Friday, March 30, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5772–Not Passive

Some years back, in a musing entitled Dysfunction Junction I wrote about these words for the prophet Malachi which are near the end of the haftarah reading for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover:

וְהֵשִׁ֤יב לֵב־אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל־אֲבוֹתָ֑ם פֶּן־אָב֕וֹא וְהִכֵּיתִ֥י אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ חֵֽרֶם׃

3:24 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

I wrote:

Pesach is almost here. Soon many of us will gather with our families for a Seder. While this can be a most positive and loving experience for some, let's face it--for many, it will be yet another dysfunctional family get-together. Tensions. Bickering. Fighting. Frustrations.

When faced with such a situation, we might do well to recall the words of Malachi. They say that any one of us could be moshiach. Yet another among many good reasons to treat each other will respect and honor at all times. Maybe, when confronted with our alienated parents, or our alienated children, we can try to act as we are told Eliyahu HaNavi will act, and seek to bring about reconciliation. Try to turn the hearts of parents to children, and children to parents. Who knows. Maybe Moshiach will come. And even if the messiah may tarry, we can continue to eagerly await the coming of the messiah every day.

At the time, I was writing from the perspective of only one possible translation of the Hebrew text. However, the Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous largely depending on how one chooses to translate the Hebrew preposition “al.”

As Michael Fishbane points out in the JPS Haftarah Commentary, how one chooses to translate “al” subtly changes the meaning of the verse. It could mean that reconciliation between parents and children will hold off G”d’s stern judgment, or it could mean that parents and children together will be returned to a right relationship with G”d.

Why does this matter? I have some thoughts on this. Over the millennia, Jewish and Christian thought on the time of judgment/end times or whatever you choose to call it have diverged. Or so we believe. Non-Christians often have a very over-simplified understanding of Christian theology, that can be summed up in “believe in Christ and all is forgiven.” While I admit this is a gross over-simplification, there is a grain of truth to this understanding. I would link this understanding to the second way of looking at Malacha 3:24 – that parents and children will be redeemed together.

Often seeking to distance our philosophies from Christianity, we Jews often choose subtle differences in translation and understanding.  Understanding that the reconciliation of parents and children is a necessary precursor to the coming of olam haba, the world yet to come has become, over time, a very Jewish way of looking at the world.  It is not enough to profess a belief in a specific manifestation of the Deity. Rightful action on the part of human beings is not just the right thing to do, it is necessary to bring about the coming of olam haba. Reconciliation between parents and children is necessary for there to be reconciliation between the people and G”d.

But wait-there’s a problem here. I’ve conveniently taken verse 3:24 by itself without referencing the context-in particular the preceding verse:

      הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם יְהוָ֔ה הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

3:23 Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the L”rd.

If you go back and look at the translation of 3:24 at the beginning, you’ll notice it begins with the word  He. That’s not the JPS translation. They render it as:

3:24 And he will reconcile parents with children and children with parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike down the whole land with utter destruction

Notice the “he” uses a lower case h. This clearly indicates the JPS translators want to be sure that everyone understands that the “he” was Elijah, and not “He” meaning G”d. The translation I used is a little more ambiguous.

So my idea that the voluntary and deliberate reconciliation of parents and children is necessary now seems suspect. After all, it is Elijah who is bringing this about. Of course, this all depends on how you view Elijah. Is Elijah a surrogate for G”d with some limited powers to bring about this reconciliation, or is Elijah simply a prophet who, with words and exhortations, will bring about this parent-child reconciliation and thus forestall G”d’s wrath?

I’d posit that a more typical modern liberal Jewish understanding would be the latter. This still requires human beings to do the actual reconciling. Neither G”d nor Elijah will magically cause parents and children to reconcile. There’s nothing passive here. It must still be our choice. G”d wants us to make that choice, the right choice, and sends us Elijah to guide and goad us into the righteous choice, but it remains our choice nevertheless.

Oh, how much easier it might to believe that this reconciliation between parents and children, which will lead to the ultimate reconciliation, between people and G”d, will come about through G”d’s effort. To believe that parents and children together will be reconciled to each other and to G”d with little effort on their part, simply through G”d’s grace. Yes, that’s a nice G”d to believe it, but it leaves us off the hook. This I do not, can not believe.

G”d may not have yet sent us Elijah, yet my faith tells me to not wait, to begin the process of reconciliation now, each and every day. Certainly at Passover and other stressful times spent with family.

