Friday, December 30, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat Vayigash 5772–Redux & Revised 5760- Teleology 101: Does G"d Play Dice With the World

I've written on this issue before, even in relation to this Torah parasha. It continues to haunt me so I  continue to plumb the depths of the question "can good come from evil?"

Joseph calms his brothers' fears, and tells them they need not be distressed as their past actions towards him. They were all merely pawns in G”d's plan.
[Gen 45:5-9] 

The obvious inference from this is that the actions of
Joseph's brothers in selling him into slavery were forgivable, as the end result was fortuitous? Such a teleological [outcome or end-result oriented]
ethic is surely a dangerous one. The people who come out on top always write the history. Hindsight is always 20/20. [Insert your own tired cliché here.]

Pharaoh could have used Joseph and then done away with him. Joseph could have slept with Potiphar's wife (there are some who suggest he did!)  Of
course, if one accepts the idea of a Divine plan, then no deviations were really possible. More on this later.

Many interpreters of Torah support the viewpoint that good can come from evil, if it is part of the Divine plan. Yet this idea has been used by the
perpetrators of the most vicious crimes against humanity. Was the Shoah truly part of G”d's plan? That medinat Israel is the phoenix that rose from
the ashes of the Holocaust seems little justification for the deliberate slaughter of millions.

To save Egypt (and that raises yet other questions about why Joseph was sent to “save Egypt” – another exercise in teleological thinking) Joseph had to make Pharaoh a slumlord and Feudal ruler. All Egypt became property of Pharaoh through the state’s control of the necessary resources to see the country through the famine. He could have been a ruler who simply gave the people the food they needed without extracting from them the price of the deeds to their property. Can we really say it was worth the price? Did the ends justify the means?

Some suggest that a "global view" of events facilitates the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. This reconciliation, too, as a worthy end,
is further justification of the evil acts previously perpetrated.

We could play many "what if" games that might affect our willingness to accept that "good can come from evil." Things certainly could have turned
out quite differently. Even Joseph's brothers seemed to think so. In Vayechi, they will wonder if, after Jacob's death, Joseph will finally take his revenge. [Gen 50:15] Maybe they weren't buying Joseph's "big picture" story after all.

But the “what ifs” didn't happen. History unfolded as it did and none of us would be here if it hadn't. Oh, really?  G"d wouldn't have had realization of
the Divine plan if Potiphar had simply decided to kill Joseph? If Joseph's brothers, fearing his retribution, simply fell upon him and killed him when he revealed himself to then, alone and exposed? The typical answer when such questions are raised is that when G”d’s plans are (apparently to us) thwarted by human choice/free will, then G”d just chooses an alternative. If not Joseph, then someone else and some other combination of circumstances would have led to the eventual slavery of the Israelites in Egypt and their ultimate redemption and covenant with G”d. All part of the plan, right? Any good manager or supervisor understands that it is an essential skill to be able to find alternatives when things gang aft agley. Better managers already have alternatives ready to go. Truly superior managers have the alternatives underway even while the main plan is proceeding apparently unimpeded.

So what happens when the Divine plan goes wrong? Don't be ridiculous, some argue. G”d is G”d. How much impact can our free will have on the Divine plan? It all depends on our conception/construction of Gd...or does it? G”d is what G”d is, regardless of how we construct our ideas of G”d!

I remember how, as a child, I loved playing with erector sets, Lincoln logs, etc. Legos are the new equivalent.  I also remember how I would like to
throw a curve in the works-take something that wasn't from the set, and fit it into my plan. I watch young children do this all the time. Perhaps G”d likes to do this too-and we, with our free will, perhaps provide some interesting curves for G”d in the plan for the universe? Perhaps G”d enjoys the chance in allowing humanity free will and the possibility of our interfering in Divine choice?

I also remember it was sometimes fun, and sometimes not, to create something with a friend. Ultimately, when the final shape deviated from my
plan too much because of a friends participation, I had several choices- knock it down and start again (the flood?)-restructure it the way I wanted (Torah?)-or revel in the beauty of having created something that neither of us could have done alone (covenant?) Perhaps you, my readers, can think of other examples where G”d chose options one two or three?]

