Thursday, April 25, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Shabbat 22 Nissan 5779–So What Do I Write About?

I don’t normally like to repeat a musing with the same theme as the previous year. This year, I broke that rule – and did so by writing on the same subject without looking over what I wrote last year, just to see where else I might go, might make different choices of focus, etc. I did not disappoint myself. So before you read this year’s musing, read the one from last year:

Then come back here.

Random Musing Before Shabbat – 22 Nissan 5779 – So What Do I Write About

OK, so this is one of those odd Shabbatot. In traditional Judaism, it’s not odd at all. The rabbis of the Talmud endorsed the practice of adding additional days to calendrical chagim outside of Eretz Israel, thus endorsing the practice of observing the three pilgrimage holidays for 8 days in the Diaspora (and only 7 days in Eretz Israel.) Even though modern technology obviates the concern which prompted the creation of these extra days of observance, the Talmud urges us to keep our calendar as a surety against losing our traditions in the face of persecution.

The Reform movement officially rejects these extra days (with the exception of Rosh Hashanah, which, it can be argued, is a different situation entirely. More on that later.) Thus Reform Judaism as a movement (but not every Reform Jew) recognizes and observes 7 days for the pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesakh, and Shavuot.

In many years, this does not present an issue. But when the chag begins on Shabbat (meaning that the eighth day will also fall on the next Shabbat) there’s an issue with what Torah reading falls on that eighth day Shabbat. In Israel, where on;y 7 days are observed, the practice is that the next parasha is read, thus Israel and the Diaspora get out of sync for a few weeks. Luckily, there are rules that help us get back in sync, though not that quickly. Brace yourself for a lot of arcane rules that guide the assignment of the parshiyot  based on the Hebrew calendar. Skip if you want, but you might find it quite enlightening.

These four basic principles guide the Jewish calendar vis-a-vis Torah readings:

    1. Parshat B’reishit is always read on the first Shabbat following the 22nd of Tishrei.
    2. Every Shabbat has a weekly parshah reading assigned, unless it coincides with a major holiday (Pesakh, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, or Sh’mini Atzeret).
    3. There are seven pairs of parshiyot that can be doubled up (six in Eretz Israel): Vayakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, Acharei-Kedoshim, Behar-Bechukotai, Chukat-Balak (only outside Israel), Matot-Mas'ei, and Nitzavim-Vayelech.
    4. V’zot Hab’rachah will always be the reading on Simchat Torah (or in Israel, Shemini Atzeret), whether or not it is a Shabbat.

Based on these four understandings, the yearly cycle is then governed by this halakhah from Shulkhan Aruch, Orakh Chayyim 428:4

  • In a regular (non-leap) year, the Shabbat before Pesakh is always Parshat Tzav. In a leap year, it is M’tzora (or, when Rosh Hashanah was on Thursday, Acharei Mot)

    • This requires that Vayakhel-Pekudei be combined in most regular years (except when Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday and the year is "complete," because then there's an extra Shabbat available between Simchat Torah and Pesakh). They will be separated in all leap years.

  • On the Shabbat before Shavuot, parashat Bamidbar is always read (except in leap years in which Rosh Hashanah was on Thursday, then it will be parashat Naso).

    To make this work,  in a normal year three sets of parshiyot in Sefer Vayikra are combined: Tazria-Metzora, Acharei-Kedoshim, and Behar-Bechukotai. (The exception - in Israel, in years when Pesach begins on Shabbat, because then 22 Nissan has a weekly parshah assigned, as it's a regular Shabbat. In that case, in Israel, Behar and Bechukotai are separated.) All three of these pairs of parshiyot will be separated in leap years.

  • The Shabbat after Tish'a B'Av the reading is always Parshat Va'etkhanan.

    This requires that in most years Matot-Mas'ei is combined. Exceptions – in the disapora leap years in which Rosh Hashanah is on a Thursday, and in Israel, leap years when Pesakh begins on Shabbat. In those settings, Matot and Masei will be read separately. In the Diaspora, years when Shavuot is on Friday and Shabbat, Chukat-Balak will have to be combined.

  • The Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah is always parashat Nitzavim.

    To make this work out (and still have all of the parshiyot read by Simchat Torah), in years when Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday or Shabbat, Nitzavim-Vayelech are combined and read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

Phew.   Now, this system complicates things, so that generally, Israel and the Diaspora remain out of sync until the last of the combined parshiyot in sefer Vayikra. It would be so much simpler if we could get back in sync quicker, but the halakha prevents that.

I’ve made inquiries but haven’t really gotten a serious answer to my question of why Reform simply doesn’t following eretz Israel for a few weeks, since that is a long established tradition and custom not requiring inventing or creating something new.

