Friday, April 25, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Kedoshim 5774–Torateinu V’Eloheinu Uv’atzmeinu–Equally Imperfect

I love parashat Kedoshim. There are times when it fills me with pride to read through it. While it’s not perfect (ooh, did I say that?) it is chock full of values and ideas that, while they may not be unique to us, we can certainly point to with pride. You read through it and think “hmmm, that’s a good idea” or “that makes sense” and things of thatnature. Sure, there’s an occasional head-scratcher, but that’s the nature of these things. Coming from the list of sexual depravities in Acharei Mot, it’s positively uplifting.  Perhaps we ought to stand when we read those parts of Kedoshim that restate, amplify, and add to the ten commandments?

Right from the start are words that are positively brilliant, and draw us in. “You shall be holy, for I, the L”rd your G”d am holy.” Wow. Yes, it is true that this statement can be interpreted in many ways. I am sad when I hear them interpreted with an almost passive sense suggesting that we are (or will become) holy simply because G”d is. I prefer a more active understanding – that we must strive to be holy. Continually. Doing so, at least in my view, does not necessarily mean imitating G”d. For at times, I think even G”d fails to live up to being holy. That’s a view that could have gotten me branded a heretic (and some people might still say so.) The text could have said “because I, the L”rd your G”d am *always* holy.” On the other hand, it could have said “You shall be holy, for I, the L”rd your G”d shall be holy.” So it is not an unreasonable assertion that, at least in the view of the biblical text, G”d is holy per se. Nevertheless, I exercise my right to assert that the text itself relates times and places when, unless you play the “ineffable” card, G”d was not acting so holy.

Consider, also, what it means for us to be holy people, yet also be commanded to kill those who transgress certain laws. G”d’s idea of holiness apparently contains the notion that killing people for wrongdoing (or even, perhaps, on a whim, or when they just p*ss you off) is normative. Tell the people destroyed in the flood, the Egyptians drowned in the sea, the Israelites felled by G”d-inflicted plagues or earth-opening fits of pique, the Canaanites killed so we might possess their land that G”d is always holy. Not so much.

I don’t want to make this all about that first important statement. Parashat Kedoshim has so many things to think about. Many, if not most of them, are positive ethical and moral ideas. I am proud that the religion I practice helped bring these ideas to the world (even if they aren’t totally unique to us.)

The problem with Kedoshim is like the lyrics to that old song “Something Stupid.”  “…and then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I love you.” The author(s) of the Torah couldn’t leave well enough alone. They had to come back to sexual improprieties, and to death-penalty-deserving deeds. Gee, thanks. You couldn’t leave well enough alone? The “something stupid” they say isn’t exactly “I love you” unless you’re thinking of “love” in that sort of “tough love from G”d” way. Yet they sure did seem to go and spoil it all by something more than needed to be said, perhaps well-intentioned, but missing the mark.

In the text, it’s almost like the need to come back to this negative line of thinking is bubbling under the surface, pops up a few times, and finally can be contained no more. We read this nice series of ethical and moral precepts including ideas like respect for elders, being honest and truthful, leaving the corners of our fields unharvested for the sake of those who are needy, of making fair judgments, and so on, and then out pops this but about a man who sleeps with another man’s designated slave. From there on in the text bounces back and forth between uplifting and less uplifting ideas. Finally, in the end, it wanders back into the same territory as Acharei Mot and its catalog of sexual depravity.As if to put an exclamation point on things, the parasha ends by taking an earlier exhortation to not consort with ghosts and spirits and turning it into a capital offense. What, did you rethink it and decide that a simple warning wasn’t enough?

A few times, in the last few years, I have hinted at this nascent idea forming in my head that the Torah itself has yetzer tov and ra. It’s certainly on display here in this parasha. That yetzer hara keeps poking its nose out in the midst of all the yetzer hatov that is in the text. That, for me, just gives more support to the notion that neither we nor G”d are inherently holy - we must strive to be so, allowing our good inclinations to fight off our bad ones.