One can take a modernist viewpoint and say that history is all hindsight, and write off any concept of Divine plan. Joseph got lucky, so he was willing to forgive and forget. After all, what cost to him to be a  nice guy? He can well afford it. The idea of Divine plan is so fraught with consequentialist ethics that it frightens me. Yet it also intrigues me. For a nihilistic [meaningless] view of life has little to recommend it.

My personal world view, at this point in time, incorporates the best of both worlds-Divine plan and free will. It is the "partnership with G”d" philosophy; that together we can finish the world. Joseph and his brothers seem to be merely pawns, yet surely Joseph is made of the stuff it takes to be a partner with Gd. It seems, however, that G”d was not yet ready to make such a covenant. So perhaps my answers aren't to be found in Joseph's story after all.

G”d does offer humanity choices. The clearest offering our of blessing and curse, death and life. [see Deut. 30:19] Nevertheless G”d gives us some advice: choose life!

In Mishna Avot 3.15, R. Akiba tells us that although there is a plan, man does indeed have free will.

Theologians go back and forth on these issues. A popular notion is the idea of a G"d who is persuasive but not all powerful. A less popular notion these
days in the "ineffable Gd." Both theologies think they wrap up the problem with a nice little bow, but in reality, they succeed no better than other solutions to the question of teleology, divine plan and humanity's free will.

Einstein didn’t like quantum mechanics. He didn’t like or accept a Universe in which G”d played dice, in which probabilities rather than certainties were the norm. Einstein didn’t want to accept “spooky action at a distance” either and spent most of his later life trying to prove that the idea of quantum entanglement was wrong. Modern physics has been able to demonstrate, albeit at only modest distances so far (though an experiment is underway that will attempt to demonstrate it across many miles) that quantum entanglement is indeed the reality of our universe, like it or not.

(The existence of quantum entanglement also provides a strong argument against teleological ethics. Choices we make at a local level have consequences that we might never see happening at a distance that might come back to haunt us.)

Einstein was wrong-G"d (or at least G”d’s universe) does play dice with the world. Human history as G"d's crapshoot. Hmmmm.

There is much to understand, study, and question about Joseph's reconciliation with his brothers. While we may not find the answers we are seeking, as I often suggest, we will surely find the questions we need to be asking.

Shabbat Shalom to you and yours,

Adrian A. Durlester
©1998, 2001, 2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Vayiggash 5771-Being Both Israels
Vayigash 5769 - He's A-Cookin'-a-Somethin'-A-Up
Vayigash 5768 - G"d By the Light of Day
Vayigash 5767-Two Sticks As One?
Vayigash 5765-One People
Vayigash 5763-Things Better Left Unsaid
Vayigash 5761/5766-Checking In
Vayigash 5762-Teleology 101: Does Gd Play Dice With the World?
Vayigash 5764-Incidental Outcomes and Alternate Histories

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Miketz 5772–A Piece of That Kit Kat Bar

In this parasha, Miketz, which tells the center section of the Joseph saga, and leaves us with one of the great biblical cliffhangers, as we wait to learn the result of Joseph setting up Benjamin as the fall guy for a missing goblet, we also get an example of a word phenomenon. The scholarly term for it is hapax legomenon – a word that occurs only once in a body of literature. This makes pinning down the true meaning of a word quite difficult.

When Joseph is appointed as Pharaoh’s second in command, he is paraded around town in a chariot (shades of Purim here)

41:43 He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, "Abrek!" Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt.

The work “abrek,” (alef/patakh-vet/sh’va-resh/tsere-khaf sofit/sh’va, pronounced “a-brake” ) is one of about 70 hapax legomena in the Torah. This is a subject of some debate. There are probably about 1,500 words in the Tanakh that are candidates for being unique words, however more than two-thirds of such words have an etymology that can fairly readily be derived from some existing word or shoresh (root) leaving somewhere between 400-500 true hapax legomena in the Tanakh (of which some 67 or so are in Torah.)

As a brief sidebar, I am also curious as to why this word is transliterated as “Abrek” when, at least according to the vowelization of the Masoretes the second letter has no dagesh and would be pronounced as a “v” sound, and the final letter, khaf, even though the added sh’va sharpens and shortens the sound, would still not make it a true “k” sound but more of an abrupt “kh” sound.

Enough digression. As a true hapax legomenon, we cannot be sure of the word’s true meaning. We can make a lot of decent guesses based on the context – it is likely a word of honor rather than one of derision, and it is quite likely a word one would use to show obeisance.

