, but we don’t need an endless stream of photo ops for politicians and notables pretending they like unfamiliar ethnic foods.
No one will be feasting or fasting today. Just eat and drink normally. You may shave. You may get a haircut. You may not wear a soul patch, unless you are a douche-bag and wish to warn people. You can try muttonchops or a goatee, but I doubt you can pull it off.
You may wear deodorant. In fact, you must. Every day. Honestly, why would you not?
There will not be any elections on this day, municipal or national. Whatever assortment of fools got elected last time can hold the country together for another week.
Garbage will be collected. Mail will be delivered. Clocks will not be set back or forward, and we might actually get some work done during the day and some sleep at night.
And most of all… you don’t need to wish anyone a Happy Day Day.

Friday, March 20, 2015

2017 election results are in!

Let me apologize again for our earlier error. We mistakenly reported that the Pirate Party had won 79 seats; what we meant to say was that the Pittsburgh Pirates won the '79 World Series. We were looking up the results on our phone, and it isn't Hebrew-enabled... Never mind.
Anyway, here are the confirmed results. In what is being called (by us right now) "a once-in-a-millennium revolution," Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is the stunning winner, as the right-wing parties have scored 42 seats. Remember how last time it was 44, and the time before that 43? Undoubtedly, this is the most significant event in human history since the earth cooled 2.5 billion years ago. (CORRECTION: Bibi's likely haredi coalition partners are telling us that it was 5776 years ago.) Apparently, his slogan: "Third Intifadah, Fourth Gaza War, Fifth Term" truly resonated with voters.
Labor Leader Meirav Michaeli was stunned by the results, as her party received only 20 seats. In her concession speech, she said, "What? You didn't want another journalist? But I'm the scion of an important family too! Don't you think--" At this point, she was replaced by Eitan Cabel, who promised a new direction for Labor.
Within the right, Naftali Bennett was mystified as to why his party has shrunk to 5 seats. Some have criticized his choice to rename it the Jewish No Homo Party, but Bennett remains convinced that he will take over the Likud within 18 months.
Avigdor Lieberman has scored 8 seats, with his Red-handed Army initiative, committing him to bring to Knesset only politicians who are under ethics investigation. Of course, he faced some stiff opposition from Aryeh Makhloufeasance Deri's Maranimum Security Party, which includes only convicted felons. Readers may recall that Ehud Olmert was granted early parole in order to run, in the famous Supreme Court ruling We Don't Really Give a Flying F Anymore (And Before You Ask, Zoabi and Marzel Can Run Too).
BREAKING: Eitan Cabel has been replaced by Stav Shaffir.
The biggest surprise may be that the Righters' Bloc cleared the electoral threshold. "We kept trying to forge alliances between the political right and the religious right," said a spokesman, "but then we realized we needed the economic right, right-fielders, and right-hand men (and women. Just kidding, obviously no women)."
Meretz gained a seat, but leader Zehava Gal-On was heard to say: "We used to have 12! Forgive me, Mother Shulamit!" This statement was a bit muffled, as she had her head in an oven at the time. As the Israeli medical establishment has never had to treat a case of accountability, Deputy Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman has recommended she be transported abroad for treatment. As leader of United Torah Judaism, neither Litzman nor his followers will accept the title of minister, though they will take the office, car and money. It is unclear if Bibi's tactic of making everyone else in the party chief rabbi is sufficient, as Satmar Hasidim cannot make do with only one. Bibi contacted the Shahidy Pines Retirement Home to see if Abu Mazen can offer Neturei Karta a Chief Rabbi of the Palestinian Authority position, but Abbas was too busy eating tapioca pudding to take his call.
BREAKING: Stav Shaffir has been replaced by Tzipi Livni, but no one knows if she's still in the party. Her whereabouts remain unknown at press time. Also her whyabouts.
However, the greatest comeback of this election cycle must be that of Eli Yishai. Just last month, he won a primary for the polygamist slot in the Joint List, and he has already taken over the party by offering women chocolate bars for each room they clean for Eid al-Adha. When asked how she felt about his new wives, the first Mrs. Yishai had no comment, because she is invisible. Ousted leader Ayman Oudeh noted that like haredi women, Arab citizens of Israel "were used to being screwed by Jewish men."
Undoubtedly, the true power lies in the brand-new centrist socio- economic party, filled with brilliant people who are political novices, led by former Likudnik Gideon Saar, Mistaarim. With his dozen seats, he plans to take over the Finance Ministry and "blah, blah, blah." When his predecessor Moshe Kahlon was asked why he was still smiling after failing to pass the electoral threshold, he responded, "No, my face is stuck this way. Help." Yesh Atid held on with four seats, and leader Yair Lapid lamented, "At least Kahlon gets to go home. What the hell am I supposed to do?" Then he remembered that he is still hot and rich, and started smiling as well.
BREAKING: Tzipi Livni has been replaced by Shimon Peres, but no one tell him, because he's 93 and the shock might kill him.
But the question remains if Bibi can govern after some of the extreme statements he made in the last days of the campaign. He clarified that when he said "Blow the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple," he meant: "I know to take stock and restrain my temper." As for his infamous "towelhead" comment, he explained: "That was taken totally out of context. I was talking about that scene in romantic comedies when the female lead comes out in a bathrobe and a towel wrapped elaborately on her head. I find it trite and cliched." As for his statement to President Hillary Clinton that "America can suck a dick," he elucidated, "I meant that one. But don't get me wrong, America is still Israel's greatest vassal--I mean, ally."
When asked about the prospects of this government serving a full term, all 120 members of Knesset issued a rare joint statement: "You've gotta be f-cking kidding me."

