Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ethics of Shechita – Revisited

The Postville scandal just isn’t going away. Recently the Jewish Press ran an interesting opinion piece by Nathan Lewin, the attorney for Agriprocessors, in defense of his client. His article was in response to an argument presented by an orthodox rabbi that questioned the kashrut of the meat slaughtered at Postville. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Congregation Ohev Shalom Synagogue listed three arguments which questioned the viability of the continued production of kosher meat through Agriprocessors. Naturally, Lewin, being a sharp lawyer was able to poke holes into these arguments and thus ostensibly argue for the continued production of kosher meat by Agriprocessors.

Lewin’s arguments didn’t convince me. Those that are looking for an excuse to support the Postville enterprise will lean heavily on those arguments made by Lewin. Those who are outraged by the injustice, fraud and human debasement will tend to agree with Rabbi Herzfeld and seek other options for their kosher meat products. However, whether you are “for or against”, one must deal with the strong indictment delivered by the Forward in its editorial last week.

The investigative journalism presented in that editorial was enough to put into question the continued viability of the Rubashkin family to continue its service to the Jewish community. Assuming that what was reported is accurate the issue goes way beyond the Postville scandal. The real issue at hand is the kashrut agencies. By them continuing to license Agriprocessors as a kosher plant producing kosher product casts a giant question mark on their veracity.

The irony is that many institutions loose their kosher label for insignificant infractions. Many establishments were threatened with loss of their kosher status for things unrelated to what was being certified as kosher. In Israel many hotels over the years were threatened that there kosher certification would be yanked if they allowed New Years Eve celebrations to take place in their public areas. What does celebrating New Yeas Eve have to do with whether or not your kitchen is kosher? There is no right answer, because it was an arbitrary decision based on the whim of rabbis seeking to exercise a little control in one of the last areas open to them. Rubashkin’s involvement in organized crime, arson and extortion goes to the root of “neemanut”, and their veracity to be agents of an institution that produces “kosher “products.

While the Forward made a cogent case against Rubashkin, those who wish to continue to use their products will rely on the wily words of Lewin. Those who are already convinced that the Rubashkin products aren’t fir to be called kosher need no further convincing. However for those who still haven’t decided there are three points that they ought to be consider.

Being carnivorous in Jewish law is a default position. We were programmed to be vegetarian and so we were, prior to our exile from the “Garden”. As we matured we were to be aided by making use of specified animals only, so long as other obligations were fulfilled such as the avoidance of “tzar l’baalei chayim”. Shechita, any way you cut it, involves “tzar l’baalei chayim” albeit minimally and thus we ought not rely on this default position granted to us by God, but strive for the ideal and become vegetarian once again.

Second, there is an inherent failure within the Orthodox establishment to see beyond the rigid interpretation of the law. Take note of the arguments presented by Rabbi Herzfeld verses that of Agriprocessor’s attorney Nathan Lewin. Lewin represents the rigid interpretation of halacha, while Rabbi Herzfeld was able to go beyond and seek out the spirit of the law.

Third, we live in a post industrial age where shechita as it was envisioned by our forefathers can no longer be achieved. Initially we were an agrarian society, we shechted what was required to sustain ourselves and our village (community) – no more. The shochtim weren’t under pressure to slaughter a staggering number of animals, as they are today, in order to satisfy the needs, not of a small community but of millions seeking kosher products nationwide. Add to that the fact that the shochtim are no longer independent but work for a corporation, a large corporation. They are under guidelines which aren’t necessarily halachic guidelines found in Shukchan Aruch, but laid out by their supervisors who answer to mangers above them; all of them with the goal of satisfying the corporate need for a profitable bottom line.

Anyone sensitive to the issues raised here ought to consider the alternatives: to discontinue use of all products originating from Agriprocessors; avoid meat consumption; or become vegetarian.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Muse: Re'eh

“At the end of seven years you shall institute a remission. This is the matter of the remission: Every creditor shall remit his authority over what he has lent his fellow…If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities…you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother…” (Deuteronomy 15:1-11)

The issue of social justice which is dealt with in this week’s portion has been addressed in previous chapters. In previous chapters the question of ownership of the land and the implications of it are referenced: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine; you are but “strangers” resident with me”. (Leviticus 25:23). This principle can be understood either as a theological concept - that the land belongs to God and thus there is a social connotation; or it is in essence a social concept and the land has to be divided up, because none of us own the land; we are merely its stewards. Either way, if this principal is to be applied it has far reaching application regarding the social and economic landscape of the “land”.