We can certainly speculate. For one thing, some scholars argue that this word, too, is not a true hapax legomenon, and is easily derived from the Hebrew root “bet-resh-khaf” – the root that means “knee” and “to bend or bow” from which we eventually derive the words for “blessing.” Yet our context is Egypt, and this is a word that Egyptians would use for their leaders, making a Hebrew derivation somewhat suspicious (or not, depending on your views about where Hebrew actually comes from.) Strong’s Concordance says it is likely an Egyptian work meaning “kneel” (which makes it suspiciously like the Hebrew.) The venerable BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon) says the meaning is “dubious” and HALOT (Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) says its meaning is uncertain but seems to buy into the connection to the Hebrew root. Of course these are resource works compiled mostly (but not exclusively) by Christian bible scholars.

The Septuagint (the Greek translation of Torah created by comparing the work of 70 (actually 72 in the original legend) elders of the Jewish community who separately translated the Torah into Koine Greek, each arriving, through G”d’s assistance, at the same translation) translates the word “Abrek” as “herald.”

Rashi suggests it could mean “father of the King” or, buying into the Hebrew root hypothesis, “bend the knee.” Modern scholar Nahum Sarna prefers thinking of it as an Egyptian term of uncertain meaning.

In his article on “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” that appears in the Plaut commentary, William Hallo seizes on the word “abrek” as a perfect way to illustrate how important the use of context can be in biblical exegesis. Hallo provides a wonderful exploration of the topic. He suggests that the Alexandrian Jewish elders who created the Septuagint would be likely to understand the word. He then goes on to cite recent evidence of an Akkadian origin of the word meaning “chief steward” and a later Assyrian meaning specifically designating a high official in an administration. Hallo then takes off on a great discourse on what significance may or may not be attributable to the presence of an Assyrian word in the context of this part of the Torah. I commend it to you.

Now I hear you asking “so what?” When the Torah has so much to say, so much to teach, why waste time and such an insignificant and seemingly unimportant word that hardly does much to contribute to or advance the narrative?

The rabbis would have us believe that every word in Torah is carefully chosen, and every jot and tittle matters. Hallo (and many other scholars) argue that we must consider the interconnectedness of the Torah and other Ancient Near Eastern texts. The various texts inform and shape each other (Hallo reminds us that we must not see the Torah as only a recipient of influence from other ANE texts.)

So, what do I argue for in this case? Simple. It’s just another mystery in the Torah put there to do just what it is doing. Causing us to wonder about it.

Were you expecting something more, something deeper? Dear reader, you know me better. This has all been one giant shaggy dog story of a pun to connect the title of this musing with its last words:

Gimme “Abrek.”

Shabbat Shalom and Khag Urim Sameiakh,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on the parasha:

Miketz 5771-What's Bothering...Me?
Miketz/Hanukkah 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation
Miketz/Hanukah 5768 Learning From Joseph and His Brothers (revised from 5757)
Miketz 5767-Clothes Make the Man?
Miketz 5766-Eizeh Hu Khakham?
Miketz 5757& 5761-Would You Buy A Used Car From This Guy?
Miketz 5763/5764/5765-Assimilating Assimilation

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeishev 5772–The Ram’s Horn Rag

Some years back, I wrote a musing, Strangers Walking Together, based on one short phrase from the Haftarah for parashat Vayeishev, centered on this verse:

3:3 Can two walk together, without having met?

In that musing, I asserted that we were sadly becoming a society in which it was indeed possible for two people, indeed for dozens, hundreds, thousands of people to walk together without meeting. This year I’d like to focus on another short phrase from the same source:

3:6 When a ram's horn is sounded in a town, do the people not take alarm?

Sadly, again, the answer is no longer the obvious one that the haftarah expects. It’s due to a combination of factors. First, we have now lived through centuries of people crying “wolf” when there was no wolf, so we have developed a tendency to ignore the warnings.

Second, we have become a society that, at least on the surface, utilizes technology to help insure safety. When fire alarms go off, despite all that was drilled into us as children in school, we don’t all drop everything we’re doing and go rushing into the street as quickly as we were taught. We have become complacent, arrogantly sure of our own safety. We are convinced that the alarm is meant for others and not for us.

Third, every time an alarm is sounded, there are people who shout loudly that the alarm is premature, or based on inaccurate information, or is unnecessary or reactionary.

