Friday, October 25, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Hayyei Sarah 5774 - The Books of Hagar and Abishag

Our parasha, Hayyei Sarah, and its accompanying haftarah (from I Kings 1:1-31) present two very different examples of leaders in old age. Abraham works to insure his lineage. He first makes sure that Isaac marries into the extended clan, rather than “go native” by marrying a Canaanite. Then Abraham clearly designates Isaac as his successor, willing him all his property and inheritance.

David, on the other hand, seems to have lost control and awareness, giving in to the disabilities of his old age. He is so far gone down that path that the King who was once, for lack of a better term, a super stud, can’t even get it up for the most beautiful woman (and virgin) in the kingdom who is sent to comfort him.

[One has to wonder what Abishag the Shunnamite, made of all this. I’d love to give voice to her narrative. Chosen for the honor of serving and bedding King David, whose sexual reputation and appetite must have been of enormous proportions, she finds that not only is he not interested –or not capable – of having sex with her, but also that her ministering to him doesn’t seem to be all that helpful  (or appreciated?.) David remains, as I wrote about in a previous musing, Never Warm. Yet she is also present in the King’s chambers when Bathsheva comes to remind David of his promise to make Solomon his successor. Though the text is not explicit, she was also probably present for the remaining scenes of the haftarah, first when the prophet Nathan slyly admonishes David for his lack of awareness of Adoniyah’s political machinations. Then David summons Bathsheva again (there’s a little oddity in the text here, because you have to sort of read in between the lines to determine that Bathsheva must have been sent out while Nathan and David talked, and then summoned back. Or, one could read it as another sly dig at David’s poor mental state. The text tells us that Bathsheva was in the midst of talking to David when Nathan was announced. Nathan proceeds to tell David the very same news that Bathsheva had told him. David is finally provoked enough to come out of his state of ennui and promises to keep his oath to make Solomon his successor. Was David so out of it that he was unaware that Bathsheva was still in the room, and summoned her. The text doesn’t really support this, because it says, after David’s “Summon Bathsheva!” that she entered the King’s presence and stood before the King. But it could be that she just politely stayed in the background while Nathan was talking, and then stepped into David’s field of vision when summoned. In my mind I see a slight comparison between this scene and the one near the end of the musical “Man of La Mancha” when Sancho and Aldonza, comforting him on his death bed, get Alonso Quihano to once again assume the bearing of Don Quixote. Yes, I know I made this exact same reference in two previous musings, the above referenced Never Warm, and last year’s “Still Tilting at the Same Windmills.”) If, indeed, Abishag was in the room during all of this, one truly wonders what she was thinking. Perhaps there’s a new Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey lurking around here. (There was that short-lived NBC series, Kings, loosely based on the Davidic monarchy only with modern technology.) So now I’ve got two stories to write – that long promised work about the time after the Akedah which I believe that Isaac spent living with Hagar and Ishmael (which I hinted at in  Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't – Yet and Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishmael II), and now David’s last years through the eyes of Abishag. Anyone care to collaborate on either of these?]

Abraham really worked to keep things neat and orderly. He remained keenly aware. He played the merry dance needed to secure a burial place for Sarah. He made sure Isaac married into his tribe and inherited. The text describes both Abraham and David as very old (that is, in fact, the generally accepted linkage between the parasha and the haftarah) yet with very different realities in their old age. It’s implied, though not stated, that David may be largely responsible for his own physical and mental state. He could, perhaps, have chosen to be as alert and involved as Abraham. On the other hand, David’s state in old age may be a commentary on how he spent the earlier decades of his life engaging in questionable behaviors and activities.

If that’s the case, then what about Abraham? Where’s the critique for Abraham being so willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice? (Was Sarah’s death part of his punishment for that?) Where is the rapprochement between Abraham and Isaac? Yes, Abraham has his servant go and get a bride for Isaac. (Isaac repays the courtesy by bedding Rebekkah in Sarah’s tent!) Yet there’s no hint of dialog or communication between Abraham and Isaac at any time between the akedah and Abraham’s death. (Yet there is implied communication between Isaac and Ishmael, who both come back to bury their father. Isaac does not come to his mother’s burial. Perhaps a geographic reality, or perhaps there’s more to the story. We can only speculate. Much has been said about how Isaac might have felt towards his father for being willing to sacrifice him, but to explore how this may have affected Isaac’s relationship with Sarah involves creating all new midrash. Perhaps, one day, that will be part of my book on Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar.

