Friday, May 28, 2010

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Beha'alotecha 5770 –Ecstasy (Redux 5760)


Ten years later, I think it's time to revisit this musing for parashat Beha'alot'kha. Next week, I'm off to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin for the annual Hava Nashira Songleading workshop at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp. Then, I'll be staying on at camp for the summer serving as one of the two Media specialists. I plan to keep up with my weekly musings, my blogging, my tweeting, etc. while at camp, though I might not be able to keep up the same pace. Technology has come a long way since I last spent an entire summer at OSRUI in the mid-90s. Back then, I had to pay to have a phone line installed by the phone company to my room in camp in order to have dial-up service to get online!

Random Musing Before Shabbat -  5760


When did we learn to fear passion, to learn to let go and let Gd's spirit flow freely in us ands through us?

Is it our modern, technological, scientific orientation that leads us to view ecstatic experiences as alien, bizarre, neurotic? Even I find myself sometimes questioning an epiphanal moment wondering if sleep deprivation or mass hysteria is a better explanation. For myself, I know better, but the doubt remains. And how much more so, I fear, for those with even less secure faith than my own.

Look at how we classify people engaged in ecstatic practices. We immediately think of snake handlers, speaking in tongues (and, as our parasha reminds us, this is not an idea that originated with Xtianity,) shaking, quaking, dancing, whirling, chanting, shouting, crying. We might even imagine our Hasidic Jewish co-religionists in fervent worship. Because we are suspicious of it, we might not think of it as ecstasy, and try and give it more "Jewish-sounding" names, but walk into some Hasidic services and I assure you you'll see some ecstatic worship. We easily dismiss the passion of our Xtian friends. We say "What a bunch of nut cases" or "losers" or ignoramuses" or "suckers." Some criticize our Hasidic brothers and sisters for their fervor by asking what their fervor contributes to the world - does it do more good than working for social  justice. "Don't spend so much time clinging to Gd, and a little more time helping out here on earth," they might say.

We are not alone in our judging of ecstatic worship or behavior. As our parasha says:

Bemidbar 11: 26 Two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them--they were among those recorded,
but they had not gone out to the Tent--and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp. 27 A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, "Eldad and Medad are acting
the prophet in the camp!" 28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses' attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, "My lord Moses, restrain them!" 29 But Moses
said to him, "Are you wrought up on my account?

Fervor, ecstasy, call it what you will, has a purpose, a meaning, and is, in my opinion, efficacious. As Moshe Rabbeinu goes on to say:

11:29b Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!

We often don't like prophets because what they have to say makes us uncomfortable. It should, and it is supposed to. Fact of the matter is, it wouldn't make us uncomfortable unless we did have some guilt or concern or failing or worry or nagging doubt. I suggest the same is just as true of the ecstatic among us.

Many Jews today, unsure of their own beliefs, unskilled and often not as learned as they could be (whether by choice or circumstance) in their own religious tradition, fear, resent, and often lash out at those who seem to know more, or be more observant, or act ecstatically or passionately in their worship. But is it a fear and resentment mixed with jealousy as well? Have the ecstatic among us achieved what far too many feel they can't achieve?

That is the truly sad part. Far too many no longer believe they can ever achieve some sort of reasonable passionately spiritual plane of existence. However, this power is not lost to us. It has always been within our grasp, and will always be so. It requires, sometimes, stepping outside our paradigms, pressing the "edge of the envelope," stepping through the looking glass. This is scary-we fear loss of comfort and security, and are unwilling to risk that, even when we feel an emptiness in our lives that perhaps only Gd and ecstatic love can fill.

Faith. This is what we lack. And also what we need most. Faith requires trust. The willingness to step into the unknown. To let the spirit of G"d flow in us and through us and out of us. To be ecstatic, passionate, fervent, joyful. Is it possible to love G"d with all our heart and soul and do any less?

No, let us not fear the ecstatic among us. Let us become them. All of us.

11:29b Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!

Ken y'hi ratson.
Ken y'hi ratsoneinu.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2010, 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, May 21, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Nasso 5770-Cherubic Puzzles

When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him.

