Friday, December 26, 2008

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Miketz 5769 - Redux 5763 - Assimilating Assimilation

Always a good discussion around Hanukkah time, since the Yosef story raises some of the same issues as the story of the Maccabees.

Assimilating Assimilation

Vayikra Paraoh sheim-Yosef Tzafnat-paneiach....Pharaoh gave Yosef the name Zaphenath-paneah. (Gen 41:45)

Vayikra Yosef et-sheim hab'chor Menashe ki-nashani Elokim et-kol-amali v'et kol-beit avi. V'et sheim hasheini kara Ephraim ki-hifrani Elokim b'eretz mitzrayim... Yosef named the first-born Menashe, meaning "G"d has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home, and the second he named Ephraim, meaning "G"d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." (Gen 41-51-2)
Yes indeedy. Yosef was having a grand time being vizier of Egypt, wearing Egyptian clothes, adopting Egyptian customs.

Assimilation. Almost seems like a four-letter word, an obscenity. At this time of year, as we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees in their guerilla war against the Syrian Greeks, fighting against the assimilation of Jewish culture, it is brought even more into focus as something that Jews should loathe.
The latest Jewish population study adds fuel to the fire of those who rant and rave against the scourge of assimilation. Our numbers are dwindling, they cry, and we must guard against the evil of assimilation which will reduce our numbers even further. (Of course, this entire argument is wrapped up in the "who is a Jew?" debate. It would seem that both traditional and liberal Jews are beginning to realize that rules of strict matrilineal descent may actually be a hindrance to Jewish survival. And there is now great discussion about whether one can define a Jew by birth or by praxis. Personally, I side with those who favor praxis, but with some misgivings. One may be a Jew by descent, but if they practice nothing of the faith, do we count them as a Jew? However-what level of praxis becomes the definition? We have secular Israeli Jews who claim no religious practice yet often keep kosher, light Shabbat candles, etc. Perhaps living in the promised land itself is enough to qualify them, especially with the sacrifices that requires these days?

And so now I must ask the question-is assimilation the evil it is portrayed as?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary ( ) has these definitions for "assimilate":
1 a : to take in and appropriate as nourishment : absorb into the system b :to take into the mind and thoroughly comprehend
2 a : to make similar b :to alter by assimilation c : to absorb into the culture or mores of a
population or group

And gives its etymology as being from the Latin assimulare to make similar.

Cells assimilate nourishment, and thus are able to survive. The same can be said of cultures and religions. Assimilation may not be the great evil, and could even be a savior or redeemer instead.
Judaism has surely grown and benefited from assimilation over the years. There is even the radical suggestion that the Jews actually borrowed the idea of monotheism (or at the very least monolatry) from the Egyptians during the brief reign of Amenhotep, which overnight transformed Egyptian religion to the worship of one deity (only to have the whole idea thrown out by his son and successor.) Moshe gets some of the underpinnings of the legal and Judicial system from his father-in-law, a high priest of Midian. The Jewish ideas of hasatan, an adversary, and of mechatei hameitim, the resurrection of the dead, and messianism may have assimilated their way into Jewish culture from Zoroastrianism and other belief systems of the ancient near east. Who knows what we assimilated into Judaism while in Babylonian captivity that we now think of as normative for Judaism. Gobs of important Jewish scholars and texts were influenced by the Islamic cultures of their times. We were certainly nourished by that bit of assimilation. In more modern context, we have the Chasidim who still insist on wearing the coats and hats of Polish nobility, the Chabadniks who sing a niggun based on Le Marseilles. We have Yiddish and Ladino. We have things like the Center for Science and Halacha. And, being partial to contemporary Jewish music, look how much great new music (and great old music) is the result of assimilation from contemporary cultures. Technology, the internet, the web, computers et al. Even the most orthodox of Jewish communities has assimilated those pieces of modern society.

Judaism has adopted pieces of modern psychology, and of self-help programs. (Needless to say, as I've often pointed out in these musings, modern psychology, self-help and twelve-step programs have certainly liberally assimilated ideas from Judaism as well.)\

Whether for good or bad, we've certainly assimilated a fair share of capitalism and American-style democracy into Judaism. Similarly with the idea of rabbonim being preachers from the pulpit. Somehow, the once-a-year sermon model we used to employ might be favored by many!

