practicing judaism and ethics

parshat ekev

In a recent op-ed in the NY Times, Israel’s Fair-Weather Fans, Shmuel Rosner  references an Israeli  song “Ein Li Eretz Acheret”  “I have no other country,”.   Writes Rosner:

“I was reminded of the song in recent days as I read a string of articles by smart, savvy, knowledgeable, non-Israeli Jews, who say that the brutal war in Gaza has made them question their Zionism.

What unites these writers, of course, is that all of them do have another country. And that’s why, when push comes to shove, the Israeli government doesn’t — and shouldn’t — listen to them.”

It’s a powerful op-ed and it should be read in full.  This is not the first time a social commentator has identified the profound difference in perspective that living in or out of the land of Israel can have on one’s Judaism or opinion of the Jews.

In popular culture, the term Am Ha-Aretz” is used to refer to an ignorant Jew.  Since this derogatory label translates as “People of the Land” it makes sense that this pejorative actually refers to Jews who had a special connection to the land of Israel.  Writes Aharon Oppenheimer in his classic: The Am Ha-Aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, 1997 (note to page83):

AmHaaretz

The Jews in Babylonia, led by Ezra and Nechemia had changed the face of Judaism.  When the first temple was standing, washing and purification before eating food was relegated to the priests and Levites and to eating temple sanctified food.  The returning Babylonian Jews had extended this requirement to every Jew and for all foodstuff.  Similarly tithing was continued by the Babylonian Jews, even though the priests, who benefited from such tithing, no longer had a Temple to work in.  The Jews who had remained in Israel, known as the Amei Ha-aretz had not gotten this memo and probably thought that the Babylonian Jews were living in denial… there was no longer any reason to ritually wash nor tithe.

The point is not which of these groups was in the right.. the point is that Jews in Israel see things in a unique perspective which can, and maybe should unnerve outsiders.

This is not the last time that Jews living outside of the land of Israel looked down upon the religious practice of indigenous Israelis.  How many Jews (both religious and non-religious) come to Israel expecting Israelis to be more observant and are disappointed that they are not.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis were equally critical of Jews and Judaism outside of the land of Israel.

The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11 13-21)  is a repetition of the first (Deuteronomy 6: 5-9) in terms of providing that Jews teach their children the Torah and put on Tefillin and mezuzot. The difference is that the second paragraph admonishes the Jews to: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside… and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you.” (Deuteronomy 11: 16-17)

Rashi, commenting on Deuteronomy 11: 18 is bothered by why the commandment to put on tefillin is repeated in this second commandment and quotes the Sifrei.

Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. (Deuteronomy 11:18)

וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה, עַל-לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם; וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל-יֶדְכֶם, וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם

And you shall set these words of Mine: Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzoth , so that these will not be new to you when you return. Similarly, it is said, “Set up markers for yourself” (Jer. 31:20). – [Sifrei]

ושמתם את דברי אף לאחר שתגלו היו מצויינים במצות, הניחו תפילין, עשו מזוזות כדי שלא יהיו לכם חדשים כשתחזרו. וכן הוא אומר (ירמיה לא, כ) הציבי לך ציונים   [2]2

This is a remarkable text, because what it is saying is that Judaism outside of the Land of Israel is just a rehearsal… just for practice.  Israel is not the main stage, it is the only stage. I have written about this text, including the opinions of the classical commentaries and the double meaning of “Zion” ציונ  in another post: the hiker’s guide to zionism

But here’s my question.  If you practice something for 2,000 years doesn’t it get a little stale?  Practice may make perfect, but too much practice leads at best to  an empty shell of robotic activity and at worst אם an overacted and overgrown perversion.

Salt can preserve meat and fowl and refrigeration can preserve perishables, but ultimately the salt must be washed away and frozen food must be thawed.  The great Zionist thinkers all observed in one way or another that, the return to Zion would not only provide a refuge for a persecuted people, but just as importantly would provide for the rejuvenation of a people that had lived an anemic existence for 2,000 years.

By way of example, A. D. Gordon the great labor Zionist wrote:

The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for two thousand years. We have been accustomed to every form of life, except a life of labor- of labor done at our behalf and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor… for it is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in its turn is an outgrowth of the people’s toil and the people’s labor. … We, the Jews, were the first in history to say: “For all the nations shall go each in the name of its God” and “Nations shall not lift up sword against nation” – and then we proceed to cease being a nation ourselves. (see)

Similarly, Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew writes:

“True literature can emerge only in a social environment speaking the language in which that literature is being written.  Haskala literature in Russia is artificial, alienated from the sources of true artistic creativity – life itself. (see The Making of Modern Zionism, Shlomo Avineri p 85)

For each Zionist thinker, there was another vision for what the new Jew would be and for what 2,000 years of life without a land, language, army or economy had done to the Jewish People.

But 2,000 years of Jewish life produced more than just an oversized religion.  Two thousand years of a sterile existence in exile also produced an overgrown moral and ethical sense, divorced from the responsibilities of land, government, politics and defense. If the Jews greatest gift to Western thought was our fine-tuned morality and social activism, it may also be our most questionable gift.  Certainly our gift of morality divorced from political life is one that has come back to bite.

If one is willing to question a Jewish Religion that developed in such an artificial and sterile existence, certainly one needs to question the other intellectual  legacies of  the Jewish People brewed in the same petri dish of exile.

This is the question that Jewish thinkers and Western thinkers who have been so influenced by the best of Jewish thought ought ask.

As for Israelis, it’s a little more simple… they have nowhere else to go.

———————–

[1] for more recent scholarship on this subject see Daniel Boyarin , Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity p. 251 note 122

AmHaaretz boylerin

[2] Here is the complete text of the Sifrei Deuteronomy 43…

sifrei Ekev

Another thing “and ye perish quickly from off the good land.. and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand”  Even though I exile you from the land to exile, you are still commanded in the commandments so that when you return they will not be like new.  Analogous to a king of flesh and blood that is angry with his wife and casts her to the house of her father.  Says he, you should adorn yourself with your jewelry so that when you return they should not be like new. So said the Holy One to Israel:

Set thee up waymarks, make thee guide-posts; set thy heart toward the high-way, even the way by which thou wentest; return, O virgin of Israel, return to these thy cities.
ow long wilt thou turn away coyly, O thou backsliding daughter? For the LORD hath created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall court a man.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: yet again shall they use this speech in the land of Judah and in the cities thereof, when I shall turn their captivity: ‘The LORD bless thee, O habitation of righteousness, O mountain of holiness. (Jeremiah 31:20)

“waymarks” these are the commandments that Israel was commanded, “guide-posts” this is the destruction of the Temple. And also as it says “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy” (Psalms  137:5).

