Friday, February 24, 2012

Random Musing Before shabbat–T’rumah 5772–When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Much later in the Torah after our parasha, T’rumah, we read of the prohibition against wearing shatnez, fabrics made from combining wool and linen. Thus, without taking the entire Torah in context, one might not be aware, when reading this parasha, that fabrics considered shatnez are used for the mishkan and even the ephod.

Sages and scholars offer many explanations for the biblical prohibition against wearing shatnez. The surrounding context in both references to shatnez, Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11, also include prohibitions against other types of mixtures (Hebrew: kilayim) such as interbreeding and planting different crops together.

A midrash (Midrash Tanhuma B'reishit) traces the prohibition back to the story of Cain and Abel. The brothers each brought an offering to G”d. G”d accepted Abel’s offering but not Cain’s offering (for no apparent reason.) The midrash speculates that Cain brought an offering of of flax seeds, and Abel brought wool. Jealous, Cain slew Abel, and G”d henceforth decreed that the offering of a sinner (Cain’s “linen”) should not be mixed with the offering of the innocent (Abel’s wool.)

Maimonides suggests that Canaanite priests wore garments of made from a combination of plant and animal materials, and this was the reason the Torah forbade them being worn by the Israelites. At first glance there might seem to be a glaring contradiction here. However, from the beginning, the rabbis noticed that the High Priest’s garments could be shatnez, and had already determined that shatnez could only be worn in holy service. (Did you know that tzitzit can be made of shatnez? They can, as long as the tzitzit are also made using t’khelet, the blue dye. You can also use wool tzitzit on a linen garment. More technicalities abound. Some believe linen can only be defined as such when it is made from flax, and wool can only be defined as such when it comes from sheep. Thus cotton linen and camel’s wool could be mixed and worn. This wasn’t always the case. In times when it wasn’t as easy as it is today to determine what is woven into a fabric, the rabbis generally prohibited any fabric mixtures based on the precept of marat ayin – how it might look. I it looked like shatnez, people might think it was shatnez, and that’s a good enough reason to prohibit it. Modern technology has allowed the rabbis to relax these standards.)

So clearly the rabbis find no contradiction with what it says in T’rumah. Shatnez is prohibited elsewhere precisely because it is reserved for only very holy usages like the coverings of the mishkan and the garments of the priests.

That rings a little hollow for me. For one thing, if the Rambam is correct, I find it very odd that G”d wanted the priests to wear garments containing shatnez when it was also a custom of the heathens. If the midrashic explanation of shatnez is correct, it is even more puzzling why the coverings of the mishkan and the priestly garments contained shatnez.

I’m not insistent on linearity in the Torah. That the prohibition against wearing shatnez comes much later in the Torah than the verses here in T’rumah that describe how part of the mishkan and priestly garments were made using materials that is shatnez does not trouble me. (I will admit I would find it more troubling if the order were reversed. Or perhaps not. If the prohibition against shatnez came before parashat T’rumah it would be easier, I think, to assert the case that a special exception was being made here for the mishkan and the priests. It might then be the case that what is written in T’rumah serves to amplify and explain the prohibition against shatnez as being related to shatnez being intended to serve only holy purposes. However, I am hoisted on my own petard here, since, if I insist on a non-linear reading of Torah, why does the order matter? Each piece of Torah text informs every other piece of text that came before it or comes after it.)

Modern commentators have offered all sorts of reasons for prohibiting the wearing of shatnez. Among those is the idea that linen is generally the product of cultures that live near rivers and waters where flax and other plants used to make linen grow, whereas wool is more associated with desert and nomadic cultures. So it’s Egypt and Israel, not to be mixed.  If that is indeed the case, then it doesn’t help explain why the mishkan and priests are adorned with shatnez.

So where does this leave me? Scratching my head, as always. Perhaps we’ll use Ockham’s razor and accept the simplest explanation as best. When it comes to G”d, and matters related to religion however, Ockham’s razor might not apply, as Kierkegaard and other philosophers have suggested. William of Ockham himself saw that his razor, in scientific terms, would suggest that G”d does not exist, and suggested that theology relies on faith, not science.

