Sunday, August 15, 2010

Playing by the rules

The month of Elul has begun and I am trying to make sense of my behavior over the last year. Elul is understood as an acronym. ELUL, Alef (Ani) Lamed (L’dodi) Vov (V’dodi) Lamed (Li). I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. We say it at weddings as a message of equality between the spouses, but dodi also refers to “my God.” I have always appreciated that in Judaism we take the month of Elul to make amends with the people in our lives first and then we are considered ready to make amends with God.

One thing that always has bothered me is what I should be making amends with God for. Common Jewish literacy holds that are 613 commandments, of which 365 are negative (prohibitions) and 248 positive (things we must do). Among the things we must do are keep the Sabbath holy, respect our parents and give to the needy. Then there are others like kill homosexuals, wicked and rebellious sons and idolaters. These seem much harder to implement in good conscience.

For his reason, I decided to ask one of the on-line rabbis who claim to be able to decipher the true meaning of scripture. I left his name out because the sages of the Talmud teach us the evil of embarrassing someone in public. It’s called halbanat panim and I think they were very wise and ethical for advising us against it. I also don’t want to engage in the evil tongue, Lashon harah, which is when we tell true things about a person behind their back. They say that these crimes will keep us from heaven and they compare the evil tongue to an arrow. They say that it is better to hit with one’s hand than with an arrow because your arm is retractable, whereas an arrow isn’t. The Rambam says that it is better to do a mitzvah because you are commanded than because it is rational. I have to strongly disagree. I cannot imagine a good God wanting me to do things without critically assessing the request. I can, however, see why somebody who wants absolute power would make these requests and attribute them to God. Below is the content of my inquiry from the anonymous on-line rabbi. I promise that it is 99% factual. I took the liberty of cleaning up my poor spelling and grammar a bit to hide my inferior intelligence. I also wasn't completely upfront about my agnosticism. I wasn't sure how seriously I would be taken if I said I was an agnostic concerned with interpreting God's will as expressed in Torah.

David - How do you explain the mitzvah to stone to death a Jew worshipping other gods for this weeks parasha. Rashi doesn't give much. There is not one I read who addresses this. I feel very uncomfortable with the text instructing us to kill in God's name, especially when it asks us to judge other humans behaviors. I think Chazal would have a very difficult time with this mitzvah. I'm not well versed enough to find their commentary, but I know they didn't want to fulfill these types of mitzvot.

Anonymous online rabbi - What is hard about understanding stoning to death an idolator? He's lucky that's all he gets.
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David - I will assume that your question is rhetorical. Would you really stone an idolator? What would it take for you to decide that someone is an idolater and deserve death? Would you actually execute this punishment or would you give it to others to execute? This really intrigues me.

Anonymous online rabbi - We do what the Torah requires of us.

David - What would it feel like if one of your students or readers executed your judgment and stoned an idolater to death? As I read your answers, I feel like you are telling me to execute justice against an idolater. What if my judgment is wrong? What if I kill the wrong guy, or he was just dabbling in idolatry but he wasn't serious? What is the point of no return?
I have a guy in my class at Tel Aviv University who is a Jews for Jesus. Does he deserve this punishment?

Anonymous online rabbi - It doesn't apply to us nowadays so why worry about it?
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David - When does nowadays start? What if somebody doesn't understand that and executes justice as Torah instructs? I would hate for somebody to judge the pictures I have of Joe Louis and Mohammad Ali (the boxer) on my wall and decide that I worship idols. Although, at times I do feel like their grace in the ring is divine. When Joe Louis clobbered the Nazi Max Schnell didn't it just seem like God was putting his bets on Joe Louis? I can see why stoning an idolater could have its perks. It'd be like Sandy Koufax in the world series or a Nolan Ryan fastball.

I'm still bothered by the fact that our God would ask us to kill idolaters. Why would he command us not to kill and then have us kill idolaters and homosexuals and wicked and rebellious sons? It just doesn't make sense.

Anonymous online rabbi - Are you G-d? Why does everything have to make sense? Does it make sense that when a man dies childless that his brother marries the widow? Why not let her marry whomever she wants? I don't think most commandments really make sense. We do them because we're told to. The Sefer Hachinuch discusses rationale for the commandments. Ultimately, G-d does not want people worshiping idols.

David - I'm not God. But how am I supposed to know that these laws don't apply now. Who makes up these rules? Who decides when they stop being applicable? How is the average Joe supposed to know? Should I not respect my parents? Does that rule apply now? What is the difference between applying the one rule and not the other? It looks as if somebody is playing God and making the decisions?

It's almost Rosh HaShana and I want to stand in front of God with a clean conscience. If he's asking me to kill somebody, there should be no amendments to the Torah. This is not democracy. This is God. How can somebody be so vain as to step in and tell me it doesn't apply now?

Also, since God is so great, why is he worried about other gods, middle weights, threatening his title. He's the Greatest. Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee is nothing next to splitting the sea and killing all the Egyptian first born.

Everything doesn't have to makes sense, but there needs to be sense to the human answers and interpretations of when Torah applies and when not, unless God instructs us otherwise.

Anonymous online rabbi - Did you ever study Gemara and Medrash?

David - Of course. The Torah is not in heaven. It is ours to interpret. But we are supposed to lean toward the majority. When was a vote taken and why wasn't I invited?

Anonymous online rabbi - You need to learn the rules
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