Tuesday, December 31, 2013

MLK and a 19th-century rebbetzin teach us about confidence (Torah portion of Bo)

When I was in rabbinical school, I once attended a leadership training seminar in which all those who attended had to share one of their anxieties about assuming a position of  communal leadership.  When it was my turn, I mentioned that one of the things about which I was apprehensive was that it seems to me that religious leaders need to cultivate a charismatic speaking style and stage presence, and that was something that I thought did not come naturally to me.

Later on, in the presentation, the speaker addressed my concern and told us a story that was very new and surprising to me.  He said:  Everyone agrees that one of the greatest orators and leaders of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King.  But when Martin Luther King was a seminary student, he was preoccupied by what he perceived as a lack of dynamism in his speaking style.  He felt that he had a lot of ideas -- and a lot of leadership potential -- but he was unsure whether he would be able to transmit his message effectively enough to move people.  So one of his professors assigned him and some of his classmates to travel around to various small churches, and to get some experience in preaching on a regular basis.  Martin Luther King would later credit this experience as what truly taught him how to be a preacher and how to motivate a room of people.  He would say that his speaking style never came fully naturally to him; he always had to work at it.  But he knew that, if he wanted to accomplish the things that he felt God meant for him to accomplish, he would have to hone this skill, and he did.

[NOTE: Whereas this is the way that the story was relayed to me, I have since learned from Taylor Branch's masterful biography of Martin Luther King, Parting the Waters, that even though King wanted to expand his repertoire of speaking styles, he arrived to the seminary as an already talented orator, and he won several awards in preaching while a seminary student. He was also known in his college and seminary years as a person full of confidence.]

This story was stunning to me because I never would have imagined that great oratory skill didn’t come naturally to Martin Luther King.  And this story was important for me to help me to gain confidence in public speaking - something that I knew that, as a rabbi, I’d be called upon to do from time to time.

We find a similar insight at the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Bo, from the book of Exodus.  Our Torah portions are usually after the first significant word in the first verse of the Torah reading.  The Torah portion of Bo begins with the words:  vayomer adonai el moshe: bo el par’oh.  This is usually translated as:  “And God spoke to Moses and said:  Go to Pharaoh…[to tell him that if he doesn't let the Israelites go free, Egypt will be afflicted with another plague].”   The Hebrew word "Bo" is translated as the English word "go."  This is the way it is translated in just about every English version I have ever seen.

But there's one problem. The Hebrew word "bo" doesn't mean "go."  In fact, it means the opposite:  it means "come."  If God really wanted to say "go to Pharaoh," God would have said lech el par’oh.  The verse actually means, “come to Pharaoh.”  The difference in meaning is subtle -- but Jews have a long tradition of reading the Torah with a subtle eye.  What could this somewhat peculiar construction mean to us?

My favorite explanation for this peculiarity is given by the Rebbetzin Feige Levin of Bendin.  She was the daughter of the Hasidic master known as the Sefas Emes, who was a prominent Torah commentator in the late 19th century.  (It's exciting and somewhat unusual to find an early example of a woman in a traditional community who was a teacher of Torah and whose interpretations of the Torah were incorporated into traditional Jewish texts.  In her case, her interpretations are recorded in the writings of her husband, Hanoch Tzvi of Bendin, in his work called Yechahen Pe’er  יכהן פאר.)

According to Rebbetzin Feige Levin, God knew that appearing before Pharaoh was an exceptionally difficult task for Moses.  We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses had a speech impediment, and speaking in public was something that agonized him and made him very anxious.   In addition, it is presumably very difficult to appear before a major world leader and make a very unpopular request.  So Moses probably dreaded this task of pleading with Pharaoh.  But it was something that needed to be done, if Moses was to liberate his people from slavery.  For this reason, God says Bo el par’oh -  "Come to Pharaoh" - because the implication is "Come WITH ME to Pharaoh."
God says, "I know this is a very difficult thing for you to do.  I know it's something that makes you anxious and apprehensive.  But you should know that you're not going alone. Come with Me to Pharaoh, and I will be beside you the whole time, supporting you -- because this is the task to which I have assigned you."

