Photograph of painting of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout portraying Hannah presenting the biblical judge, Samuel, to Eli the priest

Be Like Eli…A Little Bit

Humanistic Jew, Jr., when I return from an outing, often greets me with, “Dad! You’re back!” And I’m not your dad, but I’m back!

Where have I been? My teaching load exploded last year on top of regular work and rabbi school, so my opportunities to write non-work things and stay sane have been few and far between. Stacked on top of regular work, editing work, and all the other stuff, well…Alexander Hamilton’s example to the contrary, we can’t all “write like [we’re] running out of time.” But I’m still kind of non-stop.

(And there’s my little Easter Egg for “Hamilton” fans.)

Okay, now, part of what I have been doing is working on term papers and projects. Among the things I’m working on is some lifecycle ceremonial material for individuals with chronic–not critical, but ongoing and life-affecting–illness. And that’s what this post is really about.

In rabbinic Jewish practice, there’s a commandment to visit the sick, biqqur cholim. The oft-identified basis for biqqur cholim is the story of Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18, part of a Talmudic discussion on imitatio dei: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, visited the sick, as it is written, ‘And Yahweh appeared to him at the oaks [sometimes, “plains”] of Mamre’ (Gen. 18:1)–so should you visit the sick.” b. Sotah 14a. Abraham is considered by the rabbis of the Talmud to be sick because Genesis 18 follows immediately upon the narrative in which the Torah portrays Abraham circumcising himself and all the males traveling with him. Abraham is thus sick–i.e., in pain from having recently been circumcised–and, shunting aside the plain text of the narrative in which Abraham and Sarah end up doing work for their visitors as rabbinic textual interpretation is wont to do, the rabbis portray the appearance of messengers as a visit by God to the ill Abraham.

And, I guess, we could interpret it that way. But in working on the question of a lifecycle ceremony, this narrative is far from satisfying as an example. It doesn’t take free interpretation of a text to know that visiting the sick is a good thing to do, after all. And if we take the rabbis’ premise in Sotah 14a about Abraham at face value, Abraham and Sarah scrambling to play host so that the messengers can tell Abraham about the imminent conception of Isaac isn’t exactly the ideal paradigm for visiting a sick person.

And so, looking for a better example, I remembered the story of Hannah and Eli in I Samuel 1. (It is, as it happens, another of the Bible’s numerous conception stories. Genesis 18 is one; Judges 13, the beginning of the story of Samson, is another; and so, too, is I Samuel 1.) As the story goes, Hannah has not born her husband, Elkanah, any children, and she is much aggrieved by this–particularly because Elkanah’s other wife mocks Hannah as a result of her childlessness. And so, on a trip to the temple of Yahweh at Shiloh, Hannah prays silently, her lips moving, requesting that she bear a male child for Elkanah.

The priest at the temple, Eli, sees Hannah, concludes that she must be drunk, and tells her to stop drinking. (Literally, “set aside from yourself your wine”; the New JPS translation more artistically translates this as “Sober up!,” which I actually kind of like.) Hannah explains that she has been praying and is aggrieved, but doesn’t tell Eli why that is so. Eli then tells Hannah to go in peace and that he hopes the God of Israel grants her prayer.

Photograph of painting of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout portraying Hannah presenting the biblical judge, Samuel, to Eli the priest

Hannah presenting Samuel to Eli by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (ca. 1665)

Why this story as a model, rather than the story of Abraham at Mamre? Well, if you’re looking for a lifecycle ceremony, there is often a communal dimension to such ceremonies, and the Hannah/Eli interaction comes in a public context: at the temple in Shiloh. It holds additional communal dimension because it’s an interaction with the closest thing to clergy: a temple priest. And it involves the kind of final blessing that often has to come along with illness: a hope that the thing desired comes to pass, without guaranteeing it or suggesting that one’s merit will determine whether the problem will be corrected.

This story also illustrates a no-no. Eli’s assumption that Hannah is drunk is a bad example of what to do in this kind of interaction. As it happens, the term biqqur cholim is well chosen: it’s visiting the sick, not chastising the sick.

So, as the title of this post says: be like Eli…a little bit.

Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

On Kol Nidre

I’ve recently returned to Indianapolis from Tucson, Arizona, where I spent the weekend with the members of the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle, leading their High Holiday service and giving a public talk on Humanistic Judaism. The following was delivered as an introduction to a violin performance of Kol Nidre during the High Holiday service on Saturday, October 8, 2016.


What is it about Kol Nidre that keeps bringing us back to it, year after year?

Photo of a page of the Worms Machzor, with the Aramaic word "Kol" very large and the rest of the Kol Nidre text below

Kol Nidre in the Worms Machzor

The core of the Kol Nidre text is a kind of legalistic finger-crossing: an acknowledgment that we will make promises we cannot keep. It’s a disclaimer, a sort of “I mean well, but I’m going to fail” warning intended to apply to various sorts of ill-advised and impulsive promises—generally ones made to oneself or with respect to certain religious matters.

But that melody. That melody says something else. Why does it strike us so deeply?

The Kol Nidre melody, I think, expresses more than our regret for past failures—it reflects our fear that we might not fulfill future commitments. It’s not the words that matter to us so much as the pain of failure that comes from a frank assessment of the year gone by. And as it happens, our tradition preserved as part of Yom Kippur a reading that matches that pain and that acknowledges our frailty.

The tradition preserved the book of Jonah.

We read that Jonah, a prophet, is commissioned by Yahweh to preach in Nineveh so that the city—the capital of the Assyrian empire, peopled with idolaters and thus the very center of wickedness and sin—will repent of its evil ways. Jonah, having been told to go east, instead hops a ship to go as far west as he can. Yahweh, angered at the disobedience, roils the sea until Jonah volunteers to be thrown off the ship. He is swallowed by a sea creature of some sort. Jonah, deep in the belly of what the Hebrew characterizes as a “big fish,” prays, promising to fulfill a vow to Yahweh.

We read Jonah’s prayer as he sits within the fish. He cries out “from the belly of Sheol”—the very depths of hell—before Yahweh will let him back onto dry land.

Kol Nidre connects to the language of Jonah’s prayer, which includes this line: “And I, with a voice full of gratitude, shall sacrifice to you that which I vowed I would fulfill.” The swearing of a vow is, here, nadarti—I swore. One swears a vow—a neder. And Kol Nidre means, “all vows.”

Jonah seeks to repent by renewing a vow.

The vow works. The big fish takes Jonah to the shores of Nineveh, and spits Jonah out. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches, warning the people that Yahweh will destroy them for their wickedness. Nineveh repents, and Yahweh relents; Nineveh is not destroyed.

Jonah is, as a bit of understatement, rather put out by this—he expected hellfire and brimstone and a nice fireworks show. Rather than see Nineveh saved, Jonah says he would rather die, and so he leaves the city.

And as Jonah waits—no doubt hoping that Yahweh may yet follow through and destroy Nineveh—Yahweh makes a tree grow to give Jonah some shade. A little passive aggressively, on the following day, Yahweh causes a worm to kill the tree. Now Jonah is put out that the tree has died, and says that it would be better that he die than live; better to die, says Jonah, than to live without shade and see one’s enemies redeemed.

Jonah is greatly aggrieved over the tree—which he did nothing to create or grow—yet he would deny repentance to humans who, in the story, are guilty only of not having learned what it means to be a good person. Not having learned, at least, until Jonah taught them. And yet, Jonah still has not learned the lesson; he begrudges others their chance at atonement.

The character of Jonah is, in short, an arrogant jerk who has decided that ignorance merits death. And he’s not the only one.

The Talmud tells a story about one of its greatest rabbis, Rav. The story goes that Yom Kippur is fast approaching, and Rav has had a longstanding conflict with a butcher. Rav, realizing how close the end of the atonement period has come, takes it upon himself to help the butcher out. Rav goes to the butcher’s shop so that the butcher can see Rav, remember what he has done to Rav, and atone.

The butcher does indeed see Rav. But the butcher is apparently still angry at him. The butcher swings his cleaver—perhaps a bit too forcefully—and cuts a chunk of bone that breaks off and strikes him in the neck. The butcher, rather than atoning, falls to the floor, dead.