“even the way by which thou wentest”  (Jeremiah 31:20)  Says The Holy One to Israel “See in these ways you walked and have repented, immediately you will return to your cities as it is said: “Return O virgins of Israel, return to your cities.”

 

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neither/nor

parshat vetchanan

Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

  שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, ה’ אֶחָד

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Korcha along with his peers understood the Shema (Hear O Israel) as an acclamation of faith and acceptance of God’s Kingship that pre-empts and supercedes all of Jewish practice.

 “Accept the yoke of Heaven first, then accept the yoke of the commandments. – Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a

קבל עליו עול מלכות שמים תחלה ואח”כ

יקבל עליו עול מצוות

 

I was  introduced to the world of Musar by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (and see); one of the last greats of this 19th Century School of ethical thought and practice.

He recounted a story told of Rav Yerucham the spiritual head of the Meir Yeshiva in Poland.  Rav Yerucham had approached a student and asked if he had ever said the Shema?  The pupil was taken aback and replied:, “Yes, of course, Rabbi.”

Said Rav Yerucham, “Tell me, while you were saying the Shema did you feel a hint of rebellion against God?”

“Chas v’shalom,” (God Forbid) replied the pupil, “Of course not.”

“So you accepted the yoke of God’s Kingdom of Heaven (עול מלכות שמים)… on your feet, and anywhere they take you, on your hands and all your activities, on your eyes and anything you see, on your heart and emotions, your mind and your thoughts, imagination and curiosity… You accepted the yoke of heaven on all 248 limbs (traditional number of limbs in human body and number of words in the daily Shema declaration) …. and you never protested or stiffened in rejection?

“Then you have never said Shema ” replied the Rabbi [1]

I was struck by this interpretation of the Shema when I first heard it as I am now.

Did the Rabbi mean that unless one has felt the tingle of rebellion, at least once, one has never accepted the faith? Is this a one-off episode of a crisis of faith, or is this an ongoing dialectic?  As one’s faith and understanding of the true meaning of the “Yoke of Heaven” grow, must one’s sense of rejection and rebellion grow in-kind? Is the flip side of acceptance; rejection and vis a versa?

How ironic that it is precisely in a declaration focused on “ONE”  אֶחָד  that we focus on this tension between faith and rejection.

Once a musarnik, always a musarnik…  I have thought on this question for years as I have similarly asked myself.. what about this question so appeals to me.  I realize that what appeals to me about faith and observance in Judaism is exactly this duality within the unity.

The Rabbis have a way of changing a letter or word and standing a verse or a law on its head.  We had an example of that in the previous post where the Sifre changes a verse describing the Children of Israel’s time at Mt. Sinai that is normally interpreted as a description of bounty: ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain’. (Deuteronomy 1:6) רַב לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה to a description of malaise: “It was bad for you to have dwelt at this mountain” רע הוא לכם ישיבתם בהר הזה

The giving of the Torah was good… but it was also bad… and, seeming to say…  if you don’t get this, then you have never received the Torah.

Another of my teachers who introduced me to the world of Hasidism and mysticism was Rabbi Moshe Wolfson.  Sitting in the woods at Camp Torah Vodaas summer camp in the Catskills he cited the text in Pirkei Avot:

Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, “How beautiful is this tree!”, “How beautiful is this ploughed field!”—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. (Ethics of the Fathers 3:7)

המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, מה נאה ניר זה – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו מתחיב בנפשו

Asked Rabbi Wolfson “ How could admiring God’s works of nature be considered a crime worthy of death?” To which he answered… Anyone who is studying God’s Torah and considers it an interruption to study and admire God’s works of nature… for such a man the Torah considers it as though he had lost his soul… for the real Torah Scholar.. admiring nature is a continuation of Torah study….

Torah texts can isolate you from the truths and beauty of the world around us.. when they do, then you are no longer studying the Torah.

One Purim I was standing in the Yeshiva next to another Ba’al Teshuva (sometimes abbreviated to BT, a term that refers to a Jew who turns to embrace Orthodox Judaism). We both had had a few drinks.  I had always been proud of the fact that I was in the Yeshiva by-choice, not birth.  This guy turns to me and quotes the Talmud (Berachot 34a and Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 7:4)

“In the place where Ba’alei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand”

Berachot 34b four amot

“Do you know why a tzadik can’t stand in the same place as a repentant?” Asked my friend.  “Because the spiritual level attained by a repentant is too holy” I replied with a smile.

No, said my buddy… according to the Kotzker Rebbe, A tzadik can’t stand next to a Ba’al Teshuva, because it stinks too much!

A little harsh.. but the lesson is clear… Being self-righteous is as much of a temptation for the pure as for the purified.. if you feel self-righteous you’re probably not.

The “ONE” at the end of my Shema is complex and is as much a challenge to any unified theory of God or the universe as it is an answer.  I think the same holds true for most Jews.  This profession of faith mixed with a question of faith is the core of my Judaism and, I believe the basis for Jewish humor.

I just saw a wonderful production of Fiddler on the Roof and Teviya’s constant questioning of God, while talking to God and his “you’re right too” response to the criticism that both sides of an argument can’t be right… is the crux of the play’s charm and the survival of his people.

Professor Sidney Morgenbesser, my college adviser and philosophy professor, was in great pain before he died.  He asked a student “Why is God making me suffer so? Is it because I do not believe in him?”

The tough-love aspect of the responses of Wolbe, Wolfson and the Kotzker are desperately needed in a world that seems to love platitudes in it’s religion, secularism and politics.

