Friday, July 27, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’etkhanan 5778—Theological Polymorphism

In discussions and disputations (mostly with other Jews) I have often made the assertion that any G”d truly being the G”d,” the ONE G”d. would have the wisdom to understand that, as complicated a creation as humankind is, those creations would need multiple alternate paths to the understanding of, communication with, and worship of G”d.

I, like many other Jews I know, am somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of “chosen people,”  especially when it is connected with any sense of superiority over other peoples and belief systems. I have worked for liberal congregations that did not recite the words in the Aleinu prayer:

שֶׁלֹּא עָשָֽׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת, וְלֹא שָׂמָֽנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה, שֶׁלֹא שָׂם חֶלְקֵֽנוּ כָּהֶם, וְגֹרָלֵֽנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם

“for He (sic) has not made us like the nations of the lands, and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth. He has not assigned our portion like theirs nor our lot like all their multitudes.” (Artscroll)

(I have purposefully chosen the Artscroll translation to eliminate the softening and massaging that appear in the Reform and Conservative siddurs reflecting a certain discomfort with the plain meaning of these words.)

In some Reconstructing Judaism (as their new choice of name is) congregations the Friday night Kiddush has the words

מִכָּל הָעַמִּים

“mi-kol ha-amim” [from all (other) peoples]

replaced by

עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים

“im-kol ha’amim” [with all (other) peoples.]

The theological difference between the two is significant. For the Friday night Kiddush (blessing of sanctification over wine) in one case-the traditional text-mi-kol–we might be saying:

For us You did choose and us You did sanctify from all the nations

In the other case (im-kol)

For us You did choose and us You did sanctify with all nations.

Again I have purposefully chosen the Artscroll translation to eliminate the softening and massaging that appears in the Reform and Conservative siddurs reflecting a certain discomfort with the plain meaning of these words.)

One version is exclusive, and one is inclusive. One treats Judaism as “more equal” and the other treats Judaism as one of many paths to G”d.

I've encountered this now in other settings, and it is starting to make inroads into Reform settings. Just this week I had a student that I am tutoring in preparation for her service of becoming a bat mitzvah practice the Kiddush and say “im-kol ha-amim.” My first instinct was to correct her, thinking it was a simple sound reversal from misreading the Hebrew “mi” as “im.” So I asked her about it, and she told me that she heard another person at the synagogue with whom she has been studying her brachot say “im-kol” and, when she asked about it had that purposeful choice explained to her. She then chose to do so herself (at least for the Kiddush L’eil Shabbat. I don’t think that same option has been presented regarding the blessing before the reading of the Torah – and I’m not sure that congregation is ready to go there yet. Read on.)

When this change is made in the blessing before the reading of the Torah, the phrase (again, from the Artscroll siddur)

אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His (sic) Torah.


אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who selected us with all the peoples and gave us His Torah.

This goes a bit further, theologically, than the change in the Friday Night Kiddush does. Even Reconstructing Judaism wasn’t comfortable with that, so they changed the text to

אֲשֶׁר קֵרְבָנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתוֹ וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who has drawn us to Your service by giving us the Torah. (translation from Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructing Judaism siddur)

There are those in the Jewish community who do embrace the concept of chosen-ness, and do embrace the viewpoint that the Jewish people are indeed, to borrow from Orwell,  “more equal than others.” (And yes, I did choose that particular phrase due to its association with the porcine Napoleon.) There is a strain of superiority present in Judaism just as there are strains of supersessionism in Christianity and Islam. I hate to generalize, but I will say that I rarely encounter in liberal Jewish circles the notion that Christians, Muslims and Jews don’t worship the same G”d; whereas I often encounter that notion in orthodox circles. I’ve watched orthodox colleagues do total contortions arguing that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same G”d as the Jews. A logical inconsistency if there is truly One G”d, n’est ce pas? They all go so far as to assert that Christians and Muslims worship a “no god” or an imaginary god that is simply not the Jewish G”d – who is the One and Only G”d.

I do not entirely discount the notion that our Torah says that our people have a particular covenant with G”d, but only outside of the written Torah will we find text to support a claim that G”d had and would only ever make a covenant with the Jewish people. Every time I get into this discussion with Jews who believe otherwise, they are quick to trot out all the verses that speak of that covenant, and of us as a special or treasured people, that G”d alone has singled out. Yet when pressed to back up the assertion that G”d never did and would never ever covenant or establish a relationship with other peoples, or, at the very least, consider other religions and faith systems as valid ways to connect with and worship G”d with actual words from Torah, they begin to do their contortions, and invariably turn to the “oral Torah” and subsequent rabbinical writings. They discount the other Abrahamic faiths, and argue that they do not worship the same G”d as the Jews. The funny thing about it all is that Christianity made it a heresy to suggest that the Christian G”d was not the same G”d worship by the Jews. Judaism, sadly, has never reciprocated.