So here we have them, Abraham and David, both imperfect men, both leaving a lasting impact on Judaism, indeed, upon the world. (The historical reality of their existence matters not – the impact of their stories is very real and tangible upon human history and Jewish history.) The story of Abraham’s last years are presented in a mostly positive light, whereas David’s later years, at least as portrayed in this haftarah, don’t seem so positive. However, if we read on in the text it gets….worse. While David does as promised, putting Solomon on the throne, and even sparing the life of Adoniyah, his last words (which I wrote about just a few weeks back when I wrote about Moshe’s last words in parashat Haazinu) instruct Solomon to take revenge. Yes, he says a few nice and important things about  rulers needing to be just, and follow G”d and G”d’s commandments. Then he tells Solomon to kill a few folks.

The story gets even more interesting after David’s death. Adoniyah comes to Bathsheva. He complains that rightfully he should be king, and asks her to go to Solomon with a strange request. He asks that Solomon allow him to take Abishag the Shunnamite as a wife. Bathsheva, surprisingly, does as Adoniyah ask. The request so enrages Solomon, that (yes, this great and wise King) orders Adoniyah killed. (For me, this is all the more reason to want to examine this whole saga from the perspective of Abishag.)

The biblical text certainly portrays Abraham and David very differently. Abraham had an orderly exit from life, David, not so much. Yet both men left behind them very troubled sons, and some questionable, even uncertain legacies. People are complicated, they really cannot be reduced to stereotypes. Torah and Tanakh are not entirely unique among ancient literature in their portrayal of human beings with warts and all. The Jewish sacred texts are perhaps less prone than some from ancient (and modern) times and civilizations to evoke stereotypes, even as prone as they are to utilize metaphor. The Jewish texts even portray, to some degree, G”d as complicated and imperfect, though perhaps less so, and in a less whimsical way than, say the Greek legends of the gods, where anthropomorphism abounds.

What’s the take away? I’m not entirely sure. Abraham works to secure an orderly succession. Works in the short term, until Isaac proves to be (surprise-not!) less than an optimal parent, and passes this same tendency on to the next generations as well. David causes a messy transition, and this results, for a short time, in a  relatively positive state of things for the Kingdom under the rule of Solomon, Yet even Solomon’s wisdom is not enough to prevent the dissolution of the united Monarchy. So perhaps one take away for me from this is not unlike a lesson I often talk about in reference to parenting. You can be a perfect parent and still raise a child who grows up to be a monster, and you can be a truly lacking parent who raises a child who grows up to be a true hero. Humans plan, G”d laughs. So maybe we shouldn’t get too hung up on things, and especially on judging ourselves.

Sigh. There is so much more I want to write. More about Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar. More about how Abishag might have viewed all that happened around her. I’ve dabbled in this sort of speculative midrash before. I’ve written brief extracts from the “Journal of Lot” and “Moshe’s Diary.” These seem comparatively easy compared to the task of imagining the aforementioned situations.

Maybe I should have a contest, and ask my readers to suggest opening lines for these two potential books. I’ve already imagined snatches of dialog and scenes from these two potential works. Perhaps all that’s stopping me from truly starting on them is my own ennui. So my task this Shabbat is to spur myself to action, to really start on these two projects, one of which I have been teasing my readers about for years, and another freshly borne from what I wrote for this week’s musing.

“Abishag never thought of herself as pretty. There was no shortage of beautiful women in her town, Shunam, or, for that matter, in all the valley of Jezreel. Why then was it that she was the one who seemed to catch the eye of every passing man?”

“Ishmael lifted his eyes up from the bowl of stew and peered out of the tent, the stirred up dust having caught his eye. He strained hard to discern the image of the traveler headed towards them on the road, but could not see clearly. “There’s something familiar about that walk” he thought to himself, as he stood and headed out to greet the traveler.”

Neither of them great opening lines, but they’re a start.