Torah exists as a tool to help us identify potentially good and bad inclinations. We may not always agree with how the Torah asks us to define these--that does not diminish its value to us. One may ask how a sacred text that is itself divided between good and bad inclinations can serve as a basis to teach us to be discerning between such inclinations. I can answer that – the Torah walks a mile in our shoes. By being itself conflicted and striving to balance good and bad inclinations, the Torah is better prepared to understand us and advise us. In parashat Kedoshim, the Torah strives to be holy.  Like us, and frankly, like G”d, it doesn’t always succeed.

We are all in each other’s image – G”d, Torah, and ourselves. Some may prefer a system in which G”d, and only G”d is always and perfectly holy (and for some, this, by extension, means that Torah is the same.) For me, that only creates a system that sets impossible standards, and sets humanity up to fail. I think I prefer a system in which we are all equally imperfect, and mirror each other, providing ways for us to continually learn from and teach each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Kedoshim 5768-Unfamiliar Spirits
Kedoshim 5771 & 5763 - Oil and Water
Kedoshim 5760 & 5765 - Torah for Dummies

Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 - Revisiting Schrödinger's Cat
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772 - Don't Forget That The Goat Goes Free
Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 -  Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah

Friday, April 11, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Acharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5774–Let My People Barf

Things don’t always turn out as planned. As I was musing about the parasha this week, I thought I had settled on a theme. It was short and sweet, and just a tad controversial.

In essence, I was focusing on the end of the parasha where the text warns us that if we continue the abominable practices of those who dwelled in the land before us, the land will spew us out as it did them. It’s a pretty graphic yet effective image. My idea, which was, admittedly, greatly stretching the context of that exhortation, is that…well, before I say it, I guess I need to say what I was originally going to say before these words. I was going to say that I love and support Israel. I oppose the BDS movement. I believe that many media outlets skew their reporting with an anti-Israel bias.

Then I was going to say that the modern state of Israel is not free of sin or ethical lapses, and might do well to heed the Torah’s warning, lest it be spewed out.

I’m not abandoning that statement or its sentiment – it has merit if, as nothing else, the sort of provocative statement I often make as a gadfly.

Nevertheless, as I continued to muse and think about what I wanted to say this week, I began to grow uncomfortable. Not necessarily with the specific thought which I was proposing, but with my knowledge of how these and similar verses has been used and abused countless times over the centuries to justify all sorts of horrible things.

In our own time, knowing that the abhorrent practices which provide the context for the spewing out include the verses that are considered/interpreted by some as being a strict prohibition against homosexuality, preachers and politicians alike suggest that the land (be it the US, Canada, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, France, etc.) will do (or is already doing) the same to us. Our sexual immoralities will be our undoing, they say.

I don’t want to contribute one iota of support or suggest one iota of merit to their claims.

I though about equivocating for a minute, about suggesting that not all of the things this parasha notes as prohibited sexual relations should be permitted.  We know there are solid genetic reasons for prohibiting (or at least discouraging) certain types of sexual relationships between related parties. I’m no particular fan of what we call bestiality (although I do not see how an animal could possibly give consent thus from an animal welfare perspective, there’s good reason to prohibit it. There are those who argue, however, that zoophilia is not a crime, and zoophilic pornography should be permitted.) I’m certainly not going to make a case in favor of incestuous relationships. However don’t kid yourself. Google “pro incest” and you’ll find, among the less troublesome search results, some reasonable arguments being made. They can also be quick to point out that the Torah does not specifically prohibit one from having sexual relations with one’s daughter. (The rabbis state that this is simply obvious so did not need to be mentioned – a curious attitude for them to take considering on how many other occasions omissions were cited as quite important and binding. In addition, it is easy to exegetically derive the prohibition from verse 6, which prohibits sexual relationships with one’s own flesh and blood.) On the other side are scientists and researchers who say that a revulsion to incestuous relationship may have been genetically hard-wired into us as part of an evolutionary strategy.  “P’ru urvu” – be fruitful and multiply - is not just biblical, to some extent it’s Darwinian.

Then there’s good old verse 20 which prohibits sexual relationships with your neighbor’s wife. We all know how poorly we’ve done observing that one. It was broad enough in scope to warrant a later clarification in Deuteronomy that it did not apply to captive woman, who, in many cases, would have been the wife of another man. This leads, of course, into all sorts of speculation of what the Torah means when it says “eishet amitekha “ which we translate as your neighbor’s wife. The definition of “neighbor” from the root ayin mem gets complicated.

