Sunday, October 21, 2007

Taboos and Text Preservation

Had an interesting thought driving home from Shul today - to what degree has the taboo on destroying documents containing the tetragrammaton helped to preserve our tradition, and help our historical sense. Imagine - if that taboo did not exist, if the stuff could be burned, no Cairo Geniza, perhaps no Dead Sea Scrolls. With rulings that digital representations of the Name don't count, what will become of documents we produce today.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

D'var Torah - Parashat Bireshit, '68

I delivered this d'var at our monthly participatory service in October.

Bireshit is a huge parsha, it begins with the creation of the world and ends on the edge of the flood. The amount of human time it spans is unknowable. In the passage that we just heard read, we see the world created, and it's important, I think, to watch the way it happens - we begin with heaven and earth - the creation of space - and then light and darkness, which are called day and night - the creation of time. And so it proceeds, things created in pairs, each thing both opposing its counterpart and, through that opposition helping its counterpart to do something neither could do alone - if Heaven and Earth were not separate from each other, there would be no space for anything. If night and day were not separate from each other, time would not pass and we could not say "וַֽיְהִי־עֶ֥רֶב וַֽיְהִי־בֹ֖קֶר י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד" - "and there was evening, and there was morning: day one."

Moving to the creation of people, we find that this same tension between opposites is an essential aspect of the divine plan, as the Holy Blessed One resolves "it is not good for the man to be alone, I will make for him an עזר כנגדו."(Gen. 2:18)

This is a difficult phrase to render into English. An attempt to be literal might give us "a help as his opposite." The words themselves seem to contradict each other. Is this companion to help Adam, or to oppose Adam? Rashi, who frequently asserts he comes to explain the plain meaning of the text, cannot get out of this one without providing a midrash - "if he is worthy then [she is] a helpmate, if he is not worthy, then she is opposite him, to fight him"(Rashi, 27)1. This solution is elegant because because, rather than resolving the tension, it teaches us that that tension is there to instruct us. We are to learn that just because one possible meaning is true does not mean that the other is false.

Another approach to this problem comes from the lexicographers Brown, Driver and Briggs. If it is Rashi's purpose to teach us the plain meaning of the text, how much more so must it be for those preparing a dictionary, and yet a literal rendering is beyond them as well, as they offer us the following definition for עזר כנגדו: "a help corresponding to him i.e. equal and adequate to himself"(BDB 617). This rendering deviates from the other meanings they give for נגד, which tend to cluster around meanings like "opposite" or "in front of." However it is instructive, and appealing to our egalitarian sensibility, that Eve is created as Adam's equal. Carol Meyers, in her book Discovering Eve reinforces this idea, by noting the preposition "כּ־" meaning "like" or "as" and observing that "the prepositional phrase establishes a non-hierarchical relationship between the two"(85).

If this is indeed a non-hierarchical relationship, and if this relationship is, as Rashi suggests, about supporting the other when worthy, and opposing the other when not worthy, then we find that it is as incumbent on Adam to support Eve when she is worthy and oppose her when she is not, as it is for her to do the same for him. Indeed, I am going to suggest today that it is his failure in just this duty that facilitates the situation with the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad.

As a quick refresher, the story goes very much like this: The serpent approaches Eve, asks if it is really the case that she and Adam cannot eat from any tree in the garden, she counters that they may in fact it from every tree except the tree of kowledge of good and bad, which they may not touch, lest they die. The serpent parries that they will not die if the eat from it, but will become like God, knowing good from bad2. She takes the fruit, eats it and gives some to her husband with her. They realize they're naked, and hide when God next shows up in the garden.. God knows instantly what happened, and when he inquires about it, Adam blames Eve and God in a single breath, and Eve blames the snake. God then informs everyone of the consequences of their actions.

There are two important things to note in the story. The first is that although we are told "[the serpent] said to the woman . . ." he does not say "you," but rather "you-all" or "youns," that is, he is speaking in second person plural as if addressing both. Now it may be that he is using this because he is inquiring about both of them, or it may be that he is doing so because he knows Adam is present. The second is that "she took the fruit and she ate, and she gave also to her man with her, and he ate." The words "with her" seem to me to mean very plainly that Adam was there on the scene throughout. So, if we look only at the p'shat, the simple meaning, we must ask ourselves, "why didn't he act?"

God, informing everyone of the consequences of their actions, wonders the same thing; saying to the man "because you listened to the voice of your woman. . ."(Gen 3:17) although there is no accounting of Eve saying anything to Adam, only that she gave him the fruit. So then to what is God referring? The only utterances we have from Eve in the text thus far are her words with the serpent. If we stick to the simple meaning of the text before us, then it must be those words that God means. Adam's responsibility then is that rather than supporting her when she was arguing against the serpent and opposing her when she decided to take the fruit, he sat idly by and did nothing.