I read a powerful article this week criticizing superficial celebrities who use anti-Israel catch-phrases to give themselves painless (and brainless) righteous indignation.  The author cites a disposition that German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “Cheap Grace,”.  I had not heard of Bonhoeffer before, but he seems to follow in the footsteps of a great Christian thinker; Søren Kierkegaard, who I studied in my youth and admired greatly. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was so impressed by Kierkegaard that he wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard to the Kotzker named A Passion for Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe in cheap grace, cheap truths or cheap faith.  He wrote a whole book on the attempted sacrifice of Jacob entitled Fear and Trembling in which he shows; in gruesome detail how wrong it was for God to ask and for Abraham and Jacob to acquiesce to such an immoral and irrational request.  Only after a total rejection of the Akeda can one accept it in a leap of faith…   I’m not sure that I can make this particular leap, but I do agree with Keirkegarrd that faith is not cheap.

Side Note: Kierkegaard never got married but he did write a large two-volume work on the pros and cons of marriage called Either/Or … it would seem that love and marriage are not cheap either…

Kierkegaard is considered the father of Existential Philosophy and the inventor of the never-ending dialectic where an idea such as acceptance is informed by an idea such as rejection, which leads to a higher idea of acceptance which is informed by a still higher idea of rejection and so on…

The problem with the cheap grace shown by celebrities affecting righteous indignation for suffering civilians without investing in learning the context of the conflict is that it does an injustice to the suffering on both sides and to the unknowing celebrity-watcher who want cheap facts.  The worst casualty of this cheap grace is that it makes those of us who wish to learn the context to naturally try to minimize the suffering cheapened by the celebrities and the too easy to process photojournalism.  We dare not.

Getting back to the iconic declaration of faith of the Jewish People.. the Shema; it is clearly a declaration of unity that includes a duality.  If unity was all it was looking for, it would have said “God is One” or “Hear O Israel, God is One”.

Rashi catches the duality and writes: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one: The Lord, who is now our God and not the God of the other nations-He will be [declared] in the future “the one God,”

 ה’ שהוא אלהינו עתה ולא אלהי האומות, הוא עתיד להיות ה’ אחד

Rashi sees a dialectical journey in human history and eschatology, I see in the Shema, our religion and peoplehood a challenge to travel a dialectical crevasse where neither faith, unity, nor love or peace are cheap.

—————

In a search on the internet, I found this story twice, both times told about Rabbi Wolbe himself and a student (as opposed to a story R. Woble told of his Rebbe R. Yerucham) and both, mitigating the power of the story with a limitation of Did you ever say the Shema with kavanah [intent] … but that’s not the way I remember it.  See and see.

 

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a new jew

Parshat devarim

The book of Deuteronomy is  a summary, some would say re-interpretation of all that is before and preparation for all that lies ahead.  It is the beginning of a paradigm shift.

 ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. (Deuteronomy 1:6)

 רַב לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה

As if to say “move on”, it is time to shift from a group of freedom fighters and to join the family of nations.

The fact that this book was first written (“discovered”) in the middle of the reign of King Josiah (ruled 640 – 608 BCE)  [see Kings II, 22:10-) and embellished over time, makes it even more interesting as a record of a paradigm shift from Exodus/Revelation to Nationhood/Exile. [The First Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE, a mere 21 years after the reign of Josiah]

What is striking is how negatively it begins.

In verse 2 Moses points out that the journey that took more than 40 years should have been accomplished in eleven days! Rashi quoting the Sifrei paraphrases Moses: “See what you caused!”

In verse 9 Moses complains that ‘I cannot carry you alone.”

  לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם

And continues: “How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?”

  אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם

The author of this intro to Deuteronomy and Jeremiah in his Book of Lamentations use this same word “how” אֵיכָה to lay blame on the Jewish People.

Moses proceeds to recount every divine intervention during the forty year wandering in terms of the overwhelming burden on him and the failings of the Jewish People… (appointing administrators and judges, sending the scouts, unsanctioned military operations).

Depending on whether this is Moses speaking or God… It really sounds like “bitter party of one” or “bitter party of ONE”, respectively.

No surprise that one interpretation given by the Sifrei for “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain” substitutes “bad” רע   for “long” רַב

רע הוא לכם ישיבתם בהר הזה

“It was bad for you to have dwelt at this mountain”

It’s almost as if Moses and the author of Deuteronomy have bought into the theory offered by latter day Christians and Moslems [1] that the Jews were given the myriad of commandments and prohibitions at Sinai as a punishment for their sins…. Not a reward for being the chosen people….

Following this deflating introduction, Moses (and the author(s) of Deuteronomy) begin to introduce another concept.. namely that if and when the nation of Israel loses a battle or is cast into exile it is because of it’s sins.

This self-pummeling, guilt-ridden and power-phobic aspproach to life and state-craft is the ultimate message of the upcoming fast-day of Tisha B’av and it’s text; Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations.. see for instance Lamentations 1:8:

Jerusalem hath grievously sinned, therefore she is become as one unclean; all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness; she herself also sigheth, and turneth backward.

חֵטְא חָטְאָה יְרוּשָׁלִַם, עַל-כֵּן לְנִידָה הָיָתָה; כָּל-מְכַבְּדֶיהָ הִזִּילוּהָ כִּי-רָאוּ עֶרְוָתָהּ, גַּם-הִיא נֶאֶנְחָה וַתָּשָׁב אָחוֹר

This perverse belief that failure shows the disapproval of God, especially when it comes to the use of power, appears first in Deuteronomyץ In the context of Jews of the Exodus generation who decided that they did not want to die in the desertץ  Unsanctioned by God, they began the conquest by attacking the Amorites.  It was not a successful campaign and they were chased and killed by the Amorites “as bees do”

So I spoke unto you, and ye hearkened not; but ye rebelled against the commandment of the LORD, and were presumptuous, and went up into the hill-country.
And the Amorites, that dwell in that hill-country, came out against you, and chased you, as bees do, and beat you down in Seir, even unto Hormah.
And ye returned and wept before the LORD; but the LORD hearkened not to your voice, nor gave ear unto you.

Says Rashi: but the LORD hearkened not to your voice: As if possible [to say of God], you made His attribute of mercy as though it were cruel.

ולא שמע ה’ בקלכם כביכול עשיתם מדת רחמיו, כאלו אכזרי

Moses continues this rant to it’s logical conclusion in Deuteronomy 4: 23 and 26

Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which He made with you, and make you a graven image, even the likeness of any thing which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over the Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.

This “you sinned therefore the nations of the world punish you” might work for a Saturday morning sermon, but it is dangerous stuff for statecraft and for public consumption by your enemies.

Ruth Wisse in her book Jews and Power refers to this inward-looking response as a “long-range strategy of accommodation to defeat.” (p24).

“In a cyclical pattern, adjustment to exile reinforced the habits of self-accountability, which permitted adjustment to exile.”

Wisse goes on to argue that the rebirth of the State of Israel was made possible only by an implicit rejection of this type of self-accountability that leads a people to adjust to exile and persecution.

Liberal intellectuals, religiously motivated anti-Semites and even-anti Zionist Orthodox Jews who disproportionately criticize Israel for real and imagined injustices, share the same pernicious belief. That when Jews are attacked it is self-inflicted and when they defend themselves or take their destiny into their own hands they are somehow sinning by not accepting the punishment meted out  by a God…  Or in the non-theistic version, they sin against an idealized  liberal ethic by daring to live in a real world.  In either case the Jew who dares to stand in defence is an affront to their belief system.

In the irony of ironies, the source for this “accommodation to defeat” is itself, self-inflicted and appears for the first time in the Hebrew Bible itself.

We have dwelt long enough at that mountain… fortunately there is a New Jew.  The resilient citizens of modern-day Israel and the brave soldiers of the IDF represent a new generation of Jews who do not have a problem with defending themselves… and what is best in our religion and in liberalism.

Postscript -

This year more than most, I really have no desire to commemorate Tisha B’av [2], read Lamentations or sit on the ground wondering “how” אֵיכָה..

I will continue to do what I have been doing over the last few weeks of the current conflict between Israel and it’s enemies.  I’ll watch CNN and Israeli TV, read the news feed in concern and solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Israel… and I’ll stand proudly with Israel.

—————–

[1] See for example Quran sura IV:160 and will add other sources in due course…

[2] I also have no patience for anyone who says the the three weeks and Tisha B’av is an inauspicious time to defend oneself or engage in life threatening endeavors… we have dwelt long enough at that mountain too.  enough with the magical thinking…

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gimme shelter

parshat massei

Sanctuary: 1. A place of refuge, especially for political refugees 2. immunity from arrest

The Concise Oxford Dictionary

With the army of a victorious Henry VII bearing down on him, a terrified Francis Lovell made for the only place he knew he would be safe – a church.

It was 1485 and his master Richard III had just been killed on the battlefield at Bosworth and Francis had every reason to believe his head would be next.

But he made it in time to St John’s Abbey in Colchester where he invoked the ancient law of religious sanctuary. It made him untouchable.

Claiming sanctuary in a church to avoid being punished for a crime was abolished in England in 1623 but the idea persists to this day. (see)

The antecedence for refuge in a sanctuary hark back to Numbers 35: 9 -

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer that killeth any person through error may flee thither. And the cities shall be unto you for refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.

 דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם:  כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן, אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן

 וְהִקְרִיתֶם לָכֶם עָרִים, עָרֵי מִקְלָט תִּהְיֶינָה לָכֶם; וְנָס שָׁמָּה רֹצֵחַ, מַכֵּה-נֶפֶשׁ בִּשְׁגָגָה

 וְהָיוּ לָכֶם הֶעָרִים לְמִקְלָט, מִגֹּאֵל; וְלֹא יָמוּת הָרֹצֵחַ, עַד-עָמְדוֹ לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לַמִּשְׁפָּט

The six cities of refuge were designated for all inhabitants regardless of citizenship “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the settler among them,” and where designed to break  the pre-existing rules of Blood Feuds whereby a relative of the murdered was required to redeem the blood    גֹּאֵל הַדָּם of his relative by killing the murderer, even if the murder was accidental.

The City of Refuge is first and foremost the antidote to the negative aspects of clan  and tribalism.  The refuge cities עָרֵי מִקְלָט along with the monetization of lex talionis (eye for eye see Lev. 24:19 and Talmud Baba Kamma, 83b–84a) represented the Hebrew Bible’s frontal assault on the zero-sum mechanics of blood-for-blood honor killings.

Ironically, Israelis call a bomb shelter a Miklat  מִקְלָט.    The connection between the modern day bomb shelter and the Biblical city of refuge is profound. The modern day Miklat protects Israeli citizens from the attacks of  terrorists who wish nothing positive, but only to take revenge for prior injustices and to redeem the blood of fellow clan members.  In a very real sense, the Iron Dome Missile Defense system, the Miklat, and the security wall are all designed to end the cycle of violence.

When these same terrorist shoot rockets without  sheltering their own citizens  from the inevitable return fire, they are striving to escalate the blood feud, ditto for the use of their citizens as human shields.

The cinematic image we share of the fugitive finding refuge in a church shows how this legal institution of the City of Refuge survived in Church law and popular culture, but what is less well known, is how primary this message was to Muhammad’s message and early Islam.

According to Joseph Schacht, the celebrated Columbia professor of Arabic and Islam, Muhammad reformed the norms of retaliation with the introduction of  blood-money “because of the main aim of the Prophet  – [was] the dissolution of the ancient tribal organization and the creation of a community of believers in its stead.” [An Introduction to Islamic Law, Joseph Schacht, p 13-4)

See Quran Sura 4: 92

And never is it for a believer to kill a believer except by mistake. And whoever kills a believer by mistake – then the freeing of a believing slave and a compensation payment presented to the deceased’s family [is required] unless they give [up their right as] charity. But if the deceased was from a people at war with you and he was a believer – then [only] the freeing of a believing slave; and if he was from a people with whom you have a treaty – then a compensation payment presented to his family and the freeing of a believing slave. And whoever does not find [one or cannot afford to buy one] – then [instead], a fast for two months consecutively, [seeking] acceptance of repentance from Allah . And Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

According to Schacht, Islam after Muhammad continued this evolution away from tribal revenge killings and toward the rule of law and restitution.

The Umayyads did not interfere with the working of retaliation as it had been regulated by the Koran, but they tried to prevent the recurrence of Arab tribal feuds which threatened the internal security of the state, and they assured the accountancy for payments of blood-money, which were effected in connexion with the payment of subventions. ibid. Schacht p. 24

Schacht, who was not Jewish, believed about Islam what many of his contemporary Jewish Scholars had concluded about Judaism, namely, that there was at one time a  “living tradition” where ideas took on a life of their own and evolved forward, even if projected back to engender authenticity. (see Remembering Joseph Schacht (1902‑1969) by Jeanette Wakin) [1]

With regard to the subject at-hand, Schacht concludes that:

 The considerable restriction of blood feuds was a great merit of Muhammad’s. According to Bedouin ideas, any member of the tribe of the killer, and even more than one, could be killed if homicide had occurred. Islam allows only the killer himself (or several killers for one slain), to be put to death, and only if he is fully responsible and has acted clearly with deliberate intent; Islamic law further recommends waiving retaliation. Ibid Schacht p 185

It’s a shame that, in the Islam we encounter today, the movement by the Prophet Muhammad and early local schools against tribalism and blood feuding was not permitted to develop further.  It’s a shame that both Jews and Muslims do not have a miklat, a shelter, refuge and sanctuary to protect them from the evils of bloodletting and the cycle of violence that it drives.

In the meantime, the civilized world should honor and emulate the shelter that Israel provides it’s citizens as not only an acclimation of life but also as a concrete and practical strategy to break the cycle of violence and bloodletting.

 

———————

[1]  Writes Wakin: “Not surprisingly, scholars in the Muslim world in general are unable to accept Schacht’s discoveries or face their implications. … The understandable fear among modern Muslim scholars is that the great edifice of the religious law, and thus Islam itself, will collapse if it is shown to have been the product of human minds. Schacht’s findings can, of course, conceivably be put at the service of a liberalizing movement, but this has not yet been attempted.”

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the compromised land

parshat matot

Previously, when Moses is confronted with a difficult question requiring a pragmatic solution he lets God do the heavy lifting.  As the Children of Israel stand on the cusp of the Promised Land, Moses finds the moxy to craft the compromise.

Moses is approached by the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.  These men are herders not farmers.  They have noticed that the land on the East Bank of the Jordan River is more suitable for livestock.  Following in the footsteps of Zelophehad’s daughters and Jethro before them, they approach Moses and the Elders. (Numbers 32)

The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spoke unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying: … the land which the LORD smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle.’ And they said: ‘If we have found favour in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession; bring us not over the Jordan.’

 וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-גָד, וּבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן; וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְאֶל-נְשִׂיאֵי הָעֵדָה לֵאמֹר

 הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה ה’ לִפְנֵי עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל–אֶרֶץ מִקְנֶה, הִוא; וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ, מִקְנֶה

  וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִם-מָצָאנוּ חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ–יֻתַּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לַעֲבָדֶיךָ, לַאֲחֻזָּה:  אַל-תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן

One can just picture Moses’ face dropping in disbelief and sadness.  Here, the land of Israel had not even been possessed and already two of the twelve tribes want to modify and dilute the dream.  The tribes of Reuben and Gad were the first post-Zionists, only they hadn’t even settled in Zion yet!

Moses’ anguish is deeper. The student of the Hebrew Bible will recognize that from the days of Cain and Abel, there has always been a biblical tension between the farmer and the herder.  While both are necessary, it is an agricultural society, with laws of tithes and sabbatical years that fill the Hebrew law code for the new land.  The slaughter of animals is relegated to the sacrificial cult.  The farmer invests in the land and lives off the sweat of his brow; the herder takes from the land and moves on. The life of the nomad, the hunter and gatherer had served the people well in exile, but now that they were settling in the Promised Land, it would be sustainable agriculture which insured the future.

It was not just that these two tribes didn’t want to complete the journey, their chosen profession manifested a rejection of something deeper.  Just as the word for Cain קַיִן  is derived from the word possessions (see Genesis 4:1) so too does the word for cattle  מִקְנֶה has a materialistic  sense to it.   Rashi picks up on the misplaced materialism of these two tribes projected in the text…

They approached him and said, “We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children. (Numbers 32:16)

 וַיִּגְּשׁוּ אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמְרוּ, גִּדְרֹת צֹאן נִבְנֶה לְמִקְנֵנוּ פֹּה, וְעָרִים, לְטַפֵּנוּ

We shall build sheepfolds for our livestock here: They were more concerned about their possessions than about their sons and daughters, since they mentioned their livestock before [mentioning] their children. Moses said to them, “Not so! Treat the fundamental as a fundamental, and the matter of secondary importance as a matter of secondary importance. First ‘build cities for your children,’ and afterwards ‘enclosures for your sheep’” (verse 24) – [Mid. Tanchuma Mattoth 7]

 נבנה למקננו פה -חסים היו על ממונם יותר מבניהם ובנותיהם, שהקדימו מקניהם לטפם. אמר להם משה לא כן עשו, העיקר עיקר והטפל טפל, בנו לכם תחלה ערים לטפכם ואחר כך גדרות לצאנכם

There is another element inherent in the request of these tribes that must have peeved Moses.  The promise of the Promised Land was to put an end to the incessant wandering of the Hebrews.  The Hebrews (עברים) were the descendants of people like Abraham and the wanderers in the desert, who had forged (passed over עבר) the river and come to settle in the land.  These tribes, like Cain were choosing the life of the wanderer. they were asking permission not to cross the Jordan both physically and ideologically.

אַל-תַּעֲבִרֵנוּ, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן

Moses barely hides his anger.  He points out that these two tribes are setting a bad example and missing the whole point of the episode of the 10 scouts who were responsible for the 40-year delay in returning to the Land of Israel (Numbers 32: 7 – 13)

And wherefore will ye turn away the heart of the children of Israel from going over into the land which the LORD hath given them? … Thus did your fathers, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. .. Surely none of the men that came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob; because they have not wholly followed Me; … And the LORD’S anger was kindled against Israel, and He made them wander to and fro in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the LORD, was consumed.

   וְלָמָּה תנואון (תְנִיאוּן), אֶת-לֵב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–מֵעֲבֹר, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן לָהֶם, ה

   כֹּה עָשׂוּ, אֲבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּשָׁלְחִי אֹתָם מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ, לִרְאוֹת אֶת-הָאָרֶץ

 אִם-יִרְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָעֹלִים מִמִּצְרַיִם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, אֵת הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב:  כִּי לֹא-מִלְאוּ, אַחֲרָי

  וַיִּחַר-אַף ה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיְנִעֵם בַּמִּדְבָּר, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה–עַד-תֹּם, כָּל-הַדּוֹר, הָעֹשֶׂה הָרַע, בְּעֵינֵי ה

Writes Rashi (picking up the Cain motif):

He made them wander: He moved them about from place to place, as in נָע וָנָד “a wanderer and an exile” (Gen. 4:12).

 וינעם – ויטלטלם. מן נע ונד

Knowing Moses’ frustration and anger management issues, one would have expected him to lash out.  And while he does engage in a vigorous debate with these non-settlers he resolves the issue with a grand compromise.

The leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad agree to participate fully in the conquest and only once their brethren are settled will they return to their outpost on the East Bank of the Jordan. (Numbers 32: 18-19)

We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance.

For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan, and forward, because our inheritance is fallen to us on this side of the Jordan eastward

לֹא נָשׁוּב, אֶל-בָּתֵּינוּ–עַד, הִתְנַחֵל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אִישׁ, נַחֲלָתוֹ

 כִּי לֹא נִנְחַל אִתָּם, מֵעֵבֶר לַיַּרְדֵּן וָהָלְאָה:  כִּי בָאָה נַחֲלָתֵנוּ אֵלֵינוּ, מֵעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן מִזְרָחָה

In a sense, the permission by Moses for these outlier tribes to settle on the East Bank of the Jordan, was a testament to his maturation and growth as a leader and his understanding that ideologies need to be compromised in order to achieve dreams.

Three thousand years later when Ben Gurion and the mainstream Zionists were given the choice of a partitioned promised land they too accepted the compromise.  Ironically, those rejectionists let by Ze’ev Jabotinsky who rejected the Partition Plan used Reuben and Gad’s East Bank settlement as the basis for an argument against compromise and for a Greater Israel.

The East of the Jordan (Hebrew: שמאל הירדן‎) is a poem written by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, a song that became one of the most known leading songs of the Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar. The song includes four Stanzas. Each stanza ends with the following line which is the main political message and theme of the poem:

Two Banks has the Jordan
This is ours and, that is as well.

The main theme of the song also influenced other Zionists’ poems, and its main theme appears also in Raise Up the Barricades, by Michael Eshbal, also one of the Betar youth movement’s well known poems, which says of the Jewish state: “To establish the state on both sides of the Jordan”.

(see Wikipedia  The East Bank of the Jordan) and see note below with complete lyrics and background of the heated debate between Jabotinsky; the uncompromising revisionist, and Weizman; the pragmatist. [1]

The rift between these two groups culminated in the Altalena Affair where in 1948, Ben Gurion, the heir to Weizman and the leader of the month-old State of Israel squared off against Menachem Begin, the heir to Jabotinsky and head of the now illegal paramilitary group; the Irgun.  To make a long story, short, Ben Gurion ordered the sinking of the Altalena. Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed and more than 200 were arrested.  Begin never forgave Ben Gurion, but in 1979, it was Begin who made the ultimate compromise in returning Sinai to Egypt.

The Altalena was our Hamas moment.  The Palestinians have absorbed many ideas, concepts from the Zionists. The Palestinians use words like “right of return” and “diaspora” and also have adopted a nationalistic desire for a state similar to the Zionists.  It is time that they also learn to compromise their ideals and unconditionally reject rogue players and ideologically driven militarists.  There was no room for the Irgun once the State of Israel was established, and there is no room for non-state players like Hamas if the Palestinians are to have their own state.

Today, as once again Israel is forced to wage war with Palestinian rejectionist and terrorist groups, we need to remember and remind the world not only regarding the sacrifices that we have made, but also the equally courageous compromises that we and our most idealistic leaders have made.

We will have peace with our neighbors not only “when they love their children more that they hate us” (Golda Meir), but also when they learn, that in order to deserve a Promised Land, you need to accept a Compromised Land…

—————–

[1]

In 1922, in an effort to appease Abdullah, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill excluded 77% of Palestine from all legal stipulations dealing with Hebrew aspirations. The first in a series of four White Papers was issued, significantly limiting Jewish immigration and severely truncating the Israeli homeland’s borders. A Hashemite Arab kingdom was consequently established in the majority of Palestine. This artificial state came to be known as Trans-Jordan. Thus the Jews were left with only 23% of what the Balfour Declaration and League of Nations had stipulated.

During Jabotinsky’s stay in the United States, he received news of Britain’s perfidious White Paper. While the more pragmatic Zionist leaders, led by Chaim Weitzman, were willing to accept whatever borders they could receive, Jabotinsky contested the injustice on principle and even composed a song championing Israel’s claim to both banks of the Jordan River.

As a bridge is held up by a pillar
As a man is kept erect by his spine
So the Jordan, the holy Jordan
Is the backbone of my Israel.

Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.

Though my country may be poor and small
It is mine from head to foot.
Stretching from the sea to the desert
And the Jordan, the Jordan in the middle.

Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.

From the wealth of our land there shall prosper
The Arab, the Christian, and the Jew,
For our flag is a pure and just one
It will illuminate both sides of my Jordan.

Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.

My two hands I have dedicated to the homeland,
My two hands to sword and shield.
Let my right hand whither
If I forget the East Bank of the Jordan.

Two Banks has the Jordan –
This is ours and, that is as well.

In the wake of Zionism’s meek response to Churchill’s treacherous White Paper, Jabotinsky condemned what he called the “erosion of Zionist demands” – the leadership’s apprehension to clearly state that the goal of the Zionist Movement is a sovereign Hebrew state. He argued that Zionism no longer demanded but instead adopted the exile attitude of “shtadlanut” – trying to curry favor in gentile eyes. The issue of Trans-Jordan and the evolutionary leadership’s inability to state clear Zionist goals became issues of heated discussion within the Movement, leading to Jabotinsky’s resignation from the World Zionist Executive. His resignation, however, did not stem from disillusionment with the Zionist ideal, but rather with the officials at the helm. It occurred to Jabotinsky that his generation was not ready for the revolutionary character of Herzlian Zionism. A movement had to be born that would create a new type of Jew, free from the idiosyncrasies and inferiority complex of the exile – like the champions featured throughout the Hebrew Bible. By bringing about a revolution in values and self image, Jabotinsky hoped to revive the ancient spirit of the proud Israeli hero. Along with a number of veterans from the Zionist Movement, he established the Union of Zionist­-Revisionists (Hatzohar) which called for the immediate establishment of a Hebrew state with an Israeli majority on both sides of the Jordan. (see:  Zionist Freedom Alliance)

Revisionist Zionism came into being as a direct challenge to the policies of Chaim Weitzman. Two diametrically opposed ideologies were now battling for commandjabotinsky over the Zionist Movement. Jabotinsky advocated a forthright approach of presenting fundamental Zionist aims explicitly. He was against the propounding of half truths, whether to the Hebrew masses or to the gentile nations. Like Herzl before him, Jabotinsky rejected “muted Zionism” and refused to “turn the Zionist Movement into a fraternity of whispering, conspiratorial smugglers”. Opposing him, Weitzman advocated a cautious struggle and the application of “one step at a time” tactics. But Jabotinsky demanded a return to Herzlian Political Zionism with stated goals set forth in a charter.

 

 

 

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celebrating women and ending tribalism

parshat pinchas

There are followers of the Supreme Court who monitor decisions like baseball fans keep batting statistics. I’ve been keeping track of the Divine Court and by my count we do really well when we go directly to God.  It’s a shame we don’t ask more difficult questions of our Spiritual leaders and go directly to God more often.

First in Exodus 18:24-26 Jethro questions Moses’s top down judicial system and, with God’s input, we get a workable court system.  Score 1 for the people.

In Numbers 9:8 Moses was asked by men who were impure or had travel plans, whether they may bring the Pascal offering at a later date, and again, with God’s intercession, we get the one and only make-up ritual sanctioned by God. Score 2 for the people.

And then there’s the daughters of Zelophehad Numbers 27 1-12:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, … And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying: Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’

And Moses brought their cause before the LORD.

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. …. And it shall be unto the children of Israel a statute of judgment, as the LORD commanded Moses.’

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, and behold the land which I have given unto the children of Israel.

 וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד

 וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה לִפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה, וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, וְלִפְנֵי הַנְּשִׂיאִם, וְכָל-הָעֵדָה–פֶּתַח אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד, לֵאמֹר

  אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא לֹא-הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל-יְהוָה, בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח:  כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ

 לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן; תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ

לִפְנֵי ה’ וַיַּקְרֵב מֹשֶׁה אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטָן

 וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר

 כֵּן, בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת–נָתֹן תִּתֵּן לָהֶם אֲחֻזַּת נַחֲלָה, בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אֲבִיהֶם; וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ אֶת-נַחֲלַת אֲבִיהֶן, לָהֶן

 וְאֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר:  אִישׁ כִּי-יָמוּת, וּבֵן אֵין לוֹ–וְהַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת-נַחֲלָתוֹ, לְבִתּו…ֹ

 וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, עֲלֵה אֶל-הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה; וּרְאֵה, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Three out of three decisions for the people is a pretty good record.  It’s a shame the Children of Israel did not approach the divine bench more frequently, but the lesson is clear, we have to badger our leaders with inconvenient questions and force them to question the status quo and acknowledge those annoying facts.  If they don’t have the answers we need to go to a higher authority.

Rashi wonders why the biblical editor chose to place Moses’s iconic  “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” moment next to the account of the daughters of Zelophehad.

Go up to this mount Abarim: Why is this [passage] juxtaposed here [with the previous passage]? When the Holy One, blessed is He, said, “You shall certainly give them…” (verse 7), he [Moses] said, “The Omnipresent commanded me to allocate the inheritance! Perhaps the decree has been annulled, and I will enter the Land?” The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “My decree remains as it was” (Mid. Tanchuma Pinchas 9).

 עלה אל הר העבריםלמה נסמכה לכאן, כיון שאמר הקב”ה נתן תתן להם, אמר אותי צוה המקום להנחיל, שמא הותרה הגזירה ואכנס לארץ. אמר לו הקב”ה גזרתי במקומה עומדת

It’s a sad and unsatisfying explanation….  God gives Zelophehad (the father) the ability to retain his tribal plot of land in the Promised Land and Moses asks: “What about me?” ..  I think it misses the point.  Moses didn’t take God up to the Mount of Abarim to teach God a lesson, God took Moses to the mountaintop to teach Moses a lesson. More to the point, the daughters approached God primarily to claim what was theirs, not to insure that their father had a legacy.  Sure they diplomatically couched their argument in terms that would appeal to a patriarchal society: “Why should the name of our father be done away” לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ but what they were really looking for was equal property rights: “Give unto us a possession”  תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה

Moses and all the men gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting lacked the vision thing….  They couldn’t see beyond their male chauvinism and they couldn’t see beyond the confines of tribalism.

God took Moses up to the mountaintop to let him see the vision of a Promised Land which was not to be confined to male dominance and tribal paternalism… that’s why the Mountaintop moment is placed right after the daughter’s day in court.

To their credit, some Rabbinic sages saw this enlightened message too.  Listen and smile…

“Their eyes saw that which Moses’ eyes did not see” (that is that there are times when women can see something that even someone as great as Moses, who spoke with the Shechina “mouth to mouth,” did not see.) And God consented to their words unequivocally: “Correctly have the daughters of Zelaphchad spoken.”  God listened to their claim (“God conceded the truth!” Avot D’Rebbe Natan Ch. 37) and changed the laws of inheritance to make them more egalitarian (relatively, as should be understood) see this quote in a lengthy polemic between R. Ysoscher Katz in a letter to Rav H. Schachter in Hebrew on page 3 here.

R Ysoscher Katz Letter to Rav H Schachter

R Ysoscher Katz Letter to Rav H Schachter

ומודה על האמת – זה משה, שנאמר: (דברים ה) “ויאמר ה’ אלי וגו’ הטיבו (את) כל אשר דברו”. וכן הקדוש ברוך הוא הודה על האמת שנאמר: (במדבר כז) “כן בנות צלפחד דוברות”

Yalkut Shimoni (Yehoshua 15, also appears in at least one other midrashic source): see comment by Emma here

Since the daughters of Zelophehad saw that the land is divided to males and not females, they gathered everyone together to get advice.  They said that the benevolence of humans are not the same as the benevolence of God.  The benevolence of humans (lit. flesh and blood) is [favored] on males more than females, but He who said “Let the world be” is not so [biased] in His benevolence to males and females, and on all [other genders?], as it is written “He gives bread to all flesh, He gives to animals bread.. and as it is written “God is good to all and His benevolence is on all of his creations.

כיון שראו בנות צלפחד שהארץ נתחלקה לזכרים ולא לנקבות, נתקבצו כולן זו על זו ליטול עצה, אמרו לא רחמי בשר ודם כרחמי המקום, רחמי ב”ו רחמיו על הזכרים יותר מהנקבות, אבל מי שאמר והיה העולם אינו כן רחמיו על הזכרים ועל הנקבות, ועל הכל, שנאמר נותן לחם לכל בשר, נותן לבהמה לחמה, ואומר טוב ה’ לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו

Similarly, but with less nuance regarding the male chauvinistic bias it is written in the Sifre’ (quoted in Torah Temimah)

And the daughters of Zelaphchad came close: Since the daughters heard that the land will be divided by tribes and not to women [ed interesting juxtaposition] they all gathered to get advice.  They said, “Not like the benevolence of flesh and blood is the benevolence of the Holy One.  Blood and flesh is benevolent on males more than females, but the Holy one is benevolent on everyone as it is written (Psalm 145) “and His mercy is on all His creations”

 

Sifre Tzelofchod

Much as been written lately about using the way a society treats its women as a gauge to determine whether that society can support democracy and the rule of law. It seems to me that that in the biblical text and in the Rabbinic texts we have visited, there is an additional link made between women’s rights and a post-tribal society.  It is afterall, tribalism that is responsible for so much of the blood-letting, honor killings and cycle of revenge killings that mars our world today.

What did Moses see at the mountain top?  Maybe he saw into the future, in the streets of Jerusalem, women dancing and celebrating the end of misogyny and tribalism….. The 15th of Ab when not only could women inherit, they could also marry outside of their tribe. Let’s hope that such a vision is in our future too….

Babylonian Talmud, Ta'anit 30b

Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 30b

 

tanit aramaic

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no miracles today

parshat balak

My sister (the famed chocolatier and proprietor of Bond Street chocolate) recently told me the following joke:

So there’s these 2 muffins in an oven. They’re both sitting, just chilling and getting baked. And one of them yells “God Damn, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies “Holy Crap, a talking muffin!”

I thought of this joke when reading the account of Balaam; the pagan prophet-for-hire, conversing with his talking donkey.  The donkey senses a threat on the road ahead and refuses to proceed.

Numbers 22: 28-30

And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?’  And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because thou hast mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.’ And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Nay.’

וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים

וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לָאָתוֹן, כִּי הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; לוּ יֶשׁ-חֶרֶב בְּיָדִי, כִּי עַתָּה הֲרַגְתִּיךְ

וַתֹּאמֶר הָאָתוֹן אֶל-בִּלְעָם, הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר-רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא

The story culminates with the historic blessing of the people of Israel: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!

מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

We start our prayers every morning with this blessing and it is engraved on most Synagogue Arks.  The blessing is deemed so seminal that it was considered to be included in the Shema Yisrael declaration of faith [1]

What intrigues me is why Balaam, the biblical editor or the major commentators fail to exclaim the classical Hebrew version of: “Holy crap… a talking ass!”

One can only assume that the issues raised were judged too important and the majesty of the poetry put into Balaam’s mouth, too sublime, for anyone to have a Disney moment.  But it may have to do with the deep aversion in our tradition for gratuitous miracles.

Says the Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers / Perkai Avot 5: 6)

Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam's] well; the mouth of [Balaam's] ass; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses'] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.

The Mishna is saying that all the apparent miracles that appear in the Bible and later Jewish history, were actually pre-ordained and not miracles at all.  They were written into the DNA of creation, and like a mutation, are not outside of nature, but a force within it.

Maimonides takes this Mishna quite seriously, in his commentary to Avot, in his Shemona Perakim and again in his Guide for the Perplexed. [2]  In a previous blog I have expanded on the aversion to miracles in classic Judaism (gratuitous miracles).  For the purposes of our discussion, let’s agree that there’s no crying in baseball and no miracles in Judaism.

All miracles were pre-scripted into creation.  Some like the splitting of the Red Sea were scripted into creation on the day; day two of their creation. Some miracles which were critical to the survival of the Jewish People (the Meiri’s opinion) were scripted into creation during that amorphis and magical twilight time of sunset between the sixth day of toile and the holy habbat.

But let’s also recognize the corollary, namely, that everything in nature now becomes a miracle of creation.  Every moment, becomes a “Holy crap it talks” moment.

It is this lesson that is ultimately the lesson of Balaam and the power of his simple prophesy.

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

The tents of these simple Israelites camping in the desert was more miraculous than a talking donkey or a splitting sea.

It is this lesson that tempted the Rabbis to include Balaam’s blessing in the twice daily shema declaration of every Jew.

It’s called an everyday miracle and it’s worth remembering, every day and especially at those times between darkness and light, holy and profane, war and peace, hope and despair… it’s all we have and it’s as good as it gets.

בין השמשות

 

 

 

 

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[1] (Berachot 12b

berachot 12a shma

Berachot12a copy

[2]

Our Sages, however, said very strange things as regards miracles: they are found in Bereshit Rabba, and in Midrash Koheleth, namely, that the miracles are to some extent also natural: for they say, when God created the Universe with its present physical properties, He made it part of these properties, that they should produce certain miracles at certain times, and the sign of a prophet consisted in the fact that God told him to declare when a certain thing will take place, but the thing itself was effected according to the fixed laws of Nature. (Guide II:29)

In the Eight Chapters  (pp 90-91) Maimonides writes:

The Mutakllimun (Islamic school of philosophy) are, however, of a different opinion in this regard, for I have heard them say that the Divine Will is constantly at work, decreeing everything from time to time. We do not agree with them, but believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation, and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature, and run their natural course, in accordance with what Solomon said, “As it was, so it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun”. This occasioned the sages to say that all miracles which deviate from the natural course of events, whether they have already occurred, or, according to promise, are to take place in the future, were fore-ordained by the Divine Will during the six days of creation, nature being then so constituted that those miracles which were to happen really did afterwards take place. Then, when such an occurrence happened at its proper time, it may have been regarded as an absolute innovation, whereas in reality it was not. 1

 

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