Friday, April 11, 2014

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Acharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5774–Let My People Barf

Things don’t always turn out as planned. As I was musing about the parasha this week, I thought I had settled on a theme. It was short and sweet, and just a tad controversial.

In essence, I was focusing on the end of the parasha where the text warns us that if we continue the abominable practices of those who dwelled in the land before us, the land will spew us out as it did them. It’s a pretty graphic yet effective image. My idea, which was, admittedly, greatly stretching the context of that exhortation, is that…well, before I say it, I guess I need to say what I was originally going to say before these words. I was going to say that I love and support Israel. I oppose the BDS movement. I believe that many media outlets skew their reporting with an anti-Israel bias.

Then I was going to say that the modern state of Israel is not free of sin or ethical lapses, and might do well to heed the Torah’s warning, lest it be spewed out.

I’m not abandoning that statement or its sentiment – it has merit if, as nothing else, the sort of provocative statement I often make as a gadfly.

Nevertheless, as I continued to muse and think about what I wanted to say this week, I began to grow uncomfortable. Not necessarily with the specific thought which I was proposing, but with my knowledge of how these and similar verses has been used and abused countless times over the centuries to justify all sorts of horrible things.

In our own time, knowing that the abhorrent practices which provide the context for the spewing out include the verses that are considered/interpreted by some as being a strict prohibition against homosexuality, preachers and politicians alike suggest that the land (be it the US, Canada, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, France, etc.) will do (or is already doing) the same to us. Our sexual immoralities will be our undoing, they say.

I don’t want to contribute one iota of support or suggest one iota of merit to their claims.

I though about equivocating for a minute, about suggesting that not all of the things this parasha notes as prohibited sexual relations should be permitted.  We know there are solid genetic reasons for prohibiting (or at least discouraging) certain types of sexual relationships between related parties. I’m no particular fan of what we call bestiality (although I do not see how an animal could possibly give consent thus from an animal welfare perspective, there’s good reason to prohibit it. There are those who argue, however, that zoophilia is not a crime, and zoophilic pornography should be permitted.) I’m certainly not going to make a case in favor of incestuous relationships. However don’t kid yourself. Google “pro incest” and you’ll find, among the less troublesome search results, some reasonable arguments being made. They can also be quick to point out that the Torah does not specifically prohibit one from having sexual relations with one’s daughter. (The rabbis state that this is simply obvious so did not need to be mentioned – a curious attitude for them to take considering on how many other occasions omissions were cited as quite important and binding. In addition, it is easy to exegetically derive the prohibition from verse 6, which prohibits sexual relationships with one’s own flesh and blood.) On the other side are scientists and researchers who say that a revulsion to incestuous relationship may have been genetically hard-wired into us as part of an evolutionary strategy.  “P’ru urvu” – be fruitful and multiply - is not just biblical, to some extent it’s Darwinian.

Then there’s good old verse 20 which prohibits sexual relationships with your neighbor’s wife. We all know how poorly we’ve done observing that one. It was broad enough in scope to warrant a later clarification in Deuteronomy that it did not apply to captive woman, who, in many cases, would have been the wife of another man. This leads, of course, into all sorts of speculation of what the Torah means when it says “eishet amitekha “ which we translate as your neighbor’s wife. The definition of “neighbor” from the root ayin mem gets complicated.

The issue gets further clouded when we ignore the word “l’zara” – for seed – in the verse, the implication being that non-procreative sex might be permitted (though in general the rabbis say no to that.

But I digress. We can argue all day about what kinds of sexual relationships should be permitted and prohibited, and argue about how Torah defines this. That’s not my focus today. My focus is my discomfort at citing verses 24-30 as a warning to bolster one’s case that failure to adhere to a particular understanding of all that is prohibited in the preceding verses will cause/is the cause of [insert terrible disaster which one is equating with being spewed out of the land here.]

We’ve all heard the pronouncements. They don’t all come from non-Jews either. Ovadiyah Yosef and others of his ilk spew forth venomous and repugnant ideas. Homosexuality led to 9/11/2001, or the financial meltdown, or to this and that. G”d is punishing us for our sexual depravities. I remember hearing, in my youth, suggestions that the US “lost” or “got spewed out” from Vietnam for the same sorts of reasons. I am certain there were leaders who used similar rhetoric to justify the white-man’s occupation of native American territory. Then again, we inherited these empire-building ideas from the very colonialists we rebelled against to become our own nation (isn’t that ironic?) Then there’s Rudyard Kipling’s famous/infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden.” History all over the world, from China to Europe to the Americas and beyond is replete with examples of people dispossessing other people and justifying it by claiming superiority and demeaning the culture, religion, ethics, etc. of those who preceded them in the land. History has seen plenty of people (in both the individual leader and the plural collective meaning) who thought they were “chosen.”

Is there any “nation” or “people” left in this world that is worthy of not being spewed forth from their own land? How many of them, if not the original occupants of the land, (and how many can actually claim that?) are guilty of continuing the same practices for which they decried the people from whom they took the land? Yes, modern Israel is guilty of some of that. Has it merited being spewed forth from its land? There are those who say it has, but I am not going to be one of them. I will not use the same rhetoric employed by so many in pursuit of nefarious ends.

G”d never told the Canaanites that what they were doing in terms of ritual practice, ethics, sexual practice, etc. was an abomination therefore justifying G”d enabling the Israelites to dispossess them. Nineveh was given the chance to repent. Sodom and Gomorra received a minimalist rebuke and warning. The Canaanites got bupkis. They just got spewed out. Guess G”d needed to make a point. The Canaanites were not up, apparently, on all the news out of Egypt. (Actually, there’s an argument to be made in G”d’s favor. By the time Joshua went in and conquered Canaan, there was plenty of evidence that the Israelites were favored by -if not “the” then “a”- G”d.)

It would be easy to say, about all of this, that it is G”d’s mess and it is up to G”d to clean it up. That’s not, apparently, the way this works. Torah’s not in heaven. It’s up to us to figure it out and apply it. That means that reasonable people can disagree about what exactly what the Torah commands. That mans, at least for me, that the Torah cannot be held up as some sort of absolute. The Torah itself is not absolute – it equivocates and vacillates and contradicts itself. There are things in the Torah that do make me want to barf. I think it’s okay for me or anyone to feel that way. So spew forth, people. Just don’t spew forth about people being spewed forth if they don’t adhere to your understanding of what it is for that people can be spewed forth from their land. Just remember that when we barf, it really is our mess, and not G”d’s, and we are obligated to clean it up.

I don’t really want to end with that kind of image, even though I’ve titled this musing “Let My People Barf.” So I’ll offer something hopeful from the special hafatarah for Shabbat HaGadol:

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.  He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before
the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.

Don’t expect Elijah to clean up your mess, either.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2014 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 - Revisiting Schrödinger's Cat
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772 - Don't Forget That The Goat Goes Free
Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 -  Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5768  - Why Wait for Elijah?
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah
Akharei Mot 5765-The Ways of Egypt and Canaan (revised)
Acharei Mot 5763--Immoral Relativisms?
Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

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