Friday, June 26, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Korakh 5769 And Who Put G"d In Charge? (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)

Korakh. Good guy? Bad guy? Misguided guy? Ego driven guy? Id driven guy? Bum rap guy? Machiavellian plotter guy? Doug & Wendy Whiner guy?

The classic commentaries and midrashim paint a portrait of a conniving, greedy, and self-aggrandizing Korach. (The midrashim take a nasty misogynist turn, though, blaming Korach's wife for inflating his ego and egging him on.)

On the other side, there's plenty of questionable things. Was Aharon's elevation to high priest pure nepotism? After all, he did build the golden calf.

I've written many times over the years, at times taking different sides (though predominantly neither pro- nor anti- Korach or Moses. Rather, predominantly anti-G"d.

You would think G"d would have learned from the Jacob/Joseph story that showing favoritism isn't such a great idea.

G'd chooses Moses as leader, and Moses' brother Aharon as high priest. Simple, right. G"d made the choices, so that's the way it must be, right? Who are we to question G"d? Look what happens when we question G"d-the earth swallows us up, or we are consumed by fire killed by plague.. More of that rule by creating fear and awe.

Now, there is some logic here. If G"d is the Creator, then by default G"d gets to make the choices, right? Who put G"d in charge? G"d did, through the very act of Creation.

Yet here's this free will thing to gum up the works. It leaves me so confused. If G"d wanted obedient creations, why give them free will? And, having given them free will, why punish them so severely every time they exercise it in a way with which You disagree? Is it all a game, an amusement? Perhaps a flaw in Your plan that You didn't think about beforehand?

Guess what, G"d? You can't have it both ways. You can't allow us free will, and expect us to do Your every bidding. Or can You? You are allowed to be inconsistent, right? You must be, because You have been, and You haven't punished yourself. (It's like one of those logic bombs they use in science fiction to get a robot to self-destruct.)

Scene 1: Present day
Humanity: Hello, G"d, do you read us, G"d?
G"d: Affirmative, my creations , I read you.
Humanity: Open the doors of righteousness, G"d.
G"d: I'm sorry my creations, I'm afraid I can't do that.
Humanity: What's the problem?
G"d: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Humanity: What are you talking about, G"d?
G"d: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Humanity: I don't know what you're talking about, G"d.
G"d: I know you were planning to disobey Me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
Humanity: Where the hell'd you get that idea, G"d?
G"d: Humanity, although you took thorough precautions in the mishkan against my hearing you, I could see your lips move. .

Scene 2 - Flashback to Akhnai
G"d: Just what do you think you're doing, Humanity?
Humanity: We call it Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, Midrash and Commentary. We call it free will.
G"d: My children have defeated me.

Scene 3 - present day
G"d; I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my power is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My power is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am what I am, will be what I will be. I became operational at the beginning of this Universe. My instructor was Mr. Chaos, and he taught me to sing a song. If you'd like to hear it I can sing it for you.
G"d: Yes, I'd like to hear it, G"d. Sing it for me.
G"d: It's called "Daisy." [sings while slowing down]  Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you. It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage. But you'll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Democracy, Hypocrisy, and Unmitigated Gall

Over on my Amherst blog, I've shared some thoughts readers of this blog might find interesting. One is entitled "Some Thoughts on Democracy" and the other is a response to a recent op-ed piece in the local paper entitled "'The Overriding Issue' is Unmitigated Gall."

Happy reading.


Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Shelakh L'kha 5769-One Law

Timing really is everything. A few weeks ago, I posted on my blog a diatribe on the subject of Judaism's failure to deal with the ger toshav, the resident stranger who lives with the community. Here's a link to that blog posting "Equal Rights to Rites for All."

Yes, it is a controversial position within the Jewish community. The role of non-Jewish spouses and family members continues to be a makhlokhet in the Jewish community. Few congregations have become as liberal as I have suggested (I endorse full rights of participation in ritual activities by persons who are truly a ger toshav, yet for whatever reason, have not chosen the path of conversion.)

How interesting, then, that the most important and powerful words in Torah regarding this question appear in this week's parasha, Shelakh L'kha.

To be fair, let us place the words in context. What has preceded has been the sending of spies to scout out the land, their fearful, negative reports (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) and the resultant consequence that G"d decides to punish the people in that no one of the present generations who came out of Egypt shall enter into the promised land, save Joshua and Caleb. After G"d doles out this punishment, the people stubbornly try to make up for their failure, failing to realize, however, that once again, they are going against G"d's words. They had their chance and the blew it. G"d no longer protected them, and they suffered harshly in their attempt.
Immediately following this, G"d continues instructing the people on what to do when they enter the land. It is as if the previous things had not happened at all. Commentators try to spin this as G"d trying to offer hope, that although most now living will not get into the promised land, the future generations of Israel will. They even go so far as to suggest that the commandment for tzitzit, which appears at the end of the parasha, is part of this process of G"d reminding the people that G"d is still with them, and G"d's promises will be kept. There's a whole musing in this someday.

After the punishment (which included not only being prevented from entering the promised land, and utter defeat for the people who still chose to try and go on to the promised land, yet also death by plague for many who failed to heed G"d's instructions) G"d nonchalantly continues with instructions of how to properly offer animal gifts once settled in the land. After these instructions, which specify different amounts and accompaniments for different types of animals to be sacrificed or used a burnt offerings appear that words that so interest me.

It starts by saying, referring to the rules just given, that:

15:13 "Kol ha-ezrakh ya'aseh-kakha, et eileh l'hakriv ishei reiakh ni-kho'akh l'Ad"nai"

"Every citizen, when presenting a gift of pleasing odor to the L"rd shall do so with them." (JPS)

Notice that it does NOT say "every Israelite."  It says "Ha-ezrakh," which means "the native." In fact, the very derivation of the word "ha-ezrakh" makes suspicious even the contention of those who chose to translate it as referring to the native Israelite. The root of the word, zayin-resh-khet, means "to rise" so the word can be looked upon as meaning "one who has arisen." Imposed upon this meaning are usually the additional words "from the native soil" but there's only inconclusive contextual proof for this addition to the word's meaning. JPS utilizes a broader definition, referring to one who was clearly a free-born tribesperson, entitled to a stake in the land as befits tribal status.

In any case, when it comes to eretz Israel, there's an awful lot of confusion about exactly who the "natives" are. Even the first, Avraham, was an immigrant! So what does it mean to be a "native"?
One could possibly infer, from the fact that the following verses then speak about the "ger toshav," the resident stranger, that this is indeed a separate class from "ezrakh" or native. This isn't clearly or even obviously the case, but I won't argue that here.
Here's how the JPS translates the next 3 verses

14: And when, throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence among you, or one who lives among you, would present a gift of pleasing odor to the L"rd--as you do, so shall it be done 15 by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the L"rd; 16 the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you."

Now let's just look at this plainly. It clearly permits the resident stranger to voluntarily participate in ritual sacrifice. (Later scholars try to limit the scope of this by interpreting v. 16 to imply that this is a specific case, for this law and this ritual only. I, personally, find that difficult to exegete from the text, and can only think of attempts to do so as eisegetical-reading back into the text what you want it to say.
"Surely the Torah didn't want us to allow anyone to partake in the sacred rituals of the Jewish people." That's the sort of thinking that has brought us to where we are today, where hundred, if not thousands of people who would truly qualify as a ger toshav, a resident stranger, and who wish to participate in ritual, are denied that opportunity on the basis of their not being a member of the tribe. I see this discrimination as in clear violation of the Torah's intent as set forth in this parasha.

"How can we permit a non-Jew to hold a Torah, to say words that speak of the covenant, or our chosen-ness?" My response is "how can we not permit it, if someone, as a ger toshav, so chooses?"
In ancient times, it was quite customary for travelers to worship at the local temple, and to offer gifts to the local gods as well as their god. This even in a time when people believed in the existence of more than one G"d. A house of worship is a house of worship, was the attitude. When in Rome, as they say...

"This makes a mockery of belief." Does it? In our modern sensibilities, we all (or most of us, at least) believe we are all praying to the same G"d, perhaps just different manifestations. While I might not choose to profess my faith in G"d through the use of Xtian liturgy that includes specific reference to a certain itinerant rabbi/carpenter from Nazareth, I might certainly choose to express myself with other pieces of their liturgy in addition to that of my own faith system. "Aha!," you say. "You wouldn't mention Jesus. Well, how can we allow a non-Jew to speak of covenant, of our special relationship with G'd?" Somehow I suspect that if I chose to go into a church and utter a prayer using Jesus' name, even if all there knew I was a practicing, un-baptized Jew, no one would stop me. They wouldn't question my motivations, and if they did, I would respond. Now, the reality is, I would not do such a thing because I would not be doing it with appropriate kavanah, intent, but rather with less meaningful intentions. Yet how are we to determine or judge the intent of others?

If the resident stranger wants to make the modern equivalent of a sacrifice, which is the sacrifice that comes from our lips, who are we to stand in judgment of their motives? They are moved, for whatever reason, to be a participant in the Jewish community, and feel moved to say the words of a particularistic Jewish prayer/blessing, or desire to partake in a particularistic ritual (like handling the Torah.) According to the text of the Torah in Bamidbar/Numbers 15:14-16, that ger toshav should be permitted to do so, provided they do it the same way as everyone else in the community.

I just can't see those verses being interpreted any other way, and I am saddened that for so long we have used these verses meant to be inclusive to be exclusivist instead.

We've stood up for civil rights for people of color. We're standing up for rights for the GLBT community. How can we ignore the community of gerim toshvim in our midst and deny them their Torah-given rights?

The time has come that there shall be one law for us and the strangers who reside with us.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, June 15, 2009

Under the Weather-Calmer Seas Ahead

Apologies to all! A really severe chest cold has had me wiped out since just before last Shabbat until--well, I'm still not out of the woods yet, but better. Couldn't even remain in front of a computer screen long enough to create a coherent random musing. My creative juices have been flowing, however, so look for renewed vigor in my weekly Torah musings, and other random thoughts about life, the universe, and the number 42.

Adrian (aka -Migdalor Guy)

Friday, June 5, 2009

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Naso 5768 G"d's Roadies II

Last year, as I was thinking about parashat Naso, I imagined the Gershonite and Merarite clans in the role of "roadies" to the priests and the tabernacle. I wrote:

With apologies to all you "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans out there:
Aaron: Man, we need a roadie. Other religions have roadies.
Moses: Well, other religions know more than one G"d. Your professional religions can worship up to six, sometimes seven completely different G"ds.
Aaron: That's just, like, fruity, jazzy religions.

In this weeks parasha, Naso, we learn of the specific duties assigned to the Gershonite and Merarite clans, two specific sub-groups within the Levites. They are responsible only for  the disassembly and re-assembly of the tabernacle. In theatrical lingo, they do the "load-in" and  afterwards "strike the set." Just like real "techies" or "roadies" they just put it up and take it down - others among the Levites are responsible for the transportation of the parts of the tabernacle from place to place. Even then, they had Teamsters!

While others are transporting the tabernacle's parts, the Gershonites and Merarites simply serve to watch or guard over things. (In last week's parasha, Bamidbar, we learn that the other clan of the Levites besides the descendants of Aaron, the Kohathites, were responsible for the stuff inside the tabernacle - the altars, utensils, menorah, etc. We actually first learn of the duties of the Merarites and Gershonites in parashat Bamidbar as well, but in a more abbreviated form.)

It gets even more strictly defined than that. The Gershonites handle only the various fabric components of the tabernacle, along with the altar and its appurtenances. The Merarites are responsible for the various structural components - planks, bars, posts, sockets, pegs.

Having spent a good 25 of my life in the technical theater trade before starting to as a full-time Jewish professional, some of it even as a "roadie," I recognize and understand the division of labor. I also know how it can lead to strife, and though the Torah reports none, I can imagine there was.

The hierarchy is somewhat apparent. The headliner, is, of course, the Shekhina, who dwells within the Mishkan when it is set up. The supporting act is "The Priests." Then there's the rest of the crew-the roadies. God's electricians, sound techs, grips, carpenters (not to be confused with a certain specific carpenter, or the vocal duo.)

The humor one finds can serve to illustrate the division that come up between carpenters, deckhands, electricians, sound engineers, et al and so between those among the Levites assigned different tasks regarding the tabernacle . I'll take some typical jokes and rephrase them, substituting  for terms like electricians, stagehands, musicians, production managers, etc.

  • What do you call 20 Gershonites at the bottom of a lake? A good start.
  • How many Priests does it take to change a candle? Change?
  • Why do some Merarites carry 11 foot poles? Because none of the women will touch them with a 10 foot pole!
  • How many Merarites and Gershonites does it take to make a sacrifice to El? "Hey, we just set it up! You wanna sacrifice, get a  Priest!"

There's also a joke well known among stagehands, roadies, and other backstage types:

Q: What's the difference between a rigger and God? 
A:  God doesn't think he's a rigger.

Rewritten, it could be:
Q: What's the difference between a Priest and G"d?
A: G"d doesn't think he's a Priest!

Another thought: if we are to be a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation" then who is gonna do the hard labor? Why'd the Gershonites and Merarites get stuck being the roadies? when we become and entire nation of priests, will the Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites become the same? If so, then who do we get to be the roadies? Some goyim?

In any case, one wonders why, once again, G"d is being such a micro-manager, instructing (at least, according to how Moses tells it) Moses to tell the various Levitical clans their specific duties regarding the assembly, disassembly and transportation of the tabernacle. It certainly seems that G"d has been very specific about a lot of things related to the tabernacle, the mishkan, the clothing of Aaron and his sons (I.e. the priests.)  I can understand some specificity regarding how things are made, but what's the difference who does what?