The issue gets further clouded when we ignore the word “l’zara” – for seed – in the verse, the implication being that non-procreative sex might be permitted (though in general the rabbis say no to that.

But I digress. We can argue all day about what kinds of sexual relationships should be permitted and prohibited, and argue about how Torah defines this. That’s not my focus today. My focus is my discomfort at citing verses 24-30 as a warning to bolster one’s case that failure to adhere to a particular understanding of all that is prohibited in the preceding verses will cause/is the cause of [insert terrible disaster which one is equating with being spewed out of the land here.]

We’ve all heard the pronouncements. They don’t all come from non-Jews either. Ovadiyah Yosef and others of his ilk spew forth venomous and repugnant ideas. Homosexuality led to 9/11/2001, or the financial meltdown, or to this and that. G”d is punishing us for our sexual depravities. I remember hearing, in my youth, suggestions that the US “lost” or “got spewed out” from Vietnam for the same sorts of reasons. I am certain there were leaders who used similar rhetoric to justify the white-man’s occupation of native American territory. Then again, we inherited these empire-building ideas from the very colonialists we rebelled against to become our own nation (isn’t that ironic?) Then there’s Rudyard Kipling’s famous/infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden.” History all over the world, from China to Europe to the Americas and beyond is replete with examples of people dispossessing other people and justifying it by claiming superiority and demeaning the culture, religion, ethics, etc. of those who preceded them in the land. History has seen plenty of people (in both the individual leader and the plural collective meaning) who thought they were “chosen.”

Is there any “nation” or “people” left in this world that is worthy of not being spewed forth from their own land? How many of them, if not the original occupants of the land, (and how many can actually claim that?) are guilty of continuing the same practices for which they decried the people from whom they took the land? Yes, modern Israel is guilty of some of that. Has it merited being spewed forth from its land? There are those who say it has, but I am not going to be one of them. I will not use the same rhetoric employed by so many in pursuit of nefarious ends.

G”d never told the Canaanites that what they were doing in terms of ritual practice, ethics, sexual practice, etc. was an abomination therefore justifying G”d enabling the Israelites to dispossess them. Nineveh was given the chance to repent. Sodom and Gomorra received a minimalist rebuke and warning. The Canaanites got bupkis. They just got spewed out. Guess G”d needed to make a point. The Canaanites were not up, apparently, on all the news out of Egypt. (Actually, there’s an argument to be made in G”d’s favor. By the time Joshua went in and conquered Canaan, there was plenty of evidence that the Israelites were favored by -if not “the” then “a”- G”d.)

It would be easy to say, about all of this, that it is G”d’s mess and it is up to G”d to clean it up. That’s not, apparently, the way this works. Torah’s not in heaven. It’s up to us to figure it out and apply it. That means that reasonable people can disagree about what exactly what the Torah commands. That mans, at least for me, that the Torah cannot be held up as some sort of absolute. The Torah itself is not absolute – it equivocates and vacillates and contradicts itself. There are things in the Torah that do make me want to barf. I think it’s okay for me or anyone to feel that way. So spew forth, people. Just don’t spew forth about people being spewed forth if they don’t adhere to your understanding of what it is for that people can be spewed forth from their land. Just remember that when we barf, it really is our mess, and not G”d’s, and we are obligated to clean it up.

I don’t really want to end with that kind of image, even though I’ve titled this musing “Let My People Barf.” So I’ll offer something hopeful from the special hafatarah for Shabbat HaGadol:

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.  He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before
the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.

Don’t expect Elijah to clean up your mess, either.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 - Revisiting Schrödinger's Cat
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772 - Don't Forget That The Goat Goes Free
Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 -  Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5768  - Why Wait for Elijah?
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah
Akharei Mot 5765-The Ways of Egypt and Canaan (revised)
Acharei Mot 5763--Immoral Relativisms?
Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

Friday, April 4, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Metzora 5774–Go With the Flow

I had an unpleasant experience this week. It happened at a time and in a place I would not expect it – during a gathering of religious professionals – more particularly, during a worship service that was part of a large and major gathering of Jewish religious professionals. That’s really not a time and place one would expect to have an unpleasant experience.