If this haftarah, if our Torah, if all of Judaism teaches me nothing else, it teaches me to not sit around and wait for goodness and righteousness to happen. The rabbis had this much right – if we work each and every day doing righteous things, we can maybe hasten the coming of moshiakh, or, if you choose, the messianic age, the olam haba. One hundred blessings every day. Not standing idly by while neighbors bleed. Reconciling with parents and children. 613 and more ways to do the right thing.

As I wrote in closing Dysfunction Junction”

Believe with perfect faith that you can turn the hearts of parents to children and children to parents. And then labor to make it so.

Have a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012, portions ©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Tzav (Purim) 5771 - A Purim Ditty
Tzav 5769 - Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav 5768 - Jeremiah's solution (Updated from 5761)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5766 - Dysfunction Junction
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5764-Two Way Street
Tzav 5763 - Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah's Solution

Friday, March 23, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayikra 5772 - Confession: Not Just for Catholics

Before I go on to this week's parasha, I want to make note of the fact that this is the National Day (Shabbat) of Unplugging. I won't be participating, out of deliberate choice. I wrote about this in February for parashat Yitro in my musing Why I Won't Be Unplugging on the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging. Just this week, Rabbi Laura Baum, of, the online humanist congregation that does online streaming services,blogged on the same subject, and I'd like to call it to your attention as well. She suggests, as an alternative, a "National Day of Meaningful Plugging." While you're at it, you might want to give their online services a look. I'm not a secular humanist, so their services aren't my cup of tea, however, I applaud what they're trying to do and think that anyone seriously interested in the future of Judaism ought to check out their model. Their online service is short, so you can take it in and still get to services elsewhere. Also, to be fair, if Reboot's Sabbath Manifesto and the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging interests you, here's the link: While I no longer endorse the idea, I feel obligated to allow them to make their case to you as I have made mine.

All that being said, I want to turn to our parasha. Yes, here we are in Vayikra/Leviticus. Fun, fun, fun. Not. Yet I have discovered over the years that Vayikra can be mined to reveal some very precious nuggets. It is also a good candidate for close and careful reading in the original Hebrew, which can often cause one to question or challenge the various English translations that abound. Close reading, and especially the ability to read and parse the original Hebrew can reveal all sorts of subtleties, quandaries, and just plain head-scratchers.

Parashat Vayikra is about sacrifices, plain and simple. When and where expiation is needed, and how to make expiation. In reading it yet again this year, I was struck by how it really does seem to set the stage for the rabbinic methodologies. Many of us, myself included, rant and rave about how the rabbis of the Mishna/Genara/Talmud/Midrash seem to revel in beating a subject to death, by exploring every possible "what if" scenario. A good look at Vayikra reveals that this tendency was in place long before the rabbis. Whatever you believe may be the source/origin of the Torah, there's plenty of evidence here that this source was inclined to try and be as complete, thorough, and inclusive (in a "what if" sense) as possible. Why else would the text be concerned with providing for alternative sacrifices based on socio-economic status? In this and in so many other places, the text attempts to cover all the possibilities. Deliberate sins. Inadvertent sins. Sins you knew about, then forgot, then realized you had committed.

It's this last scenario that caught my attention. There are a number of times the texts mentions people coming to realize they had sinned - brought to their attention by others or by accusation, or raised by discoveries (thefts, injuries, and the like.) Yet only in one small section does the text discuss self-realization and confession. In chapter 5, verse 5 we read:

וְהָיָ֥ה כִֽי־יֶאְשַׁ֖ם לְאַחַ֣ת מֵאֵ֑לֶּה וְהִ֨תְוַדָּ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָטָ֖א עָלֶֽיהָ׃
5. when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess wherein he has sinned. (JPS)

These are private sins. Sins which may have never been revealed if the person who committed them did not confess them. Yes, v'hit'vadah can be fairly translated as "he shall confess." The question occurs to me, "confess to whom?" To himself? To G"d? To the priests? To others? I guess the very act of making expiation reveals that he is admitting to a sin.

This verse is debated by scholars. While many accept the translation "he shall confess" other argue that the proper translation is "and he confessed." It all boils down to the use of the vav prefix. In Hebrew, it can be a simple conjunctive, and. It can also be a "reversing vav" which alters the tense of the verb from perfect to imperfect or vice versa. In the JPS Commentary to Leviticus, Baruch Levine argues that here the vav is simply indicative rather than tense reversing, and therefore not stipulating a requirement. So, oddly enough, in the commentary, the JPS-selected editor is taking exception to the translation of the JPS translation committee!