No doubt, there is lots in contemporary culture that we might not benefit from assimilating. The Jews in the time of the Maccabees would likely have not benefited from the forced assimilation of Syrian-Greek religion (but who's to say that they wouldn't have benefited, and indeed, did benefit, from other aspects of Syrian-Greek culture? Not every assimilationist
became apostate.)

And I'll raise one point which is likely to raise some hackles-but I'll say it anyway. As liberal Judaism seems to have failed to retain it as the traditional communities do, and seems disinclined to borrow from our traditional co-religionists, perhaps we ought to assimilate more of the fellowship, camaraderie and haimishness found in the communities of the dominant Christian culture here in the U.S. In a funny way, we'd be assimilating back something we probably lost through assimilation into a society where the Kitty Genovese story can happen, where people don't talk to each other in Subway cars and elevators, and where so many people are out for themselves first and foremost!

And what has all this to do with parashat Miketz? Well, a good part of the Yosef story is about Yosef living in and adapting to Egyptian culture. He survived assimilation with his Judaism intact. And we can do the same. What sustained Yosef was his faith, his belief in Gd. This he never abandoned, just as Gd never abandoned him although his brothers surely did.

If Yosef can do it, so can we. We can assimilate the best of modern culture into our lives and keep our Judaism alive-if we can keep our faith alive. (The question of secular Israeli Jews who still maintain some elements of praxis without subscribing to the particularistic trappings that Jewish religious practice demands raises an interesting conundrum and may challenge my idea. They may profess no religious faith. If they assimilate, can they maintain their Judaism, thus showing a flaw in my theorem? Perhaps. I don't want to develop this argument more fully yet-though my earlier reference to the special nature of simply being a Jew living in eretz may have something to do with it all.)

I think fear of assimilation may be overblown. Stopping assimilation may be no panacea for Judaism's dwindling numbers. There is much that I admire in traditional Judaism, and much that I believe liberal Judaism has foolishly cast aside. Yet I think traditional Judaism's fear of assimilation may be their undoing. By the same token, there is the possibility that some liberal Jews have embraced assimilation altogether too much, and that may be their undoing.

There is a middle ground. It is the path blazed by Yosef and so many others. By assimilating that which from our surroundings can truly nourish and enrich us, while maintaining in our deepest core that essence of faith that keeps us Jewish. Yosef knew that it was G"d, and not Yosef, who could truly interpret Pharaoh's dreams.

Together we can face assimilation by embracing it, controlling it as a useful tool, rather than fighting it as inherently evil. Making it such an evil gives it more power than it really should have to defeat us. Let us be wise, as wise as Shlomo (Solomon), whose wisdom is portrayed in the traditional Haftarah for a 2nd Shabbat in Hanukkah, I Kings 3:15-4:1 (and which Reform sadly abandons for the articulate and detailed description of the dedication of Shlomo's temple. That's a change I'm still trying to figure out.)
So let us be wise. Let us assimilate assimilation into who and what we are, as we have done so often throughout our history. Like Yosef, may we be the richer and more successful for it. For it is through faith in G"d that we will be sustained. As Zechariah wrote, and as we read in last week's Haftarah: "lo b'chayil v'lo b'koach k'im b'ruchi... Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit..."

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Smaeiakh,

©2002, 2003, 2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, December 19, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Vayeishev 5769 - Herding Cats

Eleven years ago, I found myself focusing on a seemingly unimportant part of parashat Vayeshev, which I'd like to revisit now. In Bereshit 37:14 Yaakov (Israel) sends Yosef to see how his brothers and the sheep are doing. Not just to check on his brothers. Not just to check on the sheep. But to check on both. Clearly, Yaakov values both his sons and his flock. Well, of course he does. His sons are of his flesh and blood. His sheep are his livelihood. It's a pretty interdependent relationship.

In today's topsy-turvy world, I see far too often situations in which people either worry about only the sons, or only the sheep (or sadly, not worrying about either.) I have been in board and business meetings where the only concern is the money (the sheep) with little or no regard for the people. Rules are rules, policies are policies. The bottom line is all that matters. People are treated like sheep-whoops-well, actually, no, they're not, in the modern sense of that turn of phrase-because if they were Yaakov's sheep they would have been looked after. Funny how all of a sudden the way we treat sheep has become an example of negative treatment in our society. What a beautiful irony. It's a real commentary on how our values have changed over time. And it highlights a certain foolishness on our part. Herding people must be as difficult as herding cats, yet we still live in a world where people try to herd other people like sheep. But, like cats, we are pretty difficult to herd. Or are we? The GMs, IBMs, Microsofts, Googles, Apples, Archer-Daniel-Midlands, DeBeers, Wal-Marts et al of the world seem to owe a lot of their success to their ability to get people to herd more like sheep than like cats (or people.) Without this ability, mass marketing would be for naught.

Nevertheless, as I opined 11 years ago, balance is necessary. I've seen many situations where we focus so much attention on the people (the sons) that we forget the livelihood (the sheep.) That's not such a good idea either. The workplace is rife with businesses and institutions following the latest management fad. And, like the good Dilbert-Principle based places they are, they spend all this time on employee morale and treatment and completely forget the product. And how many times have we each found ourselves in a circumstance where we are making decisions that ultimately are good for neither the brothers or the sheep because we are afraid of hurting the brothers' feelings? Most of us (hopefully) have difficulties with having to give someone a negative evaluation, fire them, lay them off. Well, it won't make it any nicer a task, or any easier, but we can learn to take into consideration the needs of the sons and the sheep.- the employee and the company, the doctor and the patient, the customer and the clerk. If the brothers and the sheep aren't a good match for each other, it doesn't make much sense for them to be together.

In our current economic morass, it's easy to blame management or labor, big business or unions, lobbyists or lobbyists (let's face it, even the socially responsible causes need and use lobbyists.) In this case, I'd say we are all part of the problem-and the solution.

When we go out looking after things, we should remember to look after our brothers/sisters and our flocks. It's a good lesson in balance and in perspective. It's a lesson in finding the middle ground that benefits all. I'm sure the sheep and the brothers can be used a metaphors for some aspect of many different situations. I've only cited ones that happen to be on my mind.

This Shabbat, why not look to identify the brothers and the sheep in your life, and teach yourself to look after both. The next time you find the "brothers are most important" camp fighting with the "sheep are the most important camp" why not remind them of the simple lesson this one verse from Torah can teach us.

To all of you and your loved ones a

Shabbat Shalom,

©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, December 12, 2008

Random Musing before Shabbat-Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish Called Wonder

Eight years ago, I wrote about how this quote from A. J. Heschel's "Man Is Not Alone" can be somewhat helpful to me when I'm trying to deal with the many difficult passages in the Torah (not to mention all of life's difficult passages)

"Wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of knowledge."

This quote seems to

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have worked its way deep into my psyche. I find it cropping up often in my own thoughts, and also quite often I share the quote with others in a discussion. It happened again just the other day. I was involved in a discussion about being in a place of not knowing, of being unsure. It seems only natural for us to be fearful of "not knowing."

"Not knowing" isn't always the same as having doubt. Doubt, perhaps, can be thought of as "not knowing" if you are certain about something. One can have doubt about something whether or not they actually know of or about that something.

In 5761 I wrote that I first came upon this quote from "Man Is Not Alone" while searching for ways to deal with my troubled feelings regarding the horrible acts committed by Shimon and Levi in this week's Torah portion. My though process led me to see that while doubt is a negative, wonder is a positive. So, in examining such difficult passages such as the rape of Dinah, subsequent mass murder by two of her brothers, and Yaakov's indifference to all but his reputation, I began asking more "why did..." rather than "why didn't..." questions.

Looking back, I recognize this can be naught but a semantic exercise. What really is the difference between asking "why did x do y?" and "why didn't x do z instead?" Both are speculative. Why would one be a superior approach to the other? However, when it comes to "y" we know that "x" did it. When it comes to "z" we have no evidence-we have *only* speculation. In the former case, we have both knowledge *and* speculation. So perhaps it isn't just a matter of semantics. Working from a fact and speculation is surely better than simply working from speculation, isn't it? Or perhaps you *doubt* that? Maybe you should trying *wondering* about it instead.

Eight years ago I wrote: "This scientific age of reason that we live in seems to predispose us to be doubters. Yet, when one examines the works of the truly great scientists, one realizes that their motivation for seeking knowledge is indeed wonder. Much of what we do in this modern age has been corrupted into matters of hubris. Of proving we can do things (like send people to the moon.) This is a response to doubt. As sure as someone doubts a thing can be done, someone will accept the challenge. Should one climb Everest or K2 to prove it can be done, or because of the wonderment inherent in what you encounter on the way up and down, and at the top? (Or, apropos to my last musing, perhaps I should say ups and downs?)