Sorry, but faith alone is not going to help me come to terms with why the priests and the mishkan can be adorned with shatnez. Neither will science alone. Yet I am hesitant to suggest that the answer might be found be creating yet another form of shatnez, or more specifically, kilayim (mixtures,) that of science and faith.

My answer may come in recognizing the realities of shatnez itself. The halakhah does not prohibit one from wearing a wool garment on top of a linen one (or vice versa.) I need not mix the science and the faith. They can work together without being blended. I can wear them both.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

Friday, February 17, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim 5772–Repairing Our Damaged Temple

This Shabbat marks the first of four special Shabbatot that lead up to Pesakh, Shabbat Shekalim. (Yes, I know it’s hard to  imagine thinking Pesakh when Purim is still 18 days away.)

The concept of the half-shekel census tax from Exodus 30:11-16 is clear. Rich and poor alike – all must give the same amount. This is a reminder that all are obligated to contribute to the upkeep of the community. I would extend this obligation to beyond the Jewish community, yet for the purposes of this musing, it is support of the Jewish community with which I am concerned. (I’d rather not get into an argument about progressive/regressive/flat tax codes. Let’s just say for now that I don’t think that, taken as a whole, in context, the Torah really means to tell us that a progressive tax code is wrong.)

According to the rabbis, in Temple times in Israel, the 1/2 shekel annual census tax specified in Exodus 30:11-16 was announced on the first of Adar. The thinking was (according to the convoluted thinking of the rabbis, IMHO) that reminding people to pay their half-shekel tax at the start of Adar insured the priests had a supply of new shekalim with which to purchase the animals to be sacrificed starting at the beginning of Nisan. Why it mattered that the sacrificial animals for Nisan needed to be purchased with new money instead of what was already “in the accounts” of the priests is an interesting discussion in and of itself, but we’ll just sidestep that for today.

By Temple times, there was a system in place that recognized four different kinds of payments that the priests received. There was the annual payment of the half-shekel census tax from Exodus 30:11-16, the payments for vows specified in Leviticus 22, all other gifts like those mentioned in parashat T’rumah and elsewhere, and lastly, monetary substitutions for required animal sacrifices (for guilt and sin offerings.)

In this special haftarah, King Jehoash is asserting his control over the first three types of funds collected by the priests. The priests have made themselves an easy target for this. At the start of his reign, aware of the physical deterioration of the Temple, he ordered the priests to utilize the funds coming in the make repairs and maintenance.  Some years later, it was noticed the priests had not arranged for any repairs or maintenance, so the King ordered what was effectively a giant pushke/tzedakah box be placed in the Temple into which all donations were placed. Every time the box filled up, the King’s scribe (finance minister?) and the High Priest would empty the box, count the money, bag it up, and deliver it directly to the overseers of the contractors working on the repairs. (The text is silent on who actually ordered the repairs – the priests or the King.) Perhaps suspecting that the priests were resistant to his initial request to use Temple income to make repairs because they saw it as a threat to their own income and lifestyle, the King specified that monies given for guilt or sin offerings did go to the priests directly.  (Remember, Levites and priests do not own land – well, technically. I suspect a number of priestly families, through shell ownership, or in blatant defiance of the Torah, had themselves nice little estates and nest eggs saved up.)

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis needed to come up with an alternative use for Shabbat Shekalim. They turned it into an occasion for making donations to funds to insure the welfare and continuity of the Jewish community. (That annoying appeal for funds from the bimah that many of you hear during the High Holidays is really meant to be given on Shabbat Shekalim. What a sad commentary on the state of Jewish affairs.)

Just as during the time of Jehoash, how can we be sure that the funds we give are being used by those who receive them to do the things we expect them to be doing?  The fact is, without the sort of accountability that Jehoash set up, we can’t.

Why was the Temple in disrepair when Jehoash ascended the throne? How is it that the priests, the people, and prior Kings had not noticed? Or had they noticed but not cared?  Are we in a similar situation?