Think about how Jews feel every time they learn that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. Mormons) has gone back yet again on their promise to not posthumously baptize Jews who died in the Shoah. However uncomfortable the practice may make you feel, I’ve little doubt that the Mormons who do so  are acting within and because of their sincerely held beliefs. The same is true for those Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to your door, and for other forms of proselytizing by Christians. For many, a main line understanding and interpretation of Christian faith compels them to do so. If this bothers us as Jews, why should our Jewish professions of our chosen-ness and unique and one-of-a-kind covenant with G”d not seem equally troubling and bothersome to Christians?

Yes, Christianity has not, historically, had a particularly positive relationship with Judaism. They have taken our texts and used them against us, most of it libelous and unfair. They had Crusades, the Inquisition, and more. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) anti-Semitism pervades Christian thought and liturgy.

But this is neither the world of our ancestors, nor even the world of our great-grandfathers and grandfathers. Interfaith dialogue has grown in amount and significance. Young people today, if they even think about G”d certainly envision a universal G”d.  They don’t want to know what divides us, but what unites us. Religious particularism just doesn’t fit in with their world view, and for religions to survive, they are going to have to become more universalistic and accepting of other religions, or, alternatively, become completely insular and detach from contemporary society and culture. (Yet just  how possible is that? There are those in the orthodox worlds of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other religious traditions who work to isolate themselves – but it is a constant struggle. The universe, and our knowledge of it changes. The string that ties people to an earlier or ancient understanding of things will only stretch so far before it breaks. The wiser religious faiths learn to find ways to move the older anchor point forward to prevent this. But, alas, I digress.)

While there are some in the orthodox Jewish world who accept that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same G”d, Hinduism is a bridge too far for them. (Some lump Christianity in with Hinduism, claiming that the Triune god makes Christianity idolatrous.)  I remember a flap in the orthodox world some time back when it was discovered that some sheitls (wigs) worn by orthodox women had been made from the hair of Hindus who might have partaken in Hindu rituals and thus one posek (learned decider) declared them not kosher and unsuitable for use. Of course,this being Judaism, different pos’kim (deciders) held differently. Sadly, this displays an ignorance of the subtleties of Hindu beliefs. Vedic thought and the Hindusim that developed from it are much more nuanced than that. Hinduism certainly has polytheistic aspects. It is a gross mischaracterization and over-simplification of Hinduism to say, as I have actually seen on some comparison charts, that Hinduism has “one supreme reality, Brahman, manifested in multiple gods and goddesses.” It is a similarly gross mischaracterization of Hinduism to call it polytheistic. The best term I’ve seen is polymorphic bi-monotheism. Bi-monotheistic because many schools of Hinduism see the ultimate reality as both male and female as part of a single dual-entity. There is likely a period in which many of our Israelite ancestors had a similar view of Ad”nai. In later times, this concept re-emerged, especially among the qabbalists. If shekhinah is the feminine aspect of G”d, is that not somewhat similar to the Hindu bi-monotheism? Yes, again, it’s an oversimplification, nevertheless it merits consideration.

Stick a pin in this concept of polymorphism. We’ll come back to it.

So, to our parasha, Va’etkhanan. (For a thorough exploration of just the first word of the parasha, see my musing  “Sometimes a Cigar…”.)

Try this on for size: (Deut. chapter 4)

וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם מְאֹ֖ד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֤א רְאִיתֶם֙ כָּל־תְּמוּנָ֔ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֲלֵיכֶ֛ם בְּחֹרֵ֖ב מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃

15 For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—

פֶּ֨ן־תַּשְׁחִת֔וּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם פֶּ֖סֶל תְּמוּנַ֣ת כָּל־סָ֑מֶל תַּבְנִ֥ית זָכָ֖ר א֥וֹ נְקֵבָֽה׃

16 not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman,

תַּבְנִ֕ית כָּל־בְּהֵמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּאָ֑רֶץ תַּבְנִית֙ כָּל־צִפּ֣וֹר כָּנָ֔ף אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּע֖וּף בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

17 the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky,

תַּבְנִ֕ית כָּל־רֹמֵ֖שׂ בָּאֲדָמָ֑ה תַּבְנִ֛ית כָּל־דָּגָ֥ה אֲשֶׁר־בַּמַּ֖יִם מִתַּ֥חַת לָאָֽרֶץ׃

18 the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.

