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

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