I’m not generally an alarmist, and I’m not predicting the decline and end of Judaism anytime soon, but I am concerned that just as in Jehoash’s time, we have a deteriorating Temple.  If we think of Judaism itself (or perhaps the state of affairs of Judaism, and/or the Jewish community) like the Temple, then it is definitely in need of repair. we have allowed our priests to not utilize the shekalim we give them to repair what needs repairing. Lots of money seems to be going in, but I’m not seeing all that many signs of the necessary repairs being made. We have allowed our priests to not utilize the shekalim we give them to repair what needs repairing. I see lots of signs of the modern equivalent of the priests – those who control the monies that come in, be they rabbis, CEOs, Boards, fundraisers, philanthropists – simply insuring their own (or their organization’s) continuity, without concern for the entire edifice that is Judaism and the Jewish community. They work to protect their own little space inside, while the entire building is starting to crumble around them.

At the same time, I do see lots of contractors eager to do the work of making the repairs that the Jewish edifice needs. While there are modest efforts underway to funnel funds to those people, it’s but a mere trickle. The funds are going in to our “Temple” but they’re just not being used to fix the things that truly need repairing.

We have no King to step in for us and insure that our priests are using the money as needed. So it is up to us – each of us – all of us – to insure that the money gets to the contractors who actually will do/are doing the work needed.

First, we much each be certain that we are giving our due half-shekel. We must be contributing to the community. (I am a proponent of “sweat equity) so it doesn’t always and only have to be money. Teach. Serve on a committee. Work for a social action or community organizing organization.) Then we must be active participants in insuring that our half-shekel, along with all of the others, gets collected, bagged up, and sent to those who are actively doing the repair and maintenance work that is needed to our virtual Temple.

It’s interesting to note that the King and his surrogates became the watchers of the priests to insure they did what they were supposed to do. When it came, however, to someone to watch over the recipients – the overseers and the workers – no watcher was deemed necessary. Like the worker in the ancient story, we hope that their attitude isn’t “I’m earning a living,” or “I’m supporting my family,” or “I’m laying bricks,” or “I’m carving wood,” but rather “I’m building a Temple” or, in this case “I’m repairing the Temple.”

My prayer is that this penultimate line from the haftarah proves true in our own time.

16 No check was kept on the men to whom the money was delivered to pay the workers; for they dealt honestly.

Let’s repair our Temple.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Mishpatim 5771 - Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Yitro 5772–Why I Won’t Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging

This week I had intended to write about something completely different from what you will read following this introduction. I am, as I often do, wrestling with the many uses of Ani Ad”nai that we find in the Torah as rationalizations as to why we should observe some particular commandments. In Yitro, with the first iteration of the ten commandments, we find the grandfather of this concept in the first commandment. Although the formulaic Ani Ad”nai is not used even once in the ten commandments, it is somewhat implicit, and at the very core of the first commandment. You should heed all that is being said here simply because

“I am Ad”nai your G”d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…”

In the midst of struggling yet again with this “do it because daddy says do it, or daddy will punish you” theology, I read a most enlightening blog post on this very subject, for this very parasha, from Rabbi Menachem Creditor. You can read it on his blog. His words have given me a handle, after all these years, to redeem this most troubling of theologies, by standing it on its head (or side.) I won’t give it away. Go read it and see what you think.

So I decided to take this week’s musing in another direction, also based on something I’d read. A colleague posted to Facebook the first of many links I expect to see this year to the good folks at Sabbath Manifesto promoting this year’s National Day of Unplugging. I commented on her post, shooting from the hip, explaining why I had some reservations about endorsing this idea. Then it struck me that here in the parasha we read for the first time the fourth commandment, a rather explicit commandment regarding Shabbat. Here was an opportunity to expand on my thoughts about that. Herewith, those thoughts.

It seems like such a great idea. A national day of unplugging. I'm not convinced that this is such a great idea, and I’m not certain I would want to participate in it (I haven’t participated in either of the previous two years, and it wasn’t for lack of knowledge of the event. However, I can’t say that, until now, I didn’t participate by deliberate choice.)