I’m a bit of an odd duck in today’s world. Though I won’t claim to be scrupulously and consistently law-and-generally-accepted-practice abiding, I’m a bit more of a stick-in-the-mud than most other people I know. I have gotten into arguments with family and friends over this. I obey traffic and parking signs (even when others might say “oh, it’s just for a second”) and respond quickly and appropriately to alarms. People who regularly take shortcuts or imbibe in white-collar abuse of the system scoff at my unwillingness to take advantage as they do.

So yes, I think I am one of those people who believes that when the ram’s horn is sounded, I would, perforce, take alarm. My very use of the word perforce shows how I don’t even consider it an option – circumstances compel me. Why is it that I, exposed to as much of the “wolf!” crying, the arguments, the complacency that exists in our world, will respond to the shofar just as our ancestors expected I would?  I am not devoid of cynicism (though I would agree that I am generally positive and a bit of a Pollyanna.) I am not devoid of selfishness or laziness. yet still, the sound of the ram’s horn, or its modern equivalent acts upon me at deeper than a surface level.

I don’t know about you, but even now, living once again in New York City, where sirens and alarms are frequent, when I hear a police or fire siren in the distance, I don’t just ignore it, but really do take a moment to stop and wonder about what emergency may be occurring, what people may be in danger, what people may need our prayers. I don’t often act on those thoughts except, perhaps, to offer a brief prayer, and I probably don’t do that as often as I should. I’m thinking it’s a habit I should get back into.It’ll help me work towards that 100 blessings a day goal.

Ram’s horns are being sounded all around us, every day. Rather than ignore the din because there are so many, because we don’t believe it’s real, required, necessary, because we don’t think it is calling to us, maybe we need to start listening and heeding. Yes, perhaps discernment is needed, or we would spend our entire life responding to alarms. However, our world is pretty messed up, and maybe there’s a good reason so many alarms are being raised simultaneously. We ignore them at our own peril.

3:6 When a ram's horn is sounded in a town, do the people not take alarm?

Is it not time to make Amos’ words a truism again?

Shabbat Shalom and Khag Urim Sameakh,

© 2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeishev 5771-Ma T'vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 - Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 - In Gd's Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What's Worth Looking After

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Random Music Before Shabbat – Vayishlakh 5772 – One and Many, Many and One

This parasha is rich with things to muse upon. I never know what’s going to catch my attention. Perhaps because I have mused many times upon the more significant events in the parasha, I sought out something different. I found it, near the end of the parasha, at the very start of chapter 35 of Bereshit/Genesis:

35:1 G”d said to Jacob, “Arise and go to Bethel and remain there; and build an altar there to the G”d who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.”

Now go back and read that several times.  G”d is asking Yaakov to go build an altar to the specific G”d that appeared to Jacob at Bethel. Huh? Is there not only one G”d? why does the text not simply read “go back to Bethel and build an altar to Me?”

Is this all just part of the general confusion in Torah that seems to revolve around the role of malakhim, angels/messengers, who sometimes appear to be stand-ins for G”d. There are several occasions in the Torah when we see transitions from angels/messengers speaking to one of our ancestors to G”d directly speaking and interacting, as if they were somehow interchangeable.

Of course, this could also just be an artifact of the ancient worldview which had G”ds associated with places, and in the transition from a plurality of G”ds to the concept of a single G”d (which clearly passed through a period of monolatry-where the existence of multiple G”ds was accepted but there was a prime of chief G”d that was worshipped,) as well as the change from G”ds for every place to a portable, and ultimately “everywhere” G”d this holdover found its way into the sacred texts.

Or it could be that G”d really does acknowledge the existence of other G”ds. Not just manifestations, but perhaps lesser G”ds operating under G”ds authority. There’s a heresy. However I don’t see how anyone can read the Torah and come away with the idea that monotheism, as we understand it today, was really the theology of our ancestors.

The Hebrew further confounds things (or, perhaps, helps explain them.) Verse 35:1 uses the word “Elohim” at the beginning, but when it refers to the G”d that Yaakov encountered, it is simply “El” (as part of the construct “L’Eil”.) Keeping in mind that “elohim” is effectively a plural form of a noun, and “El” is singular, we have some interesting possibilities. Perhaps the fact that G”d is “Elohim” tells us that G”d has many constituent parts, many different manifestations – all part of the one same G”d. So when G”d, Elohim, refers to “El” perhaps G”d is referring to some constituent part. Perhaps monolatry was prevalent in the time the Torah was written/redacted/rediscovered.

The great rabbis and scholars wouldn’t like this. It borders uncomfortably on the Xtian concept of the Trinity. Yet true biblical scholars have to ask themselves if the Trinitarian idea was solely an invention of the Xtians or if it had roots in Judaism in some form. We’ve already seen lots of discussion about the potential existence of a female consort of the Hebrew G”d, so why not extend that to the concept of multiple instances of the G”dhead – especially since that sort of seems what we have here (and in other places in the Torah.) Heresy? Perhaps. Still worthy of exploration.

I am growing fond of the idea that “Elohim” is plural quite purposefully, and it’s a subject upon which I am going to spend some time studying. If each of us has a little spark of G”d in us, maybe it’s a piece of “El” which, when all taken together as a whole, becomes “Elohim.” E pluribus unum. Who knew?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayishlakh 5771/5763 - The Bigger Man
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5767-Wrestlemania
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Vayeitze 5772 – Stumbling on Smooth Paths

The editorial committee that created the JPS translation of the Tanakh was composed of very wise, scholarly folks. Despite my own humility and acknowledged limited level of knowledge I’ve sometimes taken them to task for their word choices. Sometimes, conveniently, I’ve decided to ignore any questions I might have about their choice of words in a translation precisely because their choice works for me in that moment and at that time. This may be such a case.

The new JPS translation for the last line of verse from the Book of Hosea, which is also the concluding verse for the haftarah for this weeks parasha (for Ashkenazim, not S’fardim,) Vayeitze, is as follows:

“For the paths of the L”rd are smooth: the righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them.” (Hosea 14:10b, JPS)

The Hebrew word JPS translates as “smooth” is “y’sharim.” Using smooth requires a bit of poetic license for this word and root which generally means “straight,” “upright,” “pleasing,”and, in some contexts, “just.”

I might quibble that a smooth road and a straight road are not necessarily the same thing. A road can be one without being the other.

Now, whether you see the metaphoric road as “straight” or “smooth” the basic idea of Hosea’s words remain essentially clear and simultaneously confusing.

Life is hardly a smooth or straight road. That would be difficult for the righteous as well as the less so. Yet a smooth and straight road should be easy for anyone to navigate. Being a sinner should hardly be an impairment. So why doesn’t Hosea say that G”d’s paths can be difficult, yet the righteous can walk them whereas the wicked stumble?

The idea that a sinner might have a difficult time walking a straight road is beautifully poetic. Used to crooked twists and turns due to their inherently evil inclination, the sinner finds the straight road unfamiliar and this more difficult to navigate.  Imagine being prepared for a path that meanders to and fro, to always be in that mode, and encounter a straight path.

However, what about the smooth road? Smooth can mean many things. Smooth paths can actually be very difficult to walk, if their smoothness is the result of an icy or otherwise slick surface that offers no friction. That Teflon coating may make the razor pass smoothly over the face, or the food separate easily from the pan, but have you ever tried walking on a Teflon surface?

The righteous and less than righteous alike could have difficulty coping with a truly smooth road. Perhaps a person’s righteous nature gives them the traction they need to climb the smooth roads of G”d? People who understand dvekut, clinging to G”d, may have the necessary clinginess to traverse the smooth surface. The sinner, who often has little commitment, may not have the stick-to-it-tiveness to walk down the smooth path.

I think the example of the difficulty the wicked might have walking a straight path might have, to forgive the pun, more and easier traction as an understanding of these words. So in this case, though I think “smooth” is a stretch of a translation, I find I like it better, simply because it may be the harder reading! (Sadly, a musing I wrote for last week that expounded on Occam’s razor and questioned the idea that the easier reading of a text is generally the best never made it online – I’m saving it for next year. Nevertheless, this might help explain why I am in a mood that is happy to embrace the more difficult reading of a text.)

So kudos to the JPS editorial committee for their choice of smooth instead of straight. It’s not the simpler, easier translation. Kudos to them as well for perhaps recognizing that Hosea was perhaps being similarly feisty when he chose this particular text to end his book.

May your Shabbat have smooth and straight paths, and may you have the wisdom to understand that both can be easy and treacherous.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place