Sunday, March 30, 2014

Haftorat Metzora: The Tale of the Four Lepers--God's Fortune-Wheel

Haftorat Metzora: The Tale of the Four Lepers

Let Hercules himself do what he may, The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.
[1600-1 Shakespeare, Hamlet v. i. 286]

What’s harder to sermonize or write about than one Parsha/Torah Portion about Leprosy? Two Torah portions. And so, because this is a Leap Year in the Hebrew Calendar, the two portions which are normally linked together as Tazria-Metzora are separated, causing mental and sermonic anguish for rabbis the world over. Having said all we could about skin diseases in the past week, ChaZaL (a Talmudic acronym for Chachameinu Zichroneinu L’Vracha, or “Our Sages, May Their Memories Be for a Blessing, meaning the collective wisdom of all historical rabbis up to this point in Jewish history) took the word Metzora and used a Drash, or Homiletical Word-Play, to transform it to Motsee Shem Ra, or “To Bring Forth an Evil Name (on Someone),” that is, to Gossip. I may choose to speak on that topic, this Shabbat: please come and listen.
For now, I have chosen in this Writing, rather, to examine the Haftorah. The Soferim, or Scribes, who flourished around 168 BCE (the fortuitous time of the Chanukah Story—strange how these historical events tend to conflate with one another), were hard-pressed to preserve Jewish Education when the villain of those days (there’s always another villain), the Hellenistic King Antiochus Epiphanes, forbade Torah Study, on pain of death. This made it nearly impossible to chant the weekly Torah Portion in public. Accordingly, therefore, the Scribes ordained (there were no rabbis as yet in those days, which is either a Good Thing or Bad, depending on how one feels about rabbis) that a reading from Prophets would replace the Torah Reading. When Antiochus was sent off packing by the Maccabees (he was to die later in battle against the Parthians), the Torah reading was renewed, but the Prophetic portions remained, to the eternal bliss or bane of thousands of b’nai mitzvah, to this day. The very word Haftorah does not mean “half-Torah”—it means “departure”—we are leaving the Torah, which is the Supreme Holy Object we possess—both holy relic and book, in one—and moving into the Prophets, which are holy, as well, but on a lower madreigah ruchanit, or level of holiness, than the Torah.
            All of which has little or nothing to do with the subject area of this week’s Haftorah, taken from II Kings 7:3-20, and involves an Aramean invasion of Samaria (today’s West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, depending, on your politics), under the Aramean king, Ben-Hadad. There is also a (nameless) king of Israel, who is deeply distressed over this military action. Elisha predicts that God will defeat the forces of Aram, but the king is dubious. He alternates between calling upon the Prophet Elisha for help, and seeking to behead him, which is puzzling.
            What is the connection between this Haftorah story and the subject of leprosy? The Haftorah begins by relating the tale of four lepers sitting just outside the gate of Samaria—they are not allowed in the city, due to fear of contagion, but neither are they driven away. The city is under siege, and several citizens have resorted to cannibalism, which is described in horrific detail. Bored and desperate for food, the lepers decide to visit the camp of Aram, figuring that if the enemy kills them, they were apt to die anyway from the disease, and if he feeds them, it’s a bonus.
            They come upon the enemy camp, and are amazed and delighted to find it totally deserted—it was not unusual for ancient Middle Eastern armies, at least, until the advent of Alexander the Macedonian Greek, with his military discipline—to panic and run off abruptly due to miscommunication, sudden alarm, foul weather, or defeat. Since they were often composed of mercenaries and assorted warriors who spoke a motley of different languages, cohesion was rare.
            Here is a curious display of Fortune’s Wheel: the lepers, having been at the bottom of the social order, suddenly find themselves rich and famous. Bringing their wonderful tidings, they come in triumph before the Israelite king, who initially suspects an ambush, and sends out two riders to carefully scour the camp. Upon their successful return, the relieved king allows his people to loot the Aramean booty and food. After the siege the city had suffered, there is rejoicing, with the only loser the king’s former personal officer, who had doubted Elisha’s prophecy that Israel would triumph; he is sentenced to lie down athwart the city gate, and dies from the joyful people’s stamping upon him in their haste to run and loot the Aramean camp.

            This story is certainly not the deepest one in the entire Tanakh/Hebrew Bible, but its little bit of drama, verisimilitude, and character buildup within the space of little over a chapter gives welcome relief in a sea of formulae relating to impurity, leprosy, animals and fowl specified for various offerings, as well as priestly duties. It reminds us that, when all is said and done, the Tanakh is a varied document, inspired by God certainly, but, in the end, containing as well, tales of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives, with God behind the scenes. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Tailor's Story: The Reward of an Egg--A Holocaust Memory

I met a man tonight at my temple; he is a member I had not spoken with before. He was there with his wife to say Kaddish for his brother, who passed about two weeks ago. He told me about his hometown, Hrubieszow, Poland. In 1941, the Nazis had killed all the tailors, along with their other Jewish victims, and the local Gestapo discovered that they needed tailors to help loot the dead Jews’ possessions and send them back to their families in Germany. This man—then, a young boy of thirteen (he never became bar mitzvah) had some tailoring experience, and he told the Gestapo that he could find them some tailors, which he did. They were in hiding.
The Nazis needed the tailors to carefully fold and sew the looted bedsheets around the valises they stole, so that they fitted the valises, exactly. I didn’t understand why, but it was important enough that, if a tailor did not do a good job, they would murder him and his family.
The boy himself was “befriended” by a Gestapo chief who showed him a suit-jacket that was very finely made—batwing lapels, lined both inside and out with wool, and in need of a pressing. The Nazi specified that the pressing job had to be done “just so,” or the boy would die. The boy did a good job—he had to—and the Nazi rewarded him by giving him a fresh egg, which was “like gold, in those days.”
It was difficult for me to listen. The man promised he had many more stories; he has already related them to the US Holocaust Museum, and to the Spielberg Project. There is a particular photo in the Museum showing him with the many people he rescued.
The stories are not yet done. I cannot listen without almost crying. Imagine: an egg, “like gold, in those days.”
I hugged him when he was leaving.
“Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,” we said to one another.
“It is an honor to know you,” I said.
“There are more stories.”

