Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kee Taytsay: What Can Archaic Laws Teach Us?

Kee Taytsay

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag teaches, "Turn it [the Torah] and turn it, for everything is in it."
--Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, 5:22

            What can we learn from Parshat/Torah Portion Kee Taytsay (lit., “When you go out [to war]”)? It begins with a dramatic, almost fairy-tale-like episode (Deut. 21:10-14), in which an Israelite soldier, in the midst of attacking an enemy camp, meets, and is smitten by, a beautiful, captive woman. The Torah tells him to take her home—presumably, to meet Mom and Pop—have her trim her hair, cut her nails, and spend a month lamenting her parents’ death (whom, we may assume, either the Israelite soldier himself, or his comrades, have speedily dispatched, thereby removing the problem of Disagreeable Pagan In-Laws). If, following the thirty-day trial period (sexless, of course), Soldier Boy continues to be infatuated with her now makeup-and-hairspray-deprived self, he may take her to wife; otherwise, he can send her packing, penniless and parentless, but doing her the Enormous Favor of not selling her as a slave. The entire episode does try the imagination, somewhat, but it does have a certain slight moral tone, especially in these bloody days of internecine warfare in places like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
            Next comes the infamous case of the ben sorer u’moreh, the “stubborn and defiant son,” whose gluttony and misbehavior so repulse and disgust his parents, that they have no recourse but to drag him before the Elders of the City, who prescribe his being stoned to death(!) as a disciplinary measure and a warning to other wayward youth (Deut. 21:18-21). In point of fact, this category of juvenile delinquency, and its legal “remedy” so horrified the Talmudic rabbis, that they added legal conditions to it until they literally legislated it out of existence. One example: the boy had to disobey both his father and mother, at all times and in all places. As we know, parents often switch the roles of “good cop, bad cop,” and it’s a rare child, indeed, who does not switch behaviors for one parent over another. It’s all part of the merry dance called parenting, which those of us blessed with children well know. Not for nothing is the famous parents’ curse: “May you only have children like yourself.” Uh-huh.
            Thereafter follow a cavalcade of sinners, from the executed prisoner (21:22-23) whose corpse must not be left hanging or impaled overnight (no gibbets in Judaism, unlike Elizabethan England); indeed, our mitzvah/commandment for speedy burial derives from this grisly memo. Thereafter follows a handy reminder to return a neighbor’s lost, wandering ox or donkey (22:1-3), even if you are not particularly friendly, or even acquainted.
            Still later, we encounter the “Mature” sections of this Torah reading, which might have inspired Mark Twain to utter his famous words, “I don’t care if they censor my work, as long as they leave Bibles out and around, where any child can get ahold of ‘em.” These include the “damaged goods” section, where a groom goes complaining to the long-suffering Elders of the City with a grievance relating to the proclaimed virginity of his new wife (22:13-21). Her affronted parents must present the court with incontrovertible proof of the girl’s purity (the famous wedding-night bedsheet), after which, should it be accepted, the accusing groom must be flogged. Should the court rule that the girl was not intact at her wedding, she is to be stoned.
            Isn’t that a bit harsh—dare we say, a double standard? Was this truly the ancient Israelite practice, and, if so, when did it pass into welcome legislative oblivion—the sooner, the better, in my opinion, since we rabbis are often called upon to justify the “advanced nature of ancient Israelite law” in comparison to the yahoos among whom they dwelt. I recall, for example, my professors at Yeshiva making a long, point-by-point connection between the Code of Hammurabi and the Exodus Law Code, with Hammurabi the loser, naturally.
            Let us assume that the practice of stoning impure brides, grooms, adulterers, or any other sexual malefactors disappeared around the same time that the First Holy Temple was destroyed, and our nation lost its legal sovereignty (586 BCE). Let us assume, as well, that the rabbis strove to link compassion with justice, to filter out the harsher aspects of Jewish law, although we do know that levirate marriage and halitzah (the Ceremony of the Cast-off Boot) are still practiced among the Ultra-Orthodox (25:5-10), and decried by Jewish feminists such as Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first Woman Reform Rabbi (ordained in 1972), as degrading to women, who, upon hearing that their brother-in-law refuses to marry them following the death of their husband, must participate in a ceremony in which they kneel before their brother-in-law and remove an elaborately-laced boot from his foot, afterward spitting on the floor at his feet, reciting, “Thus shall be done to the man who refuses to raise up the House of his Brother among the people of Israel.” [1]
            For, in the end, what do these quaint, archaic, and downright shocking verses leave us? We Jews are, today, we would like to believe, among the most compassionate, educated, scientifically advanced, and cultured of the world’s peoples. We strive to practice both love and justice in our dealings among the nations, so that we, in turn, may be loved and respected. We scrutinize the activities of our adored homeland, Israel, and always pray for its welfare, that it might be welcomed among the community of nations. We pride ourselves that we answer to a higher standard of behavior and morality, to the extent that, when we read about a political, financial, or religious scandal in the media, we immediately scrutinize the names of the participants, to assure ourselves that no Jews were involved.
            As we have changed from the quaint and simpler Israelites of the Bible to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan Jews of today, so have our laws of conduct changed; no more do we follow archaic laws about marrying one’s brother-in-law or stoning a boy who is stubborn and gluttonous. Still, the essence remains the same: do we care about the destiny of our people, and its creative and ongoing survival (which was, after all, the hidden meaning behind the concept of levirate marriage—that of ensuring the continuation of the Tribe)? Do we conduct ourselves as Jews ought to do? As the Season of Judgment approaches, I believe that the majority of Jews I know are able to answer that query affirmatively. I am proud to be one of them.

[1] Priesand, Sally. "The Biblical Concept of Womanhood: Levirate Marriage." Judaism and the New Woman. NY: Behrman House, 1975. 10-13. Print.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois Visits Gaza: What Will the Great Teacher Say About the Great Antagonism?

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois Visits Gaza

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            It was very quiet, almost too quiet. There was a lull in the fighting—amazingly, the Hamas “forces”—over-testosterone’d teenage boys, really, and the wild-eyed anarchists of Islamic Jihad—had decided, apparently, not to provoke any Israeli retaliations—and I had made up to meet with Dr. W.E.B. DuBois in the ruins of what had been one of the local outdoor marketplaces. When I arrived, he was leaning against the ruins of what had been a fruit-and-vegetable stand, among which melons and oranges lay, many of the melons exploded and bleeding like so many dead bodies. He was puffing a cigar, “to clear the stench out of the air,” as he said to me. He was light-brown-colored, with a trim goatee, three-piece-suit; the clothing that an academic lecturer might wear, appearing both strangely familiar and yet, strangely out-of-place here, amid the cesspools and junkyard smells of destroyed Gaza City.
            “Let us walk and talk,” he said, taking my arm, “I don’t know my way around here; I don’t speak the language, but I am familiar with Sorrow, where and how it lives; I have seen much of it, in my time.”
            “Thank you for meeting me here, Dr. DuBois,” I said, “This is not a neighborhood you are familiar with; this battle is not yours, but I thought you might have something to say about it, something to share with me, and the World.”
            He looked at me, sharply, and abruptly stopped walking; then, he pointed a finger; first, at the front of what had been a three-story apartment building, now with its contents sagging and near-to-falling, like a dowdy old woman losing her balance, the effects of a computerized, drone-fired “smart bomb” aimed at its basement which, from its appearance, had contained not a few Hamas rockets, and what had been the beginnings of an tunnel through which to invade and attack Israel. Then, he pointed it at me: a single, thin, brown, accusing digit.
            “Never tell me, young man,” he intoned, in that deep, bass voice that made him such an effective speaker—“that any fight, any battle, between peoples brought about by a tribal, national, or—in this case—racial misunderstanding, and a centuries-old, tragic one, at that—is not my battle. The problem of the twentieth, [and now, the twenty-first, century], is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa…. The history of the world is the history not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores or overrides the central thought of all history.”
            “But there are religious and nationalistic threads in this dispute, as well, Dr. DuBois,” I said, though I did not doubt the truth in his words.
            “I am not a religious man, Rabbi,” he answered, speaking more gently, now, “But I am forever grateful to the members of your faith who helped us, and me personally, when we were beginning the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, which still endures, to this day, with its mission still incomplete. There was Julius Rosenwald, owner of Sears, Roebuck, Inc., who, himself an immigrant and grateful to the America that had taken him in and allowed him to prosper, gave us thousands of dollars, often paying out of his own pocket to finance the various scholarships, competitions and exhibitions for the Harlem Renaissance writers, poets, actors and artists, and academic studies, as well. And Joel Elias Spingarn, a literature professor from Columbia (which, as an Ivy League school, had its own quota system, keeping out Jews, African-Americans, and other “undesirables”) and his brother, both of whom came from a wealthy German-Jewish family, helped us as well.
            “But this conflict bears the same earmarks as that which we fought in America—it is unique to the Middle East, but similar to that of my Black brothers and sisters—that which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my successor in so many ways, fought on behalf of our people. And please note, Rabbi, that I did not use the word ‘Colored’ in the title of my NAACP because it was the proper, or ‘genteel’ way to speak about Black Folks, ‘way back in the early years of the 20th Century. I meant it to include all Black, Brown, Yellow, and any folks being oppressed on account of their color, which would include poor Arab folks, too. I note also that in Israel proper, there is still a disparity between how the darker-skinned Jews are treated, though the Israelis are working on that issue, the best they can….”
            “But, Dr. DuBois!” I said, “Dr. King’s fight was non-violent, and these Palestinians use rockets and terrorism to make their point. How can you justify this horrific means?”
            He looked at me, and the look was enough to freeze my soul.
            “Rabbi—David—you must listen to me,” he said, “You are white; you are Jewish; you are privileged. You have never known what it is to wear a black skin, or to be called ‘dirty Arab.’ Never deny that there is an undercurrent of racism in Israeli-Arab relations, and both sides are at fault. Only dialogue will cure this disease of racism. And, though I am sorry to tell you, the Occupation does not help. I can prove to you that, if you put a fox or wolf into a trap—if you put the iron jaws of a trap around that animal’s leg—it will go crazy, and it will gnaw off its own leg, in order to escape. If anyone tries to stop it doing this, it will attack them, as well.”
            “But haven’t the Arab nations caused this problem? Isn’t it theirs to fix?” I said.
            He went on, patiently, as if speaking to a child.
            “Do you know why  I became a sociologist? It was a brand-new branch of social science at the time that I started college. Because of the color bar, I was not allowed—can you imagine it?—to begin my studies at Harvard College from the beginning; no. Instead, I had to attend Fisk University, an all-Black college, and get my first BA degree there, and, afterwards, I was ‘allowed’ to enter Harvard, Bachelor’s Degree already in hand. I had to swallow my pride—how many freshmen have already graduated college by the time they enter Harvard? Of course, I did; and, of course, I graduated, once again, with highest honors.
“I had originally planned to take my Ph.D in Economics at the University of Berlin—those Germans, bless ‘em, treated me, not like a colored man, but like a human being—but my scholarship from America ran out, and, undoubtedly for racist reasons, it was not extended. It was a lucky break, in the end, because I went on to love Sociology. I believed that it would teach me why and how people behave the way they do, in groups—that is, families, tribes, states, nations. I became a sociologist because I could not fathom why any human being could hate another. I believed that, if I could analyze the reasons for racism, I could explain it away, and thereby banish it forever.”
            He stopped talking, and puffed at his cigar thoughtfully, tapping his chin for a few seconds.
            “Did it work?” I asked, wistfully, though I already knew the answer.
            “No,” he said, and narrowed his eyes at me, “Of course not. Racism is a disease. There is no logic to having a sore throat or the common cold. Racism, like them, is caused by a germ. A man or woman has something inside themselves that they hate, and so, rather than root out the evil which they themselves contain, they project it onto someone else. If this same hatred is exacerbated by jealousy, or economic deprivation (which is certainly a factor in the Israeli vs. Palestinian debate), it cannot be cured until those conditions are relieved.
            “To answer your question,” he went on, “The Arab nations may have created this problem, but it is no longer theirs to fix. They have placed it on the shoulders of the Jewish State. It is their burden; indeed, to coin an inappropriate, but still cogent phrase, Israel’s cross to bear.” He closed his eyes; he was thinking.
            “And what do you see as the solution, in the end?” I asked, wondering what Dr. DuBois’s mighty mind could conjure up, to untie, or, better, cut the Israeli-Palestinian Gordian knot that had baffled so many politicians, secretaries of state, US presidents, Israeli pundits and prime ministers, op-ed writers, ad infinitum….
            “Something I wrote, ‘way back in 1903, in a piece called ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ in which I took on no less an opponent than the mighty Booker T. Washington—oh, how I despised, but admired, that stubborn, star-crossed Old Man of Tuskegee!—in our Battle of the Pens called ‘The Great Controversy.’ He conceded to the white man in all social and economic areas, he Uncle Tom’d to the greatest extent, but I met all of his arguments in print, and licked him solidly, oh yes I did—“
His eyes were shining; he closed them, and recited from memory:
“[While] the fire of African freedom still burned in the veins of the slaves, there was in all leadership…the one motive of revolt and revenge…and veiling all the Americas in fear of insurrection. …[But times have changed. We] feel in conscience bound to ask of this nation three things:
1. The right to vote.
2. Civic equality.
3. The education of youth according to ability. …
By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
            When Dr. DuBois finished reciting these famous and stirring words, he opened his eyes once more, looking at me first, and then, sadly, at the ruined buildings and piles of rubble and twisted metalwork that surrounded us. On an adjacent wall, some desperate graffiti artist had sprayed a peace sign in white paint, but another had used blood-red paint to smear, in Arabic, “Palestinians! Revenge.”
            “These words still apply,” he said to me, “in America, as well as here. They have yet to be fulfilled in either country. America and Israel. So different, yet so much the same. Blood, war, suffering are not the answer. Only dialogue will solve and heal the problems, challenges, and inequities. It will take time, but there is no alternative.”
            “Yes, “ I said, “and both countries are dear to me; they both belong to me, and I to them. And I believe I can speak for so many of my people, and for many other Americans, both Jewish and gentile, and Israelis and Arabs, as well. There are many people of good faith in the World, Dr. DuBois. I do believe that, with all my heart.”
            He touched my hand, and squeezed it, gently. His grip was warm and firm. A blood-red moon was rising above the shattered bits of what had been Gaza City. Off in the distance, a jackal howled, and we heard the sound of automatic-rifle fire. Far far off, the politicians may have stopped speaking, but the guns were still clearing their throats….
            “We better go,” I said.
            “Do not misunderstand me, Young Man,” he said, in that direct, no-nonsense way he had of speaking. “Never forget that I, even I who had so much hope for America, nonetheless gave it all up and moved to Ghana, Africa, in the ending years of my own life. It broke my heart to do so, and many followers and admirers never forgave me for it, but a man must live with his own conscience. The Great Work was not over, but my life’s work was, and I was tired. My spirit lives on in the leaders of my people today. Your people need courageous leaders, too. Who will they be? Where will they come from?”
            “I don’t—“ I began.
            “Remember me,” he said. And he was gone.

Works Cited

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. NY: Penguin, 1981. Print.

“W.E.B. DuBois, ‘The Souls of Black Folk.’” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Eighth ed. Vol. C: 1865-1914. NY: W.W. Norton, 2012. 883-891. Print.

NOTE: The parts in italics are direct quotations from the works of DuBois.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Rabbi in Elul: Some Thoughts on The Season of Repentance, and Its Effect on Rabbis, Shuls, and Jews

A Rabbi in Elul

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming!
            What’s coming? Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The World Series. The Big Enchilada. The Whole Deal. The Ganse Zach (Yiddish, “Entire Thing,” approximately, although with Yiddish, you never can seize the full meaning of a word or phrase).
I have been reading all sorts of articles, mostly online and in blogs, about the High Holy Days and what they mean to rabbis, not only in America, but All Over the World. Rabbis having Insights. Rabbis Thinking Deeply. Rabbis Giving Advice. Rabbis Performing Daily Meditation. Rabbis Reaching Out to God (or G-d, G!d, or G?d). Rabbis Blowing Shofar (on YouTube).
Online Photos of Rabbis, male and female, bearded and clean-shaven, ponytailed and head-covered, be-scarved and be-tallited, tefillined and soulful, looking eminently sincere and spiritual, or thoughtful and prayerful, and pleading, “Please follow my blog. I will be offering New Thoughts Every Single Day. You will not want to miss them.”
How can one fail to keep up with So Much Sincerity?
For me, Elul is important, too. But I don’t see all the hoopla. Yes, I do want my Jews to come back, to come home. I’m no snob. I can tell which way the wind blows. I want to see the benches filled, and hear the mighty organ of Jewish Voices responding with, “Amen,” when I or the Cantor tosses out a prayer on the Big Days.
But, (to borrow a phrase from a truly, more popular festival) why is this month different from all other months? (It is well-known, indeed statistically proven, that more Jews will attend a Passover Seder meal than attend services on the High Holies. Why? Well, what would you prefer—spend hours in services holding a prayerbook, or go to a nice, warm, friendly home to enjoy a good meal?) Why must rabbis burn the midnight computer-screen to conjure up exceptional, mind-provoking Rosh Hashana messages, to reach the Jew who hides, farthest-removed from the bosom of the Spiritual Community?
Because of Blind Pew. Remember the Infamous Pew Survey? The one that said that, every five seconds, another Jew disappears? Well, maybe not really, but close. It is true that congregations and synagogues are vanishing, or consolidating, as the Baby Boomers age, and their children themselves go on to marry (often intermarry) and have children, frequently later in life than the norm. These same Millennials are often not circumcising their children[1]; they are resisting joining congregations, or doing the same affiliating with Jewish resources that their parents and grandparents took for granted, often as a sociological reaction to anti-semitism.[2] On the contrary, we Jews have become so well-accepted in American society that marrying a Jew has become a status symbol of sorts—witness intermarriages by Caroline Kennedy, Chelsea Clinton, Drew Barrymore, and other celebrities of society and screen.
As a result, the latest cohort of Young Rabbis, fresh out of seminary and into the pulpits, is under Tremendous Pressure to Produce New Members for their congregations. And Rosh Hashana, the Season of Returning (to where? Why, to Judaism, of course) is the best time in which to do it. Autumn is the traditional season for synagogues (and churches, as well; perhaps, we may assume, mosques) to hold Open Houses, whereat they strut their stuff for prospective new members.
“Rabbi!” clamor their Temple Presidents, their Vice-Presidents in charge of Membership, and their Boards of Directors, “We have faith in you, and your abilities; that’s why we hired you, choosing you of all applicants to our congregation. You are, indeed, the Chosen One. Now, go forth—get thee out there, and find us some members! We need new congregants—they are the lifeblood of our shul. Find, especially, young Jewish families with babies—we need feeder families for our preschool. Find families who have children of elementary age—interfaith would be great; we are very accepting. Find empty-nester families; we need child-free volunteers who can come to shul on a moment’s notice, for an emergency minyan, a meeting, a broken boiler, a substitute teacher, someone who can defrost a frozen computer or kitchen deep-freeze, or rush to the supermarket for another Entenmann’s cake for the Shabbat Kiddush. Go, Rabbi, make haste, and find!”
And the rabbi, eager to please, full of love for Judaism and Jews, turns to Social Media, which is free, after all, and films themselves preaching, teaching, blowing shofar, offering sage wisdom beyond their years. They read other rabbis’ writings, check their notes from school, go online to see the thoughts and ideas of colleagues, and work hard to make the esoteric understandable. They cite Heschel and Buber and Kaplan and Borowitz; the Rebbe, the Rov, the Ari, and the Gaon; the Ran and the Rif and the Rash and Rashi, and never forget Reb Zalman; there are so, so many to read and to cite….
Or, they can go online, find some other rabbi’s thoughts and words, and copy-and-paste. (It isn’t plagiarism, if it’s done for a Holy Cause.)
And they Blog, and Facebook, and YouTube, and All the Rest, and Their Wisdom (they hope) increases and multiplies, as it is Shared by the Blogitudes.
For, in the end, what is the importance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?
New Beginnings. New ideas. New Jews, and Judaism.
What thoughts have I, this Elul? I recall an old Chasidic Tale—one of Elie Weisel’s—I can’t recall which Chasidic Rebbe it was, either; there are so many of them, I like to say, they all meld together into one, but I believe it was the Rizhiner, that Prince among Chasidic Rebbes, he of the golden slippers and gold-brocade outfits, who rode in a coach-and-six, and who received his Chasidim at a tisch (Rebbe’s table) laden with gold and silver plate, fit for the Sacred Service at the Holy Temple. It was he who addressed another Rebbe, much poorer of means—was it the Apter Rov? Never mind; the Rizhiner asked the Apter if he had yichus, that is, saintly ancestors; was he of noble birth, as was the Rizhiner, who could, according to some scholars in these matters, trace his lineage all the way back to King David.
“I?” asked the Apter, “I? No: my father was no king, or descendant of kings; my father was a humble tailor, and a poor one, at that.”
“But did your father teach you Torah?” queried the Rizhiner. He himself was descended from mighty scholars, even from the Baal Shem Tov, who, despite his humble mien, was renowned as learned in Torah, “What insights did your father, humble though he was, leave to you, as your yerusha, your spiritual inheritance?”
“My father?” responded the Apter, tapping his chin, “My father, the tailor? Ah!” he said, “My father left me two important sayings, which can help anyone, be they tailor or not, “’It is better to save the old, before looking for new,’ my father used to say, and, ‘As long as the candle burns, there is hope.’”
And the Rizhiner nodded his head, happy to learn such wisdom. Like the Rizhiner, I marvel at this wisdom, so cogent and useful, from the son of a tailor. Let us not be too quick to cast off the Old but still Useful in favor of what we deem to be New but Untried.
And, finally, let us never forget, that, no matter how far we believe we have fallen, as long as the Candle of Life burns—that is, for as long as we live—we are able to repent, to renew ourselves, and return to God, as better Jews, better pray-ers, better members of the Jewish (and Human) Community, and better fixers of this tired old world. Amen!

[1] That has no effect on the boy’s Jewishness, provided the mother is Jewish, even if Dad is gentile; and, I personally, believe that, regardless of Which Parent is Jewish, we ought to concern ourselves more with the remaining 85-90 years of the child’s life, and How Jewish They Will Be and Act During That Period. Outreach is key, here, but that is not within the purview of this essay.
[2] We Jews have always believed in strength in numbers: that is why the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Committee, and American Jewish Congress have historically been such remarkable organizations, both as strengtheners of community and opponents of anti-semitism.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)--A Calming Voice for Our Tumultuous Times

“It is good to be born in very depraved times, for, compared with other people, you gain a reputation for virtue at a small cost.”—Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Religion can only go so far, and so, after getting a “C” in Philosophy in college (in my defense, Prof. Shtippleholtz—not his real name—was a dud as a teacher. And I was a smartass: “Prof. Shtippleholtz,” I said, “I know that you are speaking English, because I can pick up a word here and there, but I honestly cannot understand what you are talking about.” Since that time, I have purchased a few books on Philosophy, most recently Tom Butler-Bowdon, 50 Philosophy Classics: Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2013.
My choice for tomorrow’s post-Shabbat-Services-Discussion-Group (if I can pry my post-service group away from Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, which I have been doing with a Chasidic Commentary (Tuvia Kaplan, Fathers & Sons: The Chassidic Masters on Pirkei Avos. Spring Valley, NY: Targum/Feldheim, 1992) will be Michel de Montaigne, who, it turns out, was Jewish (I have long suspected that), whom Butler-Bowdon (can’t I just call him Tom?) says was the son of a Sephardic Jewish woman.
My last acquaintance with Montaigne was in college, when I wrote a paper contrasting his breezy, effortless writing style with that of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a melancholy Catholic priest who invented a primitive mathematical calculator out of wooden blocks and leather straps, and who had a taste for flagellation. To him, we owe “Pascal’s Wager”—a proof of God’s existence—and, perhaps, little else, besides his gloomy View of the Universe.
Montaigne, in contrast, is honest and open about his failings. He schooled himself in the Latin writers, studied at the Universities of Bordeaux and Toulouse, and yet denigrated his own knowledge:
“I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it in the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of reading, I am one who retains nothing.”
Despite this frank self-assessment, Montaigne did not yearn to “know everything.” He wished, simply, to live pleasantly and not have to work too hard. The object of his reading was to know himself (that eternal philosopher’s touchstone), as well as how to Live and Die Well. Though he contradicts himself throughout his Essais (a writing form he invented), he did not regard this as a sign of weakness. Indeed, many scholars regard him as not being a philosopher at all, since he did not work out a concrete system for Understanding the Universe and Our Place in It.
This latter point might make him all the more attractive to us Post-Moderns, living as we do in a rapidly-changing world, due to our Plague of Over-Communication, and because we constantly question the scientific, political, and religious “certainties” of our day. Can we rely on anything, or anyone, at all? (I am not speaking of the Deity, here; my theological views may change, but I do set my sights on God, even when He appears to let humanity down—or we let Him down.)
Montaigne’s personal sense of security stemmed from the Stoic philosophers: he regarded humankind as part of a complete universe. This would make him oppose our Jewish notion of repentance; it would not make sense to him at all: “Your mind cannot, by wish or thought, alter the smallest part without upsetting the whole order of things, both past and future.” I question this: we are not robots, after all, but vital cogs in the Divine (not Infernal) Machine, and we do matter in the Workings of the Universe.
I enjoyed Montaigne’s contrasting two vital Greek Philosophers, Democritus and Heraclitus. The former tends to mock humanity, taking a humorous view of our earthly lives, while the latter is known as the “Weeping Philosopher,” who has such a store of pity and compassion for human suffering, that he can never lose his handkerchief. Montaigne, not surprisingly, joins with Democritus; we are less pitiful creatures, he believes, than inane ones.
Finally, while we may question Montaigne’s tendency to measure the Universe against his own feelings, as opposed to a more objective system of philosophy, we must, in the end, recognize that he is, perhaps, the most honest philosopher of all. Can there be, truly, any sort of Objective Truth? Do we not tend to assess Life and its Events according to our own thoughts and feelings? Keeping this in mind, and never taking ourselves too seriously, we will find this witty Frenchman to be an apt guide for our Life’s Journeying.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Upon the Neck of a Calf: A Dystopic Future Fantasy, Based on Torah Portion Shoftim

Scene: Torah-State of Israel, 2035:

Holy City Office of Traditional Rabbinical Calf-Acquisitions
3618 Rechov Lieberman
Bennett Municipality, Jerusalem
Torah-State of Israel

When I opened the office this morning, I was not surprised to find Rabbi Ben Zakkai there.
            “You know what I’m here for,” he said. “They found another Death-Warning this morning. Do you have any to go in the back? I’m in kind of a hurry.”
            He meant a calf; he meant, for an eglah arufah—the “decapitated calf” ceremony from the Torah, from Deuteronomy 21:1-9. I have it by heart:

If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: 2Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: 3And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; 4And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley: 5And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried: 6And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley: 7And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. 8Be merciful, O LORD, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them. 9So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the LORD.

Ever since our Modern-Day Traditional Rabbis—the High Israelite Rabbinical Council, I mean—ruled that Torah Law is paramount; ever since we Israelis switched from being a Democratic State to a Fully-Jewish-Torah-Law-State, and—what shall I say?—invited the Israeli Arabs and the half-Jews, quarter-Jews, intermarried-Jews, and Pro-Peaceniks to our newly-established State of PaliIsrastan, next door, things have changed. Greatly. Well, they’ve mostly quieted down, but there are a number of Part-Jews and Pro-Peaceniks left here, living Underground, and the “Mifleget Kanfay Nisharim Ha-Y’minit,” the Political Party of RightWinged Eagles (RightWings for short), became very good at finding them out—I don’t know how they did it without being caught, but it seemed as though, every morning, there was another dead body turning up on one’s doorstep.
            I understand that the RightWings had an offshoot—they called themselves Kana’im, Zealots, and, among those Zealots, there were these Sicarii, “dagger-men,” they called themselves, after a mob of Talmudic-day freedom fighters from about, say, 66 Common Era—what shall I call them—citizen-vigilantes, perhaps?—who went after suspect Jews, and folks whose—political views?—did not, shall we say, match the Norm. These (drops voice to a whisper) maniacs, these assassins, I say, had taken it upon themselves to eliminate all the part-Jews from our midst, and the ones who dared to suggest we call for Peace with our neighbors. I don’t hold with Vigilante Justice, myself, but I’m only one man. This went on for a number of years; the Cabinet, y’see, was so far Right Wing themselves, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop the bloodletting, and the Borders getting so noisy—what were we to do?
            So the rabbis, as I say, came up with this solution. The police, the Mishtara, were flummoxed; couldn’t come up with a clue. The Dagger-men had the ordinary folks so terrorized—is that a good word to use?—anyway, it just got to be so commonplace, and the police unable to enforce the law, and no one really certain what the law had to be, since the Law had become the law—Torah law, that is, halakha, or, at least, the Traditional law—the Rabbis came up with this calf-thing.
The rabbis—I say, the rabbis, went back to the Holy Books, and studied them for weeks, all the Codes, and the Commentaries, and the Commentaries, and Super-commentaries, and Super-Super-commentaries (that’s commentaries on commentaries, don’tcha know), and decided the following: since the Police could not stop the killers, these Sicarii, there was to be a Compromise (There might have been Informants amid the Police, who knows? Everything is Politics, nowadays). Henceforth, and from that day on, any RightWing Sicarius who believed that his neighbor was a turncoat informer, or a Peacenik (being made a Lawbreaker by High Council Dictum, since the Kipa Plasteeq, the Plastic Dome, was erected, which I will come to, presently), he was—encouraged not to?—no, prohibited!—from laying “hands of wrath” on that Person, but was, rather, to secretly contact the Rabbinical High Council, which would place an Eglah Arufah, a Decapitated Calf, on the front doorstep of the Suspected Peacenik or Part-Jew.
There, now. “To preserve life,” they said it was. And to prevent any more shadowy murders, by the Sicarii. The idea was that, once the Suspect, be he or they Part-Jewish, or Pro-Peacenik, they would see and heed the Warning, and immediately get out of town, to save their lives from the Wrath of the RightWing. Well, you can imagine the results: people were rushing off in droves. No need for talk of Peace here; no, indeed.
            Which is where I come in. I, Itamar, the cattle-driver. I was living on my place, by the stalls and corrals, out there on Kibbutz Mishmar Nevucha—it was a quiet life. The Kibbutz was lo-dati, secular, as it was, back in the Good Old Days, though most of the folks were packing their bags—when was this, the Great Overturn of 2025? Yes, that was it, when the Army first drove the Spikes into the ground, and the Engineerion/Bet Mehandess Geek-Engineers were first working on Kipa-Plasteeq, the Plastic Dome—but I’m going off on a tangent, there; spending one’s days with cattle will do that to a man….
            The rabbis decided, you see, that instead of trying to solve the Problem of all those dead bodies, to simply modify the Eglah Arufah Ceremony of the Decapitated Calf, as in the bit of Torah I quoted above (though I’m no scholar, not me; far from it; I’ve been known to sneak a cheeseburger, now and again, at that little Greasy Spoon pundak falafel n’ shwarma joint, ‘back of the Jerusalem Bus Station), to give an incentive to prevent any more murders by night, and thereby, the rabbis could, in effect, wipe their hands of it.
Things had gotten pretty scary here, since the Pro-Occupation Party occupied the Government, and most of the Livni-Lapidaries went abroad—I hear that most of them settled in Germany, or America—quite a load of them, now, in Dresden and New York City; more than a few in Florida, I understand… well, it’s all for the good. The Pro-Peaceniks who stayed, as I said before, moved off to PaliIsrastan, where they live, I assume, in peace with one another, and with the Israeli Arabs. Good for them; I’m content here, and don’t much care Who’s In Charge (I’m secular, but I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that under your kipa, if you don’t mind.)
            Kipa Plasteeq? I must thank the Engineerione/Bet Mehandess Institute Boys for that one: years ago, when the US President—I believe it was Rick Perry, that Texas cowboy fellow—under pressure from his own Texas Tea Party folks, doncha’ know, to cut budgetary costs for foreign aid, stopped funding Iron Dome, the Techies came up with this idea—just melt down the plastic parts of our outdated US jets, add some “secret sauce” (they won’t give out the formula; very hush-hush, y’see), and it resulted in a superstrong, clear plastic alloy which they simply cast into a monstrously-huge dome, and stretched it over the Entire Country. No way any Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, or even this new outfit, Ormuzd’s Revenge (Iranian, I think they are), can lob a rocket through it, even one of those new Plutonium-tipped jobs that come rolling off the assembly line in Tehran, using parts built in North Korea.
            Tunnels from Gaza? Oh, well—Schwarzmann Institute helped us out, this time. One of their agronomists, doing irrigation research in the Negev Desert, happened on a way of building indestructible steel pipes which would never rust out—blended with plastic again, taken from Mitz Tapoozim, old Orange Squash bottles—Lord knows, we have plenty of them. The Army used Merkavah tanks fitted with power drivers to push ‘em into the surface of the earth, about forty kilometers down, can you believe it? Miracle of engineering, it was. Things are quiet, now.
So now, we have a plastic wall up top, and a steel-and-plastic barrier below. The folks in the West Bank and Gaza—excuse me, what’s left of Yehuda v’Shomron and Gassy (we call ‘em that, ‘cuz all they do is yell at us on the TV and Web), since we carved off substantial chunks for IsraPalistan, which we include under a Sub-Dome, reachable only via our own, IDF-enforced-and-protected, blast-wall surrounded, broken-glass-and-barbed-wire-topped, security-camera-bristling,  Danzig Corridor—the Official Name is Derech Netanyahu, Netanyahu’s Highway, but most of us call it Bibigrad, in his honor—kind of leave us alone; they have no choice. All’s quiet, under the Dome. (Some days, I can’t help but remember the Gerbil I kept as a Pet, when I was little. He used to run all around the plastic tubing that my father built for him: happy as could be, but then, he was just a Gerbil. Ah, well….)

            And now, Friend, you’ll have to excuse me: Rabbi Ben Zakkai needs his calf, and another suspected Part-Jew or Peacenik their Eglah Arufah Ceremony. All’s right in our world. Shalom, Shalom—have a peaceful day!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Stranger on the Sofa: What Would You Do, If You Came Home to Find You Had an Unwanted Guest?

            B had gone to New York to visit family, and I was alone for a few nights: just me and Kirby, our Shih Tzu. I have an irregular schedule: teaching and rabbi’ing amount to strange hours. I was looking forward to having a quiet dinner, watching some old movie on TV, and reading a Carl Hiaasen adventure novel in bed.
            When I came in from the garage, it took me a little while to realize that I was not alone: I had time to pat Kirby on the head, he all the time wagging, while holding his favorite chew toy in his mouth—I never understood why; was I supposed to chew it, too?—but then, I noticed the man, sitting quietly in the halflight coming in through the unopened blinds.
            He was sitting on my sofa. Not moving, reading, or twiddling his thumbs. Sitting. On my sofa.
            I didn’t know what to do: should I yell? Cry out? Call the Police? Offer him a diet soda, or coffee?
            The man turned. “Hello,” he said. “Ah-Salaam Aleikum.”
            “Hello,” I managed, finally. I turned on the light, and sat down on the opposite end of the sofa. We looked at each other. A long moment passed.
            “Can I help you?” I finally asked.
            He shook his head, but smiled, pleasantly. He appeared to be about my age, with pepper-and-salt hair, and a heavy mustache.
Arab? Israeli? I wondered. I try not to stereotype people, but old habits are hard to break.
            “How did you get in?” I asked.
            He patted his pocket: he had a key, as I did.
            “Why are you sitting on my sofa?” I asked.
            He frowned, for the first time, scowled, turned out his lip, and folded his arms, curling his hands into fists.
            “Your sofa? I beg your pardon, Sir—“—he spoke slowly and deliberately, and a certain accent crept back into his voice—“It’s my sofa.”
The man reached into the pocket of his jacket—for the first time, I realized that he was wearing that same, peculiar (at least, to me) men’s dress jacket-and-long-robe-combination I had formerly seen only on elderly Arab men in the Old City of Jerusalem.
            My “guest” had taken out a parchment document, which, despite its having been folded into his inside jacket pocket, was not creased at all. It was tightly rolled, with an official-looking red tassel hanging from the lower-right-hand-corner, and an impressive-looking wax cylinder-stamp alongside.
            He inhaled deeply, as one would, before making an Official Proclamation of Great Importance.
            “This is my Kushan Tabo, my Statement of Ownership, attesting to my family’s owning this Sofa, going back to the Reign of the Emperor-Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent, Peace be Upon Him! Who presented this Sofa, a Royal Item of Furniture from the Caliph’s Own Collection, to my Great-great-great-great-Grandfather (there are more ‘greats,’ but I have omitted several, in the interest of Saving Time). It has been in my Family for Generations Untold.”
He smiled at me, and settled back among the cushions. Kirby sneezed, and moved away, clutching his chewy toy.
            It was my turn. Without a word, I rose, and went into my study. From a small Holy Ark in the corner, I took my personal Torah. Touching it tenderly and kissing my hand, I lifted it out of the cabinet’s recesses. It smelled old, from a mixture of human sweat, old parchment and cloth, and Tradition. Holding it in my right arm, though I’m a lefty, I bore it into the living room.
            “What is your name, Sir?” I asked my unbidden guest. I saw, but was somehow not surprised, to see that a woman had suddenly appeared by his side, dressed in the long robes and hijab of a devout Muslim woman.
            “I am Musa Ibn Faraj,” he said, rising to his feet but not extending a hand, “and this is my wife, Laila.”
            I nodded, and placed the Torah-scroll on its special shtender, or reading-desk, which stood in the corner. I immediately turned it to Gen. 17:7-8, chanted from the Hebrew, and translated the text into English:

I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

I finished my chanting with a cantorial flourish, and looked up, expecting the Farajes to look impressed. Kirby wagged his tail; my guests looked bored.
            When I went to bed, I left my guests seated on the couch. They chatted between themselves, softly; the woman was a bit agitated, but calmed down when her husband spoke. This no longer mattered to me; I had a class early the next morning, and my own schedule to deal with. Kirby and I retired at about 10:30 pm. We left the lights burning, and I mumbled “Good night.” Neither responded.
            The next day, I returned home to find not only Musa and Laila, but two young boys, about nine years old: twins, Mahmud and Wasfi, their names were. Laila beamed when Musa told me their names, and the boys nodded politely. They were bright-looking children, with short black hair, cut Beatles-style; their mother, Musa explained to me, did not wish for them to lose their childhood too soon, and preferred to keep their hair long. I muttered some sort of compliment, and Laila smiled.
            Our evening dragged a bit; when I turned on the TV for the evening news, we all paid close attention. The Middle East was overheating, again: extremist fighters were closing in on a minority religious group, somewhere in Iraq, but a third ethnic group had come to their aid, backed by the US and Britain. The inevitable mischmasch of religion, ethnicity, race, and geography was turning yet another country, or bordering countries, into a bloodbath.
            “Terrible, isn’t it?” I said, spontaneously.
            “Yes,” said Musa, and his wife nodded vigorously. Wasfi peeled an orange, and his brother Mahmud focused on a handheld video game. The TV screen echoed with the sound of supersonic aircraft dropping bombs on an unseen enemy.
            “If only—“ said Laila, speaking aloud for the first time, but she left her sentence unfinished. Nonetheless, I nodded, and we smiled at one another.
            At least, I thought, it’s not happening here. But then, I caught myself, Who are these people anyway, and what gives them any right to share my sofa? It was all so confusing….
            Wednesday evening passed, much like the previous two; I had papers to grade, which I laid in neat piles on the coffee table, and Musa read what appeared to be a professional trade magazine. Laila worked at a needlepoint; it appeared to be a large hamsa. The boys were nowhere to be seen; their mother explained that they had gone to the movies with a friend’s family.
            As the hours crept along, I found myself wondering about the boys: where were they? Who were they with? Almost at the same time I was about to suggest it, Musa pulled out his cellphone and called the friend’s home. All was well: after the movie, which was dull, the family had gone out to a popular fro-yo store. I knew the owner; it happened that he was Israeli. Still, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Who could tell what sort of world we lived in, nowadays?
            …That was—how long? Three months ago. Have I gotten used to it? Not entirely. When B returned from New York, it took some doing, plus Musa’s and my debating over his Kushan Tabo vs. my Torah, to realize that we had reached an impasse. Neither of us wanted to pursue the argument any further, and we were a little too embarrassed to go to outside authorities; what was the point? The boys like walking Kirby, and he loves it when they play with him, too.
            B and Laila seem to get along; they take turns cooking, and we are getting used to the taste of halal meat, which does not differ all that much from kosher. Musa likes to tease that our Jewish cooking is “too bland,” and so B is trying to spice things up a little. We will be alone for a few evenings, because Musa and Laila will be visiting relatives in Jordan and Jericho.
            They promise they’ll call, though, and Musa told me he has a friend who can give us a “good price” on an international cell phone, when we make our special trip to Israel in a couple of years.
            Still, I think we will miss them….


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reeh: Peacemaking & Laundry-Hanging-- Both Jobs Require Clear Vision!

“See, I give before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day. And the curse, if you will not listen to the Commandments of the Lord your God, and you turn from the Way which I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you have not known” (Deut. 11:26-28, translation mine).

            The Sefat Emet (Pen name, “The Tongue of Truth,” of the Chasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905), in commenting on these verses, states that “[In] the blessing it says, ‘that you listen,’ but in the curse it says ‘if.’ Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. …Even if there is some sin—and indeed ‘there is no one so righteous as to do good and never sin’ (Eccles. 7:20)—it is only passing” (Green, 1998, pp. 302-3).
            Rabbi Arthur Green, from whose masterful The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (Phila., PA: JPS, 1998), the above is taken, universalizes the above reference by stating that, although only we Israelites can claim the Covenant dating from Mt. Sinai, all of Humanity “must contain that essential goodness.” In other words, all mortal beings who profess to follow a moral code have a share in the above statement, even if their God-belief, or lack thereof, is not Jewish. To progress as a species, we must take pride, not in the Machinery of War and Destruction, but in a slow, steady progress toward the Light of Peace.
            When speaking to my college classes, young people who are mainly Hispanic- or African-American, I strive to point out the irony that we cell-phone-connected, computerized, 21st Century human beings, we who enjoy more efficient communication tools than ever before in history, who ought to be more connected with one another’s thoughts and feelings, are, tragically, like blind people, groping in Darkness, and more divided as a species, than ever before. Whether throughout America or the World, we fail to see one another’s essential Humanity— those traits we share in common: the same drives for survival, happiness, success in life, and safety for ourselves and our loved ones. Instead, we fall back upon our familiar, yet divisive classifications of tribe, language, religion, and politics. As a Jew, perhaps the first one whom these young people have ever met or spoken with, I challenge their stereotypes of my people. Rather than reinforcing what divides us, I seek what unites us, as human beings, with feelings, dreams, and aspirations.
            At the time that Moses gave the above speech, he was mortally concerned that his people, whom he rightly judged to be his Lord’s people, were entering a society in which they would be a minority. As free men and women, nomadic in heritage, able to make their own decisions about where to live and whom to marry, he worried that they would swiftly assimilate among the more settled, agricultural peoples of Canaan, and, within a couple of generations, vanish as a unique people. Ironically, this remains a major concern for us Jews, thousands of years later—still separate, still asking the same questions.
            As Jews, we are proud of our tribal, religious, cultural, and nationalistic differences, but, as human beings, we must always search for what unites us with other human beings. As we aspire to political freedom, so must we work to understand similar political yearnings in others, provided that the debate over and resolution of such questions takes place in a peaceful setting. The Golden Rule which we gave the World must guide the steps of all right-thinking humanity: if we cannot love all of our neighbors, let us, at least, respect them, and ensure that we receive that same respect—neither as victors or victims, but as equals.
            There is an old story about a woman—call her Ms. Richter—who invites her rabbi to visit her home, serving him a cup of tea on her best china, while they sit in the sun room which faces the back yard. Making small talk, the rabbi notices the fence separating the woman’s yard from her neighbor’s, Ms. Jones; he remarks about the freshly-washed sheets and clothing Ms. Jones has hung in the yard, and asks if they are friendly with one another.
            “That woman?” scoffs Ms. Richter, “I wouldn’t give you the time of day with her. Why, look at the laundry she hangs out there, on her line. It’s filthy!”
            The rabbi gets up, walks to the window, runs his finger along it, and replies, gently,
            “Ms. Richter, there is nothing wrong with your neighbor’s laundry. I’m sorry to tell you that the problem is your windows: they’re dirty.”

            When we look at the faults of other people, other nations, are we so quick to judge their shortcomings, or should we take the trouble to look beneath the headlines, beyond the shrill cries of their politicians, and see that, beneath the “dirt” which separates us, they are, perhaps, just people—not far different from ourselves, hoping for a Better Tomorrow for themselves and their children? Or are we satisfied with simply looking at them through a dirty window of stereotyping? It’s not easy: we are, after all, all human beings, not Angels—but God gave the Torah to us. What shall we do with it?