Rebbetzin Feyge Levin and Martin Luther King both remind us that the things that God intends us to accomplish in our lives are very rarely the things that come most easily for us.  In fact, they are usually the things accompanied by maximum struggle and self-doubt.  One of the roles God plays in our lives is as the force that stands by our side and gives us the confidence and strength necessary to do the difficult things we know we ought to do, so we can best grow into the roles for which we are intended.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The early life of a mystery religious leader (Torah portion of Shemot)

Let me tell you a story about the early life of one of the most significant religious leaders in world history - someone who was effectively a founder of one of our world’s major religious traditions.

At the beginning of this story, this future religious leader is growing up in a palace, living a life of spectacular material comforts:  a life very different from the spiritual path that he would later help to chart for millions of people.  As a member of the king’s family, he has plenty of whatever he wanted.  He is certainly unaware of any suffering or poverty that existed outside the palace’s walls.

The king does his best to insulate him from witnessing any pain, any injustice, any suffering.  But one day he does venture out of the palace walls.  And what he sees there challenges him deeply - and changes him forever.  After seeing the terrible suffering that goes on outside the walls of the palace, and after beginning to identify with those who were suffering, he knows he can no longer return to the palace.  He renounces his role as a member of the ruling family and begins his role as a spiritual leader - and as a liberator, with the goal of liberating those who were suffering.

If you have been reading carefully, you know who I have been describing.  It’s obvious, isn’t it? --- well, maybe not.  It could be Moses, whose early life is described in this week’s Torah portion of Shemot.  But it also could be, surprisingly enough, the life of Gautama Buddha -- who certainly also qualifies as one of the world's most important religious leaders, and is effectively the founder of Buddhism (just as you can make a case that Moses was a founder of the Jewish people).

When I first studied about Buddhism in college, I was struck by how similar the story of Buddha’s early life seemed to the story of Moses.  But, of course, with some important differences.

Buddha was the son of a king, and grew up in the palace.  His father had heard a prophesy that if his son experienced any suffering, he would discard his opportunity to be a ruler and instead become a religious leader.  And, in fact, one day Buddha ventures out of the palace walls and sees -- all for the first time - a poor man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk.  This experience first makes him aware of how distant his existence in the palace had been from your typical human existence.  He becomes driven to find the way to relieve humanity of that suffering.  Those who have studied Buddhism know that his way is recognizing that all temporal phenomena are illusion, and one can learn to transcend one’s inevitable suffering by realizing that it is not part of one’s ultimate reality.  (That’s a vast oversimplification, but it will have to do for now.)

So how is the story of Moses similar and different?  Moses isn’t actually the son of the Pharaoh, but he is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised in the palace.  While the Torah doesn’t tell us anything much about Moses’ early life in the palace, there is a well-known Midrash -- a traditional Jewish story, thousands of years old, based on the Torah -- which says that Pharaoh heard a prophesy that some day in the future, Moses would take Pharaoh’s empire away from him. Which -- as you can imagine -- makes Pharaoh a little bit wary.  (Exodus Rabbah 1:26)

Moses ventures outside of the palace walls, and for the first time, he sees the injustice of slavery:  he sees an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses sees that there is no one around to come to the aid of the Hebrew slave, so he strikes the taskmaster - and the taskmaster dies.  Moses realizes he is now a wanted man who must flee Egypt.  But before the chapter is over, Moses intervenes in two more conflicts - in a conflict between two Hebrew slaves who are arguing, and in a conflict between the seven daughters of Jethro and some aggressive shepherds that are molesting them.  In each encounter, Moses comes to the aid of the underdog in the conflict.