Does this principal relate only to the real estate or does it also encompass property as well. This weeks portion deals with this question. The text speaks in the second person singular, which is unusual. For example it refers to “achicha”, “shearecha”, “arzecha”, “levavecha”, and “evyonecha”. What this seems to infer is not a general sociological description of the economic status of the community, but rather a description of “your” social issues. The text is referencing on a personal level the obligation of the individual. “You can’t escape your responsibilities”. The destitute isn’t in the abstract, but happens to be the destitute in “your” community.

Another observation regarding the unusual grammatical structure of the text are the multiple occurrences of the root and its conjugated verb being used together. “ha-avet ta-aveteinu”(verse 8), “patoach tiftach” (verse 8), and “natone teetein” (verse 10). The text is being forceful in its determination to set a tone of social concern and justice as well as the appropriate means of relating to ones neighbor as though he were your brother. Support for the destitute is not only to be given by the largesse of your hand, but also from the largesse of your heart.

Many of us have difficulty with this text because of the economic chaos that would ensue if these principles were applied. In essence the text is setting up a blueprint for a society modeled on socialism which doesn’t seem to work in 21st century industrial societies whether it is in Israel or any where else. There was a time when Israel set up kibbutzim on the model of socialism, but ultimately it failed as evident today of the growing capitalism on the very same kibbutzim which were founded on socialistic principals.

There are others who believe in the virtue of capitalism, not as a default system, but one which extols the productivity of man when in competition with others. The text presents a model by which it believes man is to live. Perhaps this was referring to an agrarian society, but wouldn’t necessarily be applicable to other models? On the other hand there are those that would maintain that it matters nor whether it was an agrarian community or an industrial one because the text is immutable and for all times!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shelo Asani Isha

Recently while going to the supermarket a woman in a burka caught my eye. She wasn’t in the typical burka but the real McCoy; the kind where you are covered from head to toe in black with just eye slits. She sort of looked like a mummy. What was interesting however was the burka had style to it. Down the sleeves was a strip of glittery material and there was a slit on the side revealing what appeared to be pink slacks. Even though I couldn’t see her face or get a read on her figure I was beginning to obsess over her. And then I saw a sheitled frummie walking down an isle in her frumpy ankle length skirt and gym shoes and realized that the Muslims got it right. In both cases there is the diminution of the status of women, but the Muslims are more up-front about it. And as a result of this compulsive need to demean women these two faith communities are the less for it.

The morning bracha “shelo asani isha” said by every God fearing religious Jew has troubled me for decades. At some point on the road of my spiritual and intellectual journey I realized the misogynistic message implied in that bracha, but I still treated it as something benign, there, ever present but harmless. Sort of like yoga. When practicing yoga, one may, in the midst of an exercise be bothered by an itch or some other discomfort. We are trained to think about it for a moment, consider it and then dismiss it from our consciousness. It takes practice, but it works. So too, with my difficulty with this bracha. As in yoga, I would consider the implications and meaning for a moment while chanting the words and then dismiss it.

I’ve dismissed these words as harmless for decades. I often times found it entertaining and humorous when various keruv groups would rationalize the disparity between the bracha and western civilization’s perception of women. Western civilization has made great strides over the past century to ensure women’s full equality whether it is in politics, the work place or the corporate world. While there may still be some inequities, they are quickly disappearing. So how does a keruv rep. explain the disparity between men and women in Orthodox Judaism? They audaciously offer us a reversal of the paradigm, inverting the triangle and balancing it on its “shpitz” by insisting that women aren’t inferior – on the contrary, it is the men who are the inferior b’riya (creation). Because she is superior she isn’t obligated in certain mitzvot as men are who are in need of more control (via mitzvoth) because of their inherent flaws. Where men lack discipline women are on a higher spiritual level. This is buttressed by a letter to the editor in the Forward (August 8, 2008) where the writer comments on the separation of men and women on specific bus lines running through certain religious areas in Israel because “the community believes that the practice prevents men from occupying their minds with inappropriate ideas, thus reserving their brain power for holy subjects”. (The obsessive attention to sexual innuendo within the haredi community is a subject within itself).