The JPS editorial committee made an interesting choice here. The nature of Hebrew is such that it can be difficult to discern to whom different pronouns and pronominal suffixes are referring. Their translation of the text renders it to mean that when Moses spoke to G”d, Moses would hear G”d’s voice from above the ark between the two angel figurines, thus G”d spoke to Moses.

However, it could be the other way around. The final part of the verse could be read this he (Moses) spoke to Him (G”d.) It is already clear from all that has transpired in the Torah that sometimes conversations with G”d are two-way,and sometimes one-way (and one-way can be in either direction.)

So why does the JPS editorial committee assume the meaning of “thus He (G”d) spoke to him (Moses)” ?  There’s certainly theological support for their choice. We’ve already learned that exposure to G”d’s voice can be overwhelming, so perhaps this setup exists to focus G”d’s voice narrowly to the person being addressed (i.e. Moses.) Yet why might it not serve the same purpose in reverse-to focus Moses’ voice to G”d ? After all, it took 400 years for G”d to awaken to the cries of Israel enslaved in Egypt. Maybe this is a sort of megaphone? Actually, that’s a nice metaphor. For Moses, it amplifies and spreads out his voice. G”d voice is narrowed and focused, speaking into the other end. Seems just the right thing.

It’s amusing to imagine this communication system as a device often found in science fiction and fanatasy – the equivalent of the viewscreen, maybe even a holographic projector. While the Torah only specifically mentions audio content, is this perhaps an artifact of the time period, when the idea of visual communication at a distance was not really something thought about (although, in a sense, dreams and visions are just that!)

So, if there was also video content, what, exactly would Moses have seen? Are we in a Wizard-of_Oz-ish “pay no attention to the man behind the screen” situation? Maybe Moses just saw patterns, or an energy cloud, or some other imagery oft imagined in science fiction. Or maybe it was just a one way visual (but then, would G”d really need that?)

Perhaps we need to re-imagine “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with the ark having some sort of Star Trek/Star Wars/Stargate/Blade Runner communication display that appears between the cherubim. Hitler wanted the ark for its unlimited power, according to the movie. So instead, with our new scenario, ask yourself: about what would Hitler want to have a conversation with G”d? Would G”d even answer? (Maybe G”d has switched carriers since then?) For that matter, what gave the writers of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the crazy idea that G”d’s power through the ark of the covenant would even work for Hitler and his minions? That is, however, a very Jewish take on things. It’s very rabbinic to understand that something created for good could also have its power wielded for evil.

In the end, we’re still left with my original questions: why it is assumed that the communication via the ark was one way from G”d to Moses, and why is such a communication device necessary? I have no answers, only crazy notions like those I’ve shared here. Once again, the Torah has done its job, creating a puzzle for us in which we can delight.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Bemidbar 5770 – Sense Us

Let me tell you, taking a census is not an easy thing.  I happen to be working as one of the many people around the country who have been temporarily employed by the Census Bureau in order to conduct and complete the 2010 census. I can’t tell you much more than that because Census workers are sworn to strict oaths of confidentiality. Suffice it to say that I have encountered all sorts of interesting situations and interesting people in the process.

Moses had help. In the Torah, it doesn’t really talk about how these counts were conducted. However, maybe G”d learned a thing or two from Yitro’s example to Moses on how to deal with adjudicating so many disputes, by getting help. Here G”d instructs Moses to have the chieftains of the various tribes assist in taking the census. Even with this help,  if the numbers of the Israelites were as large as stated, then it was a monumental task to take a census of them all, even excluding women, children, and people above or below certain ages. Yet, even if we accept the interpretation of some scholars who suggest that the numbers were actually much smaller, that the “elef” thought of as 1,000 actually represented a much smaller group, it still would have been a difficult, time-consuming task-even enlisting the help of the chieftains.

Perhaps the chieftains asked clan heads to help, and so on down the line. It’s too bad that the Torah doesn’t go into the mechanism of these ancient census activities. We might have been able to learn a thing or two from them.