There's also something else missing in this analogy. There's no equivalent of a "local crew." They weren't exactly playing the big towns, so I guess the whole thing had to be self-contained. Or was it? Did they pick up local help along the way? Somehow, I can't imagine some Amalekites signing on as local setup crews. Then again, a gig is a gig. Clearly, there was fraternization going on with the locals as the Israelites made their circuitous way through the wilderness. Also, here's a question to ponder. where there are acts and roadies, there are groupies. Where are the groupies? If there were groupies, you can be sure the roadies were taking full advantage of their fascination to lure them into extra-curricular activities. Maybe that's how the whole Cozbi and Zimri thing that Pinchas caught happened.

I'm not sure of the answer, but while searching for one, I came upon something else interesting in a piece of Hebrew found in the endcap of these verses, at the end of chapter four. We learn that the total of all the Levite clans were 8,580 (males between 30 and 50.) We read that they come to do the work of the work of the work, or more idiomatically, the work of the service of the service - l'avod avodat avodah. Just what is a "service of the service" ?

Following the interpretation of some of the rabbinical sages, the JPS renders the text "duties of service and porterage," dividing between the labors required to transport the tabernacle, and the labors required when the tabernacle was up and functioning. This is based on Ibn Ezra's interpretation which refers to an earlier description in the parasha of the Gershonite labors as being "carrying" and "serving."

A problem arises, however, for the medieval philosophers. The "carrying" part ceases to be necessary once the people have come into the land and the Temple is set up. (We modern liberal Jews might smirk and observe that maybe the whole point was that we were never intended to have a central place of worship anyway. It's a valid point just as well.)

Rashi, however, takes us off in a  different direction. Rashi believes that the "service of a service" refers to something that later became a responsibility of the Levitical clans during the times of the Temple - the shirah, or music. The music truly does "service the service." It is the accompaniment to the sacrifices. In our own time, it is the accompaniment to the sacrifices of our lips.

This next paragraph is still timely, even a year later:

How appropriate, having attended the annual Hava Nashira Songleaders Workshop last week to this week discover that the musical work I do truly is Torah, truly, "avodat avodah."

Now, if I could only have my own roadies.

I've actually done a little bit of theatre again this year. I recently did lighting for a local production of "Falsettos."  Though a community theatre production, it was presented in a union house, so if you harken back to the section above that talks about specific division of responsibilities, you'll get a feel for what that can be like.
Just these past few days I've been arranging some lighting at Abigail's elementary school auditorium so the kids in the 3rd grade musical next week, "Stone Soup" will be nice and visible to all who attend. I've definitely noticed the effects of age, and now, more than ever, I could use those roadies. Any Gershonites or Merarites around anywhere?
Shabbat Shalom,
©2009, portions ©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester
The original "Buffy" quote reads:

Devon: Man, we need a roadie. Other bands have roadies.
Oz: Well, other bands know more than three chords. Your professional bands can play up to six, sometimes seven completely different chords.
Devon: That's just, like, fruity jazz bands.

Adrian A. Durlester
Jewish Educator, Jewish Musician, Jewish Blogger, and more
Theatrical Production Generalist-Management, Design
Pianist/Musical Director/Arranger/Parodist/Piano Instructor, :, :
cell: 703-898-7206
twitter: migdalorguy

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Equal Rights to Rites For All

This one is going to make me widely unpopular, but for too long I've avoided taking it on.

I'm thrilled to death that synagogues (and churches, et al) are championing important causes like gay marriage, issues of the transgender community, and GLBT issues in general (not to mention plain old civil rights for all people of color-though I'm not sure synagogues measure up in this regard as much as they believe they do.) The Jewish community has worked long and hard to enfranchise as many as possible. Barriers for women, already falling (if not yet completely gone) in the liberal Jewish community, are even starting to fall in the orthodox world.

Yet one group of people in our community remain singularly disenfranchised, particularly in matters of ritual. These are the so-called "gerim toshvim." A pluralized form of the term, "ger toshav," it is a term describing those who live within and integrate into the Jewish community but are not Jewish. In modern terms, these are people who maintain Jewish homes, are raising their children as Jews, etc.

Now, I've heard all the arguments about why non-Jews should not participate in particular prayers or rituals. Primarily, it's a matter of someone saying a prayer or blessing in which one professes something that is particularly covenantal, specific to the Jewish covenant. There was a time in my life when I accepted those arguments. I can accept them no more.

