Thursday, October 26, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Lech Lecha 5778–Take My Wife–Please

I’m sorry, but I just can’t divorce what I am reading in this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, in light of all the recent revelations of sexual abuse by the powerful in the arts and media (and other industries.)

How are we supposed to deal with a text in which, in order to save his own skin, Avram-soon to be Avraham – pleads with his wife Sarai – soon to be Sarah – to pretend to be his sister.  His logic is so misogynist as to be painful. My wife is so beautiful, the other men will not be able to resist wanting her. They will kill me so they can possess her for themselves. If she pretends to be my sister instead, they won’t bother trying to get me out of the way. Of course, the remaining unspoken part of that logic is that the Egyptian men will still have their way with Sarai, they just won’t have to kill Avram in order to do so. He’s okay with that, apparently.

Does Avram really understand the enormity of what he is asking his wife to do? Of course, we do need to consider the situation in view of the ethics and morals of that time, and not necessarily those of our own times. Or maybe we should? It seems not much has changed in the ensuing millennia. Women are still looked upon by far too many men as simply playthings, conquests to be had.

By simply chalking this up to the differing ethics of Avram’s time, we succeed only in whitewashing the misogyny. We don’t know how Sarai/Sarah felt about being asked to do this. The Torah is silent – in fact – Sarai/Sarah is given little voice, except when it is convenient to portray her as frivolous and a liar when she laughs at the thought of her husband, who probably hasn’t been able to get it up in years, actually impregnating her. It is Sarah that receives G”d’s tokekha. Did Sarai/Sarah acquiesce to Avram/Avraham’s demand because she loved him enough to to place her own virtue below the life of her husband? Did she acquiesce because she felt she had no choice? Was it something else in between those extremes, or something entirely different?  Was she a calculating woman who saw that debasing herself could enrich her husband, and that ultimately her debasement would be trumped by the wealth and lifestyle they would share? How long would she have been willing to play out this farce, had not G”d outed her by punishing the Egyptians?

Somehow, Pharaoh finds out that Sarai really is Avram’s wife. The Torah is also surprisingly silent on how that little tidbit came to be known. What caused Pharaoh to put two and two together and blame recent misfortunes on his having taken Sarai as a wife? A world of possibility exists in between the lines of the Torah. did someone tell him? Did he catch Avram and Sarai meeting secretly? Did one of Pharaoh’s courtiers, or one of his other wives somehow catch wise?

Later on, uncomfortable with her having failed at her wifely duty to bear a son, she offers her husband her handmaiden. When her handmaiden Hagar gets preggers and starts to act a little uppity (at least from Sarah’s perspective) she mistreats her. Avram punts (or considers dealing with emotional women-y stuff beneath him) and leaves things in Sarai’s hands. Hagar runs away, only to be told by G’d “get your tuchis back to your master, and just learn to deal with your mistress’ harshness.” Yay, G”d. Not.

It’s a regular soap opera, isn’t it?

Gotta give some props to Avram. Though he is not specifically quoted as saying anything in Torah, one can reasonably infer from verse 17:20 that Avram wanted to be sure that Ishmael, as his son, would be blessed by G”d, as in that verse G”d promises to heed Avram’s request to make Ishmael the father of a great nation, along with Avraham’s yet to be conceived and born son through Sarai-now Sarah.

Perhaps G”d asked Avraham to circumcise himself as a bit of a mea culpa? Though after Avraham and Ishmael, most everyone else gets circumcised at 8 weeks. (Let’s not get ahead of ourselves with the Dinah story just yet. Yaakov turns out to be an even bigger misogynist.) Missing from Torah are what were likely Avram’s true words: “You want me to cut off what?”

Yes, the Torah is not history. It makes no claim to being a true and accurate portrayal of the values and mores of the civilizations of which is speaks. Just as recent scholarship has shown the early Egyptian dynasties to be far less oppressive and demagogic than they are usually portrayed, the society of biblical times must have been far less as troubled as the one the bible actually portrays (or, for that matter, could be a lot worse.) The Torah is using story to teach. Makes one wonder why it is teaching us such troubling ethics and morals, why it has a G”d that is prone to emotion and tantrums. Or is the Torah exaggerating the bad things in order to cause us to react to them, to say to ourselves “that isn’t right, we shouldn’t be like that?” Wouldn’t be the first work of a religious (or other) nature to purposefully try to piss us off in order to provoke a reaction. Negative psychology, perhaps? Ah, but I fear that this is wishful thinking, and the misogyny and other troubling ethics and mores we find in Torah really is there because that is how those who composed and redacted this story really felt things should be. Who really knows? And that’s the joy of it – we don’t. We were given a Torah with lots of missing things, lots of difficult to understand things. Why, it’s a bit of a mess, thank you, G”d, or whomever is responsible for this.Then the rabbis and gedolim came along and said “hold my beer.”