5. when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, and has confessed wherein he has sinned... (JPS)

Once again we ask "confessed to whom?" Only this time it makes more of a difference. If the confession is to himself, or to G"d, the matter remains private. If the confession is to another, the committed sin is no longer private. Does it make a difference? I'm not sure. For those who seek to create a system that is clear and unambiguous, it matters. The question is whether the Torah here is requiring the person to confess, or is the confession merely an act after which the Torah is requiring the person to make the appropriate expiation. As to contemporary relevance, one need only think of making expiation in terms other than that of ritual sacrifice. That's certainly a well-established rabbinic, post-Temple understanding. So understanding this fine point can matter just as much to us today.

The fifth step of twelve-step programs, "admitted to G"d, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs" is more likely founded upon the Christian understandings of AA's progenitor, the Oxford Group. It is clear that this step requires confession to at least one other human being. That still allows the confession to be relatively private, because one need only share it with a sponsor, or perhaps a therapist, or friend, people who are bound, legally, ethically, or morally, to uphold the confidentiality of the confession. How does this fit into Judaism? It is certainly clear that Yom Kippur, indeed the entirety of the Days of Awe contain an element of confession, and, in the Viddui prayer, a rather public, if generic one, at that. So it would seem that the rabbis believed that confession of sins did require the element of being made known to another. The rabbinic vote is in favor of the "he shall confess" translation of v'hit'vadah.

The verb v'hit'vadah appears only twice in our sacred texts. It seems to me this reinforces Levine's position that confession was not the focus of verse 5. Rather, verse five simply pushes itself and all the verses that preceded it in chapter five to the acts of expiation spelled out in verse 6. Levine's position is that confession is mentioned in verse five simply because unlike the many other situations described elsewhere in Leviticus, this is a case of a personal desire to be morally and ethically pure, and thus to confess to one's sins once they had been recognized as such.

This, unfortunately, leads us to another Hebrew oddity of these verses.  Chapter 5, verses 2,3 and 4 all contain the words

וְנֶעְלַ֣ם מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְה֥וּא יָדַ֖ע וְאָשֵֽׁם
...and the fact had escaped him, and he (later) realizes his guilt

A more literal translation of 'v'ne'lam mimenu might be "it was concealed from him."  So what we have here is someone who commits a sin, forgets about it, and then later recalls having committed the sin? Again Levine attempts to explain:

"...guilt is not a function of awareness; it is a function of committing an act or failing to commit one..."
Levine, B. A. (1989). Leviticus. The JPS Torah commentary (27). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

These are not inadvertent sins. The offending party was knowledgeable of their sin, but chose to ignore it at the time and then forgot about it. The desire to be a good human being forces self-realization. It was never a question of whether the offender was perhaps arguing a matter of interpretation. Sin is sin, acknowledged or not.

This seems to me to be a rather common state of affairs for human beings. We regularly and daily commit acts which we know at the time to be sinful. Sometimes we then (conveniently?) forget what we have done. We should be possessed of an inner moral compass that forces us to confront our sins, confess to them, and make appropriate expiation for them. Sadly, that is not all that common a behavior. We just let the sins pile up. True, we have the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur to reflect upon our sins, and to admit them. Is this once-a-year confession enough?

I find chapter 5 teaching me we must not depend on a one-time or annual inventory of our sins. Instead, we must remain constantly aware of our deeds, and recognize our sins of commission and omission. (Twelve-Step groups recognize this and canonize it in the 10th step of continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting our wrongs.) Constant self-scrutiny is recommended.

It's unclear to me if the Torah is assuming that sinners will always eventually come to realize their sin, though it is clear to me that Torah says that guilt is not dependent on self-realization. A sin is a sin is a sin. This is especially important for those of us liberal Jews who make choices. We cannot wantonly disregard commandments. We must have clear and reasoned arguments for choosing or failing to do something that is traditionally understood as required. We must be comfortable with our choice to declare some action or inaction to not be a sin. We cannot play the "v'ne'lam" game, pleading that we didn't know, that it was concealed from us. Nevertheless, we must not allow ourselves to believe that our Judaism, because it chooses to reinterpret, modify, change, even ignore traditional understandings, is somehow less authentic. However, to make this claim, we must be knowledgeable. We must study and learn, we must argue and reason. We must struggle. And when we do commit a sin, a wrong, we must recognize it, and seek to determine what appropriate expiation might be for it in our modern context.