For some of you, dear readers, this isn’t even an issue on your radar screen. Your Shabbat observance may or may not routinely exclude the use of technology. Perhaps you make your Shabbat choices based on the standard embraced by the Reform movement and other forms of liberal Judaism – that of informed choice. You don’t need the folks at Sabbath Manifesto telling you what to do to make Shabbat more meaningful, even though you might agree with some of what they say. Your choice is not determined by rabbinical fiat. If your leanings are Reconstructionist, perhaps you apply the Kaplan standard of giving the past a vote but not a veto. If you’re in the Conservative fold, you may be struggling to see how halakha might evolve to deal with our ever increasing dependence upon and relationship with technology. There was a time when I might say that an orthodox Jew has no issue with this either-they just observe the halakha and don’t use technology on Shabbat – so they are already unplugging. (But not literally-witness the KosherLamp, Shabbat elevators, and more.) However, times are changing. Witness the increasingly present idea of “Half-Shabbos” adopted by young orthodox youth eager to use their smartphones on Shabbat afternoons.

I’ve always considered myself somewhat cross/multi/post-denominational Aspects of all the various modern Jewish philosophies are part of how I determine how I live. On this issue, I don't know that my understanding of Shabbat and its purpose must, perforce, involve disconnecting from the world through avoiding/unplugging technology. Yes, there is value in focusing on the immediate world, but I also believe there could be value on Shabbat in staying connected. They ask "can you survive a day without technology?" as if we were a society of addicts. Yes, aspects of technology are addictive. Nevertheless, I ask why survive a day without technology? Will this automatically make someone a better person? Of that I remain uncertain. The other nine points of the Shabbat Manifesto make sense. It's just that first one that has me concerned. Consider that maybe what we need is a Shabbat Plugged-In.

What’s the motivation behind those proposing the day of unplugging? I don’t doubt for a second that it is, in part, a sincere effort to help people discover the everyday wonders around them, to give people a chance to slow their lives down for a moment, to assist them in connecting with their understanding of G”d. The folks behind the Sabbath Manifesto, the folks from Reboot, are not dogmatic. They make it very clear that it is up to every individual to interpret and utilize their ten principles. They offer different examples of what it might mean to refrain from using technology, to be mindful of one’s health, etc.

So I want to make it clear that I have no argument with the folks from Reboot, and I genuinely encourage you to engage in your own dialog with their principles/proposals and see how they might work for you. I have, and in so doing, have come to the conclusion, at least currently, that the first principle, “avoid technology” on Shabbat, doesn’t ring as true for me as the other 9 principles. I accept that this just might be my own gut reaction, an assumption, that, however unintentional, the principle harkens back to an obeisance to a tradition simply because it is one. A rabbinical interpretation of an uncertain commandment. A rigid adherence to a worldview that may no longer apply. Technology is no longer ancillary to our daily life. For better or worse, technology has become integral to our way of life.

Avoiding technology on Shabbat sounds to me as if it could be just another bone thrown to tradition as a result of the collective Jewish guilt of liberals Jews who continue to believe that there is something not genuine about their Judaism because they do not do everything that traditional Jews do and/or not do on Shabbat, because they are not shomer Shabbat.

Religion is not automatically pro-simple. There's very little that is simple about Judaism. Asceticism exists in many religions but it is only one of many ways to be religious. Now, that's a drastic comparison. Living the life of an ascetic, an Essene, so to speak, is not at all akin to taking a day off from the use of technology once a week, or even once a year. The idea of a national day of unplugging is not entirely anathema to me. I can certainly see value in stepping away from technology once in a while. I even try to do that whenever I am using my computer - planned breaks. Where things fall flat for me is the linkage to Shabbat. Especially so because I believe that my use of technology on Shabbat can actually enhance my Shabbat experience.

(The day is coming, my friends. We’ve had electronic/digital siddurs for over a decade. A bit clumsy to use on phones-I remember how tricky it was on my PDAs from Palm and HP, and later my first true smartphone, a Motorola Q, to try and use the electronic siddur and Tanakh I had on them. Now we have siddur and Jewish text apps for phones and tablets. There have been traditional siddurim and texts available electronically for years. Now the Reform movement, somehow always behind Chabad and the orthodox world when it comes to utilizing the latest technology (and I say this as someone who was active in the early days of the Reform movement’s first forays onto the web, even serving on an Internet committee) has finally made their new siddur, Mishkan Tefillah, available on iOS.