God meant for there to be tension between them. Not the contentious "I'm good and you're bad" kind of tension that rips the world asunder, but rather the tension between two trees leaning on each other such that neither falls. And it is because Adam avoided even that positive tension, refusing to be a true partner, that the labels of "good" and "bad" entered the world, and the strife associated with them.

Just as heaven and earth, light and darkness, and sea and land achieve great things by their balanced opposition, so it is the divine will that we and our partners should achieve great things balanced opposition - supporting each other's aspirations and correcting each other's foibles. It sometimes takes a suspension of one's own immediate needs and wants to support another, and it sometimes takes great courage to tell someone you love that they may be missing the mark, but this is what it means to have and be an עזר כנגד. May we all have the strength for it.

The following material was not part of the d'var, but was made available as appendices to those curious.

Review of Traditional and Feminist responses to the situation of the tree.

A Summary of the Tradition
Midrash Hagadol asserts that the serpent wanted to get Eve alone thinking "any attempt to seduce Adam is certainly doomed to failure. Let me first approach the woman because women listen and are more easily persuaded"(3:1 cited by Weissman, 45). The implication here, that the woman would be the easy mark, is untenable not only because of its misogyny, but because the snake has no basis for such an inference. The best we can say here is that the woman may have seemed the better target because she received the law second hand, and not directly from God. But the question of how she would be alone is not answered by our text. Midrash Rabbah attempts to supply an answer:

Now where was Adam during this conversation? Abba Halfon b. Koriah said: He had engaged in his natural functions [sc. intercourse] and then fallen asleep. The Rabbis said: He [God] took him and led him all around the world, telling him 'Here is a place fit for planting [trees], here is a place fit for sowing cereals.'(Gen. R. XIX 1-3)

Whether the rabbis argue that Adam had fallen asleep after sex, or give him the ultimate alibi by claiming he was with God at the time, we cannot help but note that the purpose of these midrashic narratives is to remove Adam from the possibility of any direct participation, either by comission or omission, in the matter of eating the fruit. At most, they read God's statement to Adam that "Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree that I told you 'don't eat from it' the earth will be cursed on your account"(Gen. 3:17) to mean that his sin was not asking Eve about the fruit's provenance before eating it himself (Ohr Hachayim on Gen. 3:17, cited by Rosenberg, 58).

Two feminist readings, in brief.
Carol Meyers notes that "it is the woman, and not the man, who perceives the desirability of procuring wisdom. The woman, again not the man, is the articulate member of the first pair who engages in dialog even before the benefits of the wisdom tree have been procured"(91). Naomi Rosenblatt, who reads this tale as a "charming allegory of sexual awakening"3 understands "she gave also to her husband with her" to mean that "Eve reaches out to Adam, holding the fruit (the shape of which suggest fertility, the female breast). In contrast to the female [who deliberated out of concern for pregnancy], the male is immedately susceptible to any sexual invitation, is instantly responsive"(9).

Just as the patriarchy faults Eve for being an easily seduced airhead, so the feminists fault Adam for being an easily seduced meathead. Both repeat the error of blaming the Other to absolve the Self that Adam commits in blaming God and Eve in a single breath. It didn't fly with God in the garden, and does not hold much creedence today.

Works Cited

Brown, Francis Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.

Davis, Avrohom. Metsudah Chumash/Rashi. New York: Ktav Pub Inc, 1999.

Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Dover Publ, 1956.

Meyers, Carol. Discovering Eve. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, USA, 1991.

Rosenberg, A. Genesis: a New English Translation Volume I. New York: Judaica Press, 1993.

Rosenblatt, Naomi. After the Apple. New York: Miramax Books, 2005.

Simon, Maurice. Midrash Rabbah. London: Soncino Press, 1983.

Weissman, Moshe. The Midrash Says. Union City: Bnay Yakov, 1999.

A Response to the latest "Eilu V'Eilu"

Which can be found at The URJ's Eilu v'Eilu Volume 20 page.

RavMoffic is happy to wring his hands over the decline in synagogue affiliation, but he fails to address the most crucial of issues: Why be Jewish? During the span in which he notes the decline, the Reform movement did all the things he seems to prescribe - welcoming intermarrieds, davenning in English, being accessible - so that's clearly not working.