Reading parashat Vayikra, and all of Leviticus, we must seek to understand how the concepts of sin, expiation, and sacrifice fit into our lives, our world. It is not enough to say, as does one of the four children in the story from the Passover Haggadah, the one we call rashah, what is this to you (us?) It is everything. It is Torah. It is in our heads, mouths, hearts. Do not just idly ignore whole swaths of Torah for convenience. Struggle with them. You'll find the struggle worthwhile.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayikra 5771 - I'd Like To Bring To Your Attention...
Vayikra 5770 - You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 - Redux 5763 - Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That's Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 - Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah...


Friday, March 16, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel-Pekude 5772–Vocational Ed

Vocational Ed (An Update of 5758/61's Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.)

A forward-thinking and creative Jewish professional, Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper, is engaged in a project to help create a new kind of Jewish high school, one that could be considered, in the old parlance, vocational, in orientation. The project, a winning entry in the 2011 Jewish Futures Competition, is called "Yadaim, the Academy of Applied Academics."

In the project description, she wrote:

The North American Jewish community has, perhaps, an especially challenging time accepting the shift from consumer to producers and creators, because it requires that we let go of long held stereotypes of who we are and what is valued within our community. We are proud of our academic and intellectual achievements but to the point of dismissing other ways of engaging in the world. It is high time that we challenge the implicit classism within our Jewish community, which values intellectual activity and demeans other forms of creativity. In claiming this shift, we will finally allow all members of the Jewish community to be productive and essential, and not only those with intellectual prowess.

These words ring so true to me, and describe my own experience. (To give credit where it is due, my parents were always supportive of my career choices, even when I decided to be a musician, then a technical theater/theater production generalist, and eventually, a Jewish educator.)  Vocational education has gotten a bad rap. It has also become a pawn in the crisis of socio-economic economic disparity that pervades this country. It is often viewed as education for those who just aren't good enough or smart enough for college. When did plying a skilled trade become something we value less in our society? When did it become something less valued in the Jewish community?

This project, and all the attendant questions, attitudes, etc. attached to it brought to mind words I had written on this in 1998 and updated in 2001 in a musing for parashat Vayakhel/Pekude entitled "Craftsman. Artisan. Artist." This seems the perfect opportunity to again reflect on those words, and add some new thoughts.

Random Musings Before Shabbat - Vayekhel/Pekude 5758

Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.

In our modern American society, we seek to very carefully define lines between what we perceive as "true creativity" and simply "skills."  I find this a sad state of affairs.

We have become a nation of specialists (and I, and my fellow generalists have become the "odd man out" as a result.) Artists create, artisans and craftsman do. Teachers teach. Designers imagine, engineers make real. And work is just work.

[2001 addition] Since I first wrote this musing in 1998 I have also become a full-time teacher in a Jewish Day School. Every day and in every way at school I realize that teaching, no matter how people to try classify it and specialize it, is a truly generalistic profession in many ways. Still, even in education, specialists are generally preferred over generalists. (Of course, the fact that I am teaching Hebrew, Judaica and general music contributes to my overall feeling of "generalism.") [End 2001 Addition]

[2012 addition] And here I am back again teaching in a day school, though only music this time, after spending most of the intervening decade working as a synagogue supplemental school director. Anyone who has ever worked as a religious school director knows that the work requires one to be a bit of a generalist, a factotum. There' s no avoiding being hands on.

Is it not the intent with which we do the work we do that truly defines the artistry of our work? As it says in Ex 36:2 "everyone whose heart was stirred to do the work." The worker at the Saturn plant who can point with pride to a new car and say "I helped make that" has created what was, for him, a work of art. Can not the manager proudly point to the fruit of his efforts to increase productivity while still keeping employee satisfaction high and think of it as a work of art? For art is the work of the soul. Is that work any less an expression of the human soul than a sculpture, painting, musical composition? [2012: Might not thinking of all that we labor to do as a form of art change how we approach our work and our attitude about it - for the better? ] And what of the teacher? Their works of art are no less than human beings themselves! Is teaching technique or artistry? I know that in my own classroom, it's a little of both.

We are human, and our values, our emotions, our desires, hopes and dreams manifest themselves in all that we do. Even the most seemingly mundane things. Because when they are done or created, ultimately, for the greater glory of G"d, they are indeed true works of art.

And so it is that I wonder what the Torah means when it repeatedly uses verb forms that say "he did this" "he did that" (Ex. 36:10-39:26) in this parasha. Over 40 times. (And interspersed only a few times, a "they" and only once, Betzalel." Then, oddly, the last five p'sukim describing the labors (ex 39:27-31) all use "they.")

While the implication seems to be that "he" refers to Betzalel, I wonder if another interpretation is possible. That the "he" being referred to is Gd (we'll just avoid the whole gender issue here, ok?) That all those who labored, who did  so because there hearts were stirred, were just channeling creative energy from a higher source.