(Sidebar: As an Android user, and a working class Jew who can’t afford Apple’s always higher pricing, I sometimes wonder why there is this stereotypical idea that Jews and iOS go together. It’s an almost deliberate denial of the “Jews as cheapskates” stereotype – because there’s little doubt, at least in my mind, that Android gives more bang for the buck than iOS. “We’re not cheap. We only buy from Apple!” Has anyone ever done an actual survey to see if more Jews own iPhones than Android, Blackberry, or other devices?) I have digressed from my digression, so back to my original digression before we get back to the main topic!)

So yes, the day is coming. People will be worshipping using eReaders, tablets, phones. When this is all people are using – when the printed book has become a rare sight – what will we Jews do on Shabbat? Will Reform congregations allow their use on Shabbat, while Orthodox shuls not? Will the Conservative movement’s committees endlessly debate the topic while the movements members and synagogues simply choose for themselves, but only hire clergy who follow the halakha as it stands?  Will Reconstructionist congregations see the already prevalent divide between traditionalists and modernists often inherent in their congregations become wider and perhaps lead to a fractious schism? (The Renewal types will either be busy meditating, and trying to stay out of the fray. There, have I been an equal opportunity offender?) Will the Institute for Science and Halacha, that venerable bastion of modernist traditional Judaism, that gave us Shabbat elevators, work with scientists and engineers to help create the eSiddur equivalent of the KosherLamp that can be used on Shabbat? Will we find a way to create a fully digital “sefer Torah” (and yes, there could be an inherent oxymoron in combining the words digital and sefer-unless we expand the definition of what sefer means in an all digital age.) The day will come, like it or not, when we Jews will certainly be using some forms of technology on Shabbat, because there will be no alternative, and our religion will have evolved to adapt to that. What will the Sabbath Manifesto of that future time ask us to consider in order to enhance our Shabbat experience? I’m not sure “avoiding technology” will be in the mix.

That’s enough digression for now. Now back to the main topic!

To know how to deal with the use of technology on Shabbat, we must first ask ourselves what, exactly, we are supposed to do/not do on Shabbat? It says in the ten commandments (and in the creation narrative) that G”d rested, but it doesn’t say that we must or should rest. It only says what we shouldn’t do: M’lakhah. Therein lies the rub. What, exactly, is m’lakhah?

Now to be fair, a bit later, we come upon Exodus 31:12-17

And Ad”nai said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say: nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I, Ad”nai have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from his kin. Six days m’lakhah may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a {sabbath of complete rest} holy to Ad”nai…

From there it goes on to the “v’shamru.” Now you tell me where that says we must rest? Maybe that {sabbath of complete rest} thing? It’s in brackets because we don’t really know what the text means. It merely says it is a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sabbath of sabbaths. A ceasing of cessation, or a cessation of cessations. Could the text be any more obtuse? Let’s face it: though we’re used to using it that way, the Hebrew word Shabbat doesn’t really translate directly to mean rest. Stopping or ceasing may be better translations.

So as far as I am concerned, it is not at all clear that we are commanded to actually rest, in the modern meaning of the word, on Shabbat. What we are commanded is to not do any m’lakhah.

The word m’lakhah is defined in scholarly biblical lexicons in many ways. Among those definitions are:

  • a trade mission or business journey
  • business or work
  • handiwork or craftsmanship.

The word is generally used to describe work in the sense of things that one needs to do to live or earn a livelihood. As usual, the rabbis took a different tack to define it. Working from the creation story, they noted that it says that G”d “rested” (really just another form of Shabbat, vayishbot) from G”d’s m’lakhah. Assuming this meant G”d rested from all the work required for creation, they linked m’lakhah with creative acts, thus creating a different category (for there can be business work that isn’t necessarily creative.) Since m’lakhah appeared both in creation and the ten commandments, the linkage was obvious, they thought. Nice, but then they gummed up the works by linking it all to the creative acts involved in building the beit hamikdash, the Temple, in addition to the basic acts required by human beings just to survive (like baking bread, making clothing, writing, building shelter or a house.) Thus was born what we now see defined as m’lakhah according to halakhic principles.

Thirty-nine specific areas of creative effort are noted. I won’t get into a specific discussion about each of them here, though I will note I find some of them strange. The prohibition of “putting the finishing touch on something” (makeh bapatish, literally, striking with a hammer) seems particularly odd, considering that Shabbat is the recognition of G”d doing exactly that-putting those last finishing touches on creation. In fact, I might be so bold as to suggest that this is why the Torah says (in Gen. 2:2) that on the seventh day G”d finished the work that G”d was doing – words which have vexed readers of the Torah from the start. So it seems to me that putting the finishing touch on something on Shabbat is to honor and recreate what G”d did! How and why have we turned this upside down?