(It should also be pointed out that all over North America, Reform congregations differ in their practices – some follow the URJ’s newer practice of this “half parshiyot, ” others following eretz Yisrael until things are in sync again, and yet others follow orthodox tradition and read that traditional 8th day on Shabbat reading staying in total sync with all the non-Reform Jews in North America – with the exception of some who follow Yemenite practice, which is another story altogether.)

While I can understand the logic of not following orthodox practice, I’m not sure I understand the choice to not follow Israel. There’s a part of me that wonders if this is a remnant of assimilationist tendencies from early Reform in which we sought to be like our “Christian” neighbors – only in this case, the neighbors we are seeking to be like are our fellow non-Reform Jews in North America. Let me explain that, since on its face it makes no sense. Reform creates this “half parasha” which hardly seems an attempt to be like our Conservative and orthodox neighbors in North American galut. However, the ultimate result of doing it this way puts us back in sync with our local Jewish neighbors in just a week, rather than the weeks that following the Israeli reading calendar would require until we’re back in sync again. So perhaps we’re placing the desire to be more quickly back in sync with traditional/orthodox North American diaspora Jews over following an already established tradition of readings when only 7 days of a chagim are observed as they are in Israel?

Marat ayin? Which is easier to explain to non-Jews in North America. Reform being out of sync with all the other North American Jews for a bunch of weeks, or just a week?

Personally, I think I favor following the practice in eretz Israel. We have determined that there is no need for 8 day chagim, just as it has been tradition of long-standing (even from Biblical times) in Israel to observe the Torah mandated 7 days for these holidays. A full week. 87 days. The number of completion, the number of days of creation (we’ll set aside the controversy of whether or not G”d’s “finishing” on Shabbat actually represents work done by G”d on the seventh day or not.)

Being the gadfly I am, when I raised this question on some online fora, I couldn’t resist adding a fourth option for Reform. Follow Israel, follow Diaspora, make up these “half-parshiyot” to get Reform back in sync with other North American  Jews faster, or why not simply create entirely new readings for these Shabbatot when they occur? Now, I don’t personally think that’s a great option, but I wonder if it was ever considered?

As a movement, we’ve considered and reconsidered all sorts of things. Things once removed without much objection from the siddurim of the movement have found their way back in. In early iterations of Mishkan T’filah, the second paragraph of the Sh’ma/V’ahavta was offered as an option (with some more objectionable text in a smaller type size.) That eventually got shot down, but at least it was considered. Plus the proponents at least got a partial victory with the restoration of the first section of the third paragraph (the tzitzit section.)

I mentioned earlier how many Reform congregations still follow the practice of observing two days of Rosh Hashanah (even though on the RJ website they state that most observe only one.) Why two in Israel ?It’s complicated, but the simple explanation is that it is the only holiday that falls on the first day of a month, the time of the new moon. In biblical Israel, there was no fixed calendar. Each new month was declared based on the sighting of the new moon (or to be more specific, the absence of a visible sliver of moon.) Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, as most holidays started on other days of the month. However, since Rosh Hashanah would have started immediately with the appearance of the new moon, and the witness could not report this until the next morning or later, the court had to simply assume that the 30th day after the new moon of Elul was the 1st of Tishrei, and thus Rosh Hashanah. If they were wrong, and it turns out the next day was Rosh Hashanah – well, they had already declared that day as Rosh Hashanah, and therefore couldn’t send out messengers throughout Israel to announce that fact. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that this practice actually dated back to the time of the prophets (though this doesn’t make a lot of sense.) Once the rabbis established a fixed calendar (around the 4th Century CE) some Jews still living in Israel wanted to go back to a single day of Rosh Hashanah. However, it was determined that two days would be observed – one to honor the biblical commandment, and the other to honor the tradition of the Talmud Yerushalmi.

As I did with the arcane rules about the assigning of the Torah readings based on the calendar, I could go into far greater depth about the two-day Rosh Hashanah (and frankly, I originally did in earlier drafts of this musing) but I decided if you were really interested in al this, you could do your own research. Don’t want to burden you with too much information.

An argument that has sometimes been used in modern times to justify following the two-day practice for Rosh Hashanah is that it makes certain in years when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, that the shofar can still be heard, as that is a mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense in Reform settings, where musical instruments are already routinely used on Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah. So we’ll allow the use of instruments, but we won’t blow shofar on Shabbat? Talk about picking and choosing. (Again, customs differ, and some Reform congregations do blow shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.)

I remain conflicted as to what to write about for this Shabbat – thus I wrote about what has me conflicted, as a sort of cartharsis. Now I have to decided what I will write about for the next few weeks. I guess, by failing to write about Acharei Mot this Shabbat I’ve made my choice already. I’ll be following Diaspora Ashkehnazi custom, at least for this year.