Monday, March 16, 2015

What would Moses do? Vote!

There's just something about late winter in Israel that feels like elections. Every single national contest we've held in this country in this century has been between mid-Shevat and late Adar (February-March). Maybe it's the realization that we're not getting any more snow days, so we need another reason for a day off.
But another 21st-century Israeli electoral trend is much more troubling: citizens just aren't that into it. Consider the turnout for the last five elections, percentage-wise: 62.3, 67.8, 63.6, 64.7, 67.8. Compare that to the last five elections of the 20th century: 78.7, 79.3, 77.4, 79.7, 78.8. When once nearly four in five voted, now we're not even averaging two out of three.
For a bit of insight, let's turn to the man whose birthday and yahrtzeit fall smack in the middle of this season: Moses. What was Moses' deathbed wish? To cross over the Jordan and enter the Land of Israel. But why?
R. Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses, "Many mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me."
That's what we find in the Talmud (Sota 14a), but it is still pretty vague. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 816) narrows it down further: "This is the appointment of the king." Moses wasn't looking forward to the first fruits or tithes or sabbatical or jubilee: he was anticipating "the appointment of the king"--not the coronation, not the reign, but the appointment.
This is shocking when we consider how low an opinion some of Moses' successors had of the institution of the monarchy, Samuel first and foremost. "You have said to me: 'No, a king shall reign over us,' but Lord your God is your king!" (I Sam. 12:12). We might expect the man who concluded the Song of the Sea with "Lord shall reign forevermore" (Exod. 15:18) to object to a human king. But on the contrary, Moses' most profound wish is to witness the appointment of a king in Israel--to fulfill that mitzva.
But perhaps this is a one-time command? No, it appears in the lists of 613 commandments, e.g. #497 in the 13th-century Sefer HaChinnukh.
Rather, the significance of the commandment is not limited to the appointing of a new king, it encompasses everything we have mentioned: the appointing of a new king – if there shall be a reason why one shall be needed – and also the establishing of the reign in the hands of the heir, and the constitution of his authority over us; and in all respects, we should behave toward him as we have been commanded, and as we do following the known procedure and command, which truly does apply forever.
But maybe the command is just for important people like Moses? Actually, the king is supposed to be appointed by 70 members of the Sanhedrin, and appointing them is another mitzva (#491):
Now this is one of the commandments which is incumbent upon the entire community in each and every place, and as explained in Tractate Sanhedrin (2b), a community that has the ability to establish among them a council but does not set one, has abrogated a positive command, and their punishment is very great for this commandment is a strong pillar... For each and every congregation in all places should select some of the good among them, people that will have power over all of them to compel by whatever means necessary... and to remove from amongst their midst disgraceful matters and all of that ilk. In regard to those appointed people it is also fitting that they should straighten their way and make their actions fit and have no cause for public shame... Furthermore, they should try continually to do what is beneficial for their colleagues that are dependent upon them to teach them the true way and to establish peace with all their energies among the congregation. They should abandon, leave, and forget from their hearts all of their physical delights; upon this they shall put their attention and upon this shall be the majority of their thoughts and activities, thereby fulfilling the verse (Dan. 12:3) "And those of keen intellect will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars, forevermore."
This is what Moses wanted to do more than anything: to leave behind a political structure that would last, a society that could prosper for generations to come. He could not have been naive about the prospect: he himself, God's direct appointee, had to deal with numerous revolts and rebellions during his four decades. Moreover, he spent his youth in Pharaoh's palace, seeing the cutthroat nature of politics up close. But he wanted his last act to be doing his civic duty.
So yes, Israeli politics are imperfect. But as someone who's lived and worked in the US, Canada and Israel, I can tell you that having a vote that actually counts and a real choice among parties is a blessing. Sure, you may not find that transgender haredi Ethiopian faction fighting to make canola oil kosher for Passover for everyone, but choose the next best thing. Do it for Moses/ Moishe/ Musa/ Mosheh. Because a vote is a terrible thing to waste.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

First Messiah

It's Messiah season in the Holy Land once again, with Passover, Easter and elections quickly approaching (not in that order). Now, we may not agree on who that ultimate messiah should be, but we can all agree that messianic fervor must be treated with massive amounts of chocolate.
Caption might as well read: Give yourself a little square for perpetuating gender myths and a big square for canonizing them in law!