I have said many time in these musings, that when I play music at services, what comes through my fingers and from the keyboard is t'fila, and it often seems as though the inspiration comes from outside me. Need it be any different if I am teaching a class, typing a memo, someone is repairing a car engine, or cleaning floors, etc.?

The highbrows of this world want to create a separation between art and craft, between art and simple labor. If, indeed, only "high art" were sacred and everyday work profane would their argument might have merit. But so many of the little things we do, every day, are holy, because we are G"d's creations. The way Subway calls their employees "sandwich artists"  might be a gimmick, but there's more truth to that than may be obvious. [2012 addition: Throughout my life I have seen people perform the most seemingly mundane of tasks with incredible artistry. Perhaps it is even wrong of me to think of it as mundane. A plumber can wield his/her craft as artistically as any pianist. Industry has, to some extent, realized this. Working on an assembly line might, for some, be difficult to conceive of as being approached by the laborer with artistry. Some companies have learned how to structure their manufacturing processes to provide equal opportunity for both efficiency and pride of work. Those GE commercials in which the cancer survivors and the workers who created the medical machines that helped save them were brought together may be gimmicky. Their purpose may be more about making GE look good, but there's no denying that they hint at the concepts of respect for the works of others of which I am writing here.

[2012] The proposal for Yadaim speaks of how our society is being changed into one where people are not just consumers, but prosumers, people who actively participate in the creation of the world they experience. Technology, in large part, has made this more possible than ever. There is truth in the notion that technology, at least in the form of industry, has isolated us from the laboring, creative, and manufacturing of that which we consume. What a different world it might be, they suggest, if we only we each had to raise/plant, slaughter/harvest, and prepare the food we eat ourselves. While our latest technologies won't do very much to address this reality, they are once again giving us the power to be more than just consumers. Perhaps being prosumers in this way will also help us get back in touch with our roots, and, while we may not have to all grow our own food, we will have a stronger understanding of, connection to, and appreciation of such processes. It's a funny notion that using computers and the internet might actually bring us closer to our planet, but I, for one, am willing to consider it possible, perhaps even likely. [end 2102]

As G"d is joyous in all works. let us to be joyous in all our own works. And joyous in our appreciation of the creative work of others. Let each thing we labor to do be to us as a work of art, and may we see the same in all the works of others. Let us take the meaning of the word "art" away from the snobs, highbrows and effete of this world. [2012] Let us re-appropriate and rehabilitate the idea of vocational education, and remove from it the stigma it now carries. Let us embrace learning how to do work with the hands as much as we do work with the mind. That's something our ancestors would certainly understand. [end 2012]

[2012 addition;] Take the time to watch people at work, and seek to find their artistry. Watch the chef, the cook, the clerk, the cashier, the farmer, the civil servant, teacher, sanitation engineer, plumber, soldier, accountant, construction worker, the secretary, the athlete, the teacher, etc.  Yes even the doctor, lawyer, banker, trader, professor, astronaut, CEO, politician. It isn't hard to notice those who do their work motivated by seeking to add to the greater glory of the G"d of their understanding if you look for it. When you see it, encourage it, recognize it, and thank people for their artistry and their craftsmanship. Get on the bandwagon yourself, and learn to use the technology to be not just a consumer, but a producer and creator of what you experience. Encourage children and students to do the same, and help to create educational systems that make that possible - both in the secular and Jewish worlds. Let us all be, like Betzalel, craftsman, artisan, and artist. [end 2012]

And let us not forget that there is a time when the work, when our daily creation of art, must cease, as we heed the word of  Ex. 35:2

"Six days of the week  you may work, but on the seventh day you must keep a holy Shabbat of Shabbats to G"d."

(Some might argue that this means I should not be playing the keyboard at services on Shabbat. It's not m'lacha to me. It's t'fila.)

May your Shabbat be filled with light and joy. And your life with your works of art, and enjoyment and appreciation for the works of art and the craftsmanship of all others.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2012, 2001, and 1998 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Pekude/Shabbat Sh'kalim 5771 - Ideas Worth Re-Examining
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Ki Tissa 5772-Other G”d?


כִּ֛י לֹ֥א תִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה לְאֵ֣ל אַחֵ֑ר כִּ֤י יְהוָה֙ קַנָּ֣א שְׁמ֔וֹ אֵ֥ל קַנָּ֖א הֽוּא

For you must not worship any other god, because the L”rd, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned G”d.