וּפֶן־תִּשָּׂ֨א עֵינֶ֜יךָ הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וְֽ֠רָאִיתָ אֶת־הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ וְאֶת־הַיָּרֵ֜חַ וְאֶת־הַכּֽוֹכָבִ֗ים כֹּ֚ל צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ֛ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִ֥יתָ לָהֶ֖ם וַעֲבַדְתָּ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר חָלַ֜ק יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֹתָ֔ם לְכֹל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים תַּ֖חַת כָּל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven;

וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃

20 but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.

The first four verses are pretty straightforward, explaining that we are not to make an image of G”d in the form of any earthly creature as we ourselves saw at Sinai that G”d had no shape. Then we come to verse 19. This verse has baffled scholars for millennia. If we rely on the p’shat, the plain, surface meaning, it says that the sun, moon, and stars and the whole heavenly host (of angels) are there to be worshipped by other peoples. Verse 20 explains that, because G”d brought Israel out of Egypt, Israel may only worship G”d.

Rashi tried to apologize his way around this by saying that G”d made the sun, moon, and stars so that other peoples might have illumination. However, this leads Rashi to a problem. The Israelites needed and used this illumination as well., so G”d must have created it for them as well. So Rashi goes on to speculate that G”d gave the sun, moon, stars and heavenly host to the other nations as purposeful false deities, forcing them to err in belief by worshipping them as gods, thus sewing the seeds of their own expulsion from the world. Oh, what a tangled web you weave, Rashi to avoid simply admitting that the Torah speaks of the existence of other gods. Doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of G”d, does it?

We can’t even make up our minds on whether it was named  Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb, but we’re absolutely sure that there’s no way the Torah says that G”d allowed for other gods for other peoples to worship? Hmmm.

Rashi is no help here, but the Ramban, Nachmanides, can be. He comments on a much later passage nearer the end of Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim.

וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם עַל־מֶ֨ה עָשָׂ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה כָּ֖כָה לָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את מֶ֥ה חֳרִ֛י הָאַ֥ף הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃

23 all nations will ask, “Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?”

וְאָ֣מְר֔וּ עַ֚ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָֽזְב֔וּ אֶת־בְּרִ֥ית יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ כָּרַ֣ת עִמָּ֔ם בְּהוֹצִיא֥וֹ אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

24 They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the LORD, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt;

וַיֵּלְכ֗וּ וַיַּֽעַבְדוּ֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּ֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם אֱלֹהִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־יְדָע֔וּם וְלֹ֥א חָלַ֖ק לָהֶֽם׃

25 they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them.

Ramban says that these other gods exist, and were created by G”d, but they are not the source of their own power – G”d is. These other gods have no power over Israel. In other words, G”d created these other gods for the other nations.

If it’s good enough for Nachmanides, it’s good enough for me. Well, not really. It doesn’t go quite far enough. But it’s a start.

OK, let’s go back to that pin. Polymorphism. In biology and zoology it is the existence of two or more clearly different morphs or forms, also referred to as alternative phenotypes, in the population of a species. In its simplest form, in humans, examples are gender and  blood type. In a simplistic understanding of Hinduism, we can say that the different gods and goddesses are all different forms of the same species.

So why not theological polymorphism?  Not multiple gods, but One G”d, with multiple paths for understanding, communication, and worship. That sure feels better to me than “my G”d” and “not my god.” Yes, even though I studied Christianity as part of my studies in Divinity School, the concept of the Trinity still baffled me and I couldn’t entirely reconcile it to monotheism without resorting, ultimately, to a some sort of Marcion-esque heresy, even though the first statement of trinitarian belief is that there is One G”d. Polymorphism to the rescue. The triune G”d is simply a polymorphic G”d. I’ve seen this explained  with the example of water and it's three states: ice, liquid, and steam. It is said that St. Patrick used to use a three-leaf clover to explain the trinity – one shamrock, three leaves. This is a a rabbit hole I’m not going to go down right now. If you thinks Jews argue about things, we have nothing on how Christians argue about the minutiae of the theology of the trinity.

Theological Polymorphism – here to save the day – to enable us to all be worshipping the same G”d even though our understandings, beliefs, and practices may be very different. (Side note: theological polymorphism can be a useful framework when exploring Qabbalah.) Here’s a little song to help us remember the idea:

This G”d is my G”d, this G”d is your G”d
It doesn’t matter if our worship’s diff’rent
For we all are praying to the One and Only
This G”d was made for you and me.

