Category Archives: Bible

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.

Chanukah, Thanksgiving, and War

As I sat down to write this, it was Thanksgiving in America, and Chanukah was on its way; but the big news was the uneasy truce just announced in Israel. While the rest of New York watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade, therefore, my thoughts turned to this latest round of war and to Chanukah, which commemorates yet another failed attempt to destroy us.

The war that gave us Chanukah was described in I and II Maccabees, whence we get the heroic tales of Judah and his brothers, a priestly family called Hasmoneans. Like all wars, that one too claimed innocent victims in abundance, but eventually, the Hasmonean army prevailed and went on to establish only the second Jewish commonwealth in a thousand years (the first had been the kingdom of David and his descendants).

Not all wars end that well, however, so even though I am not one to overstate the victimhood of Jews – the lachrymose theory of Jewish history, as historian Salo Baron named it — something moved me, as I left for the airport, to take along Yeven M’tsulah, Nathan of Hannover’s chronicle of the 1648 slaughter of Ukrainian Jews by Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki. This was no “Happy Chanukah” tale in the end! We had no Jewish army at all; the Chmielnicki massacres left their mark for centuries as the Shoah of their time.

“I’ve recorded it,” Nathan explains, “so that people can compute the day of their parents’ death and be able to mourn them appropriately.” That’s the best he can offer: proper mourning.

Today’s war in Gaza should be viewed against the backdrop of these two existential bookends: Chmielnicki on one hand and Chanukah on the other. With Chmielnicki, we were helpless; with Chanukah, we were not. Herzl founded Zionism so that we might put Chmielnicki behind us. He even envisioned the Jews of his Jewish State becoming “a new breed of Maccabee.” They would direct just the third Jewish commonwealth of all time.

War is war. All wars randomly maim and erase lives; and all wars are political; there is nothing pure about them. The Hasmoneans were embroiled in internecine civil war as well, one priestly family against another. The Hasmonean chroniclers paint the anti-war party as selfish collaborators and assimilationist idolaters, but they were really just good men and women who saw things differently. The problem is, you never know until after wars are over how they will turn out, so good people are properly divided on whether a war should happen; and if so, with what force, for what duration, and to what end.

This time, in Gaza, war was necessary, it seems, given Hamas intransigence against a Jewish state and the stockpile of fire power raining down on Jewish settlements. Thank God this looks more like Chanukah than Chmielnicki. Most Americans did not give thanks on this Thanksgiving Day for being spared a holocaust. Perhaps at least some Jews did. We have, I hope, put well behind us the day when enemies could slaughter us at will.

I now read Yeven M’tsulah as a historical memory of the way things used to be. I read I and II Maccabees as the way they are again: Jewish power to prevail against forces larger than our own; but also the terrible fact that we are still threatened by those forces, and the stunning reality of what war does in crippling, maiming, burning, and slaughtering, all around.

There is yet another way that we have left the world of Nathan of Hannover behind us. Nathan comforted Chmielnicki’s Jewish victims by assuring them that God somehow desired their martyrdom al kiddush hashem, “for the sanctification of God’s name” — an idea that goes back to the Maccabean era, took root after the wars against Rome, and flourished especially in the Middle Ages when Jews were powerless to protect themselves. With Chanukah too, we chose officially to recall God’s role: the miracle of oil when the war was over, and the conviction that God fought on our side, giving us victory over a power much greater than ourselves. Long before Adam Smith usurped the term to explain the economy, the invisible hand of history was held to be God.

Nowadays, we quite properly believe that God has no hand at all in the wars we fight. We are on our own, having to rally political support, explain our position to the world, build Israel’s military capacity, and then agonize over when and how to use it. Small comfort, that. But it’s better than writing another Yeven M’tsulah with nothing to offer beyond the proper dates for remembering our dead.

We Stand Together: But For What?

Rosh Hashanah follows hard upon Atem Nitzavim (“You stand…”), a Torah reading so compelling that some synagogues read it again on Yom Kippur, as a reminder of what really matters in the world. It is part of Moses’ final speech, given to the Israelites as they finally reach the Promised Land. They are not all that far from where Abraham himself first set foot upon the place. Abraham was guaranteed progeny as numerous as the stars above his head and the sand beneath his feet. The progeny have returned.

“You stand” (atem nitzavim) says Moses, “all of you, to enter the covenant of Adonai your God.”

The word “stand” (nitzavim) reminds us of Psalm 82:1, where it is used similarly of God. “Adonai stands [nitzav] in the divine council (adat el) to do justice.” Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra identifies this “divine council” as Israel, God’s people who are charged with justice. God and Israel stand together then, in the pursuit of justice as the essence of the human march through history. We, Israel, stand up together, “all of us” to confirm the covenant. God stands up with us to confirm that the covenant we enact is devoted to the decency and nobility whence all justice flows.

There is no authentic Jewish existence without this commitment to decency and nobility. According to another commentator, the Maharam, it is the Jewish Land itself that guarantees united Jewish loyalty to this end. And indeed, one reads the Zionist record with pride in that regard. Almost without exception, our Zionist forebears argued vociferously, but with visionary passion for a Jewish state that stood for decency and nobility.

By contrast, passion for decency and nobility are singularly lacking today. The squabbles that make and break the Knesset coalitions are purely political: the self-serving pursuit of power, which is to say, doing what one can rather than what one should. In addition, so many Israeli politicians have abused the public trust. A 2005 study measured the extent to which people associate their government with corruption. Of the 18 countries surveyed, Israel topped the list in discontent!

It is not just politics that deepens suspicions of moral decay. We are also becoming more and more accustomed to outrageously indecent pronouncements from extremist circles in Israel. Diaspora Jews can hardly clean up Israeli politics; but we can shout to the rooftops when patent racism and inequality are preached as if they were Judaism. The Haftarah that accompanies the Torah reading of Nitzavim proclaims, “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem, I will not be still.” The speaker of these lines is variously identified as Israel or as God — both of us stand together, after all; both of us should be standing up for decency. I suspect God is, but are we? Jews need not agree on everything, but almost universally, we all do recognize and despise blatant racism, for example. We all should be saying so.

The divine council of Psalm 82 is a virtual thing, Jewish voices everywhere protesting the need (again from Psalm 82) “to defend the weak and fatherless, vindicate the afflicted and the poor, rescue the weak and the poor from the grip of the wicked.” On Rosh Hashanah, just around the corner, say the Rabbis, “all who come into the world” (kol ba’ei olam) stand before God in judgment. We are all God’s people. We are charged with decency to all. Come Rosh Hashanah, we will stand with God at our side to ask if we are worthy of the covenant. If we do not speak up for a Judaism that values elemental human decency, the answer will be “No.”