Friday, October 12, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Noakh 5779—The Loud, Large Voice

Warning: another one of my truly random musings. No destination in mind, so it went where it went.

Go ahead. Read it. Read the Haftarah for parashat Noakh, from Isaiah. Here's a link to the text in Hebrew and English from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Isaiah.54.1-55.5?lang=bi 
Come back here when you've finished reading it. I'll wait.

Okay. what did you think? Did it seem sincere, truthful, uplifting, encouraging? What words would you use to describe it? Did these words make you want to return to G"d?

Here's my take, and my problem with this haftarah. Our tradition teaches us that we judge a prophet by whether or no their prophecies come true. Now look at all those promises G"d make to us in these verses. Were any of them truly kept?

Some of them were. For a time. Our numbers did increase, and we did indeed spread out over the earth (though some of that spreading out was the result of our being dispossessed of the land of our covenant and  inheritance.

Have we been devoid of shame? Again, for brief periods yes. However, losing possession of your ancestral land is sort of shaming in and of itself.

Now, we all know the stock answers to this litany of complaints. Our arrangement with G"d was/is covenantal. When we don't keep our end of the bargain, G"d doesn't keep G"d's end either. Except that Isaiah doesn't say that.

According to Isaiah, G"d admits to turning G"d's back on us, to hiding G"d's face from us. Now G"d is apologizing for doing that, inviting us back, and promising not to do it again, and to be always faithful. Verses 54: 5-11, with the key words coming in verse 10: 

כֵּ֥ן נִשְׁבַּ֛עְתִּי מִקְּצֹ֥ף עָלַ֖יִךְ וּמִגְּעָר־בָּֽךְ׃
So I swear that I will not Be angry with you or rebuke you.

Right....(oh, damn you, Bill Cosby! Now I can never use that amusing reference again in good conscience. Teaching about Noah will forever be changed.)

G"d doesn't say "if you continue to follow My ways, then I will not be angry with you, and my loyalty to you should not be shaken." No conditions are stated. "But they are implied!" I hear you cry. Are they?

Look, I'll be up front here. Why this matters to me at all is because it impacts on my understanding of G"d. It impacts on my belief as to whether there really are truths. And at this time and in this place, that matters a lot. Things are not normal. The notions of truths and facts is becoming increasingly hazy. My Judaism, my faith, is one thing that helps me to get through the craziness that is happening all around me. It is, even at the best of times, a tenuous faith. Not for lack of belief. Unlike some, I have no need for the biblical accounts to be factual, or the Talmudic discourses to be based on some mythical oral Torah. The world is not 5,779 years old. There's little archaeological evidence for anything in the Torah, and not as much as one might think to support the books of Nevi'im and Ketuvim. However, since I don't think of those works as histories, that doesn't trouble me.

Accounts of G"d's behavior are another matter. Torah is replete with accounts of an impetuous, temperamental, jealous G"d with really poor parenting skills. It is also replete with a few accounts of a loving, caring, G"d (though not as many as one might think, if you actually count them.) Here in Noakh we have a G"d who, through inattention or happenstance (or deliberate intent, or even just bad planning) winds up having created really wicked, evil humans. So G"d just wipes them out. Then, regretting that, G"d promises not to wipe humankind out again...by flood. Here we have a G"d that is threatened by humankind and so confounds their speech. Etiologies are useful things, but do we really need to drag G"d into all of them? Ah, but G"d is the explanation for all the things we can't explain or wonder about, right? So for our ancient ancestors, G"d (or gods) became central characters in etiological stories.

Does G"d need to be the Creator of all things? Couldn't G"d just be a force for "x" in the universe? I say "x" because I tried a lot of different words in there, and each and every time I found a reason why that word didn't really work. For example, I tried "good." But if G"d is only a force for good, what balances that? In a universe that is only good, is there a need for G"d? It seems our ancestors did see how everything seemed to be made of opposing things - dark-light night-day, good-evil, sun-moon, land-sky, etc. Creation in Torah is very much about these categories.

On the other hand, gan eden is paradise - until Adam and Chava eat from the tree "of the knowledge of good and evil." So knowledge is the root of good and evil? Without this knowledge, what, exactly, where Adam and Chava supposed to do in Gan Eden, besides tend it?

I've gone quite far afield, I fear. I'm just trying to assemble the many pieces of our tradition into something that I find reasonably satisfactory as support for getting through crazy times like these. Lately, G"d has become an increasingly troubling part of that process. I'm having difficulty finding support froma  G"d that let us suffer centuries of slavery in Egypt. The G"d that sat by during the Shoah. (Yes, I know, I am very much in Eli Wiesel's camp here in blaming humanity and not G"d, but still...) The rabbis teach us that G"d allowed the destruction of the second Temple and the eventual diaspora due to senseless hatred among the Jewish people.