Say it again. Theological Polymorphism. I just love the way that sounds, don’t you? (I’m trying to work it into a song, but two five-syllable words with the accent on the third syllable in both words presents a metric and rhythmic challenge, except for the song “Sensitivity” from “Once Upon a Mattress.” I’ll work on it this Shabbat.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Va'etkhanan 5777 - This Man's Art and That Man's Scope (revisited, revised, and expanded)
Va'etkhanan 5774 - Sometimes A Cigar... (Revised from 5764)
Va'etkhanan 5773-The Promise (Redux & Revised 5759ff)
Va'etkhanan 5772 - Redux & Revised 5758 - The Promise
Va'etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 - Comfort
Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...
Va'etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise

Friday, July 20, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–D’varim 5778—Torah of Confusion Revisited

I discovered nine years ago, in reviewing this parasha, a word that just stuck with me. In describing the near ending of the 40 years of wandering, Moses makes reference to how G"d did indeed wean out all the people (save Joshua and Caleb) of their generation as foretold, so that none of them would enter the promised land. In 2:15, Moses says:

וְגַ֤ם יַד־יְהוָֹה֙ הָ֣יְתָה בָּ֔ם לְהֻמָּ֖ם מִקֶּ֣רֶב הַֽמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה עַ֖ד תֻּמָּֽם

"Indeed the hand of the L"rd struck them, to root them out from the camp to the last man." (D’varim 2:15 - JPS)

The word root of the bolded word in this sentence is Hey-Mem-Mem, appearing in the 5th word (l'hummam ) It has two basic meanings in Hebrew, none of which is "root out." The first meaning is to "move noisily" (as in a driving a wagon when threshing.) The second meaning, and the more likely one in this context, is "to confuse, to discomfit, to vex.” I think
Everrett Fox comes closer in his translation:

"Yes, the hand of YHWH was against them, to panic them from amid the camp until they had ended."

Other translations use the verb "confound" which, I think, comes closer to a reasonable understanding of what happened.
There's also a little wordplay with the final word of the pasuk, "tummam," which, although it sounds a bit like l'hummam, comes from a  completely different root, tet-mem-mem, which means "to be complete or finished."

I might, therefore, prefer a translation such as:

"So much so, that even the hand of G"d was upon them, to confuse them until they (were) finished."

If we wanted to parallel the word play, perhaps:

"So much so, that even the hand of G"d was upon them, to mortify them until they were mortified."

Or something like that.

Well, I don't know about you, but I find large parts of the Torah baffling and confounding.  Still, I can't imagine perishing as a result of my perplexity. I'm not a thinking machine like HAL 9000 (or other famous examples from science fiction) in which confusing or conflicting instructions (of which there are many in Torah) led to a breakdown. I can't imagine finding myself in such a state, though I do know it happens to people. There are those who get totally wrapped up in an enigma, to the point that they lose themselves in it, and wind up in some sort of fugue state.

So what is the confounding and baffling that resulted in the "finish" of all these wayward Israelites? Were they physically lost, or was it something more in a spiritual mode?

As Rudyard Kipling put it (not that I'm fond of quoting anti-Semites)

"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you..."

The point perhaps being made in 2:5 is that these bafflements were of a Divine nature, involving knowledge and situations not understandable by humans. I don't buy it, personally, but I can see where the Biblical schools of authorship and redaction found it a reasonable explanation.

Since I'm not prone to accept a "Divine confounding" scenario, perhaps an alternative I can accept is this: the verse doesn't say these people all died. It says they "finished" or "were completed." (Perhaps they became Xtians? I know some Xtian supercessionists are fond of calling Xtians "completed Jews." But enough foolish digression.)

Perhaps their confoundment or confusion was on deciding whether to continue following along with the Israelites, and following G"d. Perhaps that is what they were "finished" with.  They "gave up" on being a MOT, and went their own way. Who can blame them?

To put it simply, they had had enough. Now, winnowing out the entire generations that had been born in Egyptian activity surely involved a lot of different tactics – natural death, accidental death, death by Deity (or action thereof.) However simple attrition might account for a significant number as well.

Moshe is, I think, providing some “spin” here, giving G”d some cover. It’s possible that not every single person who had come out of Egypt has been weeded out. Some may have managed to stick it out. So here, it speaks particularly of Anshei-HaMilchama – warriors. (If we go back to Numbers 14:21ff and parse carefully, we can see the G”d who creates loopholes like “never again-by flood'” in action yet again. It never says that everyone from the generation that had come out of Egypt would not get into the promised land. It hedges, saying that those whom G”d has found trying, or those who have spurned G”d will never get to see the promised land. This is consistent as the threat is repeated. Each time, there is a caveat. Every time is says “all” it adds something like “who have disobeyed Me” or some other condition. Of all of those who came out of Egypt, were all of them guilty of disobeying, spurning or otherwise invoking G”d’s wrath? Hundreds of thousands of Israelites, hundreds of thousands of opinions, right?