Maybe, just maybe, my writings spur you to think about things. Maybe you have some thoughts and insights on a midrashic story from Abishag’s viewpoint, or for telling the story of the time, after his father tried to sacrifice him to G”d, a troubled Isaac went off to live with his Ishmael and Hagar. I’d truly love to hear them. Help me tell these stories, just aching to be written.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musing on this parasha:

Hayyei Sarah 5773 - Still Tilting at Windmills
Hayyei Sarah 5772 - Zikhnah
Hayyei Sarah 5771 - The Book That Isn't - Yet
Hayyei Sarah 5770 - Call Me Ishamel II
Hayyei Sarah 5769 - Looking for Clues
Hayyei Sarah 5768 - A High Price
Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles
Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
Hayyei Sarah 5760 - Call Me Ishmael
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't


Friday, October 18, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayeira 5774–Plainly Spoken (Redux & Revised from 5762)

"No, I didn't."

It's so easy to say, and it's almost instinctual. When caught in the act, when caught in a lie, when we're scared to admit the truth, it's an automatic response.

Big deal. So, faced with an awkward moment, our tendency is to dissemble. It's an ancient and honored tradition that started with Chava and continued with Cain and on down the Sarah.

Abraham lied and got caught at it, and yet, in this parasha, he repeats the lie and gets caught at it again. Boy are we a stubborn creation.

It's often said that nothing is in the Torah by accident. So what are we to make of the brief incident of Sarah lying that she did not laugh, and the brief and to the point rebuke she received (either from Abraham, or from G”d, the text isn't really clear on that point, is it?)

Let's review. Abraham, good soul that he is, welcomes G”d's messengers into his tent, and is told that Sarah is to have a baby. Sarah overhears and laughs, incredulous, as she says, as I am old and withered, am I to have such delight with my husband, also so old? (One has to wonder if the plain meaning of delight here is sexual, or if it is really referring to the delight of having a child. But then, childbirth is painful, a punishment inflicted upon all women for Chava's error of judgment in gan eden.) Then G”d asks Abraham "why did Sarah laugh?" Then Sarah lied and said I did not laugh. The response, said either by Gd or by Abraham is simply "lo, ki tzakhak't" (no, you did laugh.) All of which raises the question, why did G”d ask Abraham the question, and not Sarah directly?  Why, then, did Sarah, and not Abraham, answer G”d? Holy enigmas, Batman!

"No, I didn't."
”Yes, you did.”

And that's it. End of story. No further rebuke from G”d, no comment, no anything. The story just moves on.

What are we to make of that? Is this telling us that the incident was insignificant? That Sarah's brief bit of dissembling was inconsequential? Then why is it even there in the text?

Might it be a subtle reminder to all us humans, prone as we are to dissemble in times of fear, stress, discomfort or embarrassment, that there is never any excuse for lying? Might it be the opposite-a reminder that we are imperfect, and that sometimes we have to just forgive ourselves for that?

Or, maybe this little irony. In this parasha and a previous one, we see Abraham lie. Both times, while he's caught at it, and chastised for it, it's not Abraham that is punished for it, and it's G”d that puts things to right preventing the lie from causing greater harm than Abraham realized it might. And now we have Sarah, too, lying in front of Gd. If we read it as Abraham rebuking her with "no, you did lie" then there is great irony, or similarity of character flaws (both lied out of fear.) If we read it as G”d rebuking her with "you did lie" but taking no further action, and still giving Sarah a son, might it be that G”d was treating Sarah as G”d treated Abraham, annoyed with the lie, but forgiving it and still setting things right?

But whoa, you say. Sarah lied in front of G”d! That's a big deal, isn't it!

I wonder. Might this be the real lesson of the text-that it doesn't matter whether you lie to G”d or to a fellow human being, it's still a lie? Is this the essence of this simple piece of text?

Might the abrupt end of this exchange be G”d's double-take? After all, G”d, and G”d's messengers, are about to head out to Sodom and Gomorrah and make and end of them because of their wickedness, which surely includes lying. Might this unwritten, awkward moment of silence that probably came after "lo, ki tzakhak't" be an internal shudder by G”d? Here's G”d, bestowing great honors and favors upon Abraham and Sarah and about to bestow even more in 9 months. G”d has stopped on the way to offer a fiery and total rebuke to the liars and scoundrels of Sodom and Gomorrah. Stopped to chat with the two people G”d knows and loves and is trying to inculcate a sense of rightful behavior in, and has seen glimmers of success (as in Abraham, hospitality). And then Sarah lies. Could G”d then have had this brief internal flash of regret, of frustration, before the hurriedly moving on to deal with Sodom and Gomorrah before getting angry with Sarah?