We can say, well, that’s what arrogance and a refusal to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing will get you.

But perhaps the arrogant person here is Rav! This is exactly what the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggests. Levinas argues that Rav took it upon himself to force the issue with the butcher, and in doing so brought more harm.

Rav was so sure he was right. Jonah, we are told, was so sure he was right. And yet, in their stories, they were both wrong. Rav, in his arrogance, demanded something to which he may not have been entitled. Jonah, in his arrogance, is portrayed as having missed the entire point of his trip to Nineveh, because he simply hates the Ninevites and expects them to be slaughtered.

All of this human frailty is embodied in Kol Nidre. That plaintive, trembling melody speaks to our deeply-felt anxieties; its halting start and up-and-down, tremulous lilt echoes our uncertainties. Kol Nidre is pregnant with our own fears of guilt and of failure—not only our regret for the expectations we know we didn’t meet, but our regret for the expectations will know we will fail to meet. And more than that—Kol Nidre reflects an inner fear that we might be wrong when we think we are right.

After all, the broken promises disclaimed by Kol Nidre are rooted in our being wrong—wrong about our true intentions, wrong about our abilities, and wrong about the needs of others. We cannot help but be ignorant; we worry not only that we will be harmed by others’ ignorance, but that our own ignorance will, like Jonah, reveal our failings.

Kol Nidre could have been just another text the rabbis would have had everyone recite to themselves. Instead, it is perhaps the single most notable part of the Yom Kippur service. The stories of Jonah and of Rav point out a crucial piece of what Kol Nidre is about—being aware of our weaknesses and those of others, and being forgiving of both. After all, their error is the same: a self-righteous assumption that they were correct. Jonah’s story is of someone so sure he was correct that he expected not repentance but destruction; Rav was so sure he caused another’s death. Even when we are right, we may be wrong—and we may realize it too late.

Hearing Kol Nidre as a community underscores the importance of that lesson. More than perhaps anything we can say today, the Kol Nidre melody echoes our own sense of calling out from the depths of despair, of guilt, and of regret. As we turn our attention to renewing ourselves for the coming year, may we heed the warning of the Kol Nidre melody: that however smart we may be, we will at times fail others. And may we remember that if we are not tolerant of others’ failings, we might not merit others’ tolerance of our own.

A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

Parshat Va’era, or, Biblical Criticism and the Redactor’s Amnesia

I’m back! Did you miss me!? 😉

Despite the purported break that comes with the new year, it’s been busy in these parts. I have a longer post coming out later today, but in the meantime, I’ve got a shorter comment on this week’s regularly scheduled Torah portion, Parshat Va’era.

Where are we in the story in this portion? Moses, we are told, has encountered Yahweh in the desert and made some initial forays into Egypt to try to free the Israelites. We are also told that these efforts have failed. And then we come to this passage, at the very beginning of the portion:

And God spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Yahweh; I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai–but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).

(“Hey, Humanistic Jew,” you’re thinking, “why uppercase ‘God'”? Because it’s used as a proper noun in this context.)

Now, there’s a problem here. The statement in verse 3–“but my name, Yahweh, I did not make known to them”–isn’t true!

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A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

The Blog Awakens

It’s been a while since I posted! It has been busy around here: between regular work, days off from work running around with Humanistic Jew, Jr., prepping for the two classes I teach at a local university, leading a Hanukkah celebration, being a rabbinical student, co-editing Humanistic Judaism, and trying to generally spend time with my family, I just haven’t had a ton of time to write.

And then, as I was falling asleep last night or waking up this morning (it’s all a blur), I thought of this goofy idea for a blog post. And so, without further ado:

I’ve not mentioned it on the blog, but I’m a big Star Wars fan. I don’t do cosplay (dressing up as characters), go to conventions, etc., but in many other respects, you know, yeah, I’m a fan. (I’m even officiating a Star Wars-themed wedding in March of this year. Can you say that your work required you to read comic books?!)

(SPOILER ALERT for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the “Star Wars: Vader Down” comics from Marvel)

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The Bone in the Butcher’s Neck

For a while now, I’ve held back on making a comment about an article in Tablet Magazine. The more time I spend thinking about the article, the more I feel that it’s necessary to write something about it. It first appeared around Yom Kippur in the wake of the disputes over refugees from Syria. In the wake of the attacks on Paris, I was drawn back to this draft post.

Here’s the article I’m responding to, by Liel Leibovitz. It’ll open in a new tab or browser window. Go ahead and read Leibovitz’s article. I’ll be here, waiting. (You do have to read it to understand what follows.)

You’re back? Good.

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Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

Tisha B’Av and Secular Humanistic Judaism

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting,

Francesco Hayez’s “The Destruction of the Second Temple”; from Wikimedia Commons

This year, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, begins on the evening of July 25.

The core concern of Tisha B’Av is not merely commemorating the Temples’ destructions; it is beseeching Yahweh to restore the Temple through, for example, the recitation of the book of Lamentations, which focuses on the sinfulness of Israel and asks for restoration:

Cause us to return, O Yahweh,
To you, and we shall return;
Renew our days, as of old. (Lam. 5:21)

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If You’re Going to Use the Text, Use the Whole Text

In late July/early August, I’ll be in Farmington Hills, Michigan, at the Birmingham Temple for an IISHJ rabbinical program course on congregational management. One of the books rabbinical students have been assigned to read is Hal Lewis’s From Sanctuary to Boardroom, which is a kind of survey of leadership approaches with a Jewish…bent? Tilt? I’m not sure quite yet.

I’m not especially pleased with the book. And since part of what displeases me locks into this week’s regular Torah reading, well…blog post!!! Or as Christoph Waltz’s Nazi says in a negotiation with American soldiers in “Inglourious Basterds,” “Ooooooh, that’s a bingo!!!”

So, what’s my problem? One might think it ironic for a humanistic Jew, but it comes down to fidelity to the text.

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James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

What Can We Do with the Holiness Code? A Humanistic Jewish Reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

James Tissot’s “Two Priests Destroyed,” depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

(Warning: this is a long read.) The Torah has lots of laws. Lots of them. And in the traditional Torah-reading cycle, we’re neck-deep in them.

These laws make using the Bible today more than a little problematic.

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Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Leaving Auschwitz – Creative Commons License

I’ve chosen the picture for this post carefully, because it shows the train tracks leading away from the main station at Auschwitz-Birkenau II.

It’s been some time since I really wandered around in the philosophical mire on the blog. But, sure enough, that time has come again. It’s also been a while since I nudged at any of the high-voltage lines that mark the boundaries of acceptable Jewish discourse. I’m doing that today, too.

And so I lead with this warning: if you don’t want to have your notions challenged concerning how American Jews should integrate Israel and the Holocaust into their identities, or if you’re likely to be offended if I do challenge them, you won’t want to read this.

You’ve been warned. Because for many years, I have thought that liberal Jewish life in the United States has been rendered pathological in its centering on the Holocaust and Israel. (If that sentence gets you mad, maybe you want to take a breather before continuing to read.)

Now, then…

Prof. Shaul Magid (hail to old IU!) published a book review at the Tablet Magazine website titled, “American Jews Must Stop Obsessing Over the Holocaust.” Seth Mandel gives a not-too-coherent response at Commentary to what he characterizes as Magid’s not-too-coherent essay. Mandel relies upon Paul Johnson’s history of the Jews and the idea of historical reflection to argue that survival is its own rationale.

And, of course, all of this comes on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

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Photograph of the "heads" side of a penny, highly oxidized so that the copper has turned from red to green

Sometimes Bad Pennies Have Good Sides

To make sure I read a least a little Hebrew every day, I subscribe to a Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Yomi service. Each day (except for Shabbat and certain holidays), I receive a text message designating a passage from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, an abbreviated quick-reference guide to the everyday aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) as they might confront an observant Jew living in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe. (In case you’re wondering, the messages double-up on the day before Shabbat or holidays with similar restrictions.)

I don’t ordinarily read the entire passage; I didn’t do so yesterday, either, but that is because the first couple of paragraphs caught my attention and I just didn’t move on from there. And I think that text provides some nice ideas for our own time.

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