Monday, October 27, 2008

A Muse: Noah 2008

“Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they didn’t see their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘cursed be Canaan; the lowest slaves shall he be to his brothers.’” (Genesis 9: 20-25)

Reading this intriguing text one can’t help but wonder what really did happen between Noah and Ham, when Noah laid in his tent drunk? What did Ham do to deserve such a damning curse? From a superficial review of the text it appears that Ham not only saw his father’s nakedness, but that instead of covering him, he went out and told his brothers of the sorry state of their father.

This standard reading of the text is problematic because rather than answer the question it raises an additional one. If Ham’s sin was that he didn’t respond quickly enough in covering his father than why does verse 24 read “when Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him”? Why is there an emphasis on discovering what Ham did to Noah?

There is an interesting relationship between the story of the Flood and the incident in Sodom. Prior to the flood the text (Genesis 6: 5-7) relates that the “bnei elohim” were engaging in “deviant” sex with the daughters of humankind, (male on female). Prior to the incident of Sodom men were desirous of engaging the angels in “deviant” sex, (male on male) as well. After the flood there was a relationship between Noah and Ham (male on male); after Sodom there was too, a relationship between Lot and his two daughters (women on man). The analogy goes further. At the conclusion of the Deluge Noah becomes willfully inebriated, but at the conclusion of the Sodom episode, the daughters get their father drunk. Noah understood what ham did to him, but Lot has no idea. Because Noah knows, he curses Canaan, the son of Ham, but Lot not knowing what had occurred, doesn’t curse his daughter’s progeny. (Midrash Rabbah suggests that Lot knew what his eldest daughter had done and didn’t take steps to prevent a similar incident with his youngest daughter the following night.)

Midrash struggled with how to best present the perverse relationship between Noah and Ham, and so there are three alternative versions of what happened, ultimately the third version became the most acceptable: In the first version, midrash suggests that Ham castrated his father in order to insure that the inheritance will be split three ways instead of four ways or more. Our tradition had a difficult time with this version because it didn’t fit the image that the text had tried to create about Noah being an “ish tzaddik”, the righteous man of his generation. Being the righteous man of his generation he deserved better, so this version was replaced with one less ominous. In the second version Ham sodomized his father, which may be plausible in light of the biblical story of Lot and his daughters. Still, Noah, being the righteous man that he was, was deserving of better treatment and so the third version is the one that our sages were most comfortable with. This third and final version suggests that Ham saw his father’s nakedness, but was slow in reacting appropriately. Because our sages saw the entire episode as unfortunate and perhaps even bazaar they sought to adopt a veiled and vague version of what may have happened.

The obvious question that we ought to be raising is if it was such a disagreeable event why not censor it completely and excise it from our Masorah. Our tradition may have considered this option but reconsidered because with the convenience of Noah’s curse the sages were able to rationalize Israel’s conquering of Canaan centuries later.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lemon and the Left

Recently I attended the International Film Festival in Chicago and viewed an Israeli film entitled “The Lemon Tree”. (Not recommended.) I also just returned from Santiago, Chili where, among other things I visited the home of the late socialist, intellectual and statesman, Pablo Neruda. Both events, although ostensibly unrelated and separated by two weeks, impacted on me greatly, especially now during this election season.

Frankly, for the past several months, ever since the election season began to heat up I’ve been struggling with my conscience. For me, a capitalist and one deeply passionate about Israel’s future, McCain seems to be the logical candidate, as Bush appeared to be when he ran against Gore and Kerry in 2000 and 2004. One can never know how things would be today had Gore or Kerry been elected, and no one is satisfied with the current state of affairs. On the other hand, Obama apart from his charisma and gifted articulation happens to be exceptionally bright, promising change and offering hope for a better future.

And so I struggle and waffle between the two candidates. McCain is assuring in that his record, experience and commitment to American ideals gives me a level of comfort that Israel is won’t be “sold down the river”. He is also a capitalist and certainly doesn’t believe in a redistribution of wealth. Obama on the other hand, while young, bright and charismatic hasn’t convinced me of his commitment to Israel. He is also a social democrat influenced and bedazzled by the European model and believes in a redistribution of wealth. But he is so, so bright that I want to believe that he knows what’s best and will lead us out of the current chaos that we find ourselves in.

Because of my commitment to Israel, and my sense of capitalism, it would seem a foregone conclusion that McCain would be my candidate of choice. However, by voting McCain and aligning with the Conservative Right I am somehow resisting an impulse deep, deep in my soul that reminds me of the need to listen to our great prophets of social justice like Isaiah and Amos, to name just a few. Their deep and abiding concern was the welfare of the poor, those on the margins who for whatever reason didn’t manage to live with the dignity so very basic to every human being. By voting McCain do I ignore the teachings of our prophets? Or, to put it another way, will voting for Obama align me with the teachings and underpinnings that made Judaism timely, throughout the ages?

Visiting the home of Neruda put this into partial focus. His passion for socialism was overpowering. Those with whom he associated, his prose, poetry and service to his country were awesome and inspiring. Understanding Neruda within the context of his people’s struggle gave me a greater appreciation for Obama’s message. But what about Israel?