Heschel suggests that the concept of kadosh, holy, is central to Shabbat. The concept of holy is first introduced in reference to Shabbat:

And G”d blessed the seventh day and called it holy.

Now many might cite Heschel as support for the idea of an unplugged Shabbat. I suspect Rabbi Heschel himself would be a supporter of Sabbath Manifesto and a day of unplugging. After all, Heschel’s take is, simply put, that Shabbat is about being in time, rather than being in space, which we do the rest of the week. The festivals, Heschel argues, though they celebrate events in time, are fixed to timings in the natural world – moon phases, seasons, and thus, he says, tings in space. Shabbat is independent of anything in nature and space – it is a celebration of time. He says:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (A.J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern man)

Is there something inherent in technology – computers, cell phones, smartphones, tablets, etc. that make them about space, rather than time? Perhaps. However I would also argue that these technologies might actually allow us to transcend and hallow time. Technology, for example, allows us to be places we are not, and to be in more than one place at the same time (albeit virtually.) Technology allows us to be in our own time and the past simultaneously. Technology just might be exactly what is needed to be celebrating time rather than place.

I’ve written many times about the anamnesis prevalent in Jewish ritual – ways of making the past present. Technology is a wonderful tool for making that happen. With technology, we could be at our Seder table and at Sinai or the Reed Sea at the same time!

As I stated near the beginning of this musing, it's a matter of what you do online or with the technology, not that you are just using or not using it. I might use the technology to study, to engage in social action activities, to be part of an extended virtual community. Instead of the false dichotomy of "during the week we use technology and on Shabbat we don't" why not "during the week we use technology for all sorts of things, but on Shabbat we use technology only for a higher purpose, in service to G"d and the spirit of G"d's Shabbat." I do not believe it has to be either/or. Item two on the Sabbath Manifesto is "connect with loved ones." is that connection any less worthwhile if it is done using technology, as that might be the only way to do it?

During the week I utilize computers to deal with the tyranny of work. On Shabbat, might I not use a computer in a way that is totally free of how I use it for work? Maybe I’ll use it to create a song, or a poem. (Oh wait, that’s creative isn’t it? Well, as I said before, I’m not sure the rabbis got that right anyway.) Maybe I’ll use it for something that, for me, enables me to totally experience the idea of “Shabbat Vayinafash” which I like to think of, as I’ve written in musings before, of G”d’s refreshing or re-souling G”d’s self. Who am I judge judge how another experiences Shabbat? If playing Angry Birds help you be in the spirit of Shabbat, then why not play Angry Birds? If reading is something you usually do on Shabbat, does it really matter if you use a Kindle or a Tablet instead of a book?

I’ve often heard even shomer Shabbat Jews refer to a Shabbat recharge. Now there’s irony in this simile/metaphor. (For you purists, I might argue that it is not at all clear if this is a simile or a metaphor. It can be the simile “Shabbat is like a battery being recharged” but it could also be the metaphor “Shabbat is a recharging.”) Can there be recharging without violating prohibited m’lakhah? Certainly not in a physical, scientific sense. What about in a spiritual sense? If using technology helps provide my spiritual recharge for Shabbat, is that truly wrong?

What about mitzvot and Jewish values? The rules for Shabbat permit some violations for the sake of saving a life. If I turn my cell phone off, I might never know of that opportunity. My cell phone might enable me to perform an act of kindness or support for another on Shabbat. Maybe someone I know has an emergency, or a car accident, or a death in the family. Maybe a friend is feeling down and needs cheering up. Maybe a family member needs my assistance. Maybe a friend is studying Torah alone and needs a partner. If someone is alone and needs community, they could attend one of the virtual synagogues on the web. Is this truly wrong? We arrange for shut-ins to see services through live streaming (some synagogues have done this for decades just by phone, by the way.)