But let's spare a thought for the first messiah, a man often unjustly discounted, dismissed and disrespected... (but enough about Buji!) Aaron the Priest.
Yes, Aaron is the first man to be anointed, which is what messiah (mashiach) actually means, as we read in this week's Torah portion (Exod. 40:13):
Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint (u-mashachta) him and consecrate him so he may serve me as priest.
In fact, this image of Moses anointing Aaron is so powerful that David writes a whole psalm about it (133):
A Song of Ascents, of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.
However, as the Talmud tells it, there was great apprehension for each of the brothers during the ceremony:
Our Rabbis taught: It is like the precious oil … coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, etc., two drops like pearls hung from Aaron's beard...  And concerning this matter, Moses was anxious. He said, 'Have I, God forbid, made an improper use of the anointing oil?' A heavenly voice came forth and called out, Like the precious oil … like the dew of Hermon; as misappropriation is inapplicable to the dew of Hermon, so also is it inapplicable to the anointing oil on the beard of Aaron. Aaron however, was still anxious. He said, 'It is possible that Moses did not trespass, but I may have trespassed'. A heavenly voice came forth and said to him, Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity;  as Moses is not guilty of trespass, so are you not guilty of trespass.
I said anointing oil, not Gatorade.
What were they so concerned about? Why was every drop of oil so precious? Let's take a closer look at this anointing oil (shemen ha-mishcha). WARNING: SIMPLE ARITHMETIC AHEAD!
Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin. You shall make of these a holy anointing oil... (Exod. 30:23-25)
That's better. More super bowl, less Superbowl.
That's better. More super bowl, less Superbowl.
Now, the listed ingredients add up (500+250+250+500) to 1500 shekels--or 3000 half-shekels. I mention the half-shekel because this is the amount to be given by every Israelite, rich or poor, towards the construction of the Tabernacle. This is "ransom," "atonement money" and "plague" inoculation for every living man, according to the previous chapter. But there are some who do not have that opportunity, namely those who fell on the day the Golden Calf was made, "and about three thousand men of the people fell that day," because "the LORD plagued the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made" (32:28, 35).
Yes, Aaron goes on to offer a non-golden calf to atone for himself personally (Lev. 9:8) , but what about the 3000 who didn't walk away? These are the 3000 half-shekels which go into the anointing oil. Thus, every drop is precious, and the brothers are anxious.
A final point to consider is the source of the raw materials for the anointing oil--the nesi'im, the tribal princes (Exod. 35:27-28), mysterious and obscure figures in this book of the Bible. What is clear is that they view the donation of these materials as a national duty, as much as the precious stones on which the names of the tribes are inscribed. It is about accountability, the idea that the people's representatives assembled must represent all the people, not one sector, community or tribe. It's a message we sorely need in Israel, and hopefully our princes will remember it long after the Election Day chocolate has melted away.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