One would never realize this based on the reading of Mishle (Proverbs) 31 (see my essay Her Price is Beyond Pearls). In this hymn the woman is depicted as a work horse, the meal ticket, the quintessential “sugar daddy”, so that her husband can sit in the beit midrash and “learn”. She’s glorified for this. She is praised for sacrificing her spiritual and intellectual development for her husband. The recognition she receives for her arduous work is her husband chanting this hymn to her on Friday evening after a tough week in the beit midrash.

Women in Orthodox Judaism are inferior in status to men. That is a fact. No amount of spinning will change that. No truly orthodox shul has as its president a woman. No genuinely orthodox shul employs a woman rabbi, nor would her semicha be recognized. There are no women mohels or shochtim (ritual slaughterers). If they aspire to any of these leadership positions they exist in the shadows.

This message isn’t comfortable when trying to present to the non frum world a rosy and progressive picture of yiddishkeit that comports to western values. So in order to present a more acceptable image they will provide rationalizations as was mentioned above. But why does the fifth commandment read “kabed et avecha v’et imecha” Why not reverse the order and have the mother precede the father? I am aware of the myriad interpretations, but that doesn’t change the text. The text stands as it is! Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, V’Elokei Yaakov. What happened to the matriarchs? They were conveniently deleted. Yet they had a profound connection and understanding of God-each one in her own right! They too are in the shadows.

I’ve recognized these inconsistencies and inequities for a long time but saw it as benign and innocuous – until now.

Recently leaders of the haredi rabbinate in Israel led by Rabbi Shafranovitch expressed the necessity of removing women entirely from the sight of men when travelling on Israeli bus lines running through specific Israeli areas. They have now been relegated to sitting on the back of the bus. Bus lines that insist on this arrangement are referred to as Mehadrin (the highest standard of kosher).

So there you have it. To insult Jewish women by having them demeaned is Mehadrin. I’m sure that the Mehadrin committee of the Haredi community led by the nefarious Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Shafranovitch has another zinger in the wings: mummifying our women in burkas.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Muse: Ekev 2008

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you today, loving the Lord our God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant he rain for your land in season…” (Deuteronomy 11:13)

This sedra offers us the second paragraph of the Shema; the first paragraph having appeared in Deuteronomy chapter 6 verse 5. Apart from the obvious difference between the two paragraphs there appears to be a significant difference in the grammatical structure. The first paragraph is in the singular however the second paragraph is in the plural.

The first paragraph references love of God and indeed the fundamental principal in the first paragraph is “kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim” – “acceptance of the kingdom of heaven” through the love of God. What is love and how it is expressed is a very personal and private matter. Thus, the first paragraph is written in the singular. It speaks to the individual engaging him in the challenge of expressing his/her love of/for God.

Whereas the first paragraph enjoins us to “kabbalat ol malkut shamayim”, the “acceptance of the yoke of heaven”, the second paragraph refers to the “kabbalat ol mitzvoth”, accepting the commandments. The performance of mitzvoth, unlike expressing love of God, is performed within the framework of society, thus the language of the text is expressed in the plural. Whether or not a Jew can live as a Jew fulfilling mitzvoth living an isolated existence, alone, is debatable.

The mitzvoth are given to us so that we can form a more just society. The practice of the mitzvoth is not an end unto themselves but to make us better humans, more sensitive people in the service of God. Thus it is the application of the mitzvoth which become important; not just the practice. It is for this reason that our prophets were so preoccupied and concerned that while mitzvoth may have been practiced, the application of the mitzvoth was ignored.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Haredi Ivy Leaguers

This past week Haaretz reported on the above average scores of a small sampling of chareidi students taking the psychometric exam (equivalent of the U.S. S.A.T.). This was after they completed a preparatory class for taking the psychometric exam, much like the students in the U.S. who take prep courses for the SAT’s, LSAT’s or MCAT’s. It isn’t all that surprising that these students did well because Jewish students tend to be bright. Yeshiva students or those who take their learning seriously have, over the years honed certain skills, developed good study habits, cultivated intellectual reasoning, and have trained their minds along certain lines such as logic, reasoning and analytical skills. Even Yeshiva high school students in the U.S., who do not have the resources of wealthier school districts oftentimes, perform better on LSAT’s and entrance exams precisely because of the above reasons. Therefore I am not surprised at the results that that these charedim achieved and published by Haaretz.