Nine years ago, I linked my thoughts to an old hit from 1970, penned by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, and sung by the Temptations – Ball of Confusion. How much more apropos is this song nine years on from the original version of this musing, in our own truly confusing times? Considering how what’s happening these days represents a rolling back of many positive societal achievements in the last 4 decades, I’m surprised things are remaining as non-violent as they are. I know that I find myself increasingly pushed to more proactive responses to what’s happening here in the U.S. In a discussion I had online with someone the other day I was reminded that the violent anti-war protests actually helped Nixon get elected. There is some truth to that. Violent protest may not be the answer, but strong protest certainly is warranted. Like the righteous man in the story Elie Wiesel often told who at first railed against the people because he thought he could change them, and now still rails against them so he won't be changed by them, I too, must continue to speak and act out, lest I become “one of them.”

Nine years ago I wrote:

I don't plan on allowing myself to be confused to death, or, for that matter, confused to the point of giving up. Yes, much of Torah confounds and baffles me. I won't be driven to madness, I won't be driven away. I can find ways to accept the confusion. Maybe even write a song about it. OK, look for my hit "Torah of Confusion" on the Billboard charts someday.

Now re-reading this earlier musing and the words of 2:15 has strengthened my resolve. I will not be one of the ones driven from the camp by confusion. We must remember what it was like in our own country’s past as much as we must remember what it was like as slaves in Egypt. A Pharaoh has arisen in this land who would bring us back to the days of slavery. Even if I don’t get into that promised land, I will remain with my people – I will not be weeded out, driven out, confused out, ignored out. I will at least get a chance to go to the mountain top to see the promised land that those who come after me will inherit. Come be stubborn with me and maybe we will outlast the confusion. 

People movin' out
People movin' in
Why, because of the color of their skin
Run, run, run, but you sho' can't hide
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
Vote for me, and I'll set you free
Rap on brother, rap on
Well, the only person talkin'
'Bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems,
Nobody is interested in learnin'
But the teacher

Segregation, determination, demonstration,
Integration, aggravation,
Humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball of Confusion
That's what the world is today, hey-hey

The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walkin' around with
Their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time
And, the beat goes on

Air pollution, revolution, gun control,
Sound of soul
Shootin' rockets to the moon
Kids growin' up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will
Solve everything
And the band played on

So round 'n' round 'n' round we go
Where the world's headed, sayin' nobody knows

Great googa-mooga can't you hear me talkin' to you?
It's just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that's what the world is today, hey-hey

Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast,
The Beatles' new record's a gas
And the only safe place to live is
On an Indian reservation
And the band played on

Eve of destruction, tax deduction
City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand,
Population out of hand
Suicide, too many bills, hippies movin'
To the hills
People all over the world, are shoutin'
End the war
And the band played on.

Great googa-mooga can't you hear me talkin' to you?
It's just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that's what the world is today, hey-hey
Lemme hear ya, lemme hear ya, lemme hear ya say
Ball Of Confusion - that's what the world is today, hey-hey

                             ©1970 Jobete Music Company, Inc.

[Side note: Norm Whitfield also wrote the Edwin Starr hit "War" which I have also quoted in my musings before.]

So, did you follow any of that, or are you as l'hummam as I am?

Shabbat Shalom,


©2018 (portions ©2009) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

D'varim 5775 - Kumu V'Ivru (Revised 5760)
D'varim/Hazon 5774 - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists (Redux 5766)
D'varim 5773 - The Pea in Og's Bed
D'varim 5772 - Revised 5762 - L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D'varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766  - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D'varim 5764--Eleven Days
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru

Friday, July 13, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5778—Irredeemable (For Now)

At one point, I had simply considered writing:

Numbers Chapter 31

and allowing that to be my entire musing, with the musing’s title (without the parenthetical “for now”) saying all that I felt needed to be said about it. The Torah has no dearth of troubling texts, and I have always been interested in finding ways to redeem them. I have written about this before, trying to find ways to redeem at least parts of it. I’ve done so as recently as last year’s musing. This year I’ve given up on this one. At least for now. Here – read for yourself, and we’ll discuss it on the other side, as they say:

Numbers Chapter 31

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

נְקֹ֗ם נִקְמַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מֵאֵ֖ת הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים אַחַ֖ר תֵּאָסֵ֥ף אֶל־עַמֶּֽיךָ׃

2 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָעָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֔ר הֵחָלְצ֧וּ מֵאִתְּכֶ֛ם אֲנָשִׁ֖ים לַצָּבָ֑א וְיִהְיוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן לָתֵ֥ת נִקְמַת־יְהוָ֖ה בְּמִדְיָֽן׃

3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the LORD’s vengeance on Midian.

אֶ֚לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֔ה אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה לְכֹל֙ מַטּ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תִּשְׁלְח֖וּ לַצָּבָֽא׃

4 You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel.”

וַיִּמָּֽסְרוּ֙ מֵאַלְפֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶ֖לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֑ה שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר אֶ֖לֶף חֲלוּצֵ֥י צָבָֽא׃

5 So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח אֹתָ֥ם מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶ֥לֶף לַמַּטֶּ֖ה לַצָּבָ֑א אֹ֠תָם וְאֶת־פִּ֨ינְחָ֜ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לַצָּבָ֔א וּכְלֵ֥י הַקֹּ֛דֶשׁ וַחֲצֹצְר֥וֹת הַתְּרוּעָ֖ה בְּיָדֽוֹ׃

6 Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Phinehas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.

וַֽיִּצְבְּאוּ֙ עַל־מִדְיָ֔ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיַּֽהַרְג֖וּ כָּל־זָכָֽר׃

7 They took the field against Midian, as the LORD had commanded Moses, and slew every male.

וְאֶת־מַלְכֵ֨י מִדְיָ֜ן הָרְג֣וּ עַל־חַלְלֵיהֶ֗ם אֶת־אֱוִ֤י וְאֶת־רֶ֙קֶם֙ וְאֶת־צ֤וּר וְאֶת־חוּר֙ וְאֶת־רֶ֔בַע חֲמֵ֖שֶׁת מַלְכֵ֣י מִדְיָ֑ן וְאֵת֙ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֔וֹר הָרְג֖וּ בֶּחָֽרֶב׃

8 Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword.

וַיִּשְׁבּ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶת־נְשֵׁ֥י מִדְיָ֖ן וְאֶת־טַפָּ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־בְּהֶמְתָּ֧ם וְאֶת־כָּל־מִקְנֵהֶ֛ם וְאֶת־כָּל־חֵילָ֖ם בָּזָֽזוּ׃

9 The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, and seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth.

וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־עָרֵיהֶם֙ בְּמ֣וֹשְׁבֹתָ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־טִֽירֹתָ֑ם שָׂרְפ֖וּ בָּאֵֽשׁ׃

10 And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments.

וַיִּקְחוּ֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַשָּׁלָ֔ל וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמַּלְק֑וֹחַ בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃

11 They gathered all the spoil and all the booty, man and beast,

וַיָּבִ֡אוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֩ וְאֶל־אֶלְעָזָ֨ר הַכֹּהֵ֜ן וְאֶל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַשְּׁבִ֧י וְאֶת־הַמַּלְק֛וֹחַ וְאֶת־הַשָּׁלָ֖ל אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה אֶל־עַֽרְבֹ֣ת מוֹאָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־יַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ׃ (ס)

12 and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the whole Israelite community, at the camp in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho

I’ll stop here. and provide a link for you to read the remaining 42 verses:

Trust me, it only gets worse as you go along. After this horror, the returned commanders are berated by Moses for killing only the adult males and leaving the Midianite women and children alive. Those Midianite women who had tempted the Israelite men to follow other gods. So Moses orders the slaying (or the last euphemistic murdering) of all the male children, and all the women who were not virgins.

Once this carnage is complete, the soldiers are to remove themselves from the camp and purify themselves and their weapons over seven days. Then, the booty gets counted up, a portion withheld for the priests (it’s cleverly named a portion for the L”rd, but we all know who was really getting it,) and the rest divided up between the soldiers. 16 verses are dedicated to accounting for all the booty and the various portions withheld for the L”rd and other shares as required – noting the number of sheep, cattle, asses, and yes, human beings (i.e. the female virgins left after everyone else was killed.)

The chapter itself makes a small attempt at internal redemption when the commanders of the troops, upon discovering that not one of them was killed, offer their booty to the priests. (The soldiers kept what booty they took.) Yes, saying thank you to G”d for sparing the lives of all your soldiers (even though they mercilessly killed thousands of men, women, and children) gets brownie points. (Though I deduct from the value of the points for the fact that this booty wasn’t really given to G”d, it was given to the priests and Levites.)

So let me ask you – what – what could possibly be redeemed from that mess?

Yes, there is a ton of apologetic reasoning out there. If we operate from the premise that human beings are innately prone to war with each other the potential for apologetic reasoning is vast. I reject all of it, utterly.

My problem is less with the human beings - the Israelites and Moses. My issue is with G”d. This omnipotent G”d who has done the mightiest of miracles needs to use human beings  to kill other human beings so that G”d might fulfill a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You couldn’t have sent legions of angels? You couldn’t just snap your fingers and voila?

Yes, we all understand that human beings will value something more highly if they have to work for it rather than just having it handed to them. I get that. Nevertheless, it feels, as I’ve written in previous musings, over the top to have all this wholesale slaughter as part of just such an exchange. Not to mention that G”d took a different approach with the ten plagues, so we know it is possible – or – wait a minute – is that a glimpse of redemption here? The ten plagues involved lots of lopsided suffering. Did G”d realize that a more abject lesson, with suffering on both sides, would be a better lesson for the Israelites? But oops – not one Israelite was killed in this slaughter – so, never mind, chuck that redemptive idea.

We can place the story in a classic ultimate good versus ultimate evil, but that doesn’t hold up well either.

As I seek redemption for chapter 31 I keep having moments of aha followed by inevitable let down and the balloon busts on each new (or recycled old) thought. So I’m going to accept the lesson in that, at least for today, for this year, for this moment in time, and declare chapter 32 irredeemable. For now. 

חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵק

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5777 - Thirty-Two-Thousand Virgins?
Matot-Masei 5775 - Mei-eit Harav Tarbu U'mei-eit Hamat Tamitu
Masei 5774 - Would Jeremiah Be Surprised?
Matot 5774 - Over the Top (Revised 5763)
Matot-Masei 5773 - The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises

Friday, July 6, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pinkhas 5778 — Reviewing Zealousness (Redux 5768)

Fifteen years ago I wrote a missing about parashat Pinkhas wondering about what this and other stories teach us about when and when not to act with zeal.  Ten years ago, I spun a  new musing, with new perspectives, from that original. This week, I set out to spin a new musing that reflected where I am in my life today. Upon reflection, I realized that while writing this new spin on the topic proved to be cathartic for me, it might be asking for too much for you, dear readers, to share in the raw emotions  and personal truths. Quite frankly, my writing may be too impolitic for this moment in time for a variety of reasons. So, reluctantly, I’ll be discrete and political for now.  I’ll add a brief addendum to this re-sharing of my musing from a decade ago in 5768 which might provide readers with some insight as to where I am today, at this moment in time, when it comes to being zealous. (If you’d actually like to read the musing which I did write but not share, just drop me a line privately.) Now, back to 5768/2008.

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Pinkhas 5768—Still Zealous After All These Years

Five years ago, my musing for this parasha was entitled "I Still Get Zealous", the title being a pun on the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn song "I Still Get Jealous" from "High Button Shoes" (though oddly, it was Louis Armstrong's version that catapulted the song to fame.) I'm spinning this new musing off of that earlier musing, using some of its thoughts, but from a rather different vantage point.

In an odd coincidence of time, while I'm still zealous, today happens to have been my last day as Director of Education and Congregational Life for Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC.) It was not easy to choose to leave my congregational family of five years so that I might move with the family unit of which I have now become part to Amherst, MA. I'm sure most of you know what it's like to leave somewhere for the last time. Yet nothing tells me more about my own habitual zealousness than the way I approached my last few weeks, days, hours and minutes at BJC. Last Friday, I led my last service for BJC, and I was as inspired and uplifted as always. This past Wednesday, I led Torah study for the last time, and was as engaged and enlightened as always. also on Wednesday, I directed the BJC choir in rehearsing for the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) for the last time, and was passionate and driven as always. I think that I can do no less.

Yes, the years have not only aged me but taught me. I have learned to rein in my zealousness and over-dedication. Though I must admit that during these past 7 years of bachelorhood I easily slipped back into my old habits of perhaps giving more of myself, my time, and my talents as I should. Now, once again part of a family unit with a child of 8 in it, I can't give as much to other things no matter how driven or zealous I am, for my family requires and deserves more zealousness, passion, and patience than anything else. I'm sure that somewhere in there is a balance point, and I'll find my way to it in time, but my family will also come first - something that, I am ashamed to admit, I cannot claim was always true in my previous relationships-though I'd like to think I made a valiant effort, no matter how much I succeeded or failed.

There are consequences of zealousness, but we cannot always be sure of what they will be - reward, punishment, et al. Nadav and Avihu were turned into crispy critters for their zealousness, yet Pinkhas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics. On the other hand, it could just be illustrative of an impetuous and sometimes overly zealous G"d. I think I understand now why so many have this deep seated need for G"d to be unchanging, ever the same. That's much easier to deal with than a G"d whose reactions and attitudes seem to vary from situation to situation (witness the different reactions to the zealousness of Pinkhas vs. the zealousness of Nadav and Avihu.) and to put an even more radical spin on it, consider that all Nadav and Avihu did was offer a little bit of extra, alien fire, that they hadn't been asked to offer - and for their troubles, G"d toasted them. Yet when Pinkhas murders in cold blood the fornicators Zimri and Cozbi, he gets rewarded with a "brit Shalom" a covenant with G"d for him and his descendants. (Yes, yes, we've all heard the apologetic explanations - G"d brough Pinkhas and his descendants into this special relationship so G"d could "keep an eye on these crazy zealots" - and G"d was actually rewarding Nadav and Avihu by bringing them into the ultimate special relationship with G"d. They were made holy by being sacrificed. Never mind the subtle Christological subtext here.)