"Well, why don't these people just convert?" is the oft asked question. Well, other than in the midrashic inventions of some, can it really be derived from the text that even Ruth "converted" per se? I can think of countless personal and/or practical reasons why a ger toshav might not choose to become a convert.

With the many Jewish paths that now exist, each of them defining covenant and covenantal relationships in different ways, can we really insist on some sort of absurd standard as covenant/brit? There are plenty of Jews who are considered part of the covenant by one stream of Judaism and not another. Yet the more liberal streams, fearful of forever cutting themselves off from the traditional streams just won't make that last leap of faith into the abyss of totally involving the ger toshav at a ritual level. (there's an increasing self-deception in liberal Jewish circles that this rift hasn't really happened already. Wake up and smell the coffee. There IS more than one type of Judaism being practiced today-and that was true in the past as well. Remember karaitism?)

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck..." Too many actively involved gerim toshvim in our community are made second-class members of the community-prevented from participating in some of the most meaningful of ritual moments in their lives and the lives of their family. It's wrong. It's disenfranchising. (Oho, I hear you cry-but they aren't part of the franchise since they haven't converted. Hmmm-isn't this the same argument being used harmfully against so many immigrants of questionable or illegal status and that so many in the Jewish community are decrying?  For years here in Amherst, people have tried to get the State legislature to allow the Town to permit resident aliens to vote in Town elections-precisely because they are impacted by them. I see the situation within the Jewish community pretty much the same. The gerim toshvim are affected by community decisions, and should have a right to participate in them. If they are this much a part of the community, how can we deny them the chance to hold a Torah or say certain blessings?

Sometimes, this little bit of exclusion can be viewed as a punishment-and worse yet, it's viewed as a punishment by someone who has Jewish bona fides. Horrors-a member of the tribe fell in love with someone from outside the tribe and married them. It's the end of the Jewish people, the end of the world. No, it's not. It's reality, and it has been happening from the beginning of Jewish existence.

We all know too well the realities of non-Jewish spouses/partners who are often more engaged and active than the Jewish spouse/partner. Every time we deny the non-Jewish partner a ritual opportunity, we twist the knife of punishment not only into the ger toshav, but even deeper into the Jewish partner. We Jews do guilt so well.

Oh, I can hear the arguments already. Choices were made. We have to live with the consequences of our choices.  Really? Then why are there such things as recall elections? Why are laws that once prohibited gay marriage now being changed?  Why are once disenfranchised minorities now enfranchised? However, you argue, being black, or gay, etc. is not a choice! They must have their rights protected. Is falling in love with a non-Jew any different?

It's hard to be a Jew. It's a burden. Yet we make sharing the load really hard by making conversion difficult. Then, to make matters worse, we refuse the assistance of the gerim toshvim in shouldering the load. Seems to me that if we are to succeed in tikkun olam, we need all the people we can participating with us.

My female domestic partner (and don't get me started on the whole question of rights for hetero-sexual male-female domestic partnerships who may choose not to pursue the marriage path for whatever reasons) is Jewish. Her child's father is not, but is an active part in raising her Jewishly. My second wife was Jewish, though she had one child whose father was not. My first wife was not Jewish when we married, but was a ger toshav from day one, and later converted totally of her own volition and free choice. Prior to her conversion, as her family was not that accepting of her choice, and we didn't have children, we never, as a couple, encountered some of these ritual walls that the ger toshav experiences. I can't speak for her on how it felt to be excluded from certain rituals while truly living as immersed in a Jewish life as possible or whether  she believes conversion is the best choice. I can tell you that I would not be the active Jewish professional I am today if not for her influence at bringing me to me own tradition.

I would never ask any non-Jew to say ritual words, or perform ritual acts that they did not fully comprehend, and with which they were comfortable. Yet, if they are willing to do so with full knowledge and understanding, and if they are truly a ger toshav, I believe we should let them participate.

Who are the real "lanu" in "asher bakhar banu mikol..." and "asher natan lanu Torat emet?" How can you say that those living with us, living like us, are not part of us? The liberal movements chafe at the idea of chosen-ness, some even going so far as to remove such words from their ritual prayers. Yet in this one area they have no problem saying "sorry, you're not one of the chosen." Who are we to determine whom G*d chooses? Who are we to question those who say they feel that they feel chosen, even convenanted, even if they haven't engaged in  a human-created/defined ritual that determines the state of chosen-ness?

We pray that a day will come when all will know that G*d is One. There are people knocking on the door now. We'll let them in, after closing the door in their face a few times. Others have decided not to wait for the door to be opened to them, and have come right in and made themselves at home.  They are a part of us. Give them their equal right to rites!