I know. And I must listen; I must bear witness, and tell them to others. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ezekiel Invents the Synagogue: A Play--Following His Mystical Vision, Our Prophet Determines that Judaism Must Continue

Scene: a small clay-and-wattles house alongside the Chebar River, in Babylonia, about 585 BCE, a year following the Babylonian Destruction of the First Temple and the Exile of the Princes, Priests, and Prophets of Israel to Babylonia (Modern-day Iraq), so as to deter any attempts at rebellion and return to the Holy Land. Babylonian Foreign Policy is based on hoping that the Israelites will rapidly assimilate and disappear into the mass of other captive nations whom the Empire has conquered. The house is large, but Spartan in design, with a central feature: a huge window in the Eastern Wall, closest to Israel, the country for which the owner longs. There are little bits of rough-hewn furniture: one chair, an unfinished table, on which a scroll lies, next to a small clay pot of vegetable-based ink, and a feather quill. Other scrolls lie about, on shelves or the floor, along with bits of clothing: a robe, a shirt, here and there. A bit of parchment hangs on the Eastern wall, a Shiviti-plaque: “I have set the LORD before me, always.” The time is mid-morning. It is a bright, sunny spring day in the month of Adar, in the Jewish neighborhood of Chebar-Town, there amid other dozens of displaced nations conquered by their Babylonian overlords. Enter two Jewish women, Anat and Rebekah, in conversation.

Anat: I tell you, Rebekah, he has not been the same since his wife Shoshana, Yah rest her soul, died. First, he sat all alone, for the full shiva, the week of mourning—my husband Avishai and I came over with a nice, hot, pot of soup, the first night—you know, that duck stew I make, that the Lord Priest used to love to eat, when he and she, Yah rest—

Rebekah: --her soul. Yes, Anat. I, too, came here the second night of shiva, only to find—Goodness, what a mess he has left! (As they talk, the two women putter about, straightening the scrolls and clothing which litter the floor, attempting to fold and neaten all)—and tried to get him to eat—we made a nice pudding, a kugel, I believe my next-door Babylonian neighbor-lady, Yaaribaal, called it, and Old Moshe the Scribe showed me how to make it kosher, by leaving out the pig’s fat—

Anat: --but he wouldn’t eat it; no, not one drop. You know—

Rebekah: You know—

The Two, Together: he just sat there.

Rebekah: --and stared—

Anat: at the wall. The wall!

Both, simultaneously:

Rebekah: Who would have thought it? He was pale as a shade, a ghost, and

Anat: He kept on and on, about a Vision, a Vision, by the

Rebekah: River, Chebar River, where the heavens opened up and the heavens all aflame

Both (overlapping one another): Lion-head, Human-head, Ox-head, Eagle-head, all joined together….

(During this exchange, Ezekiel the Prophet has quietly entered, bearing his shepherd’s staff. He is a vigorous-looking man in his sixties, but looks weary. He stands quietly, listening to the women prattle, and gives no sign of his presence. Finally, as their voices reach a crescendo, he beats his staff on the clay wall three times. They turn to him, hands over their mouths in horror and embarrassment. He smiles, nods, and says:)

--But ladies, you see, I did, indeed, see the Vision. And even though the gossip runs from one end of Chebar Town to the other, there is no gainsaying what I saw. Prophecy: a prophetic vision, and—do you know what it means?

(Anat and Rebekah nudge one another, and exchange knowing looks.)

No, not that. I am perfectly sound of mind; I remain a Kohen, a priest of El Elyon, Konay Shamayim va’Aretz—the Most High God, Maker of Heaven and Earth. I am not mad. D’you ladies—dare I say, Gossips—hear me? I. Am. Not. Mad. (He sinks, exhausted, into his chair. Realizing their error, they fall to their knees before him.) But I am tired, very tired, from my night’s vigil and study and prayer. And my work is not done. No (to himself, more than to them)—it is merely beginning….(he stretches his arms heavenward, and half-pleads, half-yawns:) Lord God of Hosts, what do you want of me? Oh, God….(His head sinks down onto his folded arms, on the table; the women approach slowly; Anat touches him gently on the arm)

Anat: Lord High Priest Ezekiel, we are most heartily sorry, and beg your forgiveness.

Rebekah: Lord, we ask: what can we do to help? We are faithful daughters of Israel, and love our Lord God as much as you. We miss the services and the joy of the Holy Temple, when it stood. Can you not, a priest so wise as you, bring it back, even a little?

Ezekiel: (raising his head, slowly) Do? Do? You shall do nothing. Of course, of course—a strange vision it was, unlike any other vision I have ever read of, in our Torah—I still shiver when I think of it: “a huge cloud and flashing fire; and in the center of it, a gleam as of electrum.” Well, I know now what I must do. (Rising, abruptly; he has found new strength) Chairs! I must have chairs. Have you any?

The Women, together: Chairs, My Lord?

Ezekiel: Yes, chairs. For a—a—prayer-meeting. Here. Tonight. We will invent—invent—a place to—to—offer thanks, and ask help, and praise, the Holy One, Yah Elyone, Adonai. He who sent me this vision. We must, we must offer prayers, or (drops his voice) we will disappear amid this Babylonian hodgepodge of idolatry, love of money, and chasing after heathen sin.

Rebekah: Prayers? What are prayers? Will there be singing? Lord Priest Ezekiel, we do so love to sing, and Tizmora, my eldest daughter, would love to play her harp--

Ezekiel: Prayers? Songs? Just so: I will prepare them, and then, we will see. I know your Tizmora—is she all grown up, then? As God lives, how the time flies—can you bring them, soon?

Anat: Bring what?

Ezekiel: The chairs. Oh, and can you bring some of that wondrous—delicious—what do you call it, the sweet foodstuffs that you ladies serve after the main meal? It’s been so long since I’ve eaten, since Shoshana died, El rest her—

Rebekah: Dessert?

Ezekiel: Yes: dessert. Cakes! Cakes for after. Oh, and some hot herbal tea. In small cups—I cannot deal with that; I leave that to you. I will do the prayers, the songs; please, Ladies, see you to the—the—sweet foodstuffs, for the enjoyments—Oneg, I believe, is the Hebrew word I have been seeking. (To himself, more than to the Women) Perhaps we can have a—a—discussion of some holy subject, for after—I will think on it. When the belly is full, the heart smiles; the brain seeks…. Understand, please: I am thinking, thinking—we must continue, go on, as a people, in our seeking the Holy One! Tizmora will play—but she is just a baby! No; no—she is grown….Yes: that is the meaning of my Vision….(To the Women) Well? Why do you stand at gaze? Go!

(The Women rush out, as Ezekiel, chuckling to himself, sits down, dips his feather into the ink-pot, and starts to write the first siddur/prayerbook in Jewish pre-history.)

The Lesson of the Ibis: How to Live Life

            Leaving the house for work this morning, I noticed a trio of American White Ibises—I did not know that was what they were, but a later online search revealed them as such (Eudocimus albus). They are a pure, beautiful white color, with bright-orange beaks and long legs. They spend their lives poking their curved beaks into the grass, hunting for bugs, in the course of which foraging they also aerate the soil, benefiting all of us.
            I was mind-filled with my typical day’s events: rush to the Pike, enter stream of traffic, put on NPR, perhaps the Classical station; speak to the Dean—will she be available? Will that student get in his paper on time? But the little group took away my attention. They were going about their business in a methodical way, walking in line, like three lean, determined-but-leisurely, English Country Gentlemen out for a walk; what we call in Yiddish, ah shpatzir—a stroll. It was, nonetheless, a serious business, and they had no time to look about, neither at sky nor trees.
Having completed their in-depth examination of this quadrant of earth, they, without turning, nodding or acknowledging the presence of their fellows, spread their glorious wings and sailed off into the warmish air in a leisurely fashion, one after the other, like a flight of gulls. But they appeared far more sophisticated and cultured than gulls: they remained silent, and never begged a crumb of me; indeed, I was not part of their world. They are particular to our Florida, and I have grown to love their concentration, their single-mindedness, and their quietly efficient manner of going about their work and their lives.
Ibises have a long and illustrious past in their relationship with humanity. The Egyptian ibis-god, Thoth, was a moon-god—the curved beak put the Egyptians in mind of the crescent moon. His worshipers considered him to have been the very heart and mind of the Creator-god, Ra, the Sun-god, and, as that Divine Voice, uttered the words which created every being and object in the universe, as well as the laws which govern that existence, including the courses of the sun, moon, and stars.
He was also the inventor of writing, and the solemn and irreplaceable recorder of judgments about the dead, as author of that seminal Egyptian text, Per-t Em Hru, The Book of the Dead (Budge). Besides writing and the alphabet, Thoth invented mathematics, drawing, design, and the arts, in his role as “scribe of the Great Company of the Gods” (quoted in Budge); indeed, he functioned as a sort of Recording Angel, perhaps parallel to our Rosh Hashana Book of Life—was there some Mosaic borrowing here? In the world of the Dead, Thoth became more powerful than even Osiris, who acknowledged him as an adviser; he was also to function as Defense Attorney for the Egyptian Dead on their Day of Judgment.
As the little, white-winged trio flew off, dipping beneath the palm trees to continue their patient search for grubs and bugs, I considered also their patron-god Thoth’s role as Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods, even as Hermes Trismegistus, who conveyed knowledge of ethics and life’s mysteries to a searching humanity. Did my Jewish God, in His role as Hashgacha P’rateet—Divine Providence—plan for me to encounter these little messengers this morning—perhaps to remind me that my own troubles do not amount to so much, and that, with the help of my God, Adonai Eloheem be His Name, both I and my fellow Jews will overcome; indeed, all of humanity, speaking in the various Names of their own deities (or no deities at all; that, too, is their right as thinking and reasoning human beings), will likewise triumph?
No: God was telling me that I can overcome, not alone, but only by working together with others. We are not hermits; we are born to enter into communities of all sorts—whether through business, faith, or good government—and, together, conquer the ignorance, stereotyping, and hatred that threaten to divide us all. Only by reaching out to other people can we, like my little ibis trio, achieve a singleminded peace which will beat back the darkness of closemindedness, terror, and ignorance, and, ultimately, benefit the world. We have no other choice: we, like the ibises, have taken flight.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Shemini: Where is God, When Tragedy Strikes? Death Comes to Aaron's Sons on the Day of Their Greatest Triumph, the Sanctuary-Dedication


