Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Pure SJW Territory

Look here!
No, seriously, that's what this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, literally means: Look! See! Observe! Over its 126 verses (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and 55 mitzvot, Re'eh covers a lot of ground. And much of it is pure SJW territory.
"SJW," which in online insult "culture" stands for Social Justice Warrior, has become an epithet for liberals and leftists. Caring for the less fortunate is controversial nowadays, so why not mock people for it?
But the title of this post could very well stand for: Social Justice -- Why That's Frum. Frum, religious, mitzvah-observant, traditionally Jewish... these are terms which, for some odd reason, are considered to be antithetical to Social Justice Warrior status, but it is quite thetical. OK, that's not a word, but let's talk about the words which do pop up, over and over, in Re'eh.
ParticipantsBrother/ Sister10
Levite (Teacher)
Granting/ Lending6
It's not that Re'eh doesn't talk about ritualistic aspects of Judaism; it's just that everything in it has a social-justice element. The idolatry which is harshly condemned throughout the Torah is finally explained (13:29): "You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every taboo (to'avat) thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." The fight against ancient paganism is not about theological debates, but the abuse of the defenseless. Just as God's angel told Abraham on Mt. Moriah "Set not your hand against the boy," we must do the same as God's children and representatives (14:1-2).
The laws of keeping kosher are set down, but they are bookended in the following way (14:3, 21): “You shall not eat anything taboo (to'eva)... You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the stranger who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Do not cook a kid in its mother's milk." The dietary laws are not about creating an ethnically pure society, but inculcating values.
How punctilious we frum are when it comes to separating meat and milk, when it comes to denouncing foreign forms of worship. But when it comes to matters of social justice, should we mock and deride? Re'eh should make us open our eyes.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


Every year, as the Hebrew calendar flips from Tammuz to Av, we turn the mourning up to nine--The Nine Days, from the New Moon until after the Fast of 9 Av. "When Av enters, we reduce our joy" (Mishna, Taanit 4:6).
But that same source indicates that the twin tragedies of Tammuz and Av far predate the destruction of the Temple, or even its construction: to the Sin of the Golden Calf during the Israelites' first Tammuz in the desert and the Sin of the Spies thirteen months later, respectively.
This brings us to a famous question: what makes ten of the twelve Spies sent by Moses defame the land? Their bad report when they return on 8 Av spells disaster for their entire generation, but forty days earlier, as they set out, we are told "They were all men who were heads of the Israelites" (13:3) -- terminology denoting conspicuous virtue, according to the Midrash (Tanchuma 4). So what happened? When and why do they go bad?
Halfway through their mission would have been day twenty. Counting back from 8 Av, that would be... 17 Tammuz. The first anniversary of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The yahrtzeit of thousands of Israelites.
This is the part of the Golden Calf tale that we usually ignore, but it's quite brutal (Exodus 32:26-29):
 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
As the Talmud (Yoma 66b) notes, this death toll only takes into account those who were killed directly, by the sword. Many more die from drinking the water into which the Golden Calf had been ground (ibid. v. 20) and still more the from the ensuing plague (v. 35): "And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made."
Marking the first anniversary of that solemn occasion on a scouting mission, far away from family and friends, would have been extremely difficult. What makes it worse is the fact that the tribe wielding the executioner's axe is conspicuously absent. No Levite goes on this mission. Nevertheless, they are supposed to report back to Moses and Aaron, the latter of whom made the Calf and the former of whom ordered their loved ones' deaths for worshiping it. Nor is the situation improved by the two loyalists among the group. Joshua is Moses' aide-de-camp, while Caleb's grandfather Hur was a strong ally. Is it any wonder that the ten Spies who have no reason to be loyal to Moses, who have every reason to defy him, succumb to their post-Tammuz stress disorder?
Trauma begets trauma, on the individual and the national level. It is only natural for Tammuz to give way to Av. To break the cycle of tragedy takes uncommon courage, but that is the only way we can put an end to our mourning.