If I go to services and get inspired, by traditional standards, I’d just have to keep the ideas in my head until Shabbat is over. I couldn’t write a note, record a voice memo, make notes on my smartphone or tablet. Chances are by the time havdallah came around I’d have forgotten. If I used technology to help me remember, I could perhaps make my life, or that of someone else, or even the whole world, better.

Now, all this being said, I will state that my own Shabbat practices have varied widely over the years. For many periods in my life, I did refrain from using technology on Shabbat, from answering the phone, checking email, writing articles, etc. I did refrain from doing commerce or business on Shabbat (though there’s that catch involving anyone who is a Jewish professional and what it is that they actually do on Shabbat to meet the needs of the congregation or community.) I found ways to unplug during Shabbat.

Now I have reached a point in my life where I find that technology allows me to experience my Shabbat in ways that actually enhance it. So I’m not sure I’ll unplug on March 23/24 for the National Day of Unplugging. I may unplug on other occasions or other Shabbats. I may even unplug that Shabbat – but not because it is the National Day of Unplugging, but rather because I choose, that Shabbat, to do so.

So consider this my little plug for not unplugging on the National Day of Unplugging for the wrong reasons. Technology is not inherently evil, not inherently contradictory to the goals of Shabbat. Technology is a tool, and it can be used for good or evil. Maybe, if we focus on only using it for good on Shabbat, we can help bring about a world in which technology is always used only for good all week long as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Yitro 5771/ Redux Beshalakh 5762 - Manna Mania
Yitro 5770 - Special Effects
Yitro 5769 - Evolution Shabbat
Yitro 5768-B'Kol HaMakom-In Every Place
Yitro 5767-Kinat Ad"nai
Yitro 5766-Top Ten?
Yitro 5765-Outsiders (Updated from 5759)
Yitro 5764-Outsiders II
Yitro 5763-El Kana
Yitro 5762-Manna Mania
Yitro 5761-From Cheap Theatrics to Impossible Possibilities
Yitro 5760-The Rest of the Ten Commandments
Yitro 5759-Outsiders


Friday, February 3, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Beshalakh 5772-Thankful For The Worst

וַיּ֨וֹשַׁע יְהוָ֜ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֛וּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יִם וַיַּ֤רְא יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מֵ֖ת עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיָּֽם׃
      וַיַּ֨רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַיָּ֣ד הַגְּדֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה יְהוָה֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּֽירְא֥וּ הָעָ֖ם אֶת־יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּֽאֲמִ֙ינוּ֙ בַּֽיהוָ֔ה וּבְמֹשֶׁ֖ה עַבְדּֽוֹ

“Thus the L”rd delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the L”rd had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the L”rd; they had faith in the L”rd and His (sic) servant Moses.” (JPS)

Feh. I want nothing to do with this. I am troubled to be an adherent to a religion which has this as part of its core narrative. We had faith in G”d because G”d did everything possible to cause the Egyptians to suffer more than they probably needed to suffer, in order that G”d might demonstrate G”d’s power? It’s just ugly. Bordering on unconscionable. The Torah shows us how people can be faithful to G”d for all the wrong reasons.

I believe my faith would have been greater if G”d had managed to have the Israelites delivered out of their bondage without anyone having to suffer. For that matter, how about our never having gone into bondage in the first place. Can’t we move directly from the covenant with the Patriarchs to receiving the Torah and inheriting the promised land?

Yes, it’s less likely we’d value something that came easy. Yet did we really need to go through all that? For that matter, did all those who suffered, both Israelites, Egyptians, and others need to go through all that?

I’m of extremely short stature. As you can imagine, this was not easy for me as a child. I wasn’t really in a position to protect and defend myself from bullies. So I learned to negotiate, to use my intellect to get out of a threatening situation. As a result, I respect all those who choose the non-violent path through a situation. (Would my attitude have been different if I were of normal stature, or even tall and athletically built? It’s hard to know. It is the body that makes the person?)

Thus, the best G”d of my understanding is a G”d that would find non-violent and peaceful solutions to every situation. A G”d that would simply reason with Pharaoh and win. A G”d that would talk Amalek out of it. A G”d that would convince the good people of Sodom and Gomorrah to straighten up and fly right. A G”d that would have found a better way than a flood wiping out all life as a solution for G”d’s own screw up.

