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.