I was there to assist those who had been asked to lead a service for this group. They had asked me to supplement their efforts with some technological support. The details aren’t necessary, though some of you in my circle already know the circumstances. Suffice to say that my effort to supplement and support the service with technology was abruptly interrupted and eventually stopped early during the course of the service. It was done with a complete lack of tact and sensitivity, and with argumentative discussions carried on in the midst of an ongoing worship service, largely in view or hearing of those participating. I was hurt. I was embarrassed. I was humiliated. In point of fact, for my own sanity, even though the signal had been cut off, I continued to actually run the remainder of the presentation on my laptop through the end of the service. I, at least, saw it through. That enabled me to get through it with at least some sense of self worth.

I am, admittedly, very much a Pollyanna type who seeks the good in everything and tends to gloss over bad situations, including ones which have caused me hurt. (I am proud, though, to have not mistakenly channeled my upset and anger at others who were merely pawns in the drama.  They, in fact, expressed their thanks for the calm and self-effacing way I dealt with it in the moment.) So I did somewhat downplay my feelings for the remainder of the evening, but it succeeded only with great rumblings hidden beneath the surface. I sought catharsis for my hurt by reaching out to friends in the community and sharing my story with them. The simply act of putting my feelings down in words and sharing it with others proved quite efficacious at moving me to a better place.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I did receive, indirectly, an apology for the manner in which this was handled at the time. I’m still not pleased with how things were handled, or with the particular policies that resulted in the unfortunate incident, but I am pleased there was at least recognition that not all were on their best behavior in the moment.]

The day after all this, I heard from two friends. Both had life-altering things happen to them that day. In comparison, my unpleasant experience seems insignificant. Nothing was hurt except perhaps my pride. That made it much easier to move on. Or it could have. I have to admit to still having an internal discomfort that is hard to shake, and may take some time to heal. However, turning my focus to the woes of others which, at least from my viewpoint far surpassed my own difficulties did provide a convenient tool to aid me in getting through this (or in stuffing it down further. Which it was remains to be seen. I can be passive-aggressive. I only hope and pray I can control that and work my way through it all.

Now, I have friends who know me and who encourage my continued righteous indignation. They remind me that I do sometimes stuff my feelings, and that this is not healthy. Yes, what happened to me was unpleasant and hurtful. However, there has been an apology of sorts, and there are friends of mine with far greater hurts who deserve my attention. So I can move on from here. I think.

Now I have a confession to make. Normally, this is about the point where’d I make a connection to the parasha or haftarah. The whole time I’ve been writing this over the past few days, I’ve also been desperately searching for a connection to the parasha or haftarah. Frankly, I’m usually successful at such things, though I often have to make a big stretch. Well I’ve tried everything I can think of with no luck. Every connection I find is simply too much of a stretch. I’ve got nothing. Bupkis. In fact, dear reader, if you can help me find one, I’d sure appreciate it.

So I’ll just refer you to previous musings on this parasha and haftarah (see below,) some of which I think are pretty good. Before I go, however, I want to throw this random thought about the parasha at you.

In chapter 15, we read in verse 2:

דַּבְּרוּ אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּם אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִֽהְיֶה זָב מִבְּשָׂרוֹ זוֹבוֹ טָמֵא הֽוּא

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: when any man has a discharge issuing from his member, he is unclean.

The word used here for discharge, זָב zav, is built upon the root that means to flow, as used in “eretz zavat chalav ud’vash,” “a land flowing with milk and honey.” As the Torah isn’t without its humorous moments, there’s probably some interesting biblical sexual playfulness and innuendo in there. In one case, flowing is positively wonderful. In another case, it’s unclean and impure.

From this I conclude that sometimes it’s good to go with the flow, and sometimes it is not. Wait a minute! There’s a possible connection to my experience this week…

Shabbat shalom,


Metzora 5771 - Afflict This!
Metzora 5768 - Human Nature
Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News

Tazria-M'tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 - We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Students
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy