Friday, May 25, 2012

Alternative BaMidbar Drasha

Parashat BaMidbar 5772

The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car produced by the Ford Motor Company for the model years 1971–1980, during which time 2 million cars were manufactured. The Pinto was the brainchild of then Ford CEO, Lee Iacocca, who wanted this car to weigh less than 2000 pounds and cost less than $2000 to manufacture. In 1978, the Pinto was recalled over issues pertaining to the gas tank design. Apparently, if the Pinto were hit from behind, the car would explode upon impact. Originally, it is rumored, that when Iacocca heard of this flaw and discovered that its correction would raise the cost over $2000 and raise the car’s weight over 2000 pounds, he decided to calculate the difference between the cost of settling lawsuits and fixing the flaw. When it was discovered that the largest demographic of Pinto buyers was over 60, African American women, and that these women were not highly valued by courts and insurance companies, Iacocca decided not to fix the Pinto.

When I first heard this story, I was appalled. As an American, I always took seriously our Declaration of Independence when it states, quite emphatically, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

As a Jew, I don’t have to read far into the Torah to understand that, “God created man in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” It’s right there in Genesis one, verse twenty seven.

But last week, in Parshat B’Chokotai, Leviticus twenty seven, I read something very different. The text tells me that,
[T]he Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, ‘If a man shall make a special vow to give to the Lord the estimated value of persons, Then the estimation shall be: for a male from twenty years old to sixty years old, fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. And if a female, then the estimation shall be thirty shekels.’”

Appalling? I’m not sure. It doesn’t exactly match my 21st century sensibilities, but, in context, the Torah can be seen as a progressive document. Just think about the daughters of Zelophchad, who we will also read about in BaMidbar, the book of the Torah we just started to read from. In this story, Moses petitions God for the right of these five women to inherit their father’s land despite their gender, and God agrees.

In Parshat BaMidbar, we get another sense of how the Torah counts humans. When God instructs Moses to take a census, he says,
Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them. (Bamidbar 1:2-3)

When I think about the entirety of examples of human value, whether they come from the Torah or from our modern society, I can make one clear conclusion; being counted is a function of purpose.
·         The Torah tells us that every human is made in God’s image because the text aspires to sanctify human life.
·         When God elevates Zelophchad’s daughters as worthy of inheriting their father’s land, He is trying to make justice.
·         And when God instructs Moses to count the men over twenty, he is trying to build a strong army to protect his people.
In other words, we cannot generalize about the value of human beings from our texts because context is everything, and each example has a specific purpose.

So now let’s take this forward about three thousand years. Today we are writing new Jewish texts. We write them with our pens and we write them on our iPads. Most importantly, we write them with our deeds. So let’s examine some modern ways in which we count our people.

One area of progress is the Minyan. Today it is almost ubiquitous among liberal Jews to count women in a prayer quorum. In this dramatic change, we modern Jews have created justice just like God did for the daughters of Zelophchad. Likewise, we can say that the institution of Bat Mitzvah is a big step in equalizing the value of men and women in Jewish society. Unfortunately, however, the entire enterprise of bar and bat mitzvah and counting thirteen year olds as “adult Jews” has backfired. Instead of creating a stronger sense of Jewish commitment in adolescence, we have created a population that consider a seventh grade education adequate for adult Jewish living. I’m sure none of us would be amenable to this limited training if the subject were law or medicine, so you can understand why I am astonished by the acceptance of such an early terminal point in Jewish education.

In modern times, another area of counting is related to citizenship. Just like Parshat BaMidbar asks us to take a census, the American Constitution makes the same demand - every ten years. Now if we examine patterns of modern counting with the same lens as we did for the Bible, then we can assume the same conclusion; counting people is purposeful. Counting slaves in early America was for purposes of representation in Congress and for the distribution of taxes, thus, our foundational document is stained with the loathsome words of the Three-Fifths Compromise.

In the modern Israeli context, we haven’t even been able to achieve “loathsome” compromises. This is hard to say in a crowd of people who care deeply about Israel and have made great efforts to assure her existence as a democratic, Jewish country and a light onto the nations. Honestly, we can stand with Israel, right or wrong, or we can help her become the country we all hope that she can be. A country that reflects our particular values alongside our universal concerns for the world. The Israeli Declaration of Independence promises a constitution, “which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948.” Sixty Four years later, we still run our Jewish state without agreed upon guidelines. Some of you may know that Israel has a constitutional framework in its collection of “basic laws.” What you might not know is that a basic law is legislated in the same exact way as a law of the Knesset, by the same exact legislators. In practical terms, this means that there is no constitution for Israel because a governing coalition that doesn’t like a basic law can change that law with a simple majority. This is far from the checks and balances of American democracy. Israel may be the only democracy in the Middle East, but it is far from perfect, and it started with such promise.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence, a document that traveled with me in my wallet as I graduated agricultural high school near Tel Aviv and as I was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces during the first Lebanon War, was full of promise for a great society. Here is part of what the fledgling democracy promised to do.

it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;
it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel;
it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;
it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture;
it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and
it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Regarding non-Jewish citizens of the state, the Declaration has the following message.

WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

Israel hoped to be a country that fulfills the values expressed in the Bible.  
Exodus 22:21, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:34, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
Deuteronomy 23:7,   Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country.”
Ezekiel 47:23, “In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance," declares the Sovereign LORD.”

Unfortunately, it hasn’t lived up to the Biblical commandments or its own founding document.  

·         According to The Guardian, in 2006 just 5% of civil servants in Israel were Arabs despite the fact that Arab citizens of Israel comprise over 20% of the population.
·         The New York Times reported, in February 2007, that 53 % of the impoverished families in Israel were Arabs. Since the majority of Arabs in Israel do not serve in the army, they are ineligible for many financial benefits such as scholarships and housing loans.
·         Of the 40 towns in Israel with the highest unemployment rates, 36 are Arab towns.
·         According to the Central Bank of Israel statistics for 2003, salary averages for Arab workers are 29% lower than for Jewish workers.
·         Hebrew University's School of Education, in an August 2009 study, claimed that Israel's Education Ministry discriminated against Arabs in its allocations of special assistance for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

On a more human level;
·         Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset, has been physically attacked and had water thrown on him on the Knesset floor, but when he responded with a whimsical poem, members of the governing coalition called for his censure.
·         My close friend Muchamad Darawshe, a senior executive at the Abraham Foundation, told me the horrors of experiencing the Second Lebanon War, in the Yezreel Valley below Nazareth, when the closest warnings of incoming missiles could only be heard from the neighboring Jewish villages and kibbutzim.

These are just some of the ways in which Israel does not count its Arab population as full citizens. But maybe the most appalling is the unstated, unofficial, yet consistent boycott of Arab parties from participation in a coalition government. Yes, we have an Arab on the Supreme Court, we have Arab deputy ministers and ambassadors and we have Arabs in Israeli Jewish parties, but even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made some of the grandest gestures toward the Arab citizenry of Israel, was unable to extend coalition agreements to Arab political parties, despite the fact that they stood by him as he made peace with Jordan and initiated the Oslo Peace Accords. This is a stain on Israeli democracy.

So today, as we start reading Bamidbar and read about the census, and tonight when we stay up to study and recall the giving of the Torah, we could respond to these problems in Israel by saying that ours is the only democracy in the Middle East, which it is, but what purpose does that serve?

Speaking as an Israeli and as a Jew, I want my country to hold itself to higher standards. Democracy is clearly not a panacea. Churchill has said that it “is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” But I want to believe that when God says, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil, (ex.23:2)” His intention is to protect the interest of minorities and to serve justice. This is what I want for Israel, and as good as Israel may already be, I always strive to be better.

Shabbat Shalom

BaMidbar 5772 בְּמִדְבַּר

BaMidbar 5772

    This week, as we open the fourth book of Torah and read from Parashat BaMidbar, I would like us to put on a pair of spectacles that allow us to look at the text through the Foucaultian understanding of power. The French post structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault believed that the way to understand most texts was through the organizational structures of power and authority.

    The parasha begins with these words.

א  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:  בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם--לֵאמֹר. 1

And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt,

    I would like to parse this out a bit through the Foucaultian lens. Even the pshat of this verse is complicated. God is the speaker. The speaking takes place in the Sinai wilderness, but who is in the Tent of Meeting. It seems like Moses is clearly there. He is a human with a physical presence. But what about God? Professor Azzan Yadin of Rutgers University, author of Scripture as Logos: Rabbi Ishmael and the Origins of Midrash, would tell us that Rabbi Ishmael would assert that God is transcendent and is not entering the world to speak.Rabbi Akiva, his academic nemisis would probably claim the contrary; God is eminent, thus everywhere, including the Tent of Meeting. In this debate, like our teacher Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, I would likely side with Rabbi Ishmael. This, in itself is a great statement about power. A transcendent God does not exert power in our world. This responsibility is left to us.
    The second message of this verse has to do with historicity. Why does the text insist on telling us the exact date? Is this a historcal claim or is it a matter of teaching us that time must pass from receiving Torah until we organize the elements of our society. Since the next verse commands Moses and Aaron to take a census of the men over twenty who are capable of defending the Israelites during their journey, I believe that the purpose of telling us the date of this conversation is more about teaching us something about nation building than it is about history.
    One of the biggest critiques that atheists have with religion is literality. They question the scientific truths of the Bible. This has always puzzled me because I am not sure why they believe that God gave us a history book and not a book of legends that is meant to teach us about behaviors that He considers righteous or immoral. Could it not be that God gave us a book of stories to illustrate the behaviors he appreciates or disdains simply because he respects our ability to make meaning on our own?
    There is one more issue that needs to be understood in this verse and it requires a bit of contextual knowledge. In Exodus 33:7, we learn about the Tent of Meeting.

ל'ג:ז  וּמֹשֶׁה יִקַּח אֶת-הָאֹהֶל וְנָטָה-לוֹ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, הַרְחֵק מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה, וְקָרָא לוֹ, אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וְהָיָה, כָּל-מְבַקֵּשׁ יְהוָה, יֵצֵא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה.

Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it outside the camp, afar off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And it came to pass, that every one that sought the LORD went out unto the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.
    The Tent of Meeting in Exodus is a very democratic place where anyone can come to speak with God. This changes in BaMidbar. It also goes by the name Mishkan.

 וּבִנְסֹעַ הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יוֹרִידוּ אֹתוֹ הַלְוִיִּם, וּבַחֲנֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יָקִימוּ אֹתוֹ הַלְוִיִּם; וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב, יוּמָת.    

 And when the tabernacle set forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man that draws near shall be put to death.

    If the Mishkan in BaMidbar is not the Tent of Meeting of Exodus, that my thesis that there is a new power dynamic 13 months after our remption form Egypt needs to rely on different prooftexts. But I think they are synonyms. Here is my reason. In BaMidbar 7:89, it says;

פט  וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ, וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר, אֵלָיו.  {פ}    

And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and He spoke unto him.

    Why does this work to show that the text uses Tent of Meeting and and Mishkan synonymously? Because the Tent of Meeting in chapter 7 houses the ark, which is the very purpose of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Of course, we could use source theory and discuss the possibility of various authors of the text, but that is not my goal.

    What I am trying to illustrate is simply that our Torah is trying to speak to us about the changing dynamics of power. As a newly redeemed people leaving the oppression of Egypt, we were eager to discuss our reality in a publicly accessible space. The Tent of Meeting of Exodus is akin to Hyde Park in London, and the Mishkan/Tent of Meeting in BaMidbar is more like a closed session of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee or, better yet, a private meeting in Stalin’s Politboro. With one wrong move, you could find find yourself fertalizing cactuses in the desert.
    And why is this teaching of Torah relevant today? Because Jewish power has changed dramatically with the establishment of the State of Israel and the conquest Arab lands in the Six Day War. For 64 years, the Jewish people have had a national army. We have a Knesset and we are a significant player on the world stage. Unfortunately, with power, Israel has gone from nearly universal suffrage, with nearly 87% of the population voting in the first election, to the most recent elections with 63% participation and a predicted drop in the next. Today in Israel, if you have money, you have power. The mouthpiece of the present government is a free daily newspaper called Yisrael Hayom, and it is funded by the gambling empire of Mr. Sheldon Adelson of Nevada. This same Mr. Adelson is a major supporter of impressive programs like Birthright, but much of his financial success comes from the lucrative business of casinos and building settlements in the West Bank. If you are a Liberal Jew in Israel today, your power is limited by the hegemony of the ultra orthodox. I was personally affected by this when I had to come to the United States to get married because my Israeli Reform rabbi was not accepted in the Jewish homeland. If you are a woman and want to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, you better not wear a tallit because you will get arrested. And if you are an Arab citizen of Israel, you really have no power. Your political parties will never be invited into a coalition government, your schools will not receive the same funding from the Ministry of education as Jewish schools and you are a lot less likely to get a job than a Jewish Israeli. The peak of disempowerment, however, was established this week in Tel Aviv when a throng of protesting Jews, led by Form Kahane disciple, MK Michael Ben-Ari, stormed through South Tel Aviv breaking shop windows, lighting fires and shouting racist epithets at immigrants and refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and the Congo, among others.
    Jewish power, it seems, has run amok, and I would like to suggest that this has to do with our lack of respect for the message our rabbis sent us when they changed Shavuot from a biblical harvest holiday to a celebration of the Jewish constitutional congress at Sinai. The rabbis made Shavuot a holiday about the giving of Torah, a constitution for the people of Israel. One remedy for today’s malady might be a constitution for the State of Israel.
    With a constitution, maybe we could define the equality of all citizens of the state, we could separate religion from government and we could define the jursdiction of our law so that all people living under Jewish soveriegnty will be treated equally. This year, as we start reading BaMidbar and anticipate the celebration of Shavuot, this is the lesson I receive with the giving of Torah.