If you'll forgive me for saying this, if I were in G”d's shoes, I'd be a bit frustrated by that too. Could it even be that Sarah’s lie is what sealed the deal for Sodom and Gomorrah? Did she add to G”d’s frustration and perhaps prevent G”d from reconsidering? We’ll never know, so is there any point to such speculation?

This is all mere conjecture. Reading meaning out of the text, exegesis. and reading meaning into the text, eisegesis.

"No, I didn't laugh." "Yes, you did laugh." Or more directly, “Yes, you lied.” A simple enough exchange, with nothing more added. Yet layered with levels upon levels of possible meaning and interpretation.

The author of Torah must be pleased, that so simple a thing can so tie us up in knots, and give us countless ways to interpret and derive meaning. How clever. And how grateful we should be to that author for it all.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2013, portions ©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayera 5773 - Do Your Own Unpacking
Vayera 5772 - Well?
Vayera 5771 - Density
Vayera 5770 - Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 - He's a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the "Journal of Lot"
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or "Non-Linear Thinking?")
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties


Friday, October 11, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lekh L’kha 5774–Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad

Thirteen years ago, I mused upon parashat Lekh L’kha and the subject of monotheism.  For it’s “bar mitzvah” year I thought I’d revisit the subject.

Somewhere in his first 75 years of life, Abram reached the understanding that there was only One G”d, or that there was only one G”d to which he himself would bind himself and his family. We can’t really be sure how this happened, or if Avram was truly a monotheist, or a monolatrist. The rabbis, of course, seek to fill in the blanks through midrash. We’re all familiar with the midrash that states that Avram’s father, Terach, was a maker of idols, that Avram smashed the idols, and when confronted by his father, Avram places the blame on one of the idols. Terach says this is impossible, they are but stone, with no soul, to which Avram asks the inevitable “then why do you worship them?”

Now, there must have been plenty of idol makers around, with curious children. It seems unlikely that Avram was the first or the only one to come to this conclusion. If we view Torah as origin myth, then perhaps Avram is an archetype of all those who questioned the efficacy of worshiping idols and multiple gods.

There’s an intellectual process here. Ultimately, every religious system encounters realities which call into question basic tenets. In a polytheistic system, it’s easy to point to disputes between gods to explain these problems. Polytheism shares with monotheism the ability to use the excuse that the G”d or a god is not pleased with someone. I’ve been trying to think of a specific response unique to monotheism, and so far the only one I can come up with is “there are people who don’t believe in and worship our one True G”d and that’s why things are out of whack.” Sadly, this fact has led to a lot of violence over the millennia, perpetrated in the name of a particular G”d.

Where western religions hold sway, monotheism is considered to be  a more modern and intellectually superior understanding of the nature of the Divine.  Some, however, make the case that monotheism is not inherently superior or more modern than polytheism. It has been suggested that a polytheist is more likely to be tolerant and accepting of the religions of others. History does not bear this out. Plenty of polytheistic cultures battled each other. So, sad to say, both mono-and polytheism have their flaws, and neither is demonstrably superior.

Polytheism is alive and well in the modern world. Some (but not all) would classify Hindusim as polytheistic. Shintoism is more clearly polytheistic, as is Wicca, Reconstructionist Polytheism, and Serer. Of course, there are those who would argue that those Christian sects that embrace a Trinity are polytheistic. The Christian and Hindu communities are rife with apologists who argue strongly that their religions are, at heart, undoubtedly monotheistic. There are others who are unapologetic about the polytheistic nature of both religions. (Yes, there are Christians who hold that Christianity is polytheistic, that the Trinity is not a unity.)