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Leḥ Leḥa 5777 - Embracing the Spirit of Avram
Lekh Lekha 5776 - The Other Siders (Redux 5766)
Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistlign Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
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 20, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Noach 5778-Armageddon, Loopholes, and Theisms

Some random, disjunctive thoughts about the parasha this week.

First, I had the strangest dream last night, the first of its kind that I can recall. For some reason I was with my mother Goldie (z”l) and we were listening to an expected broadcast of national import. I’m doing my best to recall details, but like most dreams, it’s not entirely coherent. What I can recall is that the nations of the world  were about to announce their decision regarding some action that the U.S. had taken. The broadcast began and a spokesperson starting speaking about how the world could no longer tolerate the U.S.’s behavior, and, just then, the display and audio changed to an emergency action notification to seek shelter that nuclear attack was imminent. I helped my mother down to a car and we set off for some safe location. Eerily, no one else seem interested in escaping the coming holocaust and there was no traffic or even people on the streets. Though it tugs at my memory that there is much more details to the story, that’s about all I can recall. Perhaps, between contemplating the present state of the world, of our country, and adding to that teaching students about an trying to come to my own understandings of the biblical flood my mind turned to this scenario. The parallels seem clear, even if the story is not. The people (in this case, the country) were sinful and evil, and destruction was to be wrought upon them for their sinfulness. I seemed to believe there was safety  to be found somewhere, which I guess makes me a Noah figure, of sorts. The dream didn’t get far enough and I wonder if I would have been proven to be like Noah, not caring about all the others, or would I have tried to help more people get to this elusive place of safety from nuclear Armageddon.

Random thought number two. I’ve been participating in a new Facebook group devoted to Six-Word Prayers. My first contribution to the group was this:

Not by flood is a loophole

Is that really a prayer? I think so. It is my way of putting G”d on notice that I’m wise to G”d’s imperfections, and I won’t give them an easy pass. The very fact that I’m making it a prayer is testament to my desire to be in relationship with G”d.

In B’reishit 9:15 G”d explains the rainbow as the sign of a covenant that G”d will never cause the waters to become a flood to slaughter all flesh. You bet your bippi that’s a loophole. Not just in the surface understanding, either. Most people understand that to mean that it gives G”d an out to destroy the earth by other means, and it does. However, the clever wording also allows G”d to gather waters into a flood to destroy less than all flesh, or for other purposes.

If you continue reading, it appears that G”d has created the rainbow as a sign of this covenant because apparently G”d’s is going to need a reminder of this covenant? This won’t be the last time we’re reminded that G”d can be forgetful (or perhaps deliberately ignore.)

Another random though is related to a resource I was pointed towards to describe the students the parallels and differences between the various ancient flood narratives – Noah, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim, etc. Though attempting to use a somewhat academic approach to comparing the stories, the site’s descriptions of the parallels and differences turned out to be somewhat biased by a more traditional Jewish perspective. Many of the comparisons depended upon Talmudic or midrashic understandings, and not just the pure biblical text. I am not surprised that a site presenting things from a more orthodox Jewish perspective would simply assume acceptance of orah Torah (and its subsequent iterations in Mishna, Gemara, Talmud, Midrashim, Halakha, and more.) I often use such sites in my teaching – however, I am always careful to represent the various biases of the perspective of the different resources I provide to my students through my teaching.

Though it attempted to present materials in an academic/scientific manner, the site had all sorts of underlying assumptions. There was no hint that all these etiological stories found early (and later) in Genesis were precisely that – etiologies, not history. (Right here in this parasha we have a number of etiologies, including the story Noah as the first drunkard, the origins of the Canaanites, the story of midgal Bavel to explain why we all have different languages. I believe that even among many orthodox there is a general understanding that the creation story, the flood, and perhaps other parts of the Torah are clearly metaphors/similes/analogies – stories meant to explain, to teach, but not meant to be bona fide histories.)  [Here’s an interesting aside. In discussing the Noach story the other day with the 6th and 7 grade students, a number of them were insistent that Noah brought dinosaurs with him on the ark. Is this their attempt to reconcile science and religion? I didn’t have time to explore it with them, but I intend to do so. As a strong opponent of pediatric Jewish education, this is a concerning development.]