The Torah has so much detail about so many things, that I have to wonder why it omits so many other things that are of seeming significance. I’d love to know the details of how a census was conducted in those times. Yes, we have the details of the results of the census, but not of the census mechanism itself (other than knowing that tribal chieftains assisted.)

Perhaps those helping with this ancient census didn’t have to deal with things like college students saying “but my parents put me down on their census form at home” yet knowing how the Israelites were (and the Jewish people still are) there must have been those who chose to be difficult or non-conformists. Of course, there’s a big difference between being able to tell someone “U.S. Law requires you to participate” and “G”d told Moses to count you!” At least I think those words held more power at that time. (I’m not so sure how people would react today if we told them that G”d was requiring them to be counted by the census!)

Which, of course, brings up to the question “why does G”d need a head count?” To which the standard answer is “it’s not for G”d, but for human beings.” For logistical purposes, or to know how many soldiers we could field. Yes, there are all sorts of logistical reasons why Moses and the leadership needed to have a head count (although not having one doesn’t seem to have been that much of a problem so far.) An omniscient G”d would know the head count, and could, theoretically, just tell us. Yet we’re left to fend for ourselves-which, in the end, is probably a good thing. Make things too easy, we start to take them for granted.

Maybe that’s why there are people today here in the US not inclined to make the job of taking a census so easy. We’ve got things pretty easy here. Yet underlying that is a vast bit of logistics and organization. Just as we forget all that’s behind it when we flip a light switch, we often make the same mistake with our government or (tribal) leadership.

Notice that the Torah enumerates. We know the census data. Presumably, everyone knew the data – of not to exact amounts, at least in rough terms. Surely that gave them an appreciation for the enormity of the task of keeping the community alive, safe, and active.

In musings years ago, I spoke of how the census represented the need for each of us to stand up and be counted, and to know where our place in the community is. This year, I ask us to look at the numbers differently. Think not of ourselves, but of all the countless (or rather, counted) others that are part of our community. Think of the enormity of the task of sustaining such a community.

We are but dust and ashes, yet for us the whole world was made. In this duality lies the essence of our existence. Be counted so that you count as yourself. Count all the others in the community, that you may know that you are a only a part of a much larger whole.

Thanks, Judaism. You’ve done it again.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester

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Friday, May 7, 2010

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Behar-Bekhukotai 5770 Bad Parenting 301

I've written in my musings before about the many examples of bad parenting by G"d that can be found in the Torah. (I also often speak of this with my religious school students.) There's a great deal of it in the early parts of the Torah. Y'know. Things like "you can eat anything you want from this garden except from that tree..." and similar stuff.

G"d does seem to mature, at times, as the story progresses, but there are lapses all too frequently. We have this petulant deity, somewhat reminiscent of the "baby deity" from that old Star Trek "Squire of Gothos" episode. There are times I wish G"d's parents would show up and pull the plug on G"d's childish activities.
(Of course, it's not only G"d's actions that illustrate bad parenting. We have Avraham all too easily willing to sacrifice his son. We have Yitzkhak, fooled-or not, by his younger son, and Rivkah encouring her younger son to be duplicitous. Yaakov, favoring one son among twelve and offering this special coat. Yaakov, again, putting his own concerns over those of his poor, raped daughter. The list goes on.)
By the time we reach the end here of the book of Leviticus, I think G"d has made it all the way to the advanced class, Bad Parenting 301. In this case, it's bad parenting of the Israelites.

Yes, there are some great ideas here. The concept of the sh'mitah (sabbatical) year and the yoval (Jubilee) are quite brilliant. The reminder that, ultimately, all land belongs to G"d is a potent formula for maintaining and ethical society.  The return of land to original owners or their descendants every Jubilee year is, at least superficially, an idea that has merit and the appearance of justice and fairness. The ability of Israelites to redeem their land, and to redeem their own selves, when forced by circumstances to become beholden to another, is another powerful concept. The idea that such arrangements must be done using fair methods of financial exchange is an idea that still resonates today (and is, perhaps, an idea that is far too often overlooked in the way our markets are structured.)

Unfortunately, bad parenting rears its ugly head here. These brilliant concepts are rendered far less powerful when G"d limits them to the Israelites. Even a resident alien is subject to these rules, but only as they apply to Israelites. The Torah is far too clear on this:

Such male and female slaves as you may have-it is from the nations round about you  that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property; you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such, you may treat as slaves. But for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other. (Lev. 25: 44-46 JPS)

Wow, is that ever ugly.  Here, slavery is forever enshrined as a right, at least for Israelites. In addition, the Israelites don't have to treat their slaves as nicely as they do their kinsmen who are serving them in what can only be thought of as a form of indenture.
Yes, there are other places in Torah that seem to contradict these policies. Sort of. There are places that charge us to be fair to slaves and treat them well, to free them under certain circumstances. We are constantly reminded that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and that this should mitigate our treatment of slaves.
None of this seems sufficient to overcome the clear meaning of what is written here in the text. Israelites may enslave others. They may treat them more harshly than they would treat an indentured Israelites.

Telling us that we can enslave people from outside our tribe is bad parenting, and is probably responsible for millenia of Judeo-Christiam-Islamic attitudes to slavery, enslavement, and treatment of slaves not of your own. It devalues others at the price of pumping up the worth of a particular tribe or group. Ugly. Just ugly.

The bad parenting doesn't stop there. Next, in Bekhukotai, we move on to the reward and punishment method of insuring ethical behavior. Follow G"d laws and prospser. Disobey, and suffer the consequences.

While I'll admit this isn't an entirely unrealistic approach, it's based on a flawed implementation. Instead of the underlying idea being that actions have consequences, the concept here is obey G"d, for only G"d delivers reward and punishment. This sets up the flawed notion that if one does something wrong, and isn't punished by G"d, than perhaps it wasn't wrong (or G"d wanted you to get way with it) or...well, you get the drift. Similarly, it sets us up for disappointment, creating high expectations for strict obedience to G"d's instructions.

The system is so flawed, that G"d seems compelled, as an afterthought, to say to the Israelites that they are surely gonna screw up badly, but, in the end, G"d's covenant with them shall move G"d to be merciful, and never completely spurn or reject the Israelites. That, at least, sounds parental. Unconditional love. Nevertheless, it's a pretty flawed implementation of the concept.
Finally, near the end of Bekhukotai, we encounter one really nasty bit of bad parenting:

But of all that anyone owns, be it man or beast or land of his holding, nothing that he has proscribed for the L"rd may be sold or redeemed; every proscribed thing is totally consecrated to the L"rd. No human being who has been proscribed can be ransomed: he shall be pout to death. (Lev. 27:28-29 JPS)

This is the ugliest of all. An Israelite can actually consecrate a (non-Israelite) slave, and proscribe him or her for G"d. In other words, human sacrifice.

Now, chapter 27 begins with the system for virtually pledging one's life, consecrating it to G"d by paying an appropriate amount of silver. The basic idea here was less about the consecration of a thing (or a person) for what was really expected was the redemption from the consecration. That's what brough the silver into the Temple coffers. While it's a clever mechanism to insure funding of the religious system, it's a little uncomfortable that one can actually put a value on a human life.  That's bad parenting.

Now, the voluntary consecrations are of a class that can be redeemed, and, after all, it is the redemption that is the ultimate goal. There is another class, kheirem, most often translated as proscribed.  These are things consecrated to G"d because they are to be set apart, usually because there is some inherent wrongness involved. Things that are kheirem are meant to be destroyed, avoided, or hidden away. Because slaves are propety, because they are non-Israelite, and because they most likely worship other gods, they can be proscribed. And, as the text tells us here, they cannot be redeemed. Proscribed humans are put to death.  This is troubling-especially so as in the previous verses we learn that even an impure animal can be ransomed!

Just more bad parenting. G"d has mastered the advanced class.

Tune in during the coming weeks to see if G"d decides to pursue a Masters and a Doctorate in bad parenting.

As for ourselves, I hope we can at least learn from G"d's bad examples, and be better parents than G"d.

Shabbat Shalom,
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester