Category Archives: Bible

Government of Checks and Balances: But With an Interesting Twist!

Americans are not the first to devise a constitution calling for the separation of powers. The Torah too legislated institutionalized checks and balances – but with an “interesting twist.”

In keeping with antiquity, the executive branch was a monarchy, but in Israel’s case, a limited monarchy, a king who was subject to the rule of law, and chosen from among the people (Deut. 17:15)  — lest he rule with no empathy for the ruled. Also, he could not use his position to amass excessive wealth, especially horses – what we would call his own private militia, a natural proclivity of kings, says Ramban. Kings had to maintain their own written reminder of these limitations (17:18-19), which, says the Talmud (San. 21a), they were to carry with them wherever they went.

Ancient Israel had yet to envision a democratically elected legislature, but its priestly class was a legislature of sorts; it could not actually vote in new laws (as we do) because the Torah was assumed to have all the laws the people needed. But priests could “interpret” old laws to get new ones, a practice the Rabbis extended, with their doctrine of an “oral Torah” that supplemented the written one.  Like the king, priests too were hemmed in by limitations: having no landed patrimony of their own, they were supported by, and dependent on, the Temple offerings brought by the people (18:1).

The Torah also demands an independent judiciary with the necessary complement of law-enforcing officials, including police with punitive authority to enforce the law (Rashi, 16:18). Hence this portion’s name (16:18), Shoftim (“Judges”) but, more properly, Shoftim v’shotrim, “Judges and Officials” — what the celebrated TV series called “law and order.”

In matters of punishment, however, the people are to appeal to the “judge,” not the “police” (17:9). The judge decides what the police can do – a principle important enough for the Torah to demand it explicitly in every generation (17:9). Worrying about romantics who might bypass the judiciary of their time as being inferior to the judges of “the good old days,” the Torah expressly empowers judges of every era. “They are all we have,” says Rashi; “We must obey them.”

So there you have it, all in this week’s portion: an executive (a king, but chosen from the people, for the people); a legislature (a priesthood, dependent on support from the people they serve); and a judiciary (with attendant police power, but no independent police force that might abuse its power).

Still, even a good system of checks and balances can break down, so we get this “interesting twist”: a fourth element called “prophets.” All ancient people had prophets, but not like Israel’s, individuals who operated outside the system to bring conscience to bear on everyone else. Institutionalized power abhors conscience, however; it prefers the predictability of routinized bureaucracy. So in time, prophecy came to an end: in the commonwealth established after the return from Babylonian exile, the priests and monarch simply declared prophecy over and done with.

The Rabbis too distrusted individuals claiming direct revelation from God.  But anticipating history’s need for independent conscience, the Rabbis gave us an alternative to prophets: every single citizen, you and me. They then demanded that the citizenry be informed: hence the centrality of study in Jewish culture.

And finally, the Rabbis demanded responsible exercise of that informed conscience by every single person. When the Torah says, “Establish law and order,” it adds “at your gates” and “for yourself  [singular]” (16:18) – leading Sefer Yetsirah to identify “the gates” as the gateways to every person’s senses, our eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The ultimate gatekeepers of justice are informed citizens, who monitor what is said, heard, seen, and even smelled.

The biblical prophets are gone, leaving every single one of us to take their place. Even the best of governments fail if we do not attune our senses to catch the telltale signs of moral rot right in our own back yard.

 

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Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

Humanity: A Moral Category, Not an Anthropological One

The story of Noah reminds us of how far humanity has come from the days when we were crawly creatures emerging from the water; and how easy it is to slip back once again to where it all began. Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate. Subhuman-like, it saturates the earth with violence. So it is left to sink into the mud, as the flood returns the world to its own primeval origins.

Critics who demand that the narrative of the flood be literally true miss the point. The Bible captures eternal truths less through history than through stories, and this story’s message is the need to persevere in our evolutionary climb to moral maturity. At one extreme (still a whole book away) there is Sinai, the symbolic pinnacle of our moral climb upward. At the other, there is Noah’s generation, dragging the world down to disaster; and in between, there is Noah, who is everyman and everywoman: mostly moral, but hardly a saint; and precariously afloat in an ark, just a fraction short of going under.

Noah personifies the human struggle to resist the undertow of evil lest a single generation wash out every trace of the human climb from mud to mountain peak, and millions of years of steady evolution count for nothing.

At the end of the story, Noah dispatches a dove (in Hebrew, a yonah) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly; they are not dragged down; they herald hope beyond the visible horizon; they remind us, the ordinary Noahs of the world, that we need not sink back into the sea.

The same symbolism recurs later in a human being, the prophet Yonah — Jonah, in English.

Jonah is Noah revisited. He too inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He too faces evil: the Ninevites. But he too is only human, hesitant to fulfil his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him ever lower into the very depths of the sea whence humankind first evolved. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land insisting that he fulfill his human mission. “Humanity” is a moral category, not just an anthropological one. If we lose our moral center we lose being human.

Yonah the bird, and Yonah the man are metaphors also, the Rabbis say, for Israel, who is charged with the struggle to retain that moral center. The case of the prophet is explicit: when the sailors ask after his identity, Jonah says, Ivri anokhi, “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). As for Noah’s dove, the Tosafot tell us, “The dove is Israel,” and for proof, direct us to Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”

The dove in Song of Songs, they say, is Israel, waiting in the rocks of the mountains to hear God’s voice: mountains, mind you, the metaphoric moral peak that humans who have evolved from the slime must climb. Noah’s dove, the idealized Israel in metaphoric form, flies off in search of an echo of God, a rumor that evil can be overcome and that life persists beyond it.

Jews divide the Bible into three constituent sections: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). All three units remind us of the centrality of the yonah, the dove of moral hope. The story of Noah is in Torah, Jonah is a prophet, and the Song of Songs comes from the Writings. Once upon a time, the Jewish People left Egypt for Sinai and became a yonah, a dove perched high in the mountain crags to hear God’s moral voice. Sometimes (like Jonah the prophet) we evade our charge, and relapse into the primal waters where we began. But sometimes too, we manage to be Noah’s yonah, the dove that strives to fly higher, there to confirm the news of a better moral day.

 

 

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows

In Praise of “Ordinary”

Student: Teacher, what is the point of Isaac? Abraham was the first Jew. Jacob became Israel. Why even bother with Isaac?

Teacher: Maybe just because he existed. As the bridge generation between Abraham and Jacob, the Torah had to include him.

Student: But the Torah frequently leaves things out. Last week’s sedra, for example, was called “Life of Sarah,” but it said virtually nothing about Sarah’s life. The Torah always reports selectively. So it cannot be accidental that this week’s reading begins, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why “Isaac,” who, truth be told, is easily forgettable? The Torah even says next, “Abraham bore Isaac,” as if it assumes we need reminding.

Teacher: Come now, who could forget Isaac? What about the akedah [the binding of Isaac]? How many people are almost sacrificed by their father?

Student: Actually, the Torah overlooks that point altogether here. It tells us, “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” but not how old he was at the time of the akedah.

Teacher: Maybe recollecting the akedah was just too painful. Why dwell overly much on trauma? Better to move on to Isaac’s marriage and the birth of Jacob.

Student: But teacher, we spend every Rosh Hashanah remembering the akedah. Had our tradition wanted just to move on, we would have some other Rosh Hashanah reading. No, in some way even “easily forgettable” Isaac must be important enough to warrant saying, “These are the generations of Isaac.” I want to know why.

Teacher: The Rabbis asked that very question – so do what they did. Read on. Let the Torah provide its own answer.

Student: There isn’t much to read. After finding out that “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” we get nothing of importance.

Teacher: Nothing?

Student: No. Nothing. Only that “Isaac prayed to God because his wife could not become pregnant”; and then, that he gets rich and settles in a comfortable oasis — like someone today whose business prospers and who moves to a fancy uptown address.

Teacher: You call that nothing?

Student: Compared to Abraham and Jacob? Of course that’s nothing. Abraham and Jacob are monumentally heroic characters. Abraham intercedes to save a whole city of Sodom. Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven to earth. How important, by comparison, is praying for your wife, going into business or moving to a new neighborhood?

Teacher: You miss the point. Isaac’s story matters precisely because of its ordinariness. Of all our patriarchs, only Isaac is a real person with real problems. The akedah teaches him how little we human beings are in charge of our lives, and how much of life we spend simply trying to muddle through. Sure, his business prospers, but look at his record as a husband and father. He lies about Rebekah in order to save his life, and he gives his blessing to the wrong son.

Still, he loves his wife enough to pray for children on her account — better than Abraham, by the way, who prayed for a child only so he himself could become a father of multitudes. And upon hearing Sarah laugh in desperation at the unlikelihood of giving birth in old age, Abraham is of no help at all. He laughs too; and he should have cried, either for joy on Sarah’s behalf, or (if he didn’t believe it) out of sympathy for her anguish. Isaac, by contrast, feels Rebekah’s pain and puts aside everything to pray for her.

Then years later, he messes up the blessings. He is properly aghast, however, and when Esau cries out for at least some blessing, Isaac duly provides it. Isaac is any of us on our death bed, looking back at the messy business of trying to be human.

Real people love, but make mistakes; they alternately succeed, then fail, then try again. Isaac is you and me, consumed with life’s day-to-day struggles. He is imperfect, but his very imperfection supports the Torah’s claim that we are indeed “the generations of Isaac.

Parashat Vayakhel

On June 14, 1954, millions of Americans stumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1892 original said, “one nation, indivisible.” Now Congress required everyone to pause after “one nation” and insert “under God.”

Recognizing God in 1954 was not just piety; it was also a Cold War response to Godless Communism. Since the Pledge is as close to a public prayer as we are likely to get, we should wonder if prayers, too, can be politically motivated. And indeed they can.

Shabbat candle-lighting, for example, derives from Exodus 35:3: “Light no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” Early in the rabbinic era, this verse prompted vociferous debate. The Sadducees, a party of Scriptural literalists, thought it mandated dousing all fires before Shabbat began. The Pharisees said the ban covered new fires only; fires already lit could continue burning.

The Rabbis inherited the Pharisaic mantle, and assured people that God could never have intended us to keep Shabbat in cold, dark, gloom. Shabbat demanded oneg, joy. The Rabbis, therefore, permitted Jews to light fires in their homes before nightfall on Friday; in fact, they demanded it! And ever since then, Shabbat has featured symbolic candle-lighting.

But Shabbat lights were not yet a mitzvah  — there was no blessing over them. That came only in the 9th century, when a sect called Karaites reasserted Sadducean literalism, and declared the entire rabbinic tradition misguided. In response, the rabbis upped the ante, declaring Shabbat candles a mitzvah and requiring the blessing, “Blessed is God… who commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”

A more recent example of politics is Chief Rabbi Herzog’s 1948 prayer for the State of Israel, which called the new state “the first flowering of our redemption.” In time, the phrase came to be seen, by some, as a mandate for the wholesale eviction of Arabs from their land. We now live in a new “post-moral” age, went the reasoning; what was unethical before “the first flowering” is ethical today.

Some new prayer books, therefore, omit the phrase or go out of their way to prevent such a radical reading of it.

What should we think about the politicization of prayer? The answer is, we should welcome it as a sign that we think religion matters. Piety not worth arguing over is not worth taking seriously. Prayer should absolutely address such matters as the nature of Shabbat (in rabbinic times) and the theological standing of Israel (in our own).

We should, therefore, not hesitate to pray for parallel matters of moment in our time. Prayer is not just praise, petition, and thanksgiving addressed to God. It is equally a message to one another, a way we get our own values straight. We pray for things, not just because God might then support them but because we are more likely to.

A couple of months back, for instance, synagogues might have prayed that Marlise Machado Muñoz — the brain-dead women forced to remain on life support against her family’s will – be given death with dignity; or we might pray, this Shabbat, for Congress to be granted the wisdom to raise, not lower, food stamp allowance. Sure, such prayers are controversial, but some things ought to matter enough to warrant praying for them, and any ensuing “debate for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) would be a welcome break from the saccharine sentiment of prayers that ask only for peace on earth, generally — ho-hum petitions that are virtually meaningless. Such generalities have their place, but some things are actually within our power to bring about, if we care enough to do so. Why not pray for them – an act that just might galvanize us to work for them?

If prayers speak only in platitudes, religion itself becomes platitudinous, a word that the dictionary defines as a polite way of saying, “trite, hackneyed, and banal,” precisely what religion should not become. People who claim to be irreligious may not be against it; they may just think it too dull to matter.

Parashat Vayera

Ask any artist: it’s all about seeing.

We don’t, that is, just see the world raw. Seeing requires the intentional act of focusing our eyes on one particular part of a larger visual field. At times, something new comes suddenly into view – a rainbow, perhaps. But we frequently see things anew even if they have been there all along – we just never noticed them.

That’s the way it was with the ram that Abraham finally saw and substituted for Isaac. God created it, say the rabbis, at the very dawn of creation, and positioned it just so, for Abraham to see. Why, then, didn’t he see it before tying up Isaac and coming within an inch of killing him?

He just never looked. He was too intent on the sacrifice to notice. Only after the angel stayed his hand, did he look up and see. But even so, it was only secondarily that he saw the ram, say the Tosafot. What he saw first was God, hovering behind the angel’s staying hand.

This idea emerges from a close reading of vayisa avraham et einav, “Abraham lifted up his eyes.” The first three Hebrew words end in letters that spell emet, “truth,” and Truth, say the Tosafot, is another name for God. No less than the ram, God too was there all the time. Only when Abraham looked could he see “the truth,” which is to say, God.

When we speak of “seeing a truth,” however, we mean it metaphorically. Nobody “sees” truth itself; we see it in something else: an algebraic equation, perhaps, or a work of art that reaches profundity. What, then, did Abraham literally see, that so strikingly gave him the truth?

Picture the scene. Abraham leans over his son, about to drive the knife home, when the angel diverts his attention, and he “lifts his eyes and sees.” Follow the image. Where does a father look at such a time, if not into the eyes of the son he is about to lose? Abraham’s truth was revealed in the eyes of Isaac.

So the angel jolts Abraham into realizing that it is his son whom he is about to sacrifice; he thereupon looks into the eyes of Isaac, who stares back at him. Until now, they have treated each other merely as a mutual means to an end – the way to fulfill God’s command. But now, with the sacrifice suspended, they actually see each other for who they really are. The moment of truth arrives at the miracle of meeting which the Hebrew perfectly describes as panim el panim, “face to face.”

Only humans communicate face to face, says philosopher Roger Scruton. Animals look at each other, but not into each other. It is in each other’s eyes that we humans find the frightening vacancy of evasion, the meaningful glance of understanding, or the certain sign of love. If we try to dissemble, it is our faces that give us away: the way we blush, for example, or tear up against our will.

“To this day,” says the biblical author, the place where Abraham and Isaac finally see each other is called Adonai Yeira’eh,God is seen.” And lest we think that the revelatory moment of true relationship comes only once in human history, the Torah provides it again when Jacob and Esau reconcile: “Seeing your face,” says Jacob, “is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

It’s all about seeing: stopping the task at hand and seeing into each other’s eyes. It’s easy to hate collectivities of people, hold prejudices against whole groups, ignore the poverty of faceless nameless others, or even sacrifice individual people whose eyes we carefully avoid. But look into the eyes of a single person who is temporarily at our mercy, and we cannot fail to see the truth: the presence of God right there in the other person’s face.