What are we supposed to make of the dramatic similarities between these two stories?  First, it is not surprising for great religious traditions to share certain ideas.  It’s the ‘great minds think alike’ principle: there’s something universally powerful about the idea of a great religious leader growing up in circumstances of power and plenty and then throwing it all away for a chance to do something that REALLY matters.

But then again, it’s the differences in the stories which help to highlight what is most distinctive about each religious tradition. The essential difference is in the kind of liberation that each leader seeks to achieve. Buddha’s experience taught him that there must be a way for every human being to transcend his or her circumstances, no matter how terrible they are.  But it’s primarily an otherworldly liberation.  We liberate ourselves from the world by recognizing that all temporal phenomena are an illusion. 

Whereas when Moses sees injustice, he does not try to transcend it or to understand it as illusion -- he simply tries to overcome it. He acts - with force if necessary; with violence if necessary.  It is no surprise that he becomes the principle leader of a religious tradition that values spiritual life, but places its emphasis on the here and now and pictures and strives towards a world that is free of injustice.

As a religious pluralist, I am glad that our world includes both the religious paths of Buddhism and Judaism (as well as many other paths).  I can learn much wisdom from Buddhism, even as Judaism is my chosen path and tradition.  On this particular issue, though, I find myself more aligned with the world-engaging approach of Judaism than with the world-transcending approach of Buddhism. 

According to stereotype, Jews are uptight while Buddhists are relaxed.  Like all stereotypes, of course it's not really true.  But I appreciate the example of Moses as a person who will not rest or relax in the face of injustice.  Injustice spurs him to be maximally engaged with the physical world, rather than to withdraw from the physical world.  To paraphrase the words of the great 19th century Jewish sage Rabbi Israel Salanter:  There are some people who think that spirituality is being concerned with the welfare of other people’s souls. But in Judaism,   spirituality is being concerned with the welfare of your OWN soul - and the welfare of other people’s bodies.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Joseph's story, and Nelson Mandela's story: Parashat Vayyigash

Life imitates Torah: As we reach the climax of the Joseph story this shabbat in the Torah portion of Vayyigash, we think of another man who, like Joseph, knew from an early age that he was destined for something special. Like Joseph, he spent many years in prison separated from his family. Like Joseph, it was in prison that he developed the skills -- especially the ability to listen -- that would later make him a great leader. Like Joseph, he had the fortitude to forgive those who were responsible for his imprisonment and to achieve reconciliation with them. Like Joseph, once regarded as part of a despise minority, he ascended to national leadership. Like Joseph, as a national leader he was not without controversy, but he was able to steer his country through a crisis that, without his wise stewardship, could have led to complete destruction. And like Joseph, he lived long enough to see so many of his dreams come to fruition. Yehi zichro baruch - may the memory of Nelson Mandela be for a blessing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Statement in support of USH application for GreenFaith Certification

Our congregation is excited to apply for participation in the Greenfaith Certification Program.  This program will help us as a congregation to express our commitment to the protection of our environment -- a commitment we share with our neighbors of many different faiths, and that has deep roots in our own Jewish tradition.

One of the central themes of Jewish spirituality is our gratitude for and appreciation of the natural world.  This theme is expressed repeatedly in the Psalms, which encourage us to take nothing in the natural world for granted.  One of the most poignant passages in the Midrash imagines God taking Adam on a tour of the beauty of the natural world and warning him, “If you destroy it, there will be no one to come after you to repair it.”  (Kohelet Rabbah 9)   The Talmud’s famous story of an old man planting a carob tree whose fruit he knows he will never see  reminds us that Jewish tradition has always prioritized making thoughtful decisions to ensure that future generations will experience the blessings that we have experienced.  (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)

Our congregation strives to incorporate environmental consciousness in all of our activities and decisions, from our decisions about school and office supplies, to our building maintenance and renovation decisions, to our use of energy and natural resources.  The Greenfaith Certification Program will help us to be ever more thoughtful about our community’s environmental impact and the messages we transmit about the environment to children and adults.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Reflections from the General Assembly in Jerusalem: Politics, Marriage, Kotel

What a wonderful experience it has been at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly - one of the largest annual gatherings of American Jewish communal leaders!  This gathering takes place in Jerusalem once every five years (and takes place at a variety of American cities on the remaining years).  It is one of the more 'high-power' conferences of the Jewish world, and this year’s speaker list reflected this: we heard from Prime Minister Netanyahu; President Shimon Peres; Finance Minister Yair Lapid; Labor opposition leader Sheli Yachimovich; and a wide variety of other Knesset members and Israeli and American civic and business leaders.