However, I think framing the issue as polytheism versus monotheism misses the point. At least initially, the issue for the people that would become the Jews was idol worship. It is not at all clear from the text or from the language (i.e. “Elohim”) that Avram and his descendants were being asked to believe in only on G”d. They were being asked to worship and follow only one G”d, but more importantly, to NOT worship idols. Idolatry is the big no-no, not polytheism. (Yes, it’s a fine line, but there’s a distinction between being a practicing polytheist, and being someone who worships only one G”d yet believes in and accepts the existence of others – i.e. a monolatrist. “You shall have no other G”d’s before/besides Me.” Well, that’s the best we can translate the Hebrew, but it really is open to broader interpretation. Now many Jews would reject my understanding and consider it heretical, especially if they consider Torah she-ba’l peh, the oral Torah that was, frankly, an invention of the rabbis, as equal in authority.

Now, idolatry, idol worship – there’s something that is far too easy for modern humans to label as intellectually inferior. As I wrote 13 years ago:

“How easy it is for us to dismiss idolatry as a practice of people less mentally and philosophically developed than ourselves. "Of course it's a silly idea" we think. "A god for this and a god for that? It hardly makes sense to believe that." Even putting aside the prejudices we may have because of our Judaic, Christian or Islamic beliefs, we would most likely still feel the same way about idolatry, animism, etc.?

Yet idolatry is also alive and well. There is a marked schism in Christianity between the sects that accept the use of icons and imagery of the Divine. Many, probably most Protestant sects consider the iconography and imagery used in the Catholic and Orthodox Church as idolatry.

There are those within Judaism who disdain and mock traditions like hakafa as a form of idol worship. Yet others argue that the modern idea and usage of the Ner Tamid in a synagogue, which is a corruption from the mandate given in Torah, is a form of idolatry. Kissing the Torah, kissing a mezuzah, and similar traditions have been criticized by some as a form of idolatry.

I, and others, have written about other modern idolatrous practices. Some worship at the shrine of money, or power, or hate, or technology, or a host of others. When we worship these idols, when we serve them like gods, do we perforce deny the One true G”d? There are plenty, it seems, who consider themselves as believers in the G”d of Abraham (as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or others) who nevertheless do not see it as problematic that they also worship at the idols I’ve mentioned here. Some have even managed a synthesis, or perhaps a syncretic combination of the worship of things like money with the worship of the One G”d. (Think of the various forms of the”prosperity gospel.”)

Thirteen years ago I thought that perhaps we western-religion types had all come to see idolatry and polytheism as intellectually inferior. Now, I’m not so sure. All around us, in our own communities, and in other faith systems, people embrace all sorts of idols and gods. (Where does one fit things like Scientology or, well, take a look at this list on Wikipedia of NRMs, new religious movements. For that matter, take a look at Wikipedia’s list of religions.)

Thirteen years ago, I wrote:

 Is it because we mentally & philosophically approve of and embrace the concept of Adnai Echad that the concept becomes plausible? Must faith require reason?

Through Midrash, the rabbis have attempted to fill in the intellectual and philosophical blanks that perhaps led Avram to become receptive to a monotheistic world view. For whose sake did they do this? Surely not for Abraham, nor for G”d, but for themselves and the people of their times. Was their faith (and is ours) so challenged by reason and science that they had to bolster the case by providing our ancestors with philosophical rationale for coming to believe in one G”d?

Have they done us any favor? We now (claim to) reject idolatry not because Torah tells us to, but because we find it intellectually inferior. (Yet we still seem to engage in idolatrous practices!) G”d must make sense to us. A rather arrogant viewpoint. Is it beyond comprehension that the G”d we now know (and known to our ancestors) chose, in previous times, (and still chooses, in our own time) to be made known to humans in many forms, and as many G”ds? That the spirit of G”d is in all things? This does not change the oneness of G”d, only humankind's perception of G”d. That it does not say so in Torah may be meaningful-often omission is as important as inclusion. Perhaps the omission is deliberate, perhaps G”d chose not to make this known to Avram, to the children of Israel. There was never any guarantee that this was complete revelation. (I say this not to bolster the case of Christianity and Islam, but just to remind us that perhaps G”d's way of thinking and ours are not the same.) It does, however, change worship. Even as monotheists, is it wrong to worship the tree as long as we understand that it is but one small manifestation of the one-ness that is G-d, and that it is the whole we worship, and not just the part? Carrying the idea a little further, what if our world view does not extend beyond the tree -- it is the only piece of the divine that we can see. Must we comprehend (or even know of) the whole to make our worship of the tree worthy? For myself, I believe that I must know and accept the one-ness of G”d, but my world view is very different than those who lived in Avram's time and before it. And my world view is different than those who live with me in my own time.