So while I explored some of the same things, this year’s musing had a somewhat different focus than last year. It’s interesting to consider what led me down these different paths, what things are happening in my life that influence my writing choices. Thanks for indulging me.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Shabbat 22 Nissan 5778 - OTD: On and Off the Derekh
Pesakh 5778 - Odds and Ends
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5777 - Valley of The Donald
April 11, 2015 - Cop Out
Pesakh 5775 - Day Off (Literally)
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5773 - The Whole House of Israel
Pesach 5772 - Don't Believe This
Pesach 8th Day 5772 - The Bread of Freedom
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5771-Admat Yisrael
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesakh 5769 - Valley of the Dry Economy
Pesach VII 5768 - Department of Redundant Anamnesis Department
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5767-Not Empty
Intermediate Shabbat of Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis

Friday, April 12, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat-M’tzora 5779-K’nega Nira Li Babayit

כִּ֤י תָבֹ֙אוּ֙ אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶ֖ם לַאֲחֻזָּ֑ה וְנָתַתִּי֙ נֶ֣גַע צָרַ֔עַת בְּבֵ֖ית אֶ֥רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶֽם׃

14:34 When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess,

וּבָא֙ אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַבַּ֔יִת וְהִגִּ֥יד לַכֹּהֵ֖ן לֵאמֹ֑ר כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת׃

14:35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.”

OK. I’m following directions. כְּנֶ֕גַע נִרְאָ֥ה לִ֖י בַּבָּֽיִת׃. K’nega nira li babayit.

Something like a plague has appeared on my house. In fact, something like a plague has appeared on both my houses – the one I call home, and the one that is the home of my people.

I come to you as you are a priest, and I am commanded to tell you this news. You, in turn, are commanded to order the house cleared out so that you may examine it, and so that nothing else can possibly become contaminated.

So, come take a look. See those streaks on the walls there. I have some ideas as to what might be causing them.

[Insert here your litany of ways in which our house, aka the United States of America, has become unclean]

I had originally included my own list, but I think it’s better as an interactive exercise. It also allows you, the reader, to choose the perspective. You can make that perspective political, cultural, religious, ethical, philosophical, etc. and/or any combination of those. I would urge you, at first, to try and iterate as many of those as you can off the top of your head, before resorting to entering things like “the worst things x has done since becoming President” into a Google search. I think you may find this an interesting exercise. You probably won’t have trouble creating an initial list. Then you’ll dig online and discover how the totality of your list pales in comparison to all that you can discover online. There is value in those “oh yeah, I forgot about that” moments. Creating so many moments that one tends to forget some of them is exactly the effect “they” are after, whomever your “they” is. Distraction upon distraction upon distraction. Getting that list in one place where you can appreciate its enormity is a useful exercise.

It can be an interesting exercise to try and classify the various items on your list as to where they come into conflict with Jewish teachings and values. I’ve seen a few of those exercises already out there on the internet.

Last week, I taught an adult ed session on Jewish views of lying. It’s a typically mixed bag. Motivation matters. Topic matters. Intent matters. Situation matters. The people involved matters. I offer this as a caution. In our righteous indignation, we sometimes engage in blanket critiques that aren’t as nuanced as they could be. (To be honest, I hate having to write that, but if I don’t at least remind myself, I am liable to be carried to extremes by my own righteous indignation and potentially do things I might later regret.)

Then this week comes the latest blow. For a moment, at least, there was hope that the citizens of Israel might vote to restore some sanity (and values) to their government. Alas, that appears not to be the case.

Israel, as the home of my people, also appears to be suffering from something like a plague.

I wrote on Facebook:

What's left? I live in a United States of America that elected a government I cannot endorse and have difficulty understanding or accepting, and now that the Israeli people have spoken, they, too, have made a choice I cannot endorse and have difficulty accepting or understanding. Who are my people now? At least I can't be accused of dual loyalties now. Only dual disloyalties (which is an inaccurate accusation as I remain a loyal American citizen, and a passionate supporter of the dream of what Israel can be.) There was a time when terms like the "loyal opposition" were embraced. That is no longer the world in which we live. I am very, very saddened.

It is not always safe to speak openly and critically about Israel in the US Jewish community. Those of us who love Israel so much that we dare to call her to task for her failures are sometimes accused of disloyalty, even anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. (Though even we can be accused of the anti-Semitic dual loyalty trope, it seems.)

I truly love Israel. I have been there enough times to know the special connection one feels to the land when one is there. Though it may have evolved and changed, the religion which I practice has its origins there. There is clear, unambiguous historical evidence that the Jewish people lived there, starting at least 3500 years ago, and had nation states.  Despite the many times that control of the land passed from one empire or nation to another, there has been a continuous Jewish presence there. Given our historic and long connection to the land, it does make sense for us to have a modern nation state in the region. In light of the Shoah, having a Jewish state as a place of refuge also makes sense.

Make no mistake. I am proud of Israel. It has done amazing things. It has made the desert bloom. It has been a leader in agriculture , medicine, and technology. It is a democratic state in a part of the world that is sadly lacking in them. It does grant rights to all its citizens, and has, at least outwardly, strived to be an accepting society.

Israel is under fairly constant threat. Setting aside arguments that sometimes Israel herself contributes to making herself a target, no country should be subject, on a routine basis, to the acts of terrorism and random rocket attacks that Israel suffers. Israel is an important bastion in the Levant. Israel is a remedy for the ever-present existential threat against Jews that history has shown us always seem to exist in this world.

That being said, we need to have the priest come examine the red and green stains on the walls of our Israeli home to check for plague. I recommend to you the same exercise as before – come up with your own list of problems and issues that have plagued medinat Yisrael since its birth (and even before that) and then broaden that list with some online searching.

As with our own US house, you can frame your list of medinat Yisrael’s unclean things as it works for you. You could be the most ardent supporter of Israel, even a fervent “Israel right or wrong” type and still find items for your list (and if you don’t, I would question your self-honesty, and the ethical construct that allows you to gloss over obvious faults.)

[Insert here your litany of ways in which Jewish house, aka Israel, has become unclean]

A dozen years ago Rabbi Brad Hirschfield published his remarkable book, which I still use to guide me:  “You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.” If an orthodox rabbi from Chicago who made aliyah in the 80s and became a rabid “greater biblical Israel” fanatical Israeli settler can evolve into an intrafaith and interfaith bridge builder, there is hope for this world.

We don’t have to agree about these issues. You may not have the same issues and qualms about the things which cause me to worry about the plagues that have erupted in our American and Israeli homes. Live and be well.

There are Jews who are perfectly happy with everything that is happening in this country under this administration, and in Israel under its administration. There are Jews (like me) who are equally unhappy with both administrations. Then there are Jews who are geshrying about what is happening here in the United States of America but continue to give Israel and Bibi a pass. I may not share such a belief, but I do believe I have some understanding of the motivations and reasonings behind them, and believe they are, most often, well-intentioned, and based on rational concerns and fears.

I love Israel. I also love the diaspora – and I think we’ve allowed ourselves to develop a Jewish inferiority complex relative to Israel, and it’s time to look at that, and our role as a diaspora in the perpetuation of Judaism, and not leaving our survival totally dependent upon Israel as its burden.  Personally, I think we have passed many potential crossroads over the last few decades, and failed to even consider potential alternate paths. The time has come for exploring new options, new possibilities, new understandings of Judaism, Zionism, ahavat Yisrael, Colonialism, hasbara, Jewish Education, and more. We have to be willing to challenge all the underlying and accepted understandings and conventions. Reconsidering them doesn’t mean we will change them all, but if we don’t consider the entirety, it won’t be a thorough effort. I have thought and continue to think about these and related issues. I’ve started to come to some conclusions, but I have always been the kind of person who continues to study issues from every angle even when I have developed a particular opinion. I’m happy to discuss this with folks at any time.

וְהִזַּרְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִטֻּמְאָתָ֑ם וְלֹ֤א יָמֻ֙תוּ֙ בְּטֻמְאָתָ֔ם בְּטַמְּאָ֥ם אֶת־מִשְׁכָּנִ֖י אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.

We’ve been warned.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Metzora 5774 - Go With the Flow
Metzora 5771 - Afflict This!
Metzora 5768 - Human Nature
Metzora 5765-Defiling the Tabernacle
Metzora 5763-Not So Irrelevant
Metzora 5760-Even Lepers Bring Good News

Tazria-Metzora 5778 - Excessive Prevention (Redux 5770)
Tazria-Metzora 5777 - The Overlooked Lesson (Revisiting 5767)
Tazria-Metzora 5775 - Singing a Song of Leprosy Again
Tazria-M'tzora 5773-Even Lepers Bring Good News-Redux, Revised, & Expanded
Tazria-Metzora 5772 - We Are the Lepers
Tazria-Metzora 5770 - Excessive Prevention
Tazria-M'tzora 5767-Once Impure, Not Always Impure
Tazria-Metzora 5766 - Comfort in Jerusalem
Tazria-Metzora 5758/5764-Getting Through the Messy Stuff
Tazria-Metzora 5761-Lessons For Our Stuents
Tazria-Metzora 5762-Sing a Song of Leprosy