I am surprised, however at the approach Haaretz took in assessing the test scores and what they mean. Haaretz seemed to assess these result clinically: The charedim, competing against the national averages of students studying from k-12 the math and sciences scored relatively well in spite of the fact that they hadn’t studied these subjects in school, risking bitul torah and zman. On the contrary, the continued their hasmadah, intending to cram at the last minute the courses required to do reasonably well on the psychometric and thus gain admission to higher education.

The Charedim and of course Haaretz have missed the entire point of education. The purpose of education isn’t to score well on the psychometric tests. That ought to be the by product of studying all those years, but not the goal. If the by product i.e. scoring high on the psychometric, were to be the goal then why bother teaching tanach or world literature to students planning on entering university to study law, medicine, math or earth sciences? And why study biology, chemistry or physics if one’s goal is to become a history teacher?

The purpose of a well rounded education, beyond what a yeshiva can provide is manifold: Thinking has its own grammar and set of rules. Developing good thinking habits will provide for a more satisfying and fulfilling life. A good education will also teach you how to think for yourself. You will develop an active engagement with knowledge and not just be the passive recipient of boring facts, such as the chareidi cramming off of flash cards while his wife was in labor at the hospital. Thinking independently is the father of good judgment and good judgment is essential to living better. A comprehensive knowledge base make the phenomenon of life appear coherent and comprehensible. On the practical side as “mitzvah goreret mitzvah”, so too knowledge builds upon knowledge. When you learn something your brain sets up new pathways to make future learning faster. Good learning habits can be transferred from one subject to another; an old knowledge can be employed to clarify new knowledge.

Knowledge encourages creativity by the cross fertilization of ideas. Many discoveries and “strokes of genius” are the by products of the mind working on one problem while solving indirectly other problems. Last but not least, knowledge will plant the seeds of wisdom in you. It will help you see your shortcomings, change yourself, improve, becoming a better person.

So while it is pleasing to note that some chareidim are good test takers and their achievement in the psychometric exam will permit them to enter institutions of higher learning, I question what they will get out of their secular education other than the skill to “do the job”. If that is all they desire, then in this respect, what is the difference between them and philistines?

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Muse: Va-et’hanan 2008


“And now Israel, hearken unto the statutes and unto the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord…gives you. Do not add to the message which I have commanded you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments…Your eyes have seen what the Lord did in Baalpeor…the Lord has destroyed them from the midst of you…” (Deuteronomy 4: 11-3)

The formula used in these verses is fairly typical of that used throughout our texts. However, our commentaries were puzzled by the use of the words “neither shall you diminish”, which is an expression not used before in any of our sacred texts. The text previously stated the warning to hearken to the statutes and ordinances, so why the qualification “neither shall you diminish”? One classic interpretation believes that by not adding to the observance anything which is not sanctioned by Torah there won’t be any diminution. However, once a person begins to add or alter the mitzvah, there is automatic diminution, as the Talmud says “kol hamoseef gorea”.

This becomes one of the classic arguments of those conservative interpreters of text that believe “chadash assur min hatorah”. Of course, their argument isn’t that black and white, because of Torah shel baal peh, the oral tradition and medrash, the quintessential qualifiers of the text. Text must be interpreted if it is to be spiritually meaningful to later generations wishing to fulfill the mitzvoth and understand the text

For example, the text references a veiled threat that if one doesn’t “hearken” unto the statutes he will die. The Ibn Ezra understands this literally, while Harav Kook disagrees with the Ibn Ezra’s understanding of life. For Harav Kook, life is not the opposite of death, but the opposite of a colorless and meaningless existence. It isn’t choosing between life and death as the Ibn Ezra believes, but choosing between a rich, fulfilling, spiritual existence rather than an empty life, void of spiritual meaning.

Harav Kook’s interpretation of the above text cast an entirely different meaning not only on the text but on our perception of godliness and how we ought to be relating to Torah.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Closing Ranks

This Rubashkin business is becoming more than just a headache. It’s becoming a full blown migraine, and the orthodox community as personified by different orthodox institutions is digging for themselves a deeper pit by which it will be difficult to extricate themselves.

Just a few days ago I read a release in the JTA of an Orthodox rabbinical organization which toured the Postville based kosher slaughter house singing praise about the standards of the plant and its management. One would have thought that there was absolutely no basis for the investigation against the company. As a matter of fact one would have been led to believe that the whole thing had been a tempest in a tea pot.

Unfortunately it’s not. As it turns out our rabbis don’t have a clue as to what they are talking about. They ought to do what they know best – teach a shiur in theoretical gemorah, or deliver an arcane devar torah where there are no real life ramifications. It’s interesting and safe to learn about a “shor shenagoch…”, because there is little if no practical application. It’s harmless mental gymnastics. But once these rabbis begin to involve themselves in the corporate world and regulatory agencies, the playing field changes dramatically. One rabbi even referred to the Agriprocessor plant as a Cadillac. Another rabbi couldn’t imagine why someone shouldn’t buy the meat products. He hasn’t the foggiest idea that a moral outrage has possibly been perpetrated. This is totally believable in view of the fact that as one representative from the notorious slaughter house said “Agriprocessors doesn’t have any position on immigration. Agriprocessors doesn’t have positions on ethical culture”. Imagine that!

Charges have been made that there was exploitation of child labor. When the rabbis asked the authorities (feds) for names they advised them that they couldn’t release the names. Had the rabbis had the slightest clue as to the role of the feds they never would have asked for that information but would have begun their own serious inquiries. The Feds aren’t there to advise companies. They are regulatory agencies. Their job is to cite you and to ensure that the problems have been corrected. Their task isn’t to help you do your job.

What was most fascinating was instead of trying to get to the bottom of this horrific chilul hashem, this delegation of Orthodox rabbis went to Postville (one day) with a preconceived notion that the management had things under control and that with a little bit of PR things will get back to normal. They saw their mission in terms of damage control. For these rabbis, the issues presented over the past two years weren’t anything of ethical consequence. They were technical matters that needed to be addressed. They didn’t come there with open minds to try and find out how is it possible that we have sinned so egregiously. They came there to close ranks and circle the wagons.

Defensive. We have never done anything wrong. The goyim always have it in for us. What have we ever done to “piss them off”? I don’t know…what have we done? We’ve tried to whitewash the fact that a kosher slaughter house allegedly spits in the face of safe labor practice, allegedly exploits its labor force, allegedly exploits children, allegedly employs undocumented workers, allegedly provides them with no benefits and allegedly gives them little or no training at the risk of serious bodily harm and disfigurement. We’ll forget about the alleged sexual exploitation. Even though all of the above are allegations it ought to be enough for our esteemed orthodox rabbis to investigate, not whitewash, not circle the wagons. Big deal – the mitzvah is eating kosher meat, who cares about God’s children.

The fact of the matter is that they don’t really care about God’s children unless of course they are orthodox Jews. Actually I’m no longer convinced they care about non orthodox Jews, much less gentiles unless there is an angle in it for them – like fund raising, money and profits. After all, Getzel Rubashkin, a grandson of the founder of the now infamous slaughter house had the temerity to say that this isn’t about ethics, “it’s a business”. I guess for him and others of his ilk, religion is a business – and so is God. So it all boils down to money and “what can you do for me today”. Sad, but that is the profile of a community who allowed the end to justify the means, all for the purpose of sanctifying the name of God. I wonder what Amos would have to say?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Jewish Soul

Mime'amakim kar'ati elaich boi elai
beshuvech yach'zor shuv ha'or be'einai
lo gamur,
lo ozev t'aamaga beyadaich
sheyavo veya'ir lemish'ma
kol tz'chokech.

Mime'amakim kar'ati elaich boi elai
mul yare'ach me'ir et darkech shuv elai
nifrasu venamsu mul
maga shel yadaich
be'oznaich lochesh sho'el:

Mi zeh kore lach halailah - hakshivi
mi shar bakol elaich - el chalonech
mi sam nafsho shetehi me'usheret
mi yasim yad veyivneh et beitech.
Mi yiten chayav, yasimam mitachtaich
mi ka'afar leraglaich yichyeh
mi yohavech od mikol ohavaich
mi mikol ru'ach ra'ah yatzilech

Mime'amakim kar'ati elaich boi elai
mul yare'ach me'ir et darkech shuv elai
nifrasu venam'su mul
maga shel yadaich
be'oznaich lochesh sho'el:
Mi zeh kore lach halailah ...

Mi zeh kore lach halailah - hakshivi
mi shar bakol elaich - el chalonech
mi sam nafsho shetehi me'usheret
mi yasim yad veyivneh et beitech.
Mi yiten chayav, yasimam mitachtaich
mi ka'afar leraglaich yichyeh
mi yohavech od mikol ohavaich
mi mikol ru'ach ra'ah yatzilech

From deep depths I called to you to come to me
with your return the light in my eyes will come back
it's not finished,
I am not leaving the touch of your hands
that it may come and light up/wake upon
hearing the sound of your laugh.

From deep depths I called to you to come to me
the moonlight I will again light your way to me
they're spread out and melted again
the touch of your hands
I whisper, ask in your ears:
Who is it that calls to you tonight - listen
who sings loudly to you - to your window
who put his soul so you'd be happy
who will put his hand and build you your home
who will give his life, put it underneath you
who will be like dust living at your feet
who will love you of all your lovers
who will save you from all evil spirits
from the deep depths.

From deep depths I called to you to come to me
the moonlight I will again light your way to me
they're spread out and melted again
the touch of your hands
I whisper, ask in your ears:
Who is it that calls to you tonight

Haifa University professor Oz Almog has just had an epiphany, a “eureka”: there is a growing gap between the secular and religious communities in Israel, according to his study as reportes in the JTA. Where has he been for the past thirty years? As far back as the mid 1970’s there has been pronounced friction between these two communities in Jerusalem. Nationally there has been tension between the secular Zionists and the mitnachalim datiim since the first intifada which began in 1988 and perhaps earlier.

Suggesting however that there is a gap between the religious and the secular seems to give the impression that the secular have no religious inclination. And this is where I differ. Secular Israelis have rejected the traditional format for religious practice because it speaks not to them. For the most part, “religious practice” as performed by the traditional community is the practice of archaic ritual that doesn’t resonate with those people choosing to live in the heart of the present. For them, the rhythm of their lives doesn’t harmonize with the ritual of medieval Eastern Europe or fossilized halachic practice that doesn’t speak to their life experience. This doesn’t, however mean that these same people aren’t genuinely searching for Jewish expression and spirituality within the framework of our history and sacred text.

Poet, musician and performer, Idan Reichal, epitomizes the contemporary “secular” Israeli, who chose to write a profoundly mystical song set to deeply spiritual music by readapting the text of psalms 130. While Psalm 130 was written to raise man’s spirits with a message of hope by turning to God, Reichal’s adaptation is a song of commitment and love, giving hope within the context of Jewish text and vocabulary, but with language that can be understood and appreciated by contemporary souls. Some will say that it is a common love song with little saving grace; others will argue that as Song of Songs may have been a love song between a man and a woman, it too may have been one between Israel and her God. It is all on how one chooses to interpret and integrate the text. Psalms too were written in the language and ethos of their time; understood and appreciated as a method of expressing the spiritual connection between man and God. Mime’amakim as well as other of his songs (i.e. Hinech Yafah, based on Song of Songs) referencing sacred text is his medium for expressing the love of the individual for the sublime.

Had Idan Reichal’s song Mime’amakim been an isolated musical expression one could have made the case that it doesn’t represent a trend. However, this song is but one of many that choose to use Jewish text with adaptations so as to give meaning and spiritual substance to Israelis who find it difficult relating to ritualized Judaism that has, for many sucked the spirituality out of their faith.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Muse: Devarim 2008

“All of you approached me and said ‘let us send men ahead of us and let them spy out the land and bring back word to us: the road upon which we should ascend and the cities to which we should come’. The idea was good in my eyes, so I took from you twelve men, one man from each tribe…They took in their hands from the fruit of the land and brought it down to us and said, ‘Good is the land that God gives us’. But you did not wish to ascend and you rebelled against the word of God…You slandered in your tents and said ‘because of Gods hatred for us did he take us out of the Land of Egypt…To where shall we ascend’? Our brothers have melted our hearts saying ‘A people greater and taller than we, cities great and fortified to the heavens and even children of giants have we seen there.’” (Deuteronomy 1: 22-28)

The opening chapters of Devarim are a review by Moses of the trials and tribulations of the Israelites during their forty year trek in the dessert. In the report that Moses gives, the episode of the twelve spies sent out to foray the Promised Land, is critiqued in great detail. This isn’t the first time this episode is mentioned in our text. It is first mentioned in Numbers chapter 13 but the account there varies from the current account. Nechama Leibowitz makes a point of comparing the two versions.

Significant however, is the fact that while the episode of the twelve expeditioners is detailed for a second time, no mention is made of a significantly profound event impacting on Moses and the Israelites – the Golden Calf. The chapter of the Golden Calf symbolized a lack of faith in God and Moses, however, the incident relating to the expeditionary force had far reaching implications.

The infraction of the spies was not so much that they came back with a partially negative report but that they demonstrated a lack of confidence in themselves and their people. The forty year trek in the dessert was intended to forge a faith based people, a new people, a strong people. Examples of this can be seen in texts which begin or end with phraseology such as “bechukotehem lo teilechoo”, indicating the desire to forge a new and different people, a people who believed in God as well as themselves. So for the expeditionary force to return exhibiting a lack of confidence and faith in themselves suggested the possibility that they still might not be ready to receive entry to the Land.

Moses in surveying this particular event critically was suggesting some lessons that might be learned from the event: Accountability for weakness was underscored. Meaning, that if you “will” something strongly enough, it can be done. “Im tirzu ein zeh aggadah”, shrinking from the challenge shouldn’t have been considered an option. This was to be a precious lesson which needed to be processed into the national psyche.

Another lesson to be internalized by the Israelites was that which Nachmanides pointed to; that not only the spies, but those listening to the spies were to be punished. “Is the listener who is misled by the seducer freed from all moral responsibility” asks Nechama Leibovitz? What the spies insinuated was accepted by the people. Rather than think for themselves they relied on others. People cannot excuse themselves on the basis that it was others who misled them. Ultimately every person is responsible for his own actions.

Not because of the sins of Titus were we exiled from the land but because of our own sins. Is this not the message of Tisha B’av?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Muse: Shabbat Chazon 2008

Parshat Devarim, read the week before Tisha B’av is accompanied with the Haftarah from Isaiah (1: 1-27) which begins with the word Chazon. Thus the Shabbat before Tisha B’av is known as Shabbat Chazon.

Chazon means vision and here the vision has an ominous connotation. The link between the vision of Isaiah and Tisha B’av is powerful and provides us with a clear almost graphic understanding of what can be expected if the covenantal relationship with God isn’t followed.

Most covenants’ are not that difficult to comply with because the parties involved crafted a document with a clear, mutual understanding delineating what is expected from the parties. Unfortunately our covenantal relationship with God isn’t as clear cut. Understanding the purpose and intent of the covenant has, according to Isaiah become blurred, the message and intent obfuscated by layers of meaningless ritual:

"What are your many sacrifices to Me? Says the Eternal One. I am sated with the rams you bring as burnt-offerings, with the fat your fine animals; I take no delight in the blood of bulls or lambs or goats. When you come to seek My presence, who asked this of you to trample My courts...I hate your new moons, your festival days; they are a burden to Me; I can bear them no more. .... Wash yourselves; cleanse yourselves, put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan's rights; take up the widow's cause. (Isaiah 1:11-17)

Isaiah is not denouncing ritual in general. Rather he is rejecting the hypocrisy of ritual observance that is not accompanied by living virtuously. Ritual has currency when it reminds us of who we are, our purpose for being and directs us to our covenantal relationship with God. Removing ritual from this context, making it an end unto itself, contributes to its devaluation and reduces its practitioners to a banal existence.

The message of Isaiah is clear and meaningful unto itself, however linking it with Tisha B’av creates a theological quagmire. It assumes that God will cause His people harm of cataclysmic proportions if they default, even unintentionally, in the performance of the covenant.