I’m not a big fan of syncretism, yet all our religions are replete with a history of it. Our modern world takes syncretism to whole new levels. The religious ask “how far can we stretch the understandings of our faith before it is no longer the same faith?” Yet over the millennia, Judaism and all other world religions have done just that kind of stretching. Even with all that stretching, these religions are still around. The 21st century is proving to be even more challenging in how it is asking those of particular faith traditions to expand their own understandings of their own faith traditions, and to be accepting of the understandings of others.

Futurists speak of a coming singularity – a technological milestone at which we will have created machines capable of intelligence equal to and beyond that of the human brain. I suspect many religious traditions look forward to a theological singularity. Unfortunately, many view it as triumphalist.  At the Rosh Hashanan musaf service we sing the piyyut “Veye’etayu.” (In the Reform world, this became the  Israel Zangwill hymn “All the World Will Come to Serve You.”)  In the Torah service, we say “From out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of Ad”nai from Jerusalem.” 

There is a needs for some universalism in a pluralistic world. The renowned scholar Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky wrote of triumphalism and chosen-ness as impediments to pluralistic relationships. There is plenty within Jewish tradition that could be viewed as universalistic.

The Torah tells us that we will appear wise to the other nations, and thus they would be inclined to listen to what we have to say. As long as we don’t see that as a call to proselytize, it’s somewhat universalistic. Some of the prophetic works appear to have very universalistic themes, even if they are couched in particularistic settings and situations.

As is typical of Judaism, there is a constant tension between the particularistic and the universalistic. With chosen-ness comes not only an obligation to G”d, but to all people. We are told to live in this world. The world is not just our little village or shtetl.

Our modern Judaism struggles with this tension. Some choose to become and remain insular and apart. Some choose to abandon tradition altogether in pursuit of an idealized universalism. I don’t believe either extreme is the right choice. We need to find room for both the universal and particularistic in our understanding and practice of Judaism. I would argue the same applies to people of all faiths, if we are to have any hope of surviving as a species. (Some would argue that elimination of religion is the answer. I don’t buy that. Atheists are just as likely to argue and go to war as believers. It’s intrinsic to human nature. Religion may not be the only tool available to us to help us overcome the negative aspects of our natures. but it is a tool, and one that can prove useful to some.

Maybe with technological singularity will also come a theistic singularity. As we approach this theistic singularity, I wonder if a unified human species requires acceptance of a single Deity, multiple deities, none at all, or all of the above? I’m hoping it’s the latter, but I’m no better informed than anyone else on this topic.

I am sadly certain of one thing. If G”d were to speak to us today, and suggest to us that we go forth to an unknown land and unknown future, not many of us would say yes. Yet perhaps this precisely what we need to do. Take a leap (of faith, of science, of whatever) and allow ourselves to be led to someplace and something new. It could be harder for us to do this today than for Avram, because our history and experiences have taught us of the potential dangers. They have taught us to be careful about whom we let lead us, about whom we follow. But we should not assume this is the case.

Thirteen years ago I closed with these words:

I don't know the answers to these questions I am raising, (and I am not advocating a return to idolatrous practices,) but the fact that I am searching for the reasons why we view idolatry as intellectually inferior in an intellectual manner already tells me something about myself, religious philosophy and the species to which I belong. It seems necessary for many of us to understand G”d in an existential manner. Why, then, do I and others I know long to want this “yearning to understand” to be from the heart more so than the mind? And for the understanding itself to be more from the heart than the mind? Maybe it was, for Avram.

Here in 5774 I am inclined to add only: may it be so for us.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies

Friday, October 4, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Noakh 5774–Let’s Rebuild That Tower!

They’re funny, the connections that our minds make. Reading the story of Noakh, the flood, and the two genealogies, split by the story of the Tower of Babel and the confounding of human speech, what kept leaping to my mind is the recently released “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. A lot has already been written about the report, even though it was just published on October 1. Much of that has been knee-jerk reaction, and I am hopeful than in time, more thoughtful reflections will find their way into print, social media, etc.

As with any new study, some people are shouting “doom and gloom.” Others are saying “we told you this would happen if you didn’t do [insert pithy slogan for saving Judaism here.]” Still others read the report an ask “so what’s new?” Then there are those who look at the new study and say “hey, things don’t look so bad after all. Could be better, but all in all, not bad.”

This disparity of viewpoints occurs on a much broader level, even encompassing the very state of human beings. We are going to “hell in a handbasket” say some of the hand-wringers.

If humankind is truly being that badly behaved, why are we not seeing G”d reverting to the same process used to cleanse the world the last time? Well, not exactly the same process, because G”d promised a flood would never again be used to destroy the earth, but there are lots of other tools at G”d’s disposal (not to mention all the human-made tools like global warming, nuclear war, pollution, and so much more.) Some (self-proclaimed) prophets, pundits, and fundamentalists alike  are suggesting that the cleansing is already underway (through things like terrorism, war, tsunamis, earthquakes, mass killings, etc.) or is coming soon. They say Armageddon is upon us, or threatening, if we allow gays to marry, poor people to have health care, if we restrict gun ownership, and so on. Others suggest Armageddon is more likely to come from rising socio-economic inequalities.

There are, sad to say, still plenty of Noakhs out there, who will build their arks without question. but won’t raise a finger to help their neighbors or invite them on board. Our society is full of people who are anashim tzadikim tamim b’doroteihem, righteous, blameless people within their own generation. That is to say, compared to society as a whole, which is, by inference, not particularly righteous, they are more righteous and blameless than most.

This does not appear to describe most American Jews, according to the Pew study. 69% say leading a moral and ethical life is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. Sadly, only 56% say the same about working for justice and equality. (Remembering the Holocaust is the top value, at 73%. There’s a whole musing waiting to be written someday, as I did find this surprising given the strong push in the Jewish community, and in particular in Jewish education, to stop making the Shoah a centerpiece of answering the “why be Jewish?” question. There was a time when being able to say “mir zenen do” – we survive – was enough for me. It no longer is, and I suspected this was true for more people. The survey tells me I might be wrong about that. The variances among different age groups is from 68% for ages 18-29 to 77% for 65+. I am surprised to learn so many younger folks still give this such a prominent place in the pantheon of what being Jewish means to Jews. Don’t get me wrong-The Shoah should be remembered, and it should be part of our core understanding of what it means to be Jewish. I wish, however, that other things – like ethics and justice were at a similar or even higher level.)

Reality and survey answers often differ, and we are still left asking “what percentage of the 69% of American Jews who value a moral and ethical life actually act and behave in a manner consistent with that. Why 100% don’t believe that working for justice and equality is a core part of being Jewish is something that troubles me. Still for the 56% who do believe so, how many of them are walking the walk and not just talking the talk?

(For that matter, what percentage of the 69% who place Remembering the Holocaust at the top of their list of what being Jewish means to them actually spend a lot of time remembering and thinking about it, and actively working to prevent it from ever happening to Jews, or to anyone else, again?)

We’ve lived through the Babel story more than once. First, as humanity. Then again, countless times, as Jews. Coming together as one people, one language, building our towns and cities and towers, only to be scattered over the earth. The most recent scattering has been the longest, and it goes on – even with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, we Jews remain dispersed. The Pew study tells us that American Jews, while we do share many things in common, have a very broad and diverse understanding of what it means to be a Jew. That’s not unexpected, given how long we have been scattered. (It’s also not unexpected because of how, despite our scattering, and the Divine instructions to spread out over the earth, we still clump together in ghettos and shtetls, in cities and suburbs, on coasts. Even all these millennia later, we resist G”d’s call to spread out everywhere. I’ve spoken before about how making aliyah to America, to places where there are now few Jews, could lead to a new era of understanding between people. A time of less prejudice and hatred due to fear, ignorance, and unfamiliarity. Places where few Jews live have time and again demonstrated their bigotry. They have also, many times, demonstrated their love and willingness to embrace and support their Jewish neighbors when they are threatened or face prejudice. If more of us lived among these people, perhaps there’d be less need for them to step up and support us in the face of hatred an bigotry. But I digress. Especially [SPOILER ALERT] since my theme here is first about coming together, before we again disperse. Though the coming together I envision need not be physical. The dispersion afterwards, however, ought to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