Yet, I reject the apologetics. What we have here is an inconsistent G"d who reacts differently in different situations. Voila-situational ethics. I don't particularly agree with G"d's choices here - that killing two human beings in order to assuage G"d's anger is ultimately more forgivable than offering up a little extra alien fire. Then again, how often do G"d and I agree?

It gets trickier, because we strive to base our systems of ethics upon what we believe about that which G"d approves and disapproves. Yet it appears that sometimes, when we do what we believe is what G"d wants, G"d approves, and at other times G"d gives a thumbs down. On what basis? Depending upon which side of the bed G"d woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a G"d whose mood can affect all G"d's creations. And I'm not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of G"d. (There's a book inside of me, that I am finally going to start writing now that life is giving me some breathing room to do so, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of "b'tzelem Elokim" in a somewhat reverse manner--that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that G"d possesses as well--and that G"d, too, is seeking a way to rid G"d's self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since G"d possesses these qualities, they aren't so negative after all? But I digress.)

Need we be troubled by a tempestuous G"d, be so insistent on consistency from our deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of G"d preventing us from seeing a bigger picture? (Still, I won't go as far as accepting that old "ineffable G"d canard.)

I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk? That would probably be the rabbinic approach-building a fence around it lest we inadvertently err.

As always, as I ponder these questions, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happenings in my own world. I worte in my 2002 version of this musing about a time I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 "soloists" kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few "zealots" would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, though, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other facilitators and participants actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players--because it didn't seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in "luck"-a game of chance with an edible reward--chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that those who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.

Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds--as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn't really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part. So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn't hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative. However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinchas' zeal was obviously appreciated by G"d.

So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn't appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves--but I don't believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to G"d could have easily been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community's welfare and not just their own. We'll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinkhas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. His zeal drove him to kill two of G"ds creations - one a member of the tribe, another,the supposedly scheming daughter of a Midianite muckety-muck trying to lure the Israelite men into worship their gods. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinkhas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That's really going out on a limb I'm not sure I want to crawl onto. It's also a very teleological approach to exegeting a lesson from the text.

It's not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinkhas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.

One would have thought that, after all these years, the level of my zeal would have decreased somewhat. Look-it even happened to Moshe, so why not me? That Moshe would so easily go to his grave, shucking and jiving and not openly complaining (too much) about his not getting to enter the promised land. That he even struck the rock in the first place. All signs of flagging zeal (or perhaps just old age.) Yet even today, on my last day, during my last hours, even my last few minutes, I worked to complete my tasks and prepare the way for my successor with passion and zeal. I did it not for any reward, for, particularly in this case, there would be none to be had-the tributes were long over and now came the silent slow walk out of the stadium after all the fans had left. Yet there is perceptible reward - and that is how I feel about myself, my professionalism, my passion, my dedication. Tonight I don't need the strokes of others to make me feel good. I'm flying high on the reward of my own good feelings.

I'm perhaps a little bit closer now than when I started in trying to figure out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, but I haven;t figured it all out just yet. Great-that gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I've engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.

As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.

Afternote from 5778:

Perhaps I am even a little closer here in 5778 to understanding the appropriate time and place to be zealous, but the reasons I am closer to taming my zealous impulses seem to be forms of external negative rather than positive reinforcement. Self-refueling requires the means to obtain fuel.

May it be G”d’s will and my own will that a decade from now I’ll be able to put a better, more positive spin on my life since now.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 (portions ©2003 and 2008) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Pinchas 5777 - The Sons of Korach
Pinkhas 5775 - Why Is This Rebuke...yadda, yadda, yadda (an expansion on 5769)
Pinkhas 5774 - Slaughter the Oxen, Burn the Plow, and Hear the Still Small Voice
Pinkhas 5773 - G"d's Justice, G"d's Responsibility
Pinkhas 5772 - Not Such a Shining Moment
Pinkhas 5771 - Wake Up and Smell the Coffee
Pinkhas 5770 - Thanking Those Who Didn't Make It
Pinkhas 5769-Why is This Rebuke Different From All Other Rebukes?
Pinhas 5766-Let's Give Moshe a Hand
Pinkhas 5765-Kol D'mamah Dakah
Pinchas 5762 -- I Still Get Zealous
Pinchas 5764/5760-It Just Is!