Consider the difference in these statements:

I have doubts about the existence of G"d.

I wonder if G"d exists?

The former might result in you or someone trying to prove or disprove G"d's existence - something that science simply cannot do. The latter leaves you open to a realm of possibilities. Doubt creates only uncertainties. Wonder creates possibilities.

Appropriately enough, the film version of John Patrick Shanley's play "Doubt." opens today. In the stage version, which Shanley deftly subtitled "A Parable," there's a wonderful line delivered by one of the main characters, Sister Aloysius in responding to a complaint from one of the other nuns who has been having trouble sleeping: "Maybe we're not supposed to sleep well," she says.

While I think the character of Sister Aloysius has a point - one that I often make myself in referencing all of the apparent inconsistencies and troubling texts in the Torah - I think what it is that is keeping you up at night matters. I think I'd much prefer to lose sleep from being in an state of awe and wonder than from being in a state of doubt or uncertainty.

Of course, Merriam-Webster proceeds to blow my whole approach out of the water, as if defines the verb form of wonder thus:

1 a: to be in a state of wonder b: to feel surprise 2: to feel curiosity or doubt <wondering about the future>

So now I'm beginning to doubt that whole wonder thing. (Or am I wondering about it?)

The whole story of the rape of Dinah is in the Torah for some purpose. Perhaps that purpose is to simply discomfort us, to cause us to lose sleep, to doubt about the certainty of our moral choices. There's no *doubt* I'm going to be *wondering* about that this Shabbat. I hope you will too.

Shabbat Shalom, Adrian

P.S. - My apologies for the awful pun in titling this musing. I just couldn't resist.

©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, December 8, 2008

Random Musing AFTER Shabbat - Vayetze 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!

In a hurry to get packed and head out of town this weekend for a special occasion, I  neglected to send out my weekly musing on the parasha. In many ways, this turned out to be a fortuitous set of circumstances. I traveled out of town to attend the service and celebration attendant upon the son of a family friend becoming a bar mitzvah. This exceptional young man offered a d'var Torah on Saturday morning that took an angle I don't think I would have ever considered on my own. My thanks to Mischa Cohen Rothko for this amazing insight.

In his dvar, he was examining the well-known question of the order of verbiage of the direction of travel of the angels in Yaakov's dream - going up and down. His own personal interest in a particular  subject is responsible for a different take on this question. That particular subject is roller coasters-something that also has ups and downs.  He recalled being puzzled by the expression "the ups and downs of life" because the "downs" always seemed to be referred to in the negative. Hid experience as a roller coaster aficionado is quite different.  It's the going down that is the high point, the point of greatest exhilaration and happiness. The going up, on the other hand, is full of trepidation, uncertainty, and is, often, a boring and unsatisfying aspect of the experience.

He further suggested that if we think of ourselves as the angels,  then the going up part-the part where we are going to meet and connect with G"d and get our instructions would be the part more fraught with peril. Coming down, we are joyfully exuberant with our assigned tasks.
For angels, perhaps, coming *down* to earth from their comfortable heavenly abode might be a bit of a let-down, so they might be quite eager for the ascent rather than the descent. For we human beings, the ascent seems scary, difficult, for some not even possible. We don't know what's "up there."  We're scared of what we might find (or not find.) Yet, if we can make the arduous upward journey, the reward of the descent can be truly great.

In these difficult times, when our perilous ascent to the top of the financial volcano has reached the summit and we are now plummeting down, we might do well to consider that this might actually be the best part of the ride. Hold on tight, or throw your arms up in the air, but find a way to enjoy the ride - and remember that it's the energy of this descent that will power us through the next series of ascents and descents. I hope president-elect Obama can build a sturdy chain-lift (or, being a man of the 21st century, maybe a newer coaster technology like a linear induction catapult) to get our coaster up the hill.
This is, at best, a brief summation of a much longer dvar Torah, and I hope I've gotten the basic interpretation being suggested right. Thanks, Mischa, for your inspired out of the box thinking. You may yet stand the world on its head. I couldn't think of anyone better to accomplish the task.
Shavua Tov to all,
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester
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