Notice the lovely little orthological curiosity in the Hebrew text? The fifth word, akher, ends with what is called a resh rabbati, that is, an enlarged resh.

Somewhere along the line, it was determined that this resh be slightly enlarged lest people mistakenly read it as a dalet, making the word ekhad, one, rendering the text

For you must not worship one G”d . . .

Now, it is understandable that the rabbis, or the Masoretes, or the scribes (or Moshe, or G”d, if you believe that is the true direct source of the Torah) would be concerned that people do not read the word akher other, as ekhad, one. Monotheism (or at the very least, monolatry, is a central and core tenet of the Israelite religion, what has today become Judaism. Thus the resh ר became enlarged so it could not be confused with a dalet ד .

Considering the context, the concern seems less logical. vv. 11-13 have G”d stating that the inhabitants that stand between the Israelites and the promised land will be driven out, and when they are, the Israelites must

tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts

For the following verse to read “you must not worship one G”d” is contextually ridiculous.  So we must ask what were the true concerns of those who added the resh rabbati? Were they assuming that people might have a tendency to read the text literally and closely, in bits and pieces, with little regard for preceding, following, surrounding and even holistic context? Or were they cautioning against that with an obvious gesture? Perhaps they were recommending a close reading approach while at the same time recognizing the inherent dangers.

In defense of those who insisted on the enlarged resh, the phrase “l’El akher” is unique to this location in the Torah. It generally is found in a plural formation, elohim akheirim, other gods. Which raises the question of why here, in this one place, do we find the singular “other god?”

Could this be a hidden indicator of the true nascent monotheism (as opposed to monolatry) that was to be found in the ancient Israelite religion? It was not enough to say “you must not worship other gods” meaning that it’s ok to worship your gods.  It was necessary to say “you must not worship any other god except for G”d.” Yet we do not find this construction in the ten commandments or elsewhere in the Torah. It’s always the plural “other gods” except here. Polytheism being the normative order of the day, it (the plural “elohim akheirim”) could easily be misunderstood as giving permission to the Israelites to have and worship their own pantheon, but not the pantheon of other cultures.

Another clue as to why we find the singular here is the text that follows, naming G”d as Impassioned, and stating the G”d is impassioned. (The older translations used “jealous” which, for our purposes, might be more apt.) This is perhaps based upon G”d’s self description occurring earlier in the chapter (vv. 6-7) G”d is not going to be happy if the Israelites worship not just other gods, but worship ANY other god. Period. In the immediately following verses, we’re back to the plural formulations referring to “their gods.”

So far, I’ve managed to mostly skirt around the elephant in the room-the oft raised question of why the Torah refers to “other gods” in a matter-of-fact way. Is it simply a convenient literary device, is it monolatrism, or is it hinting at a nascent henotheistic philosophy.

As a simplistic explanation, monolatry says that there may be multiple gods, but only one of them is worthy of being worshipped. Henotheism posits one god to be worshipped, but that there may be other gods worthy of worship. A henotheist can choose from a pantheon of gods, and even change the god worshipped.  Monotheism says simply one G”d. Of course, in Judaism, one of the names for that One G”d is Elohim, a plural word!

Henotheism has a subtlety. In henotheism, there is the idea that a single god may take multiple forms (not only at different times, but at the same time.) With out typical modern hubris, we tend to think that henotheism is a relatively contemporary western idea, because it allows us to to believe that there is really only one G”d, yet worship that G”d in multiple deities. I think our ancestors beat us to that idea a long time ago. I’d suggest that our ancestors proceeded from polytheists, to henotheists, to monolatrists, to monotheists (though our modern monotheism has many elements of henotheism in it. Is it just a matter of semantics whether we say G”d, Allah, Father/Son/Holy Spirit, or do many believe, as I suspect, that these are different manifestations of the same G”d-an essentially henotheistic concept?)

Is the sole appearance of “El akhar” and the multiple appearances of “elohim akheirim” evidence that our ancestors struggled as we do with true monotheism? is the enlarged resh more evidence of this struggle?

That enlarged resh certainly keeps me from accidentally reading the words as ekhad. Yet it also draws my attention to the word akhar, other. It is calling my attention to the fact that another person may believe in and worship another god/G”d? It is telling me to be respectful of others and their other god/G”d, even as it warns me to not follow the ways of the other person, and to not worship the god/G”d of the other person?

All of this leads me to some final questions. If we are all human beings, all b’tzelem El”him, then is there ever really an other? What about in the case of gods/G”d? Can any god be an other god/G”d? Is there room in this universe for more than one god? How does that work? Do they have some sort of association that gets together and decides things? do they fight it out like the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse pantheon?