            After weeks of delicate design and heavy labor, craftsmen extraordinaires Betsalel and Oholiav announce the completion of the mishkan/sacred dwelling-place, built from the seemingly endless donations of the Israelites—neither before nor since has there ever been such a successful fundraising drive in the history of institutionalized Judaism. Inauguration Day arrives, with a Chanukaht HaMishkan—Grand Service of Dedication planned by Aaron the High Priest and his oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. But the young men, for reasons unclear, bungle the formula for the sacred incense: “And the [elder] sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, took each of them his incense-pan and placed therein the incense, and brought strange fire near to God as an incense-offering, which God had not commanded them.” Angered by this lack of attention to detail or caring—we will never, truly, know what motivated the hapless tyro-kohanim— God strikes them both dead, instantly. “And Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what God said: “By those who are close to Me with I be sanctified, and before all the people will I be honored,”’ and Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:1-2; translation and italics mine).
            That is all the Torah has to say about this tragic incident. Aaron, Elazar and Itamar (his younger sons) are not allowed to stop the service, or even show any outward signs of mourning; the two younger sons bear their brothers’ bodies off the sacred precincts, and all goes on as planned, with God and Moses alternating commands about differentiating between holy and secular, between polluted and pure—in light of the boys’ deaths, the sensitive reader may feel like crying out: Two young men have died: may we not halt the service for a bit, and properly mourn them?
 Thereafter follows a tantalizing hint as to why the young men might have bungled the incense-formula—God warns Aaron directly (as opposed to giving prophecy through Moses) not to consume liquor or strong drink before entering the precincts of the mishkan. Commentators have speculated that, perhaps, Nadav and Avihu were nervous about their first public service, and so sipped a little alcohol to calm their nerves. God was offended that His servitors were tipsy, and so slew them. Still, we never learn the true reason for their sudden deaths, making them all the more tragic….
            The Torah tells us nothing of Aaron’s grief; he is undoubtedly in shock at his sudden loss—as for his wife, we have absolutely no idea of how she feels; the Torah does not even record her name, much less her emotions!—but the Service Must Go On. The omission of God’s motives is glaring, but this is the nature of the Torah: it gives us only the details its authors (God or someone else) considered important. Nadav and Avihu’s actions angered God; God slew them, but the story only continues, as if nothing happened.
            I suggest that the Torah is being veritably true-to-life in this episode. Tragedy is an essential part of our human condition; were it not for illness, for example, we might never appreciate the blessings of recovery and health. We learn here that even Aaron, the High Priest in all his glory, and a prophet second only to his baby brother Moses, underwent disappointment and suffering throughout his life. With the dawn of that fateful day, Aaron might well have been dreaming about the future of his priesthood, feeling deservedly proud that his boys would be following him into the “family business.” His bosom swelled as he marked their approach before the Nameless One, the Godly Power Who led the Israelites through the hazardous wilderness, Who would protect and defend them against all enemies, Who would cause Aaron’s priestly line to flourish—but then, a crack of thunder, a bolt of lightning, and his sons instantly lay there, dead on the spot. Did his faith in God waver? The Torah does not answer: we know only that he went on with the service, probably traumatized, certainly in mute acceptance of his terrible loss.
            Perhaps this reveals the secret of us Jews, a people whose long history has been fraught with tragedy. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).  We may argue with God; we may ask why we have been victimized so often and for so long; but, in the end, we must pick up our traps and move on, following the wearisome van of history. If evil strikes for no reason, we can question, but it would be far more human and humane (I mean to say menschlich) for us to reach out to those afflicted, assist in fighting their enemies, and help to bind up their wounds. We Jews have, historically, been on the side of the weak and oppressed, because of our own history of suffering.

If we ourselves suffer ill in life, what good will come of shaking our fists at the heavens? We must not wait for God to work miracles for humankind. God has sent us to answer the challenge, and we, alone or with others, must bring peace, justice, love, equality, and prosperity, both to ourselves, and to this tired, battered old world. To be a Jew is to accept the burdens of the human condition. We forever cling to both Torah and our mysterious, demanding, yet compassionate God, wherever life, history, and fate may take us.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thoreau in the World: A Lasting Legacy

Thoreau in the World

            In 1848, Henry David Thoreau gave a series of lectures at the Concord, MA Lyceum on the topic of Civil Disobedience. He saw the US invasion of Mexico, a peaceful country, as an illegal act, albeit one which resulted in the acquisition of Texas, California, and New Mexico. He also refused to pay the one-penny war tax, which earned him a night’s stay in the Concord jail. His resulting essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849, remains one of his most enduring legacies.
            On June 7, 1893, a young, British-trained Indian lawyer, Mohandas K. Gandhi, purchased a first-class rail ticket in South Africa. He was riding along, minding his own business, when a group of burly white men in the first-class car surrounded him, calling him by the n-word and ordering him to leave the car. He refused, protesting that he had purchased a first-class ticket. At the next station, the men sent for a policeman, and Gandhi was relieved, assuming that the officer would straighten matters out in his favor.
            Instead, the policeman insulted him, and, when Gandhi refused to leave the car, the officer physically ejected the young, slender youth onto the railway, leaving his clothing torn and himself battered and bleeding. At that time, Gandhi realized that the British Empire he idolized—indeed, the very structure of British Law that he so admired and wished to serve—was flawed at the core. He resolved to work to free his own country, India, and force the British to leave, despite its being the “Jewel in the [Colonial] Crown.” Finding the work of Thoreau, in particular the above essay, he adapted it to his own purposes, combining it with Hindu religious philosophy to create a concept he called satyagraha, or “soul-force,” a non-violent means of resisting power and authority. After many years of work, disappointment, and resolution, Gandhi succeeded in freeing India from the domination of the British Raj, although it resulted in his own martyrdom.
            Years later, a young theology student at Boston University read the works of both Gandhi and Thoreau, and adapted them to his own people’s struggle for civil rights in America. During his doctoral studies, Martin Luther King found great comfort in his readings of Gandhi and Thoreau.

            Tonight, we studied the words of Henry David Thoreau. It is comforting and empowering to know that this gentle man, who died so young—he was only 44, and died of tuberculosis, the most common killer of young people in those days—had such a lasting effect on the freedom of humanity. Transcendentalist, poet, environmentalist, and even a theologian of sorts—Thoreau was, truly, a citizen of the world.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

God Wants the Heart: Saul & Samuel--A Dramatic Reading for Shabbat Zachor

King Saul and the Prophet Samuel:
A Dramatic Reading for Shabbat Zachor

Scene: After Saul’s Triumphant Battle against King Agag of Amalek. King Saul’s two sons, Ishboshet and Eshbaal are sitting on the ground, using flat-sided stones to buff and polish their swords. Their clothing is torn and bloodstained. The air is filled with the stench of burning houses, as well as barbecued meat.

Ishboshet: I tell you, Brother, it’s a bad business, an evil business.

Eshbaal: Why, Brother? We beat the Amalekites, and, with the help of our God, Father took their king, the mighty Agag himself, into captivity.

Ishb: But that’s the thing, you see—

Eshb: What? Speak plainly.

Ishb: I recall standing outside Father’s tent when Prophet Samuel was speaking to him. Father is a little deaf, you know, and he asked Samuel to speak loudly and slowly—you know that Father is a mighty warrior, but he’s—well, he’s—

Eshb: Careful, now, Ishbi—you’re speaking, not only of our father, but our king—

Ishb: (looks about, a little fearfully)—not too bright. I can say it to you, now, can’t I? You know, when he gets that sort of, of, vacant stare in his eyes, like he’s not-all-there—(A sound in the bushes, like someone approaching)

Eshb: Silence, now. (Enter Samuel, the Prophet: though aged, he walks uprightly a Man on a Mission, and carries a twisted, blackened staff. He does not smile. The Two Sons snap to attention instantly.)

Both: Hail, Samuel, Prophet-Priest-Judge-Chieftain!

Samuel (Nods): Boys. Good to see you. I know how the battle went; I’m glad that we won. Our Lord God, He-Who-Is already told me. Where is Your Father Your King?

Eshb: In his Royal Tent, Your Grace.

Samuel (Nods again): I will speak with him. (Ishb exits; returns with Saul. Saul, King of Israel, does not appear very royal; his eyes dart from side to side; though he carries a mighty iron sword, looted from Agag, and a spear the length of a weaver’s beam, taken from Goliath, the Philistine Giant, his shoulders quiver, and he walks in little steps as he approaches his mentor and Chief Adviser, as well as conduit to God, Samuel). Well, Saul?

Saul: Your Grace, I have done all that you and the Lord commanded. I defeated, with God’s help, the Amalekites, and my men put to the sword all men, women, and children; all cattle as well, without mercy; and we burned their city to the ground; nothing remains but ashes.

Samuel (shaking his head, and wagging a finger): Saul, Saul, Saul (the Sons, sensing what follows, wisely exit). Though you are but small in your own eyes, are you not, still, King of Israel, General-in-Chief of God’s Army, and the Chosen One of Our God? How could you disobey the express command of God?

Saul (desperately): It was not I—it was the troops, Samuel! I could not control them—they swarmed all over the loot—and some chose the finest cattle, and—and—I could not stop them. I am at fault, O’ Samuel, O’ Mighty Prophet, O’ my Spokesman and Teacher. Please, ask God to forgive me. Ask God—

Samuel: Though you be but little in your own eyes, you did not fulfill the Express Command of God: and God does not want sacrifices, not the sounds of lowing cattle does God wish; God wants the heart; God only wants the heart, and to have His Commands fulfilled, to the letter. And now, God has expelled you from the Throne, as I have (he turns, pulling his cloak over his shoulders; Saul, seeing him leaving, makes a desperate move, reaching for the cloak; Saul pulls it, and it tears--)

Samuel (pulling the torn portion out of Saul’s hand, and pointing a finger at him): And so has God torn away the Kingdom of Israel from you this day, and given it to Someone better and wiser than you: farewell, Saul; farewell….

(As Saul departs the stage, it blacks out: we hear the death-cries of Agag, King of Amalek, as Samuel puts him to the sword. But Agag is not alone, and there will always be more enemies of Israel, and of civilization.)

 Remember, Reader: God wants the heart, more than the fat of cattle and the blood of rams. God wants those who will serve Him, more than those who perform Commandments mechanically and without meaning, from this day forth, and forever. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Beware the God-Police: Jonathan Edwards, Ben Franklin, and Whose America is It, Anyway?

The Land was ours before we were the Land’s.

--Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright” (1923)—recited by him at JFK’s Inauguration, 1960

            How did we become Americans? Whence came America? By reading the words of famous, and some infamous, American writers, we manage somehow to explain the meaning of America to ourselves. This is the gist of what I tell every American Literature Survey class I begin to teach, as I did this week. And somehow, Politics creeps in; one cannot understand an entire nation without seeking to fathom its politics: Democrats on the Left, Republicans on the Right, Independents, Libertarians, and Undecided fiercely in the—well, who knows? “The only cure for Democracy is more Democracy,” I tell my students, quoting Gov. Al Smith, who lost a bid for the Presidency ‘way back in the 1930s, partly for the sin of being Catholic in the hey day of bigotry, prejudice and racism (and we all know what they resulted in).
Each of my students has a magnificent tale to tell: Hispanic-Americans (and don’t stereotype them, either; they come from dozens of countries, from Central and South America, and why is it that only we nordamericanos qualify to call ourselves “Americans,” while they receive the qualifier, “south”?), Haitian-Americans, African-Americans; various whites, Native Americans, Asians (including Trinidadians, Indians, Vietnamese, dozens of others), and others I cannot recall, many from interracial or intercultural origins, but all, all proudly American—including some young children of the Dream Act, who fiercely desire to stay here, and why not? This is their country, the only Home they know. (Stop deporting them, Mr. President!)
            All, all of these are Americans, and I, a liberal Jewish-American (Polish-Austro-Hungarian, whatever those mean), am privileged and honored to be their teacher.
            This past week, the first in a month(!) of full-immersion AmLit, we tackled the Age of Puritanism (after disposing of Columbus, that explorer-turned-administrator-turned-mass murderer, in just two short evenings), and segued into the Age of Reason, the blessed Age of Enlightenment, during which, among other events, England and France fought the Seven Years’ War, in which our American Revolution was but a sideshow, quickly lost by Britain, despite its possessing the Royal Navy, the first superpower fighting force on earth.
            And we encountered examples of the two poles of civilization: the Rev. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) of Connecticut Colony, representing the darkness of Calvinistic Puritanism through his keynote sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), owner of the early 18th-Century equivalent of Facebook, Google, or Twitter: the Printing Press—he was first in the colonies, and possibly on earth, to franchise a series of them throughout the colonies—the literacy rate among white men was extremely high, and people were hungry for news and knowledge: they passed his newspapers and almanacs from hand-to-hand until they literally crumbled in their fingers—and by this enterprise, among other inventions, he secured a tidy enough income to allow him to retire at the age of 42, a remarkable achievement in his or any historical period, becoming a Man of Property, after arising from poverty (his father was a soapmaker, a filthy profession, and Ben was tenth in a family of fifteen(!) children).
            As a thoroughgoing Puritan, Edwards followed Calvinism, which posited a simple theology: humankind is divided into two classes: the Elect, or the Saints, and the Damned. God decided long ago into which category each of us will fall. Despite our beliefs or activities, we will, following our deaths, spend Eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and the majority opinion leans Hellward. That’s it: deal with it. Here is a short taste of that best-known sermon:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
            This is the one pole of American belief, and there is no escaping it. It is, I posit, why we Americans require our public servants to be as Pure as the Driven Snow. It is why the Republicans bayed for Pres. Clinton’s head via impeachment proceedings after he was found guilty of adultery with Monica Lewinsky, all those years ago (1995-7), although there is no explaining why the charge was led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has himself been married four times, and can hardly be called a paragon of “family values.” This is the most base hypocrisy. I would point out that Pres. Clinton’s adultery had no effect whatsoever upon his activities, behavior, or performance as Chief Executive of the US, and that it was, in fact, no one’s business but his wife’s, who chose to ignore it, for reasons both public (she wanted, and still wants, to become President, and requires his political counsel and savvy) and private.
            It is likewise true that, while the entire impeachment buffoonery progressed, the European democracies were having a collective laugh at us, the nominal Leading Nation of the Free World. It is common knowledge in Europe that politicians cheat on their wives, and, while hardly excusable (since adultery is a sin), it is common practice. Only in America, as I stated earlier, do we require our politicians to be sinless.
            Indeed, I suggest that it is the Shadow of Puritanism hanging over our society that drives the Right Wing of Politics today, from the church to the Republican Party. This includes the debate over Women’s Reproductive Rights, Gay Rights, the Definition of Family, Scientific Evolution vs. “Creationism” (a sorry waste of paper and brain matter if ever there was one), Education, and other issues of morality which hardly belong in the public political forum.
            At the other extreme, we find the Age of Enlightenment, with its representative being our own Dr. Benjamin Franklin, fellow of the Royal Society, champion of what was then called “Natural Philosophy” and is today called Science. He benefited humanity by his inventions of the Franklin Stove, bifocals, the lightning rod, the glass armonica musical instrument, a reading chair with a built-in fan, mapping the Gulf Stream, a flexible urinary catheter, the odometer, and others (“The Electric Ben Franklin,” retrieved from
            Despite Bible fundamentalists’ cries that the Founders were all church members, I state that yes, they were, but only to go on holiday occasions for social reasons, or to hear lectures on matters of state or public interest, as was customary. Theologically (if we may call freethinking such a thing), they were all Deists, believing in a form of Gnosticism, in which the unreasoning powers of Nature held sway over the Universe, not a benevolent or judgmental anthropomorphized God. Thomas Jefferson, for example, edited his own Bible, out of which he carefully excised all mention of miracles (ax-heads floating for Elijah? An octogenarian Moses surviving atop a mountain for forty days and nights, without food or sanitary facilities? Please.).
            Franklin was a generous philanthropist and donor in the Public Interest: he helped to found a Fire Company, a Lending Library, and gave money to different faith communities to help them build their houses of worship, including the Catholics and the Jews. He was, indeed, the first auto-, or self-made, American, and we liberals (excuse me, Progressives) may well claim him as one of our first (Roger Williams may have predated him, but his not-so-secret agenda was a strong desire to convert the Narragansett Indians to Christianity, along with the Jews and the “Turks”—Muslims.).
            Oh, and Franklin, through his “Poor Richard,” was also the first Advice Columnist, writing long before Ann Landers or Dear Abby. I queried my students, and they had heard of neither, but they did admit to consulting the Web for solutions regarding etiquette and other conundrums of Modern Life.
            We Americans of today are faced with a dilemma: whom shall we follow: the hellbent Edwards (who did turn out to be a quasi-scientist, in his ill-fated smallpox vaccine experiment, leading to his own early death), or the long-lived, patient, welcoming Franklin? For me, the choice is clear.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Stones & Souls: What is the Holy? Is It the Sacred Object or Place Itself-- Or Something More?

            August, 1971, Jerusalem’s Old City: the day was steaming hot, I recall. I weighed 240 pounds, gained mainly by stuffing my face while sitting in front of the TV for a full month prior to flying to Israel for My Junior College Year Abroad. The Israeli counselors had brought us—young Jews, from all over the world, students at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, most of us visiting Israel for the first time—to Jerusalem, to the Timeless, Eternal City, there to wander through the Arab Shuk, the Ancient Market, redolent with odors of fresh cheese and old leather, with our Muslim cousins eyeing us suspiciously from within their tiny shops.
            Finally, we climbed a flight of stone steps, made a right turn, and entered a brand-new, open-air plaza, made up of brown-yellow-gold pavement carved from the ubiquitous Jerusalem stone—pavement laid only since the triumphant liberation of the Old City by the valiant Israeli paratroops just four short years before, when their precious (and mainly secular) blood literally flowed in the streets, fighting a stubborn Arab Legion, inch by bloody inch, mile by bloody mile, house by house, street by street. Most of my travel partners, young Jews from Argentina, New Zealand, England, South Africa, and Brooklyn, hurried down the plaza steps to approach the Wall—slowly, slowly, as though its massive, historical, spiritual bulk might suddenly arise into the very Heavens—and reverently kiss its sacred stones.
            I hung back, hot, irritated, bone-tired, physically exhausted from a month of sitting on my parents’ couch and eating chips and dip while watching crappy rerun programs on TV. Sweat coursed down my brow, most of it soaking into the heavy, dark-blue denim bush hat I had bought for this Trip of a Lifetime, the Yeshiva boy come to the Land of His Forefathers and Foremothers, the very dust of which, I recalled, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi (c.1075-1141) told us, was holy. Indeed, that poet, philosopher and martyr (I had written a paper about his turgid and convoluted lifework, The Kuzari, for a course in Jewish Medieval Philosophy which, true to its title, was dank, moldy-smelling, and labyrinthine) was said to have given out his last drop of strength kneeling before the sacred stones of the Wall, preparing to kiss it, when an Arab horseman rode up and crushed the hapless rabbi-philosopher beneath the hooves of his mount. (I found out later that this was mere legend, and the luckless wanderer-poet had died in Egypt, far away from his much-yearned-for destination.)
            The murmurs of the devout—black-clad rabbis, swaying Chasidim, perambulating beggars, shorts-clad tourists, and bewigged balebusteh-housewives—reached my ears. An unforgiving Zionist sun beat down upon my head;  I squinted through the drops of perspiration, but saw no Holy Spirit descending upon the Wall; I thought of Jonah and his gourd vine.
And God said to Jonah, “Are thou greatly angry for losing the shade of the gourd?
            And Jonah said, “I am greatly angry, so much so, that I could die.”
“So that’s the Wall,” I remember thinking, “God! I need a Coke.”
            After drinking off most of the cooling drink in one gulp, I schlepped my corpulent self to the Wall, where I said a few prayers and tore a piece of paper out of my wallet-miscellany, scribbled a few lines in my Hebrew Schoolboy’s patois, and stuffed it into a high, hard-to-reach crack. I certainly did not wish for any other pilgrim to extract and read my mail to God—I had heard stories of callous Jerusalem schoolboys who stole it, for a joke.
            And so I met, and so I left, the Wall.
            Months later, things were different. I had lost weight—mainly through lack of access to food: my mother’s well-stocked fridge was half-a-world away, and the university cafeteria, like most university cafeterias, sold indescribable agglomerations of (kosher) food which did odd things to my Diasporic tummy, and I became a prodigious walker. I shuttled between my university and Jerusalem on different weekends, visiting either friends who were attending Hebrew University (I had not chosen that school, believing it to be too big and impersonal for my tastes) or one of the downtown yeshivote. When spending Shabbat at the latter school, a typical Saturday-night exchange with my fellow yeshiva bochrim (scholars) went something like this:
Me: What do you guys want to do now that Shabbat is over?
            My friends: Let’s go daven at the Kotel/Wall.
            Me: Oh, c’mon, Guys, it’s Saturday night. Let’s do something special.
            They: OK, let’s go out to get a falafel, and then go daven at the Wall.
            Me: Guys, listen to me. Saturday night. Can’t we do something really, REALLY special?
            They: OK, this is what we’ll do, Dave. First, we’ll go to a movie. Next, we’ll get a falafel. And last, we’ll go daven at the Wall.

            And that is what we always ended up doing. Being a regular at the Wall made it—how can I explain?—less and less of a Spiritual Moment for me, and more like an Outdoor Synagogue, where there was never a problem finding a minyan. None of us realized, or cared, that the Wall had become an Orthodox shul with 24/7 minyanim. Hey, we were Orthodox, and men, so who cared?
            My greatest sense of holiness at the Wall came, not from its stones itself, but from a memory that is very rare and precious to me. My parents, who never traveled—not even to the extent of going out to see a movie or show together (well, they did go out once or twice, but Dad was never eager to socialize, except where His Shul Buddies were concerned, and where Mom was the Sisterhood President-for-Life), came to Israel the year I was abroad; I’m happy that they made the trip, if only to see me, because it kind of changed their lives.
            My parents and I never talked about faith. My father, an industrial chemist, did not puzzle about God. Saul Mark, a man of science who knew that, if he added chemical A to chemicals B and C, he would always get the same result, was happy to know Which Prayers to read on What Holiday. I used to say that he knew Practical Religion, while I dealt with the Why; that is, Theoretical Religion. He could tell you What Time to Light Candles; I could tell you Why to Do It. Even when I stopped being Orthodox and started to lean Conservative, he never got angry about it—it was a bittersweet adjustment for the two of us.
            But that night, the night I took my parents to the Wall, I will always remember. It was spring; they had come in March, just about the time that the weather in Jerusalem starts to warm up, and the spring rains come, the ones that are supposed to moisten the earth, for the spring planting—that was the sole bit of agricultural information I ever learned from the Siddur, the prayerbook.
            My parents and I waited until long after Shabbat—under no circumstances would my Dad ever, ever drive on Shabbos; he was that sort of Orthodox Jew, and it didn’t matter where he was—and took a cab straight down to the Wall Plaza. There were high-arc-sodium spotlights all around the open space, reflecting off the rain-puddles in the stone pavement, and the Wall gleaming in the middle of the plaza, like a great golden jewel—a topaz, almost.
            My parents had never seen it; for me, it was like an old friend. They got out of the cab, slowly, slowly, while I paid the driver, and he drove off. We three walked together toward the Wall. It was late at night by the time we got there; no one else was there, except, perhaps a stray davener or two, and the requisite, bored-looking soldiers and cops.
            It was the same stones, the same pile of rock standing, layer upon layer, agleam in the night, with a big old Jerusalem moon above, and lights glinting from the Old City and far off and away to Jordan.
            My Mom started to cry, and Dad’s shoulders began to shake, which amazed me: he was never much of a crier. I put my arms around them: the son, the only son, who had flown off to Israel, their Holy Land, their Promised Land, the Land that they faced when they davened, in Rabbi N.’s little old shul, there on Henry Street, in the Old Lower East Side. And we stood there together, crying, laughing, and davening.
            I’m not altogether sure what happened next. But this is my point—there always has to be a point: the stones are not what Possesses the Holiness. No: sorry, R’ Yehuda HaLevi. The people who daven, who pray, are the ones who bring the Holiness with them, when they come in, and when they depart. Without this Holiness, without this feeling—whether at the Wall, or in a shul, or when the person carrying the Torah, the Sacred Scroll, carries it around—it is the people kissing the Torah who are the Holy Ones. The Scroll by itself—we are the Ones who make it holy. I am saying this with all the Love and Respect for Tradition that I can muster, for all the years of studying Torah and Judaism and Israel that I can bring.
            It is the People who are Holy, not the Places or Objects. When we speak of Sacred Space, it is We who bring it, who make it Sacred. We bring the Torah; we make God come down and Light the Sacred Fire that Consumes the Offering. And what is the Offering We Bring? It is the Heart; God wants the Heart.
And so may it continue; so may it continue, from this time forth and forever.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vayikra: Man & the Tempter; or, The True Meaning of Sacrifice

“And God called to Moses…. ‘A man who shall bring near of you an offering to God from the beast….’”

—Lev. 1:2 (Adapted from Chasidic Teaching of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the First Lubavitcher Rebbe)

            Call me the Tempter. Most Jews know me as the Yetzer Ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination. I am, I can modestly say, the single cause of more evil in the world since Time began; I inspired the Serpent in the Garden, caused Cain to murder Abel; I am the hair in your soup, the driver who steals your parking spot, the jock who asks the Girl of Your Dreams to the Prom a second before you get up your nerve.
            Let me also say what I am not: I am not Satan; no, I am not the Devil; there is no supernatural or metaphysical Devil in the Jewish universe or theological worldview. Satan is not an independent spirit, operating independently of God, working for Evil as God works for Good. To say or believe so would be Dualism, such as the ancient Persians believed in their Zoroastrian religion—and don’t forget that the Jews lived and flourished in Persia from the Assyrian Conquest of the Ten Northernmost Tribes in 722 BCE to fewer than ten thousand pitiful stragglers in the Iranian slave state of the present day. No: Satan is the Prosecuting Attorney in the Heavenly Court, or, at best, the Cosmic Troublemaker in that Morality Play called the Book of Job, where he must beg God’s permission before tormenting the eponymous heroic victim.  
            On a national scale, I cause race hatred. I am Jealousy personified, Negative Stereotypes embodied. I shy away from taking people as individuals; why bother, when it’s so easy to shrill, “All the members of This Racial Group are Criminals; all who belong to That Ethnicity are Greedy; Your Next-Door Neighbor is a Drunkard and a Slob—only because his skin-color is different”? It’s always tempting for you Mortals to hide behind a Stereotype (“Why bother? She’s just a--“) rather than extend yourselves to Shake Hands with a Stranger; to group everyone under one heading, rather than take the time and trouble to meet, get acquainted with, and actually Befriend the Person behind the Mask.
            Internationally, every time, place, country, and century have been my playground. I thrust the Jews out of Spain before the Inquisition's wrath, the Irish out of Ireland for lack of either potatoes or English sympathy (in time to escape to America and see signs in shop-windows reading, "No Irish Need Apply"), the Armenians into the Turkish Killing-Grounds; I pulled the rifle triggers when American boys massacred Filipino women and children in 1902 in the name of colonial imperialism (water-boarding was an American invention); I rode with Richard Lionheart when he attacked Saladin in 1191, a fight in the Holy City between Christian and Muslim, in Jerusalem’s timeless streets. I am the One who blends faith, economics, greed, and power into a heady, bloody broth in which thousands of innocents drown. I am at your elbow even now; I am in the furrows of your brain as you read this. I am a hatred and suspicion as old as Time.
            Can you prevent my ravages, O Mortal, you who claim to be made in the Image of the God you adore so much? There is but one cure: to make an Offering—not of yourself; enough of your kind have died for my Cause and in my Name. No: there is but one cure—to make an Offering, a Sacrifice—of your Animal-Self, the part of you which demands, requires, insists upon More: more lives, more land, more power.
There is the Yetser Ha-Tov, the Good Inclination. It is content to Live with Less, to Divide and Share; to look into the eyes of a stranger and see, therein, the Image of God in whose spirit we are all awfully, wonderfully made. One warning, though: do so quickly. It is so much easier to hate, to fall back upon old beliefs and lies and stereotypes.
            Hold back your Evil, and embrace your Good. Kill off your Animal Self, your Greed and Selfishness, by sacrificing it as an Offering to your God, who forgives us our limitations; only God can see us in our weaknesses and backsliding, and love us still. Let us work for our souls’ sakes, so that all the clay in us, all the faults in us, may yield to our Inner Light—let the Fire on High-Priest Aaron’s Altar be nothing but Light! Nothing but Light!