What IS bringing people in are lively services, and a return to practice that allows us to reify what it is that makes being Jewish so special - the sense that God chose us for a special purpose. Lose that element of our theology and the rituals that reify it and one is hard pressed to see why one would choose it over, say, Presbyterianism.

Judaism has always been a very sensory religion - the clean light of Shabbos candles, the smoke of the havdallah candle, the fragrance of the etrog and the myrtle, the rustle of the willow and the pine, the flavors and textures of the Passover Seder, that cozy, sheltered feeling that comes with wrapping the tallit over your head as you say the Shema.

Early Reform, with its nearly Spock-like valorization of Reason uber-alles, erred in rejecting these rituals and the very human needs they meet. The zeitgeist was one of pragmatism, of privileging the intellect over emotion or physicality, and the move my have seemed appropriate for the time, but I think it has proved demonstrably unsustainable.

Ritual fills the need to have a physical relationship to God, to acknowledge that as physical, emotional beings we need modes of physically reifying our relationship to God. It prevents us from either worshipping idols or rejecting God altogether by creating a way to encounter God from the place we are.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Thoughts on Parashat Shemot

הַרְפּוּ וּדְעוּ כִּי־אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהִים
Slack off, and know that I am God (Psalms 46:11)

וַיֹּאמֶר נִרְפִּים1 אַתֶּם נִרְפִּים עַל־כֵּן אַתֶּם אֹמְרִים נֵלְכָה נִזְבְּחָה לַיהוָֹה
And he said "Slacking! You've been slacking, therefore you say 'Let us go offer to Adonai.'" (Exodus 5:17)

וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת־הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה: ב וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָֹה אֵלָיו בְּלַבַּת־אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל: ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אָסֻרָה־נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה מַדּוּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה

And Moses was shepherding the flock of Yitro, his father in law - the priest of Midian and he had driven the flock beyond the wilderness and he came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. And the angel of Adonai appeared to him in the heart of the fire from within the bush, and he looked and behold, the bush burned in the flame and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said "let me turn away and I will look at this great sight - why won't the bush burn up?" (Exodus 3:1-3)

Moses doesn't just notice the burning bush - anyone could notice the burning bush - he stops and turns away from his task to look at the bush. He is curious, and outside of Egypt, away from the pressures of the court and the hurry of urban life he stops just to check out something cool. And from the freedom to stop and look comes a relationship with God. Freedom is the key to this - had a Hebrew slave in an Egyptian chain-gang hauling bricks to the builders seen this, he may have indeed been every bit as curious as Moses was. But he would not have been able to relent, to turn away, to "slack off" as it were from his task. He is giving himself permission to do this, hence the combination of a jussive form with the supplicative particle נא. He can - a slave cannot.

This distinction is not lost on Pharaoh who, when the Hebrew representatives ask him why he is overworking them notes that when they had slack-time, time for reflection, time for a kind of spiritual healing (the root רפה giving us the word for healing as well as the word I here render as slacking), it occured to them to go offer to Adonai. Leave them no time for a thought other than that of work, and thoughts of the holy would be banished from their minds. This root shows up in Psalm 46:11 as well, in a phrase generally translated as "Be still and know that I am God," but which I rendered with "slack off" so as to underscore the commonality.

It is the quiet moments available for reflection, contemplation, contact with something bigger than ourselves that make any kind of mystical experience possible. Our days amuse us to death with trivia, and separate us from the reality that the world is a far larger system than we can control. The sabbath, "first among our sacred days," is a reminder of that, and the creation of a sacred space in time to allow us the opportunity to slack off, turn from our often all too narrow paths, and take the time to indulge our curiosity and in so doing open ourselves to a relationship with God.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Thoughts on Parashat Vayechi

Blessing Menasseh and Ephraim

Morgan suggests that this is done in order to legitimize them in the eyes of the rest of the family despite his mother's heritage. This seems likely.

Jacob says they will be like Reuben and Simeon to him. Does he mean in place of? He has few kind words for his eldest sons.

His blessing of the lads finds its way into the Bedtime Shema, as does the "Adonai, I long for your salvation."

The image of Judah being a lion, with his hand on his enemies' scruff, delights me.

Two deaths - Jacob and Joseph.

Midrash maintains that up until his reunion with Joseph in Egypt, his life sucked. Hence "Jacob LIVED 17 years in Egypt." This was also the age Joseph was when his brothers, er, sold him down the river.

Jacobs Funeral - Women, Children, and Flocks are left behind. Compare with later departure from Egypt.

Joseph - asks that his bones return to Canaan. He was in Egypt on account of his brothers. His brothers descendants, in particular the Levite Moses, takes him out. Why a levite?