If anything jumps out at me from the Pew study, it’s that our American Jewish community is, in some ways, like humanity after G”d confounded their common language and forced them to disperse. (How often is it overlooked, in discussing the story of the Tower of Babel, that it was just not human hubris, or G”d’s fear of what humanity might accomplish. G”d had given us direct instruction not just to be fruitful and multiply, but to disperse and spread over the earth. We didn’t. We stayed together and marched east. We clumped together in a valley and built a city and a tower. It’s important to remember that one other major result of the Tower of Babel is that G”d scattered us over the face of the earth. In fact, I think the scattering is the real point of the whole story. Gan Eden was nice, but it’s time to see the whole, wide, beautiful, amazing world. And that includes Alaska as much as it does Costa Rica, Death Valley and the Alps. What would society and the world be like if we had never moved from the area around Gan Eden [or Olduvai Gorge?] Now, where was I?)

There are many things that still tie all Jews together, but there are definitely many things that separate us, drive us apart.

49% of us believe that being intellectually curious is an important part of what it means to be Jewish. Intellectual curiosity is great. It can also just be mental masturbation. Intellectual curiosity without any deeds resulting from the process. Let’s put that intellectual curiosity to work. Let’s combine our intellectual curiosity (and our willingness to do, and not just think) and embark on a communal effort again,  as one people. Let’s build a new tower.

G”d, if I may be so bold as to suggest it, You may have been wrong with the whole Tower of Babel, confounding of language, scattering the people thing. Or maybe it’s not that it was wrong, but maybe now is the time for Jews (and perhaps all of humanity) to once again have a common language, common values, and to all live together-and build a new tower. (The global village is becoming a possibility.)

Now, dear reader, don’t jump to conclusions. Calling for Jews to have a common language and to live all together again doesn’t necessarily mean I’m talking about all living in Israel, or about Hebrew. I am, in all probability, because I haven’t fleshed this all out yet, talking about Torah, about the whole body of Jewish text and knowledge and experience and…and. And? And!

As for building that tower, well, I’ve talked about that before. And yes, I’ve made that dreaded WTC connection.

If we are to build a new tower, we must be cognizant of what happened the last time. Last times.

Torah says our ancestors built the tower to make a name for themselves. What if our purpose in rebuilding the tower is different? What if we built our new tower for G”d’s glory and not our own? Could we make it a worthwhile endeavor? For those of you for whom G”d isn’t necessarily a good motivation, then think more humanistically. That’s fine with me.

I already know, and I am working with people in the Jewish world who are helping to envision, plan, and build this new tower, that unites and connects us all. The tower we build, because it is not meant pridefully, is less about the ediface itself, and more about the process of building it – and what comes next. The next dispersal. A purposeful dispersal.

The genealogies in parashat Noakh remind us that remembering those who came before, upon whose shoulders we stand, is important. What the Pew study tells us about ourselves today is partially result of those who came before, and the decisions and choices they made. Depending upon your view of the study as good, bad, or not particularly useful news, what we can take from the study to help those who come after us? Can we come together as one, build ourselves a tower, and then deliberately and purposefully scatter ourselves all over the earth again so that we can carry, with renewed vigor and renewed insight, the messages for making a better world, ancient and newly formed, that our common encounter with Torah and our Judaism, our Jewishness has enabled us to glean?

We have each been toiling in our own vineyards, and that is a good thing. Yet perhaps the time has come to toil together in one big vineyard, to share our secrets of viticulture with each other, and then go back to our own vineyards and spread the secrets to our neighbors and friends, to all who would come and listen?

The technologies of today and tomorrow can enable us to bring the ancient words, the millennia of experiences, traditions, understandings, knowledge, together so that all may partake of them. This is the tower we can build – the repository of all that has been, is, and could be.

[Before I end, I do have to acknowledge that the title of this musing is based on a mistaken premise that I have complained about in previous musings. Nowhere (in Torah) does it say that G”d destroyed the tower the people built at Bavel. As I said earlier, the story is about the scattering more than the tower!]

Is it a pipe dream, this vision of American, of world Jewry coming together to build a new migdal from whence the light of Torah can go forth? To paraphrase Hertzl, if we will it, it is no dream.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Noakh 5773 - Nothing New
Noakh 5772 - The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 - Redux 5765 - A P'shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 - Don't Ham It Up
Noah 5768 - Redux 5761 - Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!