An atheist would use this to point out the absurdity of believing in a deity at all. Others might criticize this as asking pointless questions akin to asking the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Even within Judaism, we have those who criticize Qaballah citing the idea of sefirot as, at the very least, henotheistic.

Yes, it can be simpler to just have faith, to not ask all these questions. Just like the example of pessimist/optimist and the half-full/half-empty glass, we can view the resh rabbanit in 34:14 as a call to tow the monotheistic line, or a challenge to keep questioning. I choose the latter.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Ki Tisa 5771 - Still Waiting for the Fire
Ki Tisa 5770 - A Fickle Pickle
Ki Tisa 5768-Not So Easy? Not So Hard!
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5767-New Hearts and New Spirits
Ki Tisa/Shabbat Parah 5766-Fortune and Men's Eyes
Ki Tisa 5765-Re-Souling Ourselves
Ki Tisa 5764-A Musing on Power Vacuums
Ki Tisa 5763-Shabbat is a Verb
Ki Tisa 5762-Your Turn
Ki Tisa 5760-Anger Management
Ki Tisa 5761-The Lesson Plan


Friday, March 2, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Tetzaveh 5772-Perfection Imperfect

I’ve posited in my musings before this idea: that a G”d that cannot change its mind is no G”d.  The haftarah for Shabbat Zachor challenges this directly:

וְגַם֙ נֵ֣צַח יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א יְשַׁקֵּ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִנָּחֵ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֥א אָדָ֛ם ה֖וּא לְהִנָּחֵֽם׃

Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind. (Samuel 15:29)

I cannot tell you how many things wrong I find with that simple assertion, despite its source.

Yes, among modern theologies is the concept of a self-limited G”d (and that’s not such a new idea, when consider the Jewish idea of tzimtzum) yet I find it a rather preposterous notion that a G”d might self-limit itself from changing its own mind-at least without some kind of loophole. (If, indeed, G”d has self-limited, and that limitation includes an inability for G”d to change G”d’s mind, well then, on the one hand, I have a great deal of respect for the nobility of that limitation, yet simultaneously, incredulity at the sheer idiocy of so doing. I think it also takes a lot of hubris and ego for G”d to assume it is safe to self-limit to prevent mind-changing,as that assumes that G”d has so perfectly ordered the universe that there is never any chance that modification might be required. Now, I will admit that for some, everything that G”d has ever done, is doing, and will do, is perfect, and all part of some Divine plan which we cannot fathom. The whole idea of an ineffable G”d is appealing to those with an intense desire to whitewash all the inconsistencies which G”d presents to us. I am one who revels in the inconsistencies of the G”d of my understanding, and wholeheartedly believes that G”d must be capable of changing G”d’s mind. As one who reads much of the Torah as illustrating G”d’s learning curve (and G”d is not that good a student, frankly) I find that G”d can and does change G”d’s mind, and thank G”d for that!

Now back to the text in question. Once again, with all due respect to the illustrious and respected editors of the JPS Tanakh 1985/199 English translation, I think they’ve gone out on a limb to translate the Hebrew as they have. A more accurate rendering of the text might be:

Moreover, the Glory of Israel does not deceive or come to regret, for He is not a human that regrets

It’s a matter of semantics, but I think there’s a significant difference in saying that G”d does not change G”d’s mind and saying that G”d does not come to regret.

One does not have to come to regret things in order to know that they need changing. One does not have to come to regret things in order to change one’s mind about them. G”d may very well dispense with the notion of having regrets, or even of admitting to mistakes. G”d can still proceed to change G”d’s mind about something, and proceed to change things.

G”d doesn’t regret, G”d just does. If it works, fine, if it doesn’t, well then, time for Plan B. No need for regrets.

Yes, humans do regret. Sometimes, humans regret things too much. Other times, they don’t regret things enough. Is regret a weakness, that it is to be spurned by G”d? Of that I am not certain.

There was a great article on the Psychology Today blog a few years back. It’s author, Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D, started out this way:

When I give seminars at colleges and corporations, I ask if anyone has lived a life without regrets. If so, I ask them to raise their hand. More than 8 out of 10 people look me in the eye and with great pride, shoot their hands into the air. 80% of people living an entire life without any regrets. Either I am surrounded by the most mindful, compassionate communicators and problem-solvers in the world or what I am witnessing is how people are concerned about their public image. Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D, “We Are We Afraid of Having Regrets?,”

The author writes that regret serves a purpose – that it can motivate us to redress wrongs or mistakes we made, and help us make better decisions. That’s useful for humans and deities. The article also mentions that regrets are rarely found in children under the age of seven. Might that be true as well of an immature G”d?