This was my first effort at live-tweeting a conference. I admire those who can do it fluently, but I found it difficult and distracting. I much prefer to sum up my thoughts after the fact.  So here are some observations:

International Politics.  
Netanyahu’s speech became a newsworthy event because he used it to respond to the United States over the nuclear Iran issue.  Those with more political sophistication than I have analyzed the speech already. I will make just two observations:
  • While Netanyahu spent more time discussing Iran, he also addressed the Palestinian issue and the peace process.  He expressed unambiguous support for a Palestinian state living alongside Israel - but unlike President Shimon Peres who spoke the following day, who said that such a scenario was the “only”” way to achieve peace, Netanyahu seemed skeptical about whether an agreement would be reached -- and, in his view, whether the Palestinians would make the hard compromises necessary and whether they would take steps to educate their people about coexistence.
  • Judging from the audience reaction, to Netanyahu’s speech and all the speeches of the government officials::  Iran, and religious pluralism issues, are the major issues that animated this American crowd.  Issues related to the Palestinians did not garner nearly as much applause.   

Religious pluralism issues #1:  marriage and divorce   
I attended two fascinating panels on religion and state issues in Israel. The first was on the more weighty issue of freedom of marriage.  With marriage and divorce in the hands of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, there are many categories of people who are not permitted to get married in Israel (e.g. Couples that include a Jew and a non-Jew, or couples including someone whose Jewish status is suspect, whether because of a non-Orthodox conversion - or even an unauthorized Orthodox conversion - or simply a failure to fully document one’s Jewish lineage to the satisfaction of the Rabbinate).  Additionally, there are plenty of couples who could get married by the Chief Rabbinate but are simply not inclined to, because Judaism as presented by the Chief Rabbinate is so distant from how they live their lives.  Currently, such couples can get married abroad, and the marriage is recognized when the couple re-enters Israel.  But there is no legal way for them to get married on Israeli soil without the participation of an Orthodox rabbi.  And this creates the irony that Israel is the only democracy to impose such severe restrictions like this on whom one can marry and how.  (See http://marriage.hiddush.org/.  Note that this statement is with the exception of same-sex marriage, which is currently legal in a relatively small number of countries.)   One member of the panel, Rabbi Uri Regev, runs an organization called Hiddush that conducted a poll that reveals that solid majorities of Israelis of almost all political persuasions support “marriage freedom” (i.e. the possibility of civil marriage outside of the domain of the religious authorities) in Israel - usually by very significant majorities. (The exception is voters for haredi parties - of whom only 10% support marriage freedom - actually in my opinion a surprisingly large number.  I might have guessed that the number would be 0%.  See https://www.dropbox.com/s/kkhueoxvgffsgnq/2013%20Religion%20and%20State%20Index%20Full%20Report%20Second%20Edition.pdf, p. 19.)

The panel also included one of the first openly gay members of the Israeli Knesset, together with a religiously observant law professor who specializes in human rights law, and a couple that has been unable to marry through the Chief Rabbinate because the wife's mother had had a conservative conversion that was not recognized.  Not surprisingly, all these panelists were strong supporters of marriage freedom.

There was only one person on this panel who did support the status quo: the Haredi rabbi of Dimona. To his credit, he arrived knowing he was facing a hostile panel and a hostile audience, and he came anyway and was as gracious as he could be under the circumstances. But his strategies were to minimize the harm that such policies cause for people, and to defend the policies as in the interests of the Jewish people even when they do cause harm to individuals.  I wish the panel had included some more voices from the middle of the spectrum, such as orthodox non-haredi voices who defend the status quo but encourage serious reforms to it.

A most troubling statistic:  a Bar Ilan poll reveals that, because of inequalities in Jewish divorce law that give an advantage to the husband, in ⅓ of divorce cases in Israel the husband uses this advantage to extort something from the wife.  And among religious couples, this percentage increases to ½.  (see http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4400770,00.html.)   I wish the rabbi on the panel had responded to this troubling statistic.  (Though my guess is that he probably would have said that he doesn’t believe it.)

Religious pluralism issues #2:  The Kotel
Another panel at which sparks flew was about women’s rights at the Kotel - the Western Wall.  Panelists included Anat Hoffman, founder of the Women of the Wall organization that has been holding monthly women’s services at the Kotel, often in defiance of Israeli law, as well as Ronit Peskin, founder of a new Orthodox organization called Women For the Wall that opposes Women At the Wall.  See this account of the panel:  http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.557552.  When video is available, I would recommend it as a great way to see the various sides of the issue.

I thought the wisest comment came from Jewish Agency President Natan Sharansky, who had been entrusted by the Israeli government with finding a solution to this issue that would satisfy everyone.  He noted that the Kotel is unusual in that it is simultaneously Israel’s most important national symbol, and the Jewish people’s most important religious site.  Were it only a national symbol, no one would want to impose religious restrictions on what happens there.  Were it only a religious site and not a national symbol, it is likely that no one would challenge the authority of those who set religious policies there.  It is this confluence of religious and national significance that gives rise to the challenge of making the Kotel a place where everyone can be comfortable.

The GA concluding ceremony is taking place at the Kotel later today, in a demonstration that the issue of access for all Jews to the Kotel is an issue that really animates American Jewry (though I am not sure how much this issue truly animates a large segment of Israeli Jewry).

More updates to come!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"What does this service mean to you?" - Rosh HaShanah 2nd day sermon, 2013

No one would ever think of simply not inviting him.

And to his credit, he always shows up, no matter how much complaining he may do once he has arrived.

I’m talking, of course, of one of the most important mythical personalities of the Jewish holiday cycle.  He loves to push our buttons. But you couldn’t imagine a Passover seder without him and his provocative questions.  And in fact, I am quite confident that he is here in the synagogue today -
and how we decide to relate to him will have a dramatic effect on the Jewish future.

I’m speaking, of course, of the רשע - the Wicked Son, one of the four sons described by the Passover Haggadah.

I know some of you are thinking:  is the rabbi confused?  I knew Rosh HaShanah is early this year, but is Passover also early this year?! Quite THIS early?!   (Actually, this is not the first time that I have discussed Passover during a Rosh haShanah sermon. Some of you may remember several years ago when shortly before Rosh HaShanah I was looking for a book in the library and inadvertently found a long-lost Afikoman.)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"We are liquid" - Rosh HaShanah evening sermon 5774 / 2013

How can a physics experiment from the 1930's help us prepare for the new year?

Welcome to the most unusually timed Jewish year that many of us will ever experience!  If you are here, that means that you did something a little unusual - you made your plans for Rosh HaShanah even before Labor Day Weekend.  This year, we can expect Yom Kippur to fall in the first half of September, Sukkot and Simhat Torah will be over before the end of September, and Hanukkah will start on Thanksgiving Eve.  

It just seems like everything is happening much sooner than we’re accustomed to.  I know I’ve been told that time speeds up as you get older, but this is ridiculous.

I’m not the first person to notice this.  The world’s very best writer about sports ever -- the late Bart Giamatti, president of Yale University and then Major League Baseball Commissioner, once wrote:  “Somehow, the summer seemed to slip by faster this time. Maybe it wasn’t this summer, but all the summers that [in this summer] …. slipped by so fast. There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it.”