However, there’s something about how this universe is structured (and do we hold G”d responsible for this?) Whether it is free will or something else, there is violence in this universe. Even the Hindu concept of ahisma, not doing harm to any living thing through action or words has an exception for self-defense. The venerable Dalai Lama himself has declared that today’s terrorism cannot be dealt with through non-violence.

(Judaism’s own supposed preference for non-violence is, at least based on the textual record, somewhat of a latecomer, and often observed more in the breech than in the keeping. This charge of being violent can, of course, be leveled at pretty much every religion. I may not agree with the likes of Hitchens-I do believe that religion has contributed much good to society, but it has also disproportionately contributed to the violence in the world.)

So, criticizing my own position, I might argue that I am being unrealistic in my expectations (of G”d and of human beings.) Arguing about a fantasy world in which there is no violence, and in which G”d has no need of employing violence (or encouraging/supporting it on the part of human beings) is engaging in mental onanism.

I was reminded by my muse, when working on this musing, that in order for G”d to communicate with human beings, G”d must do so in a manner that is comprehensible to those human beings. I have made this same argument in other musings over the years. Using this idea as a framework, we can see G”d’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the killing of Egypt;s first born,a nd the mass drowning at the Sea of Reeds as necessary parts of bringing the Egyptians to the understanding that G”d truly is G”d. Reasoning with them, even if the reasoning was done by G”d, may have been ineffective. Demonstrations of might, superiority, and miraculous acts were the currency of communication by the deity in those times. Both the Egyptian and the Israelite paradigms may have required G”d to act the way G”d did. We can certainly extend this argument to include earlier biblical times like the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.

However, can we ever truly understand the mindset of our ancient predecessors? Yes, the historical record does show us that human beings have been stubbornly consistent in their flaws and failings from the beginning, with, sadly, little and rather slow evolution in morals and behaviors over time. How do we know that what actually happened wasn’t a regression-that our ancestors were morally, ethically, and intellectually superior, and might have responded to a G”d who merely reasoned instead of utilized violence? In fact, maybe if the human race were to speak to its therapist, that therapist might suggest that the very violent ways of its G”d during humankind’s childhood are the source of their own violent tendencies as adults. G”d as toxic parent. Maybe we weren’t so badly behaved after all, but, for whatever reason, we weren’t living up to what “G”d/Daddy Dearest” wanted, and G”d felt the constant need to punish us, put us down, abuse us. So maybe the way we are today is not because our ancestors were like us, but because G”d treated our ancestors abusively and we are the adult children of abused children. (If I were crazy like L. Ron Hubbard, I might consider creating a religion out of this idea, sort of like a 12-step group – “Adult Children of G”d.” ACOG. Has a nice ring to it.

Maybe the Torah is not the record of how we really were in biblical times, but G”d’s record, as the abusing parent, of how we were. Time to write our own recollection? Oh wait, we’ve been doing that all along. The oral Torah, the Talmud, the midrashim, the commentaries, the tshuvot (responsa) – are they not attempts to otherwise correct, amend, or explain the Torah? It’s a theory I’ve not considered before-that the inconsistencies in Torah exist because our collective recollection as a race is different from the recollections attributed to us in the Torah.

Now there are all sorts of holes in this argument. If we accept human authorship of Torah, we have a problem. (If we accept Divinely-inspired human authorship, then we can at least accept that G”d inspired the authors to be less than frank and write G”d’s own agenda, G”d’s own messed-up view as an addict, abuser, and toxic parent.)

So here I am, stuck with competing understandings –the practical and the fantasy. As Judaism is, indeed, focused on the here and now, I supposed my efforts are better spent trying to work in the worlds as it is, striving to make it a better place, rather than pining for a world which does not (yet) exist.

Though The Torah shows us how people can be faithful to G”d for all the wrong reasons, I can seek better reasons to be faithful. I can have my vision of what olam haba could be, and try, each and every Shabbat, to get that little forshpeis, that taste, of what a world without violence on anyone’s part, including G”d’s, might be like.

So that’s how I can be thankful for even the worst of what Torah has to offer. That’s how I can turn being thankful for all the wrong reasons into being thankful for all the right reasons.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Beshalakh 5771 - Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 - Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd's War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5760-Moshe's Musings
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd