Friday, June 30, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Chukat 5777–Still Not Seeing What’s Inside (Plus Bonus Thoughts)

I always have trouble deciding what to write about for Chukat. Four years ago, I wrote about the boastful victory hymns (jodies) of chapter 22.  Two years ago I revisited an orthographical oddity in Chukat that had important implications for the idea and concepts of taking possessing/conquering/inheriting/dispossessing.

I find this topic still very much on my mind as I struggle with both troubling texts in the Torah and the troubling realities in modern day Israel.

Without commenting on them, I urge you to read these verses (and then perhaps consider them in light of what I had written in earlier musings like those above, and the current troubles in Israel:


Our history with conquest leaves a lot to be desired, and should give us pause in today’s realities.

Those topics are too heavy for me to wade into at the moment given my own physical, mental, and emotional states, so I’ll beg off and leave it to you, dear readers, to explore this. I’d like to go revisit some thoughts on the haftarah for Chukat, which we only read in years when Chukat is read separately.

Now Jephthah was a man with no yichus. Yichus means one's lineage, their pedigree, their family background as it were. Although he was known as a great warrior, he was also the son of Gilead the Israelite and of some woman who was not legally living with his father. (The exact situation is unclear. The text describes him as the son of a prostitute. But the Hebrew uses a word, zonah, for which there are conflicting understandings. So whether she was an actual prostitute, or a woman who behaved like one, or for whatever reason was simply "shacking up" with Gilead without following the appropriate protocols, we'll never know.) In any case, it made Jephthah persona non-grata, and his "brothers," all sons of Gilead's "legal" wife made sure he wasn't going to inherit any of his father's estate, so they drove him away. Jephthah runs off into the hills and becomes a bandit.

So time passes and then, surprise of surprises, the Ammonites attack the Israelites in Gilead (don't you just love these stories where names and place are all the same?) and the elders decide that Jephthah is best suited to lead them in battle against them. So they ask him to come back and lead the Israelites in battle.

Is it any surprise that Jephthah's response is that after all they have done to him, hated him, driven him out of the community, now that there is some tzuris (and here the Hebrew actually using the root of that word!) that they coming crawling to him now?

The elders respond simply that they have "shavnu," "turned back" to him. Now, we can add all sorts of layers of meaning on top of this, especially in the sense of what we have made of the concept of "t'shuva," of returning to G"d. And many commentators buy into this. I'm not quite so willing to let the elders off the hook so easy-their understanding of "we have returned to you" may simply be a straight answer. "Yeah, maybe we screwed up by driving you out, but we really need you." Of course, even that's a lot to eisegete into the text. I'm not sure they were really apologizing, so much as simply acknowledging the truth - they treated him badly and now they needed him. I see no apology in their words. And they even sweeten the deal by telling Jephthah that if he helps he will be in charge of all of Gilead.

Still, it seems to be enough for Jephthah, for he agrees. Yet, like so many other biblical heroes, he has no misguided sense of who it is that really allows victories, and Jephthah acknowledges that G"d will be the one that delivers the Ammonites in Jephthah's hands.

And, to make a long story short, that's what happens.

There are several themes that I am gleaning here.

One is that quality or virtue of a man who recognizes G"d's role in the universe. This may or may not be a positive character attribute, depending upon your understanding of the Divine. From a  biblical standpoint, it’s  a plus. From a believer in G”d as ineffable, it’s a plus. For a believer in a less than perfect G”d, or a G”d perhaps self-limited through the act of giving human beings free will, it’s not such a plus. For a believer in a capricious G”d, or a G”d with a slow learning curve, it’s also not so much of a plus. Pray to G”d but row toward shore.

Another is the valor of a man who, although ill-treated by his "brethren" still comes to their aid. I think that's something worth pondering this Shabbat, and I commend it to you. How many of us might do the same? How many could put aside thoughts of revenge and come to the aid of someone who treated them wrongfully? (I am reminded here of the lepers in the haftarah for M’tzora from I Kings chapter 27.) This seems to be a reasonable virtue, and one that appears not so easy or common to embrace. Though how many of us silently work our way through situations where we feel we have been mistreated but wish to continue to show a professional or upstanding demeanor? Anyone who has done that knows it’s not always easy to do. I used to believe that such a virtue was always worth the effort. As I age, and experience more and more such situations, I begin to weary of having to find the strength to carry on. Yet old habits die hard.

And thirdly, there is the theme of the danger of using yichus as a value system. Even today, many Jews seeks a marriage for themselves or their children that will bring more yichus to them and their family. I guess it's not unusual for anyone to want to "marry well." But it becomes a meat market in which people are stamped with their grade, their suitability as a partner or even as a friend or business partner. How many potential Jephthahs have been overlooked in the search for greater and greater yichus? How man Jephthahs have been hatefully spurned or treated with indifference or even ill will due to their lack of yichus?

For those who believe the liberal Jewish communities are free of such practices, I’d urge you to take a closer, longer, harder look. The same to those who believe that the orthodox world still continues to rely solely on the principle of yichus. Yes, it still carries great weight, but orthodoxy is recognizing the pitfalls. Our communities have developed different understandings of what conveys yichus other than lineage: fame, wealth, fortune, education (not just what but where, too,) physical attributes, health, character, virtue, righteousness, piety, s'micha (and not only orthodox rabbis play the s’micha yichus card-it’s easily found in the liberal Jewish world as well) and so many more. Many of these have been incorporated into the traditional/orthodox understanding of yichus for a long time – others are newer. I daresay the balance of which of these are more prized than others has changed over the centuries, and even more so in the last few decades.

I’d like to believe that dynastic families are becoming less common and wield less power than in the past. I’m not sure that’s true. In addition, what I do see are classes of people that are taking the place of individual dynasties. It’s no longer just the 1%. It’s the 20% in the top tier. Go read Richard Reeve’s “Dream Hoarders:  How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It.”

Haven't we learned that it takes more than a good family lineage, financial success, etc. to make a great person? I can think of plenty of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had lots of yichus but were hardly paragons of virtue. [When I first wrote this musing, Dubya was in the White House, and I commented: “We need look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days to be certain of that. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day said, "Who knew Jeb was the smart one?"] Don’t even get me started on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The office of POTUS is one that should have lots of yichus, no? Sadly, it is no longer held by a virtuous person.

We ought to take the measure of each human being individually. Not on the basis of who their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, or their fourth cousin twice-removed was. [Or their wealth, or success in business. If you stop and think about it, our current POTUS plays the yichus card all the time, though his understanding of what truly conveys yichus is sadly mistaken.] We need to look at who someone is on the inside and not just the outside. How many pearls have gone unnoticed for want of someone willing to look at the ugly shell that produces them? This Shabbat, look for the pearls inside everyone.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2017 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester

Chukat 5775 - Wanting To See Morfe Than Just The View From The MountainTop (Revised from 5759/61)
Chukat5774 - What a Difference a Vowel Makes (Revised from 5767)
Chukat 5773 - Biblical "Jodies"
Chukat 5772 - Your G"d, Our G"d, and the Son of a Whore
Chukat 5767-What A Difference A Vowel Makes
Chukkat 5765-Not Seeing What's Inside
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam
Chukat-Balak 5766 - Community Sing
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop

Friday, June 23, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Korach 5777–Revisiting B’tzelem Anashim

In 2004, I first wrote a musing on a subject which I had been contemplating and had even mentioned in some of my writings before. It’s time to revisit it again.

Parashat Korach presents some of G”d's worst (and best) behaviors.  Why are we presented with an image of G”d acting in ways that we ourselves struggle to overcome?

There's a theory I and others have advanced before. If we are made in G”d's image or likeness, then those traits and behaviors we exhibit are perforce traits and behaviors that G”d might exhibit as well. "That's overly anthropomorphic!" I hear the hecklers crying from the back of the room. "G”d is not like people," one says. "G”d is above all that, G”d is so much more, even more than we can understand or comprehend."

Still, for me, the logic holds. If there is a little bit of G”d in each of us, then there is a little bit of each of us in G”d. And, at least in my reading of the texts, the Torah supports me in my viewpoint. Why else give us example after example of a G”d who is petulant, pedantic, sophomoric, rash, vengeful, angry, jealous, vain, bored in addition to being a G”d who is loving, caring, nurturing, compassionate, exciting? Perhaps it is simply to make us feel better about our own shortcomings and weaknesses. If G”d sometimes cannot control these urges, how much more so must if be difficult for us to do so, and how much more vigilant we must ever be at guarding ourselves from engaging in negative behaviors.

It could be a way to keep us a little scared and in awe. Knowing that G”d can be vengeful, angry, jealous, etc. is a device for keeping us on our toes as well. It used to be quite an effective technique, and even into our own times this technique is practiced. Sadly, the concept can be perversely utilized, as in calling AIDS a vengeful act of G”d, or even the events of 9/11 as punishment for arrogance and hubris. So I tend to keep this particular concept at a distance, and like to steer us a bit more into the "awe" category rather than the "fear" category. Of course, we have the joy of the Hebrew not being entirely clear on this, allowing for a little fear to appropriately be part of awe.

There is the "this is all for human understanding" school of thought. It's like trying to communicate with an inferior species. So G”d's actions are portrayed using metaphors of human behavior that we can understand. This is all well and good when we're talking about human-alien contact. I question its usefulness in explaining a relationship between a Deity and its creations. If we really are that inferior to G”d, then how can we enter into a covenant with G”d? We would be, as a species, under the legal age to make a contract!

Modern scholarship is contributing another approach – G”d as realistic. G”d reflects for us the realities we experience in our daily lives (or, put another way, G”d experiences the realities we experience daily, thus we too experience them – for G”d models the Universe after G”d’s experiences. Is that any less plausible a concept than we modeling G”d from our reality?)

Much of Greek thought and theology sought and modeled a perfect Divinity. Those thoughts and theologies made their way far deeper into what became Christianity than they did in what became Judaism. One view of the Trinity concept is that it creates a place for both G”d’s perfection and imperfection (and a place to be above even those concepts.) Judaism’s G”d is dynamic, living, adapting. Judaism’s G”d has moments of truly transcendent love and compassion, combined with fits of pique, temper tantrums, etc. Just as life is for human beings.

For me, given that we do have a covenant with G”d, and a mission to be G”d's partners in the work of repairing and completing the universe, it only makes sense that both G”d and G”d's creations learn together, side by side.

The Israelites are given a tough time (mostly by their own descendants-us) for being so stubborn and obstinate. For just not "getting it." For seeing miracles and wonders and still kvetching, whining and complaining.

Well folks, guess what? At times G”d is a slow learner too. Perhaps, before the story of creation in B'reishit as we know it, G”d made other attempts to forge a universe. (My favorite idea is that G”d made a universe in which everything was perfect, and creations did not have free will. But G”d got bored with it after five minutes because nothing exciting ever happened, so G”d wiped it out and tried again.) Then G”d made this current attempt, and is trying this little free-will experiment. And I suspect it had some unanticipated results for G”d. So G”d has had to adjust, compensate, change, learn, grow and account for the effects of free will.

But let's look at the record. G”d puts Adam and Chava in a perfect garden, but gives them free will. So they go ahead and screw things up right away. Still, G”d decides to give it a little more time. After a while, G”d appears to get impatient and decides to wipe it all out again,. Only this time G”d decides to save a lot of extra work, and only kills off most of the creations. Sort of like a neutron bomb--destroying people but not nature and property. Then Noah's descendants get all prideful and decide to build this tower thingy and here we see a little jealousy, perhaps even fear on G”d's part. Hmmm--these creations might actually get to me. Time to get out the fly swatter and the speech-confounder.

And on and on the cycles goes. We mess up or do something unexpected. G”d is unhappy and lashes out. Yet G”d does seem to learn over time that wiping everyone out isn't always the best idea. But when G”d gets really angry, well, it takes Moses to talk G”d out of rashly destroying the people (and notice how Moses appeals to G”d's vanity to do this--how would it look to the Egyptians, Moses asks.)

At first G”d is going to wipe us all out for Korach's sins. But Moses talks G”d into just venting on the people who actually rebelled (though G”d still can't resist also zotzing their wives and children as well.) G”d wipes out Korach's followers, and turns the 250 with the firepans into toast. And the very next day, here we go again. G”d's ready to wipe us all out, and Moses talks G”d out of it. The first time, Moses was able to stop G”d in time to prevent total annihilation. This time, G”d starts acting before Moses and Aaron can stop it. G”d has already initiated the plague.  So they go and make expiation for the people and G”d heeds their sacrifice.

And then,. As if nothing major had transpired at all, G”d goes on to cheerfully give a re-elaboration of the support system for the priests and Levites.

Sounds awfully human-like to me.

I guess I can sort of round this up by saying that perhaps it’s better that G”d isn't perfect. If G”d could easily be bored creating a perfect universe, then how much more so might we get bored if we had a truly perfect G”d? Nope, I'll take G”d as portrayed in Torah, warts and all. And thank G”d for that!

Though I’ve edited and added to what you’ve just read, that’s how I ended the original version of this musing in 2004. There is another approach to this that I neglected to include. It’s all about how we define and understand the concept of perfection. What is perfect?  Perfect implies that something has achieved a state which cannot be, either in reality or theory, improved. For millennia people have dreamed of such a place, ascribed such qualities to the olam haba, heaven, the other world, the world to come, etc. C’mon folks – we’ve talked about this before. I already accept that a perfect universe would be the most boring place ever. Had G”d created perfection, G”d’s creations would have gone crazy, and G”d would have quickly moved on to something else. It’s the tension between (unachievable) perfection and imperfection that makes the world an interesting place to live. Our mission in life is to try and leave the world a better place than we found it. What purpose would our lives have in a world in which we could never make real or theoretical improvements?

Perfection need not be the absence or impossibility of improvement. There’s another way to define it. Some readers may recall a twenty-year-old musing whose anniversary I highlighted a few months back, for parashat Sh’mini, about GEFTS, the “good enough for this show” philosophy that I learned from a wise old colleague. By having each element of a show in balance, striving for a coherent whole, with no one area outshining the others, one can create a truly “perfect” experience. This is perfection being about balance. In my view, balance, perforce, requires give and take from the constituent parts of that perfection. You can’t have it all – everything can’t be fully maximized. (Even G”d had to engage in “tzimtzum” to make a space for the universe.)

In his controversial 2012 op-ed piece in the NY Times,  An Imperfect G”d, Yoram Hazony described perfection as balance, and then went on to say:

What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.

A few weeks later, responding to Hazony in the Times of Israel, writer/blogger Gil Reich pointed out an almost inherent contradiction in viewing G”d as imperfect in this manner, that, Purim-like, turns things upside-down:

If our definition of perfect involves a trade-off of conflicting principles, then God and the world may be perfect despite the existence of pain and injustice.

If we define perfect as something that cannot be improved, then the world isn’t perfect. It’s better. Precisely because we can improve it.

Hazony is suggesting we allow G”d to be imperfect. Perhaps theodicy is not an issue, but a logical extension of the balancing of realities that our understanding of perfection requires.  Reich is suggesting that our static view of perfection  is what holds us back. Perhaps G”d’s perfection is in G”d’s imperfection.

I’m not sure which camp I’m on this. How does this play into b’tzelem/El”him/b’tzelem anashim? Was G”d perfect before creating the universe and humanity, and did the very act of creation cause G”d to have some imperfections? Is it free will, randomness, entropy, that are the root causes of what imperfection there is?  Is the universe perfect in its imperfection? Is G”d perfect in G”d’s imperfection? Is a universe in which we (and G”d) have to partner to keep improving things perfection, or beyond perfection? Is a universe in which imperfection is perfection itself perfect or illusionary? Did G”d make the universe perfect? Did G”d make the universe imperfect? Did making the universe make G”d perfect or imperfect? (If this were a classic sci-fi trope, this would be the point where the perfect thinking machine starts to fizzle and go haywire.)

So, to paraphrase the old “can G”d create a stone too heavy for G”d to lift,” I ask these questions:

  • Can an imperfect G”d create a perfect universe?
  • Can a perfect G”d create an imperfect universe?
  • Can G”d create a universe so imperfect that it is sheer perfection?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 (portions ©2004) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Korakh 5775 - Purposeful Unpleasant Reminder?
Korach 5774 - Still a Loose End
Korakh 5773 - B'tzelem Anashim (Redux 5764)
Korakh 5772 - B'nei Miri
Korakh 5771 - Supporting Our Priests and Levites
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 - And who Put G"d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 - Investment
Korah 5765 - Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B'tzelem Anashim
Korach 5763-Taken
Korach 5761-Loose Ends

Friday, June 16, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’lakh L’kha 5777- Of Brains, Anamnesis, and Torah

I just love it when fate comes in and happenstance is fortuitous. I had been planning to revisit an older musing for the parasha, Sh’lakh L’kha on the topic of remembering – or more specifically Anamnesis.

Then, just before sitting down to revisit the topic, and after having done some research intended to clarify and even change my earlier thoughts on the topic, I happened to be glancing at my Facebook feed and come upon an article link that intrigued me. So naturally I clicked on it. The article was just published over a year ago, in May 2016. I was surprised, given my interest in the topic, that I hadn’t seen it come across any of my feeds sooner.

This article, “The empty brain” published online in the digital magazine Aeon, was written by Robert Epstein, a “senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.”

In the article, Epstein challenges the currently predominant approach to understanding how the human brain works, which he calls the IP (information processing) model. This model presumes that the human brain functions, at least metaphorically, like computers – they are essentially information processors. Epstein takes a different view, which he sums up this way “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.” It should be noted that the IP understanding of the human brain is endorsed and supported by many in the brain research and neuroscience fields, along with many other respected scientists and thinkers in other field (like Stephen Hawking, Ray Kurzweil, et al.)

I recommend the article to you. I’ll come back to it in a bit. First,on to the topic at hand – anamnesis. It’s a word I threw at you, dear readers, back in 2000 and again in 2005, and one I’ve sprinkled here and there into other musings. It means, in a most basic sense, recollecting or remembering. In a religious sense, it can mean bringing the past into the present.

It’s not a word one hears being bartered about in Jewish circles a lot, and I first encountered as a student in Divinity School, where I was one of a handful of Jews amidst dozens studying for Christian ministry, or to become Christian theologians, or become Christian scholars. So it’s time I come clean with my readers, and explain that the term has a very specific meaning in a Christian context. Christian rite and liturgy is replete with examples of what they term anamnesis, and act of ritual remembrance allowing one to become part of the original event. The most common usage involves the Eucharist, or host, which is consumed in ritual worship connected to Jesus’ saying at the last supper “Do this in remembrance of me.” Catholic and Christian theology have extended the symbolism of this anamnesis beyond the mere repetition of the act to understanding the participating in the ritual invites one into the the actual mystery of the Eucharist, the passion, the resurrection, and the ascension, known collectively as a paschal mystery. (Don’t get worried if none of this makes any sense. Here’s a very simplistic, non-nuanced explanation: in some understandings of Qabbalah, Jewish mysticism, the doing of righteous acts opens a connection or channel that enables Divine attributes or emanations to flow down to the worldly/earthly/human level. In some Catholic and Christian understandings, participation in certain rites like the Eucharist enable a similar connection to understanding the Divine mystery that is, for them, G”d/Jesus/Trinity. I apologize to my readers of a more scholarly and knowledgeable level for this gross over-simplification.

Anamnesis also has specific meaning in philosophical circles. Plato’s understanding of anamnesis is that human souls are immortal, and repeatedly re-incarnated. With each re-incarnation, the soul “forgets” all that it has learned, and the process of acquiring knowledge is actually recovering the knowledge that the soul had previously.Plato viewed those who assist others in the acquisition of knowledge not as teachers, but as midwives, rebirthing knowledge the soul previously held. (Again, I apologize for the extremely simplistic explanation.

Though we don’t usually call it that, anamnesis, at least in some aspect, is part of what we do in Judaism. So many of our rites and rituals are designed to enable the “b’khol dor vador” experience as exemplified in the Pesach Seder ritual.  In the telling of the story, in the engagement in the rituals, we are bringing our memories forward, and making ourselves part of that experience. So many other rituals involve some sense of connection to the mysteries and miracles of the past, enabling us to connect with the Divine in our own here and now.

Now, it’s the time for blatant honesty. When I go back and reread that original musing for Sh’lakh L’kha from 2000,  I struggle to understand how I got to the topic of anamnesis, and how in my mind, I was making/rationalizing that connection. In those musings, I talked about the information gap in the story of the 12 scouts. We get a list of place names, but no serious narrative about what they encountered, as they encountered it. We get only their summaries – most of them all gloom and doom, with only two of them hopeful , even assured.

In that musing, I wondered why there was no narrative of the actual journey of the scouts, and only their reports. My surmise, at the time, was that it was a way of teaching us to reach the same faith as Moshe, Joshua, and Caleb. It didn’t matter what the scouts actually saw. G”d that had brought these people of of Egypt, had given them Torah at Sinai – that G”d will surely see them settled in this good,promised land. No other conclusion need be made.

Joshua and Caleb remembered all that G”d had done for the people, and it wasn’t even a question if G”d could enable us to live in the promised land. (Yes, I know. I’m tiptoeing around the uncomfortableness of labeling this as a conquest of and eviction of the land and the existing tenants of the land – but that is, ultimately what is was. Sigh. History sadly, repeats itself. Especially for those who choose to forget the past, as Santayana said.) I think my anamnesis connection was that, we too, in our own time, can find our faith by remembrance of the things of the past. The lesson is to do as Joshua and Caleb did. Remember all the mighty deeds already done for Israel to have surety that they will be protected in present and future as well. That, I am sure, is how Joshua and Caleb were able to return with such a positive attitude about the potential (okay, I’ll say it) conquest of the land.

The Israelites blew it. They weren’t ready to enter the land, because they lacked faith it could be theirs. How many lost opportunities in our own lives can be chalked up to lack of faith?

Judaism, generally, tends to downplay the whole resurrection thing, for obvious reasons, but any truly knowledgeable Jew knows that Judaism is no stranger to the idea of bodily (or metaphorical) resurrection. Even the Reform movement has put “m’chayyei hameitim” (who gives life to the dead) back as an option it is prayerbook. We’ve heard the stories of how even the dead bodies will tunnel their way under the ground back to Jerusalem when the time comes. (In other musings, I’ve talked about how I have re-embraced “m’chayyei hameitim” in my prayers because of how I now understand those words in a very different way, unrelated to actual physical resurrection. It is, perhaps, more of an anamnesis understanding. It is about remembrance. It is about relearning that which an ancestral soul once knew. It is about entering into the Divine mysteries through an actual of worship.

And now back to the brain science article. What’s notable is how the author rejects the idea of memory as being some kind of stored, static data. We actually don’t store full physical images of what we’ve encountered.

This is the paragraph that most caught my attention for being related to Torah, Judaism, remembrance/anamnesis:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

I love that. We re-experience hearing the story. Or we re-experience reading the book, Or re-experience hearing the song. Our brains may work in a manner that is similar to anamnesis! It uses recollection to rebuild the experience anew (and slightly changing it in the process.) Oh, how I love what that says about biblical interpretation, don’t you? Also, what is possibly says about oral transmission of texts. Yes, there is some evidence to indicate that our ancestors were better at remembering longer texts than we are, but we may be deceiving ourselves as to just how accurate the passing down was. What eventually made it into the written Torah, all of Tanakh, even recollections that made it into Talmud, Aggadah, and Midrash are all somewhat suspect – if our brain truly does know something by literally re-creating it based on some scattered remembrances.

Is the Pesach Seder designed with this understanding in mind? Are more recent versions of the haggadot buying into the IP understanding of brain science, and focusing on ways to cram in and retain data? I suspect the original haggadot were used anamnesis and were very experiential in their approach. Luckily, I think there are plenty of contemporary haggadot that haven’t abandoned anamnesis as the key to entering the Divine mysteries of the Exodus story.

Not very much about Torah today, except indirectly. But I see all that I have written as Torah in a broader sense, and I hope you, dear reader, have found the exploration a worthy experience.

Shabbat Shalom,

© 2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shelakh-L'kha 5775 - Cover Up? (Redux 5761)
Sh'lakh L'kha 5774 - Do You Spy What I Spy (Redux 5759)
Shelakh L'kha 5773 - They Really Might be Giants (Redux 5764)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5772- Cover Up (Redux and Revised 5761)
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5771 - Ignorantia Juris Non Excusat
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat - B'ha'alot'kha 5777 - Of Singing, G"d, and Bathrooms

There was an interesting question posed this week in a Jewish Facebook group to which I belong. This group is most often looking at things from an orthodox perspective, but is open to participation from across the spectrum and frowns upon bashing of any kind. I find it valuable to observe and learn how Jews of a more traditional bent see things.

This week, an anonymous poster spoke of a situation they encountered and asked for opinions on an appropriate response - or if indeed to respond at all. The situation involved overhearing a Conservative cantorial student singing a song in the restroom that included that person singing "shem hashem." (That's a way of indicating that the person sang "Ad"nai" or "El"him" rather than "HaShem.") The poster wanted to know if they should say something to this student about it - I guess you might call it a form of tokhekha (rebuke.)  There was a fascinating array of responses. Most (but not all) of the responses from people with an orthodox perspective revolved around the issue of how and when one one might actually go about responding to this. Matters of not embarrassing someone needed to be considered along with the other factors involved. Understanding and respecting diverse religious practice is another. In any case,  a majority seemed to favor a discretely made comment. 

Others, perhaps more liberal in perspective wondered why it even mattered. I was one of those. I responded by citing a verse from this week's parasha, B'ha'alot'kha, Numbers 11:29. That verse is part of a brief story told in this parasha.
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? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!"
It's a sentiment I've written about before, most often in terms of ecstatic worship or fervor.  (See previous musings on this Parasha  at the end of this post.) I don't know if that applies in this particular situation, but it certainly feels like there's a connection.

Our Torah is pretty earthy at times. It speaks of building latrines, menses, nocturnal emissions, masturbation, and more. At the same time, it is pretty clear about the need to separate what is clean from unclean, pure form impure. There's some inherent conflict here. If G"d created us b'tzelem El"him, in the image of G"d, then some aspect of G"d has to "use the toilet" in some way. Even if you won't go that far, surely you'll accept the premise that sweating, peeing, and pooping are part of G"d's design. So why are they any less important than breathing, or beating hearts, or opposable thumbs? Why do we insist on holding these perfectly normal bodily functions at a distance, fom ourselves, from each other, and, according to some, from G"d?

Centuries of rabbinic teachings have created some traditions, some bathroom halakha, as it were. The "asher yatzar" prayer is, traditionally recited after urinating or defecating. It is, preferably, recited after washing one's hands in a space separate from the toilet. (There's a whole debate about ancient toilets and modern ones, where the waste remains until flushed,  and this affects the way some poskim intepret the halakha.) Washing outside the room with the toilet is preferred. If the sink is in the room with the toilet, one is to go outside that space to dry one's hands and recite the "asher yatzar." It is customary to remove one's tallit before entering a restroom.  Talking in a bathroom is actually prohibited, as is eating. You can bring siddurim and other books into the bathroom, but they must be covered (rabbis disagree on whether one or two layers of cover are needed.) There are many other prohibitions as well. Among them, one is not permitted to entertain thoughts related to the study of Torah (and that''s Torah in its "Big T" sense of encompassing all religious texts.)

In the case of the incident in question, there are any number of reasons, from a halakhic standpoint, why one should no be singing a religious song in a bathroom, and not be saying G"d's name as part of that song. If I were living a traditionally observant lifestyle, I might find myself troubled by this. This is why the focus of the response was about the response and not the act. The act, even if one accounted for the less observant status of the person involved would still be a prohibited act, and warrant a comment. The focus was on how to deliver the rebuke appropriately.

Many liberal Jews do not consider themselves bound by the halakha, so the question is of little importance to them.  However, maybe it could be (or even should be?) I know many liberal Jews, myself among them at times,  who, more for the sake of their more observant colleagues and friends, might choose to keep a kosher home. Though I struggle with the concept, I recognize the need, in a setting with Jews of differing practices, to be conscious of and respectful regarding things like shomer negiah, kol isha, et al. If there's a chance you might encounter someone whose religious practice is more observant than yours, perhaps it is the wisest course to aovid those things which you know might be offensive or troubling. (It's like the long history within Reform Judaism about keeping synagogues kosher. To be honest, I still remain troubled when a Reform synagogue chooses to either ignore kashrut entirely, or embraces "kosher style" in place of actual kashrut observance. Our synagogues should be accommodating in this regard. I will agree that I have heard some valid arguments for just the opposite, but I'm not there yet. To me, flaunting non-observance is not a proper Jewish value. On the other end of the spectrum, I find myself amused at how traditional synagogues are often so far more open to the presence of active young children in the sanctuary during worship, yet in liberal synagogues, we relegate the boisterous children to cry rooms or babysitting rooms.  This is changing, and I am proud to currently be working for a congregation that is now embracing the presence of toddlers and young children in the sanctuary during services. G"d is not just for adults. But, as usual, I digress.)

On the other hand, profanity, obscenity, impurity - these are all rather subjective descriptors. Consider for a moment, how often one might say "oh sh*t." In doing so, we have taken the act of defecation and created a pejorative obscenity from one word used to describe it. If it's okay for us to bring "sh*t" out of the bathroom, why is it wrong to bring "G"d" into the bathroom?  Then there's the whole asher yatzar prayer itself. While it's not explicit by modern standards, it is pretty graphic, speaking as it does about vessels and openings that need to close or open at specific times for our bodies to function.We surely need to thank G"d for urination and excretion for we would die without them. Judaism and Hebrew utilize the word for breath to illustrate a wide variety of ideas beyond simple breathing. Except for the odd sense of propiety we have developed on the topic, is it that strange to imagine a prayer that explicitly thanks G"d for sweat, pee, and poop? (Halakha, a la the rabbis and poskim, does get rather explicit. One who has diarrhea, for example, is expected to make the appropriate blessing after each occasion of excreting. One with constipation, however, and using a laxative, should wait until their bowels are cleared before saying the asher yatzar. There's lots more, too, but you can do your own research.)

If there's a commandment that most Jews violate with regularity, it's number three. Oh, we have lots of euphemisms to replace phrases like G"d dammit, but I sure hear G"d's name taken in vain with great regularity by Jews of all stripes (liberal Jews have no monopoly on this practice.) Given this state of affairs, along with the generally sorry state of affairs of human behavior in the world, I would definitely subscribe to the idea that the more G"d is praised and spoken of in a positive way everywhere, at all times, the better. I can state with absolute certainty that I, at some point, been in a bathroom singing a Jewish song out loud which includes G"d's name.

Now, Eldad and Medad weren't singing. They were prophesying. So the correlation isn't exact. Nevertheless I'd like to believe that Moshe rabbeinu would react to my (or anyone's) singing G"d's name in praise in a bathroom no differently than he did to Eldad and Medad's prophesying.

Would that all G"d's people sang G"d's praises in the bethroom, that G"d would put G"d's spirit upon them. 

Shabbat Shalom,

©2017 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, June 2, 2017

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Naso 5777 – The Fourth Fold (Revised and Revisited 5759)

Since 1993 I’ve been attending the annual Hava Nashira songleaders workshop held at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. For most of those years, I was usually unable to post a new Random Musing during that week. Cell Phone coverage was spotty, at best, and wifi was non-existent. I, myself, was responsible for helping to install the first semi-cam-wide Wifi back in 2010, the last summer I also worked all summer in camp in addition to coming to Hava Nashira. Things have gradually improved over time, and this is the first year I feel confident enough that I can actually get my musing done and posted. That being said, there’s no a lot of free time (and not much sleep) during the 5 days of the conference (and this year, a 6th day added for those who chose to come early and celebrate Shavuot with this amazing community. So I’m once again recycling an old musing for this parsha, but unlike the last time this parasha fell during the time of Hava Nashira, this time I’m able to add to fresh ideas and content, so let’s call it a revised and revisited musing, originally from 5759 (1999.)

Random Musings Before Shabbat-Naso 5777 – The Fourth Fold (Revised and Revisited 5759)

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְיָ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ. יָאֵר יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶֽיךָ וִיחֻנֶּֽךָּ. יִשָּׂא יְיָ פָּנָיו אֵלֶֽיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.  וְשָׂמוּ אֶת ֹשְמִי עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַאֲנִי אֲבָרְכֵם..

Y'varech'cha Ad"nai v'yishmarecha Yaeir Ad"nai panav eilecha v'chunecha Yisa Ad"nai panav eilecha, vayaseim l'cha shalom.

May G”d bless you and keep you. May G”d’s light shine upon you, and may G”d be gracious to you. May you feel G”d’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.

Ah, but wait. There’s more text there than is transliterated above. In the Ashkenazi rite, there is a fourth line that gets left off the Priestly benediction. (It is included in the Sephardi rite.)

וְשָׂמוּ אֶת ֹשְמִי עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַאֲנִי אֲבָרְכֵם

V'samu et-sh'mi al-b'nei Yisrael v'ani avarchem.

Yes, omitting it helps preserve the beautiful poetic structure of the three-fold benediction. And even modern leadership and management pundits sing the virtues of the triad in writing and speaking.

But in dropping this line from this blessing in the Ashkenazi rite, I think perhaps we are losing something.

"They shall put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them." (The JPS version says "link My name" which, in context, also seems to fit.)

Some might say the fourth line merely restates the obvious. In each of the previous three lines, we are told that G"d is in charge, and it is by G"d's grace that good things are bestowed upon us. So why remind us that we need to link G"d's name with our people?

But that's exactly the point. We DO need to be reminded. Sometimes we don't make the connection-we take G"d for granted. And we forget the special nature of our connection with G"d - our holy covenant. Just as we are taught to give thanks after eating, when our bellies are full and it’s too easy to feel sated and not remember to say thanks (as opposed to when we are feeling hungry, it’s easier to think about asking G”d to relieve that feeling.)

The threefold benediction has been bandied about a lot, especially in recent times, and especially by liberal Jews. (The Orthodox reserve this benediction for special times.) And why not? It’s a great bit of text, suitable for use in a variety of settings.

In liberal Jewish settings, the rabbis and other ordainees seem to have become the inheritors of the power the Torah grants to the priests of Aaron to recite this blessing on behalf of the people. It's been used at all sorts of occasions, and in all sorts of contexts. It is also widely in use in Christian worship. It's my personal belief, too, that sometimes it's a bit overused-simply because it is such a powerful piece of poetry and prayer. Really, really good blessings like this one-do they lose their power and majesty when overused? Can one really overuse a prayer or blessing? Some would say not. I think we can, and I believe we are the worse for it, despite good intentions (remember Nadav and Avihu?) I find it a very powerful and moving blessing, elegant in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity, in the manner of Mozart. (Better, surely, than Mozart, for it's author outshines Mozart in every way!) But I digress.

I think the priestly benediction has lost the connection to its original purpose, because of the omission of the fourth line. It has become a prayer where we, as a community, or as individuals, ask and pray for G"d's blessing. In it's original form, I think perhaps it was a telling or an instruction, and covenantal. G"d will bless you and keep you. G"d will make G”d's face to shine on you. G"d will bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and -I will bless them.

It's not popular these days to say anything that might seem exclusivist. (That may be another reason the fourth line has been dropped from the blessing.) But this is the true and full meaning of the blessing, in my view. G"d will keep us, because G"d has a special covenant with us, and will bless the people Israel. (That doesn't mean G"d won't bless or keep anybody else. Our covenant doesn't necessarily make us better than others. If anything, it is an obligation and a burden.) This fourth line is our reminder of who we are, and that in all our prayers, we must remember G"d's covenant with us. It's hard, in the aftermath of the Shoah, in the aftermath of almost two millennia of persecution and misfortune, and in light of modernity, to sometimes remember that we, Israel, are a covenanted people. It thus being so hard, we all the more need to now include this fourth line with our use of the threefold benediction (I think all my past English teachers would shudder at that sentence...but I digress again.) When so much around  us makes us doubt G"d, makes us doubt the reality and continuance of Israel's covenant with G"d, we need to be reminded.

Next time you say or hear this powerful blessing, trying adding that extra line:

V'samu et-sh'mi al-b'nei Yisrael v'ani avarchem. Thus, they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

That small addition might go a long way to address the effects of possible overuse of the priestly benediction, saving it from losing its tremendous power through familiarity and routine.(Yes, an argument can be made in the reverse – that constant use and repetition are an important component of Jewish prayer – and there’s no such thing as overuse. If that is truly the case, why do we tire so easily of certain musical settings of prayers and have to change up the melodies every so often? Yes, the keva remains fixed. But without the kavannah, what’s the point? Here’s an opportunity to actually change the keva, in a way. We’re not really changing it – we’re restoring a piece of it that has been omitted.

My prayer for you and yours this Shabbat: link G"d's name with the people of Israel, your people, so that you remember G"d's covenant with them-with you.

Shabbat Shalom,


© 2017 (portions ©1999, 2004, 2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Nasso 5775 - West-Tzorah-Side Story
Naso 5773 - Guilt. Self. It.
Naso 5772 - Keeping Me On My Toes II
Naso 5771 - The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5761-Keeping Me On My Toes
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)