But where is the G"d that promised to never turn G"d's face away from us again, to not be angry with us, to be ever faithful to us? If You are out there, I'd love to hear from You. You've been awfully quiet these last few millennia. Every so often I hear the faint murmurings of the kol d'mamah daka, the still small voice. These few precious moments had been enough to help me get through. Now, though, things are pretty bad around here, on this planet, G"d. It may be time for the return of the big, loud voice - the one that was more than we could bear at Sinai. The Loud, Large VOICE.  I know that many humans are losing their ability to remain calm. If you don't speak up loudly, G"d, then we may have to do it ourselves. It won't be pretty. Without Your help, we might not succeed in saving our society and our planet.  Are You listening, G"d? Speak up.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
(c)2018 by Adrian A. Durlester


Other musings on this parasha:

Noach 5778 - Armageddon, Loopholes, and Theisms
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!






Thursday, October 4, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–B’reishit 5779—From Chava’s Faith to Fan Fiction

I started writing these weekly musings in 5757 – late 1996. Within a few years, my life had turned upside down. Though, in hindsight, I can view the rejection of my candidacy for rabbinical school at HUC-JIR in the mid-90s as a positive, one that put me on a path that I now realize is more suitable (if somewhat less remunerative) to who I am, at the time I was still somewhat stunned to have my perceived ambitions thwarted. In hindsight, I can now accept that this significantly contributed to the end of my first marriage, however it also led me to a different path to find the fuel to stoke the burning Jewish fire within me. In 1998 I became a student at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. While not necessarily a traditional path for one seeking to become a Jewish educator, it was the opportunity that presented itself to me, and I gladly took it. I was one of only a few Jewish students in the program, and the school was particularly open to allowing me to shape a program of study appropriate to my Jewish path.I was able to simultaneously appreciate the uniqueness of my Judaism while being given the tools to understand and engage with faith traditions other than my own.

I relate this now to provide some context to the reality in which I wrote the words of my musing from 5761 – late 2000, just a few months after completing my MTS degree at Vanderbilt, and at the time I started teaching at the Akiva Day School in Nashville. The spiritual aspects of my faith were strong at the time, despite just having spent so much time engaged in academic biblical criticism. Perhaps, having spent so much time engaging with Torah, Talmud, and Judaism from an academic and critical perspective, my brain and heart were longing for some emunah sh’leimah, complete faith, some simple faith. The intervening years between then and now have been a constant wearing of potentially conflicting hats – of faith and scholarship, and, on the whole, I think I have managed to navigate through it rather well, albeit  there has been a growing tendency away from simple faith to more complicated negotiations between the two hats. If I look through my musings over these last 21 years, the sine wave is apparent.

This year, a fortuitous circumstance offered me the opportunity to revisit the words of the musing I wrote for B’reishit in 5761 (late 2000.) It is certainly not the first time I have worked with a student preparing to observe becoming bar mitzvah on the Shabbat when Bereshit is read, but it was the first time I was working with a student named Seth at the same time. As is being done in many (Reform) congregations these days, where students reading an entire parasha, let alone a single complete (non-triennial aliyah) is less common an expectation,  students are being given the opportunity to indicate an interest in chanting from a particular set of verses in their parasha that is of interest to them. I will admit that, in this case, sensing an opportunity, I put my thumb on the scale to encourage the student to read verses that included the story of the birth of his biblical namesake. I think the words I wrote back in 2000 will explain why:

Random Musings Before Shabbat
Bereshit 5761- Chava's Faith

How ripe Bereshit is.

Simple but powerful messages.

Gd creates. Gd punishes. Gd saves. Failure to obey has a price. Humans can overcome and survive tragedies. Humans can and will kill each other. One day in seven is set aside to honor the one who created us.

But there is for me, no more powerful statement in all of Bereshit than this:

Even after the pain and torture of having one son murder another, Chava was willing to have the faith to have another child.

That simple statement of faith means more to me than almost any other I know of. It is a lesson for all of us.

Now, the student in me wonders if the redactor/author of that particular piece of, in shaping that story, thought about that intentionally. (yes, there are lots of other practical and philosophical reasons why Adam and Chava had to have another son...but that's not the hat I'm wearing now.) Well, since I know in my heart who the ultimate redactor/author was, I'm sure of it.

May the One who gave Chava the courage and faith to bear Seth, give to all of us that same courage and faith.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
© 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester

I’ve left the text intact, not changing the “Gd” to my now preferred G”d (the " between the letters resembling  יי , the  abbreviation which we use to represent the tetragrammaton,the usage of which was an evolutionary process for me over the years.)

Here in 2018, my feelings about Chava’s choice are pretty much the same.  Notice, too, my reference to which “hat” I was wearing, a clue to the developing significance of that dichotomy.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m being a little eisegetical here (exegesis is the process of drawing meaning from the text, eisegesis is the opposite, attempting to implant meaning into the text) as the Torah says nothing about why Adam and Chava had another child. They simply did.

After G”d calls Cain to account for his murderous act and sends him off to wander the earth, we get a genealogy of Cain, leading to his great-great-great-great grandson, Lamekh, the first person noted as being a polygamist. One of Lamech’s wives bore two sons, and the other bore a son and a daughter. Then Lamekh makes a strange pronunciation in verses 23 and 24.

And Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; O wives of Lamech, give ear to my speech. I have slain a man for wounding me, And a lad for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

It’s necessary to recall that in punishing Cain, G”d said that punishment will be delayed until the seventh generation, so that Cain’s suffering should be prolonged. That’s the point of the mark of Cain which told people that Cain should not be killed, so his suffering would last longer. Sigh.

There’s a really fun rabbit hole to wander down here, if you’d like. The rabbis had a field day with these two verses trying to explain them and because there is none in the Torah. Not just the rabbis and commentators were intrigued by this mystery. The Christian’s even named the two verses “Lamech’s Song of the Sword,” a reference connecting these words to one of his sons being the “father” of the forging of metal implements (and thus the sword.) Lamekh’s sons by his other wife were the fathers of musical instruments and shepherding. Remember that Lamekh is the first polygamist. Dialectic, thy name is Torah. 

Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, even embellished the story with further speculation in his Book of Moses, now considered LDS scripture. Wait until you see where he took it. That’s just a peek into what’s beyond the event horizon of this wormhole, and that’s all I’m going to give you. Enter beyond, if you dare.

So, after these two strange verses, we get to the meat of this act which I consider so important and which most people, I think, overlook:

וַיֵּ֨דַע אָדָ֥ם עוֹד֙ אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵׁ֑ת כִּ֣י שָֽׁת־לִ֤י אֱלֹהִים֙ זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר תַּ֣חַת הֶ֔בֶל כִּ֥י הֲרָג֖וֹ קָֽיִן׃

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him.

Now, in typically misogynistic fashion, Torah gives credit to Adam for the fathering of Seth (though crediting Chava with the naming and it's explanatory rationale.) It makes no mention of how Chava might have felt. In an attempt to right this wrong, I named my original musing “Chava’s Faith” for I truly believe it likely that Chava put more thought into it than Adam.

Of Seth we know little other than he was born. But he carried with him all the hopes and dreams of Adam and Chava that must have been shattered when Cain slew Abel, and G”d issued protracted punishment to Cain. We know only that Seth fathered Enosh.

וּלְשֵׁ֤ת גַּם־הוּא֙ יֻלַּד־בֵּ֔ן וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱנ֑וֹשׁ אָ֣ז הוּחַ֔ל לִקְרֹ֖א בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהוָֽה׃ (פ)

And to Seth, in turn, a son was born, and he named him Enosh. It was then that men began to invoke the LORD by name.

And in later verses, we learned that Seth lived  912 years, and had many sons and daughters.

I thought about it then in 2000, and I still think about it today. How many couples, having lost one child to murder by another one of their children, would go ahead and have another child? Yes, I can imagine the dogged determinism of some couples leading them forward in this. Even so, it is a risky choice. A choice that really does require faith (or a fatalistic acceptance?)

And what of Cain? A murderer of his own brother, doomed to wander the earth for seven generations. I think I’ve another potential book to be written here to add to my list that also includes the story of the period of time after the akeidah (binding of Isaac) that Yitzchak spent living with Ishmael and Hagar. Here’s the other book I now contemplate: the imagined story of later in life encounters between Adam, Chava, and Seth with the wandering Cain. Did Cain ever openly seek forgiveness, and repent for his crime? Could parents and younger sibling ever forgive Cain? Could Cain have gone on to realize the utter foolishness of responding to G”d with “am I my brother’s guardian?” Of attempting to lie to G”d? Did/could Cain ever feel remorse? Or we can have the imaginary scenarios of Abel not dying of his wounds, or of Abel, full of pride at G”d's acceptance of his offerings and sick of his brother’s jealousy, strikes and kills Cain? Is it out of the realm of possibility?

Now, some would suggest these are pointless speculation – the stories are what the stories are. A four-five-thousand-year-old tradition has been built upon this story as it was recorded in the Torah. However, if the Torah was not intended to spur speculation, how do we explain the many holes, ambiguities, and conflicting accounts it contains? (Yes, for some, that answer is the oral Torah, but I’m not in a place where I can accept that as being received simultaneously with Torah at Sinai.)

The story of Cain murdering Abel itself begins with an ellipsis:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּ֥קָם קַ֛יִן אֶל־הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃

Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

What, exactly, did Cain say to Abel? The Torah practically cries out for readers to play mad-libs here and in so many other places. Or, try this on for size: the Torah was written to encourage the creation of fan fiction. (Perhaps that's what the oral Torah ultimately is – lovingly drafted fan fiction?) Call it midrash or fan fiction as you please. Come, join me. Let’s play Torah’s game.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2018 b y Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

B'reishit 5778 - Last Week's Thoughts (for Hol Hamoied Sukkot)
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