All About the Benjamins

Analogies are hard.
Some wags in the late 90s thought that the Lewinsky scandal was a modern Purim story, with Monica as ingenue Esther, Bill Clinton as insatiable Ahasuerus and Hillary as imperious Vashti. Fair enough, but what about Haman, the villain of the piece? Apparently relying on the fact that Iran and Iraq indisputably share 75% of their letters, Saddam Hussein was cast.
In the 2000s, we got a Persian who certainly could play the role, and not just because his last name is an anagram for "I, jaded Haman": Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the man who became famous for declaring that "Israel will be wiped off the map" and "There are no Persian carpet munchers" (your translation may vary) left office almost two years ago. (I know, a President Mahmoud A. who leaves office when his term is up--those Shiites give up so easily!) The most you can say about his successor, Hassan Rouhani, is that he's an inconsistent New Year's tweeter.
Then The Speech was announced. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu coming to the most prestigious chamber of the world's sole superpower, unbidden, to beg and supplicate for his people to be saved from the ministers of Persia. And doing it on the Fast of Esther! How perfect is that?
Except it's not the Fast of Esther, because that's the 13th of Adar, not the 12th. And even here in Israel, where it will be after sunset when the speech starts, the fast doesn't begin until the next morning. And the Fast of Esther does not commemorate when Esther went before Ahasuerus, which was on Passover, eleven months earlier. And--
You know what, never mind. As I said, analogies are hard. I understand why some are comparing Bibi to Esther. But I think the closer analogue is Mordecai.
And about that... Now, I don't embrace Ayalon Eliach's Haaretz hit-piece, "Mordechai the villain," but he does raise some interesting questions. The text does seem to indicate that Mordecai has no trouble hiding (denying) his Jewish identity until Haman comes on the scene, and this seems to be his main concern with Esther over the previous decade. The comfort with which we accept Esther's being "taken" because Mordecai ultimately gets wealth and prestige in return does the beg the question of how we would look at Sarah's abductions if the God had not intervened.
But the greatest service that Eliach does is remind us of the view of Rava, 4th-century Babylonian sage, who has a somewhat ambiguous view of Mordecai. The Talmud (Megilla 12b-13a) is trying to explain the fact that Mordecai is identified both as a Jew (from the tribe of Judah) and a Benjamite (from the tribe of Benjamin) when he is first mentioned (Est. 2:5). Rava comments:
The community of Israel explained [the two designations] in the contrary sense: ‘See what a Judean did to me and how a Benjamite repaid me!’ What a Judean did to me, viz., that David did not kill Shimei from whom was descended Mordecai who provoked Haman. ‘And how a Benjamite repaid me’, viz., that Saul did not slay Agag from whom was descended Haman who oppressed Israel.
In other words, the Jewish community is equally annoyed at two kings from the Book of Samuel: Saul for not killing Haman's ancestor, and David for not killing Mordecai's ancestor.
Shocking, certainly. But let's consider another aggadic source (Yalkut Shimoni 1054):
They said to him: Know that you cause us to fall by the sword. What did you see to abrogate the king's command?
He said: For I am a Jew.
They said to him: But surely we find that your forefathers bowed down to his forefathers, as it is stated: 'And he bowed down to the ground seven times' (Gen. 33:3).
He said to them: My forefather, Benjamin, was in his mother's womb and did not bow down, and I am his descendant, as it is stated: 'a Benjamite' (Esther 2:5). Just as my forefather did not bow, so I do not bow or bend…
R. Benjamin bar Levi said: "I am the knight of the Holy One, blessed be He; does a knight bow down before a commoner?"
In other words, according to Yalkut Shimoni, Mordecai's refusal to bow before Haman is not due to his Judaism (since Halakha allows this), but due to his tribal pride.
But even if Mordecai is less than perfect (in the view of some sages), we can no doubt say that he saves his people. The Book of Esther ends with a glorious act of self-defense!
Let's look at what does finally happen on the 13th of Adar (Est. 9:1-5):
The enemies of the Jews had hoped to rule over them, and it was turned that the Jews rule over those hating them — the Jews were assembled in their cities, in all provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to put forth a hand upon those seeking their evil, and no man stood in their presence, for their fear had fallen on all the peoples. And all heads of the provinces, and the lieutenants, and the governors, and those doing the work that the king had, were lifting up the Jews, for a fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them... And the Jews smote among all their enemies — a smiting of sword, and slaughter and destruction — and did with those hating them according to their pleasure.
So whom did the Jews kill? Antisemites, certainly--those who hated them. This was a widespread phenomenon during the reign of Ahasuerus (see Ezra 4:6). But this was hardly an act of self-defense, but rather "for the Jews being ready at this day to be avenged of their enemies" (Est. 8:13). It is the Jews who mass, not their enemies. Consider just three points:
  1. The Jews are allowed "to cut off, to slay, and to destroy the whole force of the people and province who are distressing them, infants and women, and their spoil to seize" (8:11). What infants and spoils did the Jews need to defend themselves against? In practice, the Jews only kill men; but the decree is clearly designed to be the mirror image of Haman's decree, targeting Jew-haters instead of Jews, but not limited to self-defense.
  2. "Many of the peoples of the land were becoming Jews, for a fear of the Jews had fallen upon them" (8:17). Now, if they were scared of the Jews, and the Jews would only act in self-defense, how about just not attacking?
  3. "And Esther said, ‘If to the king [it be] good, let it be given also tomorrow, to the Jews who [are] in Susa, to do according to the law of today; and the ten sons of Haman they hang on the tree."' Now, that's the 14th of Adar, a day on which no one was ever allowed to attacked Jews. So why did the Jews go and kill 300 more men in the royal complex?
The confusion is probably due to the phrase "la'amod al nafsham," which many translate "to stand for their lives," i.e. to act in self-defense. But the phrase "al nafsham" recurs in 9:31, where it clearly means "for themselves"--the Jews accept Purim "for themselves and for their seed." They are meant "to stand for themselves"--to settle the score with their foes.
Mordecai the Benjamite is a complex figure. We would do well to study what he does in order to understand the nature of the threats we face today--and what motivates our response.
There's a reason it's the Book of Esther, after all.