Saturday, October 23, 2010

Parashat Vayeira

Parashat Vayeira has a lot of great stories. Stories in the Torah are there to teach us something about human behavior and values. I really object to the idea that they are there to tell us about our distant past, but that is an important subject for a different discourse. What is unique to Judaism is not the values we learn from the stories, it is that we learn our values by repeatedly returning to the stories and deriving our rituals from them.
Vayeira starts with God, according to Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina in the Babylonian Talmud, visiting Abraham on the third day after his circumcision. Loyalty has its rewards, and God knows that Abraham needs to see him while he is recuperating.
Then we have the infamous story of the three visitors whom Abraham greets with great hospitality. Jews don't have a monopoly on hospitality. Visit a Bedouin family and you will see how the masters fulfill this value. Still, hospitality is a Jewish value and it is learned through narrative.
In my favorite story of this parasha, Abraham has the chutzpah to argue with God about Sodom. Here, we learn two important lessons. Negotiation is an art and God, the author, wants us to know that we have individual, internal, moral compasses.
Negotiation as an art is a critical lesson. When Abraham asks, "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?" He is appealing to one sensibility of his negotiating partner, justice. When he says, "Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?" Abraham tries to give his partner a chance to make a compromise.
Abraham is masterful when he implores judgment, especially when he knows the possible outcome. "Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?"
And then there is the trick. After engaging God in a negotiation and making himself appear humble by acknowledging his human, created, status, Abraham employs a language trick. "Perhaps the fifty righteous men will be missing five. Will You destroy the entire city because of five?" Of course, God is onto him and says, "I will not destroy if I find there forty-five."
Through all of this, God teaches us that we have dignity as humans. He listens to Abraham's rational thought. He doesn't take the upper hand. Both God and Abraham are also flawed here. Abraham uses tricks. To some degree, he disrespects the hierarchy of power. On the other hand, he teaches us that sometimes the hierarchy is flawed and deserves challenges.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. writes,
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
The problem with this for our story is that Abraham's negotiation is with God, presumably the source of just law. Even Martin Luther King would be confounded in Abraham's position because his position is that God is the source of justice. King asks, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
The problem is that in this instance, God is acting in a way that seems unjust. What can we do with this? We can, as many do, and the Rambam implores of us,
1. accept that we cannot understand God and continue to cling to Her despite our moral compass.
2. We can judge God poorly, as the Gnostic religion did some two thousand years ago, and cling to hedonism while we are free in this world,
3. or we can follow Abraham's lead and challenge any form of justice that doesn't conform to our moral compass.
The important thing to remember is that there is an author to the text. Whether that is God or a redactor or a singular human voice, the message is that Abraham acted according to his moral compass. He challenged God, the character in the story, and spoke out despite the possible consequences.
I am thrilled that my tradition grapples with this issue. We are not Gnostics. We don't think that God is an indifferent creator. We also have room for negotiating what a good god would expect of us. Abraham's God is willing to conduct the negotiation. The author gives us this story to instruct us that this is our option, and anyone can still fit into the tradition whether she believes or not that there exists a higher power that commands. The behavior of the characters is separate from the author, and the message of the text is also independent.
In this small segment of Parashat Vayeira, we have a text that illuminates the pluralism of our tradition and leaves room for everyone at the table while making it clear that morals are negotiated between ourselves and what we think is collectively good. We may not all agree that that collective good originates with a benevolent deity, but we are all empowered to and commanded by the text to participate in the dialog.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lech Lcha

The opening of Parasha Lech Lcha has a very different meaning when read as the continuation of the previous parasha, Noah. Of course, there are lots of rabbinic comparisons between Abraham and Noah, but this is not what I am referring to. I have always been troubled by the last sentence of the Parashat Noah when we are told of Terach's death. This does not sit well with the beginning of chapter twelve in which Avram is made out to be this great guy who is so dedicated to God that he will leave his native land, the place of his birth and his father's home to follow Him to an unknown place that He will show him. This model of super hero, role model is problematic.
Rashi has a different problem. He is worried that, "Abram did not fulfill [the commandment of] honoring his father, for he left him in his old age and went away." Rashi explains that this is the reason why, "Scripture calls him dead." He even gives a formula to explain that he was dead before Avram left.
If Terah died in Haran, then Avram didn't leave his native land, the place of his birth and his father's home to follow God to an unknown place where that God will show him. He was already on the path.
Why do we create histories that make our heroes better than they really are? Would we be better served acknowledging that Martin Luther King was at the Lorraine Hotel cheating on his wife when he was shot to death by an assassin? I would like to propose that we would, and I believe that the Torah agrees.
The deal with God, come and you'll inherit the land, appears to be a dud. Who needs a land that can't even provide basic sustenance? After a short time of wandering around worshiping God for the gift of another people's land, Avram and Sarai are forced to go to Egypt to get food during a terrible famine in the Land of the Canaanites. Along the way, Avram realizes that his wife is hot. I don't mean dessert hot. I mean hot like the kind of hot you would either pay or kill for. Avram is worried about the latter and asks Sarai to pretend she is his sister. He doesn't continue with the logical reason, "that my soul may live because of you." He first says, "in order that it go well with me because of you." Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolfe says that this was Avram pimping his wife. I won't be so direct, but whatever you call it, things went well for Avram and by the time Pharoah had kicked them out of Egypt, they were so rich with flocks that they had to send Lot away because there was not enough land to graze for both of their herds.
Why does the author of the Torah share this story with us? Even Rashi doesn't know what to do with this. He turns to Genesis Rabbah where it says that, "[Avrum] hid [Sarai] in a trunk, and when they demanded the customs duty, they opened it and saw her. " He then explains that this is how we know that when they saw how hot she was, they decided to praise her to the Pharoah.
Rashi does the same thing that Chazal do. He tries to turn the misdeeds of the hero into admirable choices. I can understand this as one who looks for role models in making my moral decisions, but with my doctor of education hat on, I think we do a dreadful disservice when we do so, and I think the Kadosh Baruchu sides with me by presenting the good, the bad and the ugly when he gives us the text.
In my humble opinion, the text is trying to activate the moral compass that is inside of each of us, as we learn about in next week's parasha, Vayeira. Torah presents us with a beautiful tension between the quality of a human soul and the deeds of an individual human. By presenting Avram in all his dimensions, the author of our text is trying to tell us, use your moral compass, look for the good deeds and emulate them.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Parashat Noah