Also, in summarizing comparisons, it makes some claims which do not conform to my understanding of the realities of the biblical text. It claims that the pantheon of polytheistic gods of the Babylonians and Sumerians were entirely anthropomorphic whereas the G”d of Torah is not. I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Torah is replete with verses that show G”d in an anthropomorphic light, engaging in human-like behaviors and thoughts. It claims the Mesopotamian gods were capricious whereas the G”d of Torah was just and moral.  Oh right, the G”d of Torah is never capricious.

The site clearly attempts to portray the Torah’s account of G”d and the flood in a positive light, while pooh-poohing the other Mesopotamian stories. I find this sort of promoting Judaism at the expense of other religions (even those long gone) troubling. A religion should stand on its own. Additionally, western religion may believe than monotheism is superior to pantheism, but it’s not at all an open and shut case. A Deity smart and worthy to be a Deity is smart enough to understand that different peoples may need different types of manifestations and understandings of the Deity. A pantheistic concept is simply one of those manifestations. “Heresy!” I hear people shout. Heresy according to the so-called oral Torah, perhaps, though I’m not even sure that’s true. If nothing else, the very word “El”him” should give us pause. It, too, is a loophole.

Think, for a moment, on why we’ve settled on “Ad”nai” as our substitute word for G”d’s name. What’s does it mean? My Lord. Put the emphasis on the word “my” and think about that in a collective sense, and you’ll see it still allows for other and different understandings of the Deity. My understanding of G”d. Might not be your understanding, and that’s OK.

I understand that clinging to an understanding of G”d through a monotheistic lens is necessary for adherents to classic rabbinical Judaism. However, even among the Orthodox there is a growing if begrudging acceptance of the notion that for much of their history the ancient Israelites were not monotheistic at all, but monolatrous – worshipping a primary G”d without denying the existence of other G”ds. It’s a logical way to operate in ancient times, and perhaps even today. It was not entirely unusual for travelers from another place to worship and offer sacrifices to their own god in the temple of the god of the place they were visiting. This sort of live and let live attitude has much to recommend it.  This sort of attitude could go a long way to preventing the scenario about which I dreamed.  My understanding of the principles upon which this country were founded is that this is exactly how we are expected to do things.

Time to put this train called the U.S. back on the right track.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Noah 5777 - Tzur Yisrael and Standing Rock
Noakh 5776 - Two Short Thoughts on Noah
Noakh 5775 - To Make a Name For Ourselves (Revisited)
Noakh 5774 - Let's Rebuild That Tower
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!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’reishit 5778-Last Week’sThoughts

I’ve never done this before. Last Friday, I just got slammed, and didn’t get my musing out. That’s not the thing I’ve never done before to which I am referring. Being unable to get my musing out has happened a few times in the two decades I’ve been writing these musings. It is somewhat unusual that I didn’t at least get a note or apology out that day, or after Shabbat, but it just didn’t happen this time. Here’s what makes it unusual. I had a musing written and ready to go, and it was simply the mechanics of getting it sent out that stopped me. I suppose I could have sent it out after Shabbat, but I didn’t. So here’s what I’ve not done before – I am sending out my thoughts for last Shabbat, for Shabbat Hol HaMoeid Sukkot, today, and not sending out a new (or even recycled) musing for this week’s parahsa “B’reishit..” I do commend to you the musings Ihave written for parashat B’reishit before, listed at the end of this musing. I do hope you’ll read them. Here, however, I present you with the thoughts I had last week for Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot 5778 – Unhappy Comparisons

Talk about a nightmare! I had been reading through the Torah reading for Shabbat Hol Hamoeid Sukkot and came to the famous words of Exodus 34:6-7. The passage from which the thirteen attributes of mercy were derived.

Before I could stop it, the thought came unbidden into my head how this all feels a little well, Trumpian. No, it cannot be. I must not allow myself to be drawn into making a comparison between Ad"nai and DJT.

Yet there it is. It's that b'tzelem El"him/b'tzelem anashim duality and balance that often comes up in my musings. If we are in the image of G"d then vice versa - and all the best that is in G"d can be found in us, and the best of us in G"d - but also all the worst that is in G"d can be found in us and all the worst that is in us can be found in G"d.

The well worn words of Exodus 34:6-7, which we also just heard, repeatedly, during the Yamim Noraim are boastful, prideful, even a touch arrogant. They have a very "and only I can fix it" quality.

Now, you might argue that, unlike the mere mortal DJT, G"d actually has a reasonably legitimate claim to be able to fix what ails our planet and our species - though for some, G"d's failure to do so over the last few millennia call into question whether that is truly the case. What is hubris and narcissistic personality disorder for some may be ineffable Divine behavior for others.

יְהוָֹה ׀ יְהֹוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב־חֶסֶד וֶֽאֱמֶֽת: נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָֽאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה פֹּקֵד ׀ עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְעַל־בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים

G"d, as self-described, extends kindness and forgiveness unto a thousand generations. However, there's a contradiction here - G"d is forgiving, but not all-forgiving. G"d may not be interested in building a wall, but G"d certainly seems interested in punishing those who transgress, even unto the third and fourth generations. G"d, apparently, does not find much value in punishing a family line for transgressions of their forebears beyond a few generations. One might ask why even extend punishment beyond the generation of those who transgressed?Is this simply tactic - is it the stick to the carrot? Are those of us who support DACA and the Dream Act more benevolent and forgiving than G"d? I'd certainly  not like to believe this was the case. Yet I fear that there are those who use the biblical example to justify their opposition to DACA, and who find no fault in visiting the parental sin of illegal immigration upon the children.

The rabbis and commentators would have us exegete only the positive virtues from these verses, conveniently ignoring the consequences part. That is the sort of exegesis that is, for me, whitewashing and cherry-picking. These verses clearly insinuate that there is a place for punishment, and that G"d visits punishment not just on those who sin, but on their descendants, at least for a few generations.  How does this square with the idea that the gates of t'shuvah are always open?  Are children, grandchildren,and great-grandchildren expected to make expiation for the sins of their  parents/grandparents/great-grandparents before they are even eligible to seek expiation for their own transgressions? What kind of system is that? Either the gates of t'shuvah are always open, or they aren't. How we view this biblical dilemma can hold great import for how we might view the prospect of allowing illegal immigrants a path to legal residence. I fear that, based on these verses, G"d might not be so quick to approve of that. That is a G"d that I find troubling.

Perhaps I am making too much of this. I am not a Dawkins, chastising and calling out religion for all the ills of society. However, although I remain a person of faith, there is much in our Jewish faith, as well as other faiths that are questionable, may have been used to justify many things we now find repugnant, and are, perhaps, irredeemable.

The thirteen attributes of mercy aren't irredeemable, but like so many things in our faith, we carefully tiptoe around the difficult things. I fear that, to some extent, we must accept that our sacred texts may have contributed, intentionally or unintentionally, to some less than positive things. We can't simply chalk it up to the humans using the text in this manner, for that's very much a "guns don't kill people, people kill people, and that's a slippery slope indeed. Just like we are exhorted to pray to G"d and row towards shore, we should use our sacred texts and liturgy to promote peace and righteousness, while acknowledging the warts and imperfections within them.

I am still unhappy these sorts of comparisons are where my musings led me this week, but I'll take the bad with good for now, in hopes that the good will prevail. With G"d's help and ours may it be so.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L'simcha,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings – on Parashat B’reisheet

B'reishit 5777-Something Good (Redeeming Cain?)
B'reisheet 5776 - Temptation
B'reisheet 5775 - One Favorite Things (not a typo!)
B'reisheet 5774 - Toldot Adrian
B'reishit 5773 - Mixing Metaphors
B'reishit 5772 - The Unified Field Theorem of the Twelve Steps
B'reishit 5771 - B'reishit Bara Anashim
B'reishit 5770 - One G"d, But Two Trees?
B'reishit 5769 - Do Fences Really Make Good Neighbors
B'reishit 5767-Many Beginnings
Bereshit 5766-Kol D'mei Akhikha
Bereshit 5765 (5760)-Failing to Understand-A Learning Experience
Bereshit 5764-Gd's Regrets
Bereshit 5762--The Essential Ingredient
Bereshit 5763--Striving to be Human
Bereshit 5761--Chava's Faith
Bereshit 5760-Failing to Understand

Other Musings on Sukkot and Simchat Torah

Hol HaMoeid Sukkot 5775 - Gog Me With a Spoon
Hol HaMoeid Sukkot 5774 - Godot is Waiting for the Bald Soprano at the Zoo
Sukkot III 5772 - Fragility
Sukkot I 5770 - Fire and Rain
Sukkot 5767-Precious Congealed Light - Or Y'kator V'kipa'on
Sukkot 5764--Bayom Hazeh
Sukkot 5763--Sukkot Time Travel

Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5770 - Circles Can Bite You in the Tuchis
Sh'mini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah 5767 - Joyful and Glad of Heart
Simchat Torah 5766--Have We Met The Ally And Is They Us?
Simchat Torah 5757-5765-Unbroken Circle (With additions for each year)
Simchat Torah 5764-Circling the Torah--A Story of Chelm
Simchat Torah 5762--Not So Fast