Like so many of us, Israel is a burning passion which influences not only what I think, but what I do. So how could I possibly vote for Obama not being convinced that he has the best interests of Israel at heart? On the other hand, viewing the Israel film “Lemon Tree” caused me to reconsider the place Israel has occupied in those decisions which might impact on her future. The PLO couldn’t have produced such an effective piece of propaganda. If Israel could submit a self hating propaganda piece as “the Lemon Tree” to the world to watch as entertainment at her own expense, then why should I filter my politics through the prism of Zionism?

Perhaps I ought to cast my lot with the “Rabbis for Obama” and align with the Jewish liberal community who see their choice through the lens of our socially conscious prophets who cried out for social justice and compassion for those with less.

If it were only that simple. There is this small voice within me that won’t let me cast that vote without a struggle with my conscience. But does it really matter how I vote? Here in Illinois it is a foregone conclusion anyway!

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Muse: B'reishit 2008

“Surely if you do right there is uplift, but if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, you can be its master. Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.” (Genesis 4:7-8)

Many of our commentaries have indicated concern with the punishment Cain received. In murdering Abel, Cain’s punishment is to roam the earth with the mark of Cain on him. These commentaries ask why wasn’t he killed. Certainly this would have been in keeping with the ethos of the biblical text that says “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

When dealing with the episode of Cain and Abel another question comes to mind. How is it that Cain was placed in this predicament in the first place? God, by electing to prefer one sacrifice to another set the sage by which jealousy and the cycle of vengeance would be put into motion. In choosing one gift to another God has presented to Cain the need to choose also and decide how to deal with the insult. How would his relationship with his brother now be defined and what would be his relationship with God?

The dilemma suggested in this text isn’t dissimilar to the story of Adam and Eve. By placing before them the temptation of eating from the forbidden, they were paced in a situation of making a choice that would forever impact on their relationship to each other and their relationship with God. In both cases, the outcomes suggest that their relationship with each other have been altered forever and their relationship with God is in need of repair.

The text apart from raising these questions teaches us a lesson. The text suggests that Cain reacted impulsively when killing Abel. God chose to punish him severely but not so harshly as to have him killed. By so doing God reveals that humankind is capable of rehabilitation, even when guilty of murder.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Outsourcing Shechita

On September Agudath Israel issued a statement in which it dismissed the Hechsher Tzedek of the Conservative Movement for two principle reasons:
• The Conservative Movement isn’t a “halacha respecting” movement and are attempting a redefinition of kashrut. In addition most of their members do not even keep kosher.
• Halachic tradition defines kashrut as relating to the ritual suitability of food and has nothing to do with ethics. Issues regarding the treatment of employees, safe standards, working conditions, etc. is relegated to “dina d’malchta dina”.
Neither of these reasons, however are weighty enough however to negate the potential power and strength of the Hechsher Tzedek.

The first argument isn’t worthy of responding to because it insults the integrity of the Conservative Movement, its leadership, rabbis, schools and devoted communities in America and Israel. Their rabbis and leadership are devoted to halachic standards. The fact that their interpretation may be different than an orthodox interpretation doesn’t mean that they don’t subscribe to halachic standards. Normative Judaism has always supported minority opinions with alternative interpretations. One just has to understand the Shulchan Aruch and the ongoing opinion differences between the mechaber and the Ramah, is but one example.

Agudath Israel claims that by introducing the Hechsher Tzedek there is an attempt at redefining what kosher is and what it means. Truth be told, halacha, even according to conservative standards has been organic and expanding as community needs change and grow. Halacha is nothing, if it doesn’t meet the challenges of those whom it claims to serve. Moreover by introducing the Hechsher Tzedek, a new definition of kosher isn’t being asserted, it is just identifying an area of weakness. This has been employed by the orthodox supervising agencies over the years. One example of this that comes to mind is the threat to remove a hechsher, if an institution does something deemed inappropriate or not in the spirit of normative orthodox behavior. For a hotel in Israel to publicly sponsor a New Years Eve party jeopardizes their kashrut certification. Based upon Agudath Israel’s declaration this ought to be considered inconsistent, since having a New Years’ eve party has nothing to do with the “ritual suitability” of the food.

Rather than condition the continued hechsher on ethical standards they rely upon “dina d’malchta dina”, the law of the kingdom is the law, which is disingenuous. According to that logic there ought not to be unions because the law of the kingdom is the law. Obviously, the “law” doesn’t cover every contingency and thus the need for unions to protect employees. The conundrum is that Agriprocessors wouldn’t allow union organizing, so that the workers would have the protection where the law falls short. To make matters worse, Agriprocessors employed labor lawyers to fight the union organizers and thus depress further the plight of the workers. “Dina d’malchta dina’s” application works when the intent is genuine. However when a Jewish organization is intent on evading the principles supported by “dina d’malchta dina” then there is need for an oversight halachic agency such as Hechsher Tzedek.

For the sake of argument would halachic agencies allow for the exploitation of underage children if the law of the land allowed it? Would Agriprocessors outsource its slaughter houses to Asian countries where labor is cheap and absent of child labor laws by hiding behind “dina d’malchta dina”?