Might we humans be projecting our own discomfort with having regrets, and the weaknesses that supposedly exposes, upon G”d? Kind of us, I suppose, to worry about G”d’s public image. Or manipulative. The Torah has a few examples of our successfully appealing to G”d’s vanity when it comes to G”d’s public image (and saving our own asses.)

Once again, I assert my belief in the converse of b’tzelem El”him, that G”d is perforce b’tzelem anashim – we are both – G”d and humankind – capable of the same range of emotions and beliefs, including regret, and changing our minds. The Torah doesn’t say we were created in the partial image of G”d. If we have it, G”d has it too!

If we look at the context of Samuel 15:29, it comes just after Samuel has told Saul that he has lost G”d’s favor and there is to be a new King. Samuel is telling Saul that G”d has made the decision to replace him and that it’s too late to change G”d’s mind. It’s a pronouncement just dripping with irony. G”d reluctantly gave Israel a king in the person of Saul, and now G”d is changing G”d’s mind and deciding to give the kingship to someone else, since Saul has proven unworthy. It’s a real razz to Saul – Samuel telling him that the G”d that made Saul king is now having a change of mind, and replacing Saul – but don’t you dare hope for a reprieve Saul, because once G”d has decided, G”d does not change G”d’s mind. Nyah, nyah.

Saul pleads for forgiveness, but none is forthcoming. Samuel then proceeds to kill Agag, King of Amalek, himself, completing the task which Saul has forsaken. What a lovely thought. G”d was upset with Saul because he didn’t slaughter every last Amalekite. Yeah, that’s a G”d I can love. Right.

Anyway, the whole “G’d doesn’t change G”d’s mind” or “regret” thing gets negated just a few verses further on, after the haftarah ends. The last verse of Samuel Chapter 15 reads:

וְלֹא־יָסַ֨ף שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל לִרְא֤וֹת אֶת־שָׁאוּל֙ עַד־י֣וֹם מוֹתֹ֔ו כִּֽי־הִתְאַבֵּ֥ל שְׁמוּאֵ֖ל אֶל־שָׁא֑וּל וַיהוָ֣ה נִחָ֔ם כִּֽי־הִמְלִ֥יךְ אֶת־שָׁא֖וּל עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Samuel never saw Saul again to the day of his death. But Samuel grieved over Saul, because the L”rd regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel. (Samuel 15:35)

Same verb root that in verse 29 they (the JPS editors) translated as “change His mind” is now translated as “regretted.”

So verse 35 makes a liar out of Samuel in verse 29! O what a tangled web we weave…

Now, truth be told, I knew before I went off on my little rant here in response to verse 29 that verse 35 said exactly the opposite. I learned a long time ago to always examine a broader context than just what’s presented in the parasha or haftarah reading.

G”d does regret. G”d does change G”d’s mind. G”d has more human characteristics than it is often convenient to attribute to G”d. Thus Samuel’s bold lie to Saul, a little sticking in the knife and twisting it. (Considering how easily Samuel the prophet dispatched Agag, King of the Amalekites in cold blood, it’s not surprising he could just as easily use wield words as a weapon against Saul.)

You gotta love it. Just six verses apart our holy text makes seemingly contradictory statements. Yet they may not be so. The latter example, in verse 35, is in the narrator’s voice. The statement that G”d does not change G”d’s mind in verse 29 is in Samuel’s voice. Is verse 35 there precisely as a corrective to Samuel's misstatement?

I see all of this as a reminder to be careful with our words. A reminder to Samuel to be careful what he says about or attributes to G”d even in anger. A reminder to all of us to listen and read closely. A reminder to all of us that when something feels wrong, it’s worth a closer look.

A perfect G”d, a G”d that does not or even has no need to have a change of mind is an idea that bears close examination. Very close examination. Happy examining.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Tetzaveh 5770 - A Nation of Priests? (And a Shtickel of Purim)
Tetzaveh 5768-Light and Perfection
Tetzaveh/Purim 5767-The Urim & Thummim Show (Updated)
Tetzaveh 5766-Silent Yet Present
Tetzaveh 5765 and 5761-Aharon's Bells
Tetzaveh 5764-Shut Up and Listen!
Tetzaveh 5763-House Guest
Tetzaveh 5762 (Redux 5760)-The Urim and Thummim Show
Tetzaveh 5758-Something Doesn't Smell Quite Right


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