So - with a perception that, for all of us, our experience of the passage of time is accelerating, there is a news story that caught my eye earlier this summer that seems emblematic for the cusp of this new year. This is the story of the longest-running science experiment in the history of scientific inquiry.  Nearly 80 years ago, a physicist at the University of Queensland, in Australia, was studying how some substances which we think of as solids are actually liquids -- that flow very very slowly.  And he said - one example of this is asphalt, or tar pitch.  When it’s hardened, you can strike it with a hammer and it will shatter, as a solid would.  But, he said, it’s actually a very very very slow-flowing liquid, and he devised an experiment to demonstrate this.  He set some pitch in a funnel, put the end of the funnel in a beaker, and set it on a shelf -- to wait.  And the weeks passed by - and the months - and the years - and about 15 years after this experiment had been set up, it became clear that he was right - the pitch was slowly, very slowly, flowing from the funnel into the beaker - approximately one drop every 10 to 15 years.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Anti-Ashamnu (To be sung to the tune of "Ashamnu")

The Anti-Ashamnu
(To be sung to the tune of "Ashamnu")

ai ai ai ai ai ai ai ….....

Not my fault
It wasn’t me
It wasn’t so bad
He deserved it

ai ai ai ai ai ai ai ….....

Everyone was doing it
It didn’t hurt anybody
Get over it already
You’re too sensitive

ai ai ai ai ai ai ai ….....

It’s just the way I am
Nobody’s perfect
I had to 
I needed to
I couldn’t pass it up
Think of everything really good that I do
I had the best of intentions
It’s not nearly as bad 
as what a lot of other people 
get away with every day

ai ai ai ai ai ai ai ….....

Just look at it from my perspective
Think of everything I’ve gone through
I never claimed to be a saint
Why won’t you
Forgive me 

(note to the perplexed: "Ashamnu" (mp3) is an alphabetical confessional prayer for Yom Kippur, in which we declare, "We are guilty, We have betrayed; We have stolen; We have spoken maliciously; etc. etc. etc." - one declaration of guilt for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Singing Ashamnu repeatedly on Yom Kippur functions as a training program for us to admit our mistakes - because otherwise, most of us would reflexively respond with evasions of guilt such as those in the "anti-Ashamnu," above, that I shared with my congregation last Yom Kippur.)

Shanah tovah!


On a related note, here's a great High Holy Days video from Ikar LA:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Judaism's wisest spiritual tradition?

Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg’s sermon on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah 5765 (2004)           
            Travel back in time with me - back to the year 1905, when this congregation was founded.  Travel with me to a community of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, such as Hoboken NJ.  Follow me into one of hundreds of Jewish restaurants and cafes throughout the New York area.
            We see a group of a number of men and women in their 20’s, dressed in fashionable clothing of the early 20th century in the United States. But they are surrounding one man of the same age, who looks like he just got off of the boat from Europe.  He’s wearing an overcoat, and a hat, and he has an untrimmed beard.  As you get closer, you overhear parts of the conversation:  indeed, this man DID just get off the boat, and he is the cousin of one of the other, more American-looking men, who is introducing him to everyone else.  All the others address the new immigrant in English, even though they know that he could not possibly understand any English.  But from their accents, you can tell that these men and women are ALSO new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Perhaps they arrived just a few months ago, or a year ago at most.
            One of them picks up the hat from the head of the newest immigrant, says in English “what a nice hat!” - and passes it around to the others, who examine it, giggling.  And now the waiter comes over, bringing a glass of tea, and sets it in front of the newest immigrant.  You presume that his cousin must have ordered it for him. 
            The newest immigrant sits, apparently perplexed about something.  The others say to him, “what are you waiting for?  There’s your tea!  Enjoy!”
            And the newet immigrant says, in an uncomfortable voice, “Anschuldik.  Mein kappel.  Ich darf mein kappel.            And the others say, “Oh!  Yes!  His hat!  He won’t eat his food unless he has his hat!  Oh, yes!  SO let’s give him back his hat!”  And one of them presents his hat to him, and makes a broad gesture of placing it gently on his head - but a little over to one side.
            And the newest immigrant then picks up his glass of tea, and says:  Baruch ato adenoy eloyheinu melech hoolam, she-hokol nih'yeh bidvaro.
            And then all the other young men and women begin to applaud - as if they have just seen a brilliant comedic performance.

            I’ve just described a scene from the movie “Hester Street,” one of the classic films about the experience of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the last century. While, technically, the scene that I described is fictional, We know that similar scenes took place every day.  Historians tell us that a disproportionate number of those Jews who came to the United States came in part because they were eager to leave the trappings of Jewish religion behind in Europe.  They had such zeal to become Americans, that they sent an unambiguous message to the newest immigrants:  such traditional Jewish practices as wearing a head covering when you eat, or saying a blessing before you eat, were “Old world” customs, that would mark one indelibly as a “Greenhorn” - as someone who didn’t truly belong in the “New World.”
            But now let’s fast-forward to the early 21st century.   Let’s look at the great-grandchildren of those who greeted the new immigrant’s spiritual practices with such derision.  Perhaps one does transcendental meditation for a half hour every day.  Perhaps one does yoga.  Perhaps one one ties a red string around her wrist, and studies Kabbalah with Madonna.  Of course I have no desire to disparage any of these spiritual paths; different paths may work for different people.  (Then asgain, if you want to study Kabbalah, perhaps you shouldn’t do it with Madonna.)  But who knows if these descendants know just how much spiritual depth their ancestors threw overboard into New York Harbor on their way to a new world!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Two words for "husband": Haftarah Bamidbar

From the Shofar Newsletter May 2013
What’s the Hebrew word for ‘husband’?

Actually, you have two choices.  Both are in use in Hebrew today.  and both were used in the time of the bible.  The first word is ‘ba’al’.  If a woman in Israel today wants to refer to her husband, she might refer to him as ‘ba’ali’ - ‘my husband.’

But if you know Hebrew, you know that the same word ‘baal’ can mean ‘owner.’  For example, ‘ba’al ha-bayit’ means ‘home-owner’ or ‘master of the house.’  And more insidiously, the owner of a slave is also referred to in the bible as ‘baal’.

So you can see this term’s etymological origin.  It is a relic of a time when a woman’s relationship with her husband wasn’t that different from the relationship between a servant and master.  There are some people who won’t use the word baal on principle for this reason.  So what word would they use instead?  The word ‘ish’.  Most literally, ‘ish’ simply means ‘man’ - but there are some points in the bible where the word ‘ish’ also means ‘husband.’  Someone who wanted to say the words ‘my husband’ in Hebrew could also say ‘ishi,’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word for ‘my wife,’ which is ‘ishti.’  The words ‘ish’ and ‘ishah’, meaning ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ are etymologically egalitarian words, unlike the Hebrew word ‘ba’al,’ which establishes a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife.

When we think of the history of marriage in Jewish tradition - actually, when we think of the history of gender relations in Jewish tradition - there have been times when the predominant paradigm was the hierarchical relationship of ‘baal’ and ‘ishah,’ and other times when the predominant paradigm was the egalitarian relationship ‘ish’ and ‘ishah.’

Normally, I love to talk about how enlightened Jewish tradition has always been about gender relations and has been far ahead of its time in treating women with respect and honor.  But whereas it’s true that Jewish tradition was rather enlightened relative to many of its neighbors, it is sadly abundantly clear that women have been at a significant power disadvantage throughout much of Jewish history.  

One of the most uncomfortable demonstrations of this inequality comes in the haftarah portion from the book of Hosea that Jewish communities around the world read to accompany the Torah portion of Bamidbar (this year to be read on May 11).  In this passage, the prophet Hosea tries to express why God has been so angry at the people of Israel.  He uses the image of a husband whose wife had been unfaithful.  He says:  Isn’t this what you would expect when a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful?  Wouldn’t you expect him to “strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born; to make her like a wilderness, render her like desert land, and let her die of thirst -- to hedge up her roads with thorns and raise walls against her” (Hosea 2:5) -- ?  Hosea continues:  now we know why God is taking such violent anger towards us.  It is because we have been unfaithful, worshipping other gods, and God has responded exactly as we would expect any reasonable husband to respond to such infidelity.

This marriage metaphor is the central idea in the book of Hosea, and we presume that this metaphor resonated with his audience, who found such a violent response against a disobedient wife to be logical and justified.  While we have no data on the extent of domestic violence in the earliest years of our people, the existence of this metaphor in the Bible leads many scholars, including Naomi Graetz,
to the upsetting assumption that it was a phenomenon that was at least widely known, and probably widespread.

However, a few verses later, the book of Hosea includes a line that can only be understood by those who understand the contrast between the Hebrew words ish and ba’al (see above).  After God and Israel are reconciled again, God says, ‘tikre’i ishi, ve-lo tikre’i li od ba’ali.’  ‘It will happen soon that you will call me ‘ishi,’ ‘my husband,’ and you will no longer call me ‘ba’ali,’ ‘my master.’  (Hosea 2:18*)

Most biblical commentators, traditional and modern, understand Hosea’s word play to be a reference to the fact that many Israelites were worshipping one of the Canaanite gods whose name was Ba’al.  But I cannot help but read this line in the light of these two paradigms for a marital relationship -- the hierarchical paradigm of ‘ba’al’ and the egalitarian paradigm of ‘ish’.  God indicates that someday soon, the relationship between God and Israel will operate on the ‘ish’ paradigm - the paradigm of mutual respect rather than the paradigm of domination and hierarchy.  

Years ago I made a promise to a student of mine that whenever this troubling haftarah would be read, I would use it as an opportunity to call attention to relationship abuse in the Jewish community.  It is a horrific fact that too many marriages and relationships today, in the Jewish community and throughout the world, continue to operate on the ba’al paradigm, characterized by intimidation, control, and even physical violence.   (Of course both men and women can be victims of such abuse, and both men and women can be perpetrators, and such abuse can exist in relationships of all kinds.  But there is no question that centuries of institutionalized subjugation of women, in nearly every society around the globe, has exacerbated this problem.)

Whereas there’s a common perception that domestic violence is less common in the Jewish community -- the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out.  In fact, the stereotype is an example of widespread denial.  The rate of domestic abuse in the Jewish community is 15-25% of households -- the same as in the American population as a whole.

The Jewish world now devotes significant resources to this issue, with a number of organizations in our area and throughout the U.S. to support victims of domestic abuse, and hotlines, and shelters.  One such organization, the Rachel Coalition, is sponsored by our local Jewish Family Service.  (See www.rachelcoalition.org.)  But all these efforts at addressing the problem cannot be effective as long as an atmosphere of denial persists.

As the Jewish community reads from the book of Hosea this month, recalling uncomfortable moments in our pasts, may we be united not only in condemning domestic abuse in all of its forms, but also in looking forward to the realization of Hosea’s words:  ‘Ve-hayah bayom ha-hu, ne’um adonai, tikre’i ishi, ve-lo tikre’i li od ba’ali.’  ‘It will happen on that day, says Adonai, that you will call me ‘ishi,’ ‘my husband,’ and you will no longer call me ‘ba’ali,’ ‘my master.’  (Hosea 2:18*)

* NOTE: -- Some Christian Biblical versions have this verse as Hosea 2:16, because of differences in how the verses are divided.) 

*ADDED IN 2016: This powerful radio documentary, about one woman's experience with these issues, is very powerful: http://www.tabletmag.com/podcasts/204617/tanyas-story. Thankfully this is not the norm in any segment of the Jewish community, but neither is it as rare as it should be.