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide
The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
That's why you never see unicorns to this very day

You'll see green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born
You're never gonna see no unicorns

- The Unicorn Song, words and music Shel Silverstein

In Parashat Noah we learn about the importance of seeing in addressing the world in the first few sentences of the portion. What's most interesting about his, however, is that for the author of the Torah, being is separate from the observed world. We know this because the author chose to first tell us, "Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of hamas (There are many ways to translate this. Rashi refers to the Hebrew gazal which means robbery) (Gen. 6:11)." וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ־לֹהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס: Only in the next line do we read that God saw the world, "[A]nd behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth." וַיַּרְא אֱ־לֹהִים אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה כִּי הִשְׁחִית כָּל בָּשָׂר אֶת דַּרְכּוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ:
Why does Torah first tell us that something exists and then that God observed it. I believe that we are being told that there is a difference between objective reality and perception. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the use of the word hamas is there to strengthen the fact that there is an objective word which has values thrust upon it. When God sees the earth, verbs are used to describe the state of the world; it was corrupted. When objective reality is described, adjectives are used to let us know how to feel about it. These are the assertions of the author.
Perception and reality are always different. Imagine an art studio with many painters trying to capture a model on their canvass. Each stands in a different position relative to the model, each can reveal a different aspect of what exists. This may explain why the rabbis tell us that there are seventy faces to the Torah. In their day, there were also seventy members of a Sanhedrin which validated and legitimized the teachings of Torah. One perspective could be tyrannical. It could never give voice to the multiplicity of understandings of the text.
The same is true for the end of the portion. The people unite in one language and try to build a monolithic tower to heaven. God hears of the tower and goes to check it out for Herself. וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הֹוָ־ה לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם:
Rashi is troubled by this. He says, "He did not need to do this, except to teach judges not to condemn a defendant until they see [the case] and understand [it]." Here God doesn't need to see objective reality for Her to know of it, but She understands the separation. Seeing is part of believing, which is why God sets an example and goes to see the Tower. God reaffirms the distance between objective reality and observation and, in doing so, also strengthens the space between reality and perception. Depending on where a person stands, s/he will see something different.
This is one of the strongest lessons of the Noah portion. The distinction between our perception and reality is not finite. It changes with time. It changes as we change. But the knowledge of the existence of this separation is essential for us to be good judges and make good judgments as we navigate our way through time and travel our path through this objective world.


Rashi teaches us that the first two words of the Torah need interpretation. This, in itself, is mind boggling. Who was this text written for if not humans? As such, why does it need interpretation? Was the author, traditionally understood as God, incapable of conveying Her message in a clear manner? Why would God the author want to create a system of understanding that relies on interpreters? These are big questions that demand our attention.

Rashi continues by telling us that these words, Beraishit Barah, translated as, In the beginning, created, (The Hebrew verb and noun are in opposite order) “teaches us that the sequence of the Creation is impossible as is written.” He goes on to explain that the Hebrew word Beraishit is in the form of a word that must be succeeded by another and gives many examples including, “In the beginning of (בְּרֵאשִית) the reign of Jehoiakim”

Rashi surely has an ideology about understanding Torah, but he also has a critical methodology. My teacher, Professor Menachem Fisch would often burst out in class, “Aren’t we lucky we have the Oral Torah?” By this, I think he meant that we are fortunate to have a corpus of literature that helps us to understand the Torah. What I am not sure of is whether he says this because he believes that it helps us understand the authorial intent or because it gives us a structure within which we can live Jewishly.

When Rashi says that we need interpretation to understand even the first two words of the Bible, I think he is creating a power which I struggle with. Do I really want to give over my autonomy of understanding the text to a canon of interpreters who, like me, can never meet the author?

When discussing power, it is hard to ignore the writing of French philosopher Michel Foucault. In his essay, What is an author?, Foucault addresses an additional layer to the problem of understanding sacred text, what does authorship do to the writing (écriture)?

In the Secular Yeshiva of BINA, authorship is an open question. In our pursuit of personal meaning derived from the text, we do not reify the authorship or hand it over to an all powerful , all knowing deity. We allow the deity a place at the table along with the philosophers, interpreters, Zionist leaders, historians, writers, artists and others. We believe in the method of meaning making designed by our forebears, to assess meaning through rigorous debate and discussion, but we don’t privilege anyone.

As we celebrate this Shabbat Beraishit, let us try to find a place for everyone at our table as we study for its own sake and let the study transform us. In this way, hopefully, we will find in the text those things that empower us to repair our world – regardless of commandments and unnecessary hierarchies.