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.

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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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Abraham, Robert Frost, and Kol Nidre

I’m back! Did you miss me?

First, what have I been doing? Well, the holidays completely wiped me out. Rabbinical classes at IISHJ started up again, and then we moved offices at my job, so it’s been a busy month or so.

Then, last weekend, I went to the board meeting for the Society for Humanistic Judaism. I’m not a board member per se, but was there in my capacity as co-editor for the Society’s journal, Humanistic Judaism. (I’m new–so new, that the first issue I’ll have been involved with isn’t due for publication until January.)

All of this means that I’ve not really done a heck of a lot of thinking about other things. But the Torah portion for this week, Vayeira, actually includes pretty much all of the material I discussed in my sermon in Tucson, Arizona, for the Rosh Hashanah services I led for the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle there. Below, then, is the text I wrote for the sermon. The actual delivered version was not slavish to this text; I might make the audio of it available at some point, though I’m not in a terrible hurry to edit that much audio.

So, here’s the text. You’ve been warned: it’s long. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with other stuff!

….

A little after the shofar’s blasts—those shrill, piercing tones, calling us to hold ourselves accountable for the prior year—we shared a reading of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a fixture of high school literature classes. And it is perhaps one of the few poems known widely among generations of Americans of many walks of life.

But for all its notoriety, it turns out that the poem has been a little …misunderstood.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story about four years ago that looked into how the poem came to be in 1913. And I’d like to tell you a little bit of that story.

Robert Frost was a struggling writer who just couldn’t make a go of it in the American literary scene. So he moved to London. Remember, this is before the careers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Williams, and other 20th century greats. London was, if you wrote in English, pretty much the literary place to be.

While in England, Frost met a poet named Edward Thomas. The two would go on walks in the woods together from time to time.

As it turned out, Thomas was indecisive when he got to a split in the path. He would hem and haw about which road to take. The beaten path?, or, as Frost put it, the road not taken. Keep in mind that it didn’t really matter which way they went. They would always end up at home.

Finding this at once amusing and perhaps a little annoying, Frost wrote a poem jabbing at Thomas’s indecision over this inconsequential choice.

The problem, as it happens, is that the only person who got the joke was Frost.

The poem was published, and Frost rocketed to literary fame. He returned to the United States for a time to do a literary tour and readings at American universities. Largely because of “The Road Not Taken,” people took Frost to be a very serious poet. And they took his poem to be a very serious comment on the importance of individualism.

Moving to London had exactly the effect Frost had hoped for his literary career.

Frost’s fame did not, however, come without consequences. You see, there was one other person who took the poem about Edward Thomas’s indecision very, very seriously.

That person? Edward Thomas.

As it happened, Thomas was more than a little insecure about his indecisiveness generally—forks in the road aside. And by the time Frost’s poem become popular, it was 1915. Thomas was British, and World War I had already begun swallowing millions of men of his generation.

German Zeppelins were already floating over the English Channel. It really was possible for bombs to fall on London.

Thomas was already insecure. And, in the midst of an unprecedented threat to England from abroad, Frost’s perhaps not-so-gentle nudge was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thomas joined the army.

He was killed in battle two years later.

As we opened our service, we lamented that the year past was over too fast. We feel pressure—so much pressure—to decide now, to speak now, to do something. NOW.

How often do we hear, “Act now—tickets are going fast!”? Or, “I need this now”?

Very much in this vein, Thomas took Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to be an instruction to choose. NOW.

Photo of a shofar--ram's horn used as a trumpet--Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and a box with pencils and slips of paper.

Rosh Hashanah Success, Some Narrative Criticism, and Bits and Bobs

Rosh Hashanah Success

Photo of a shofar--ram's horn used as a trumpet--Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and a box with pencils and slips of paper.

The Script, the Shofar, and the Tiny Tashlikh Kit

This past Tuesday evening, I led a first-ever Humanistic Rosh Hashanah service in Indianapolis. Taking my family out of the mix, we had 21 people come (26 when you include my household and my sister’s household). We had a short service, lots of challah, apples and honey, and Mrs. Humanistic Jew’s apple raisin honey cake. (We’ve got more planned–Sukkot is coming up, and we’ll be doing a “Sukkah-less Sukkot” on October 4 at Holliday Park in Indianapolis; more details will follow, so stay tuned.)

Some Narrative Criticism

The Forward has a column, “Sarah and Hagar’s ‘Bad Blood’ is Feminism Gone Awry.” The writer notes that it’s a little odd that we have the story of Sarah’s demand that Abraham expel Hagar from the camp as one of the Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah, and, identifying with Hagar in some ways, connects the story to some of the experiences and processing she has undergone in adjusting to the world of Jewish feminists.

I’m hesitant to connect personally to biblical characters in quite this way. I don’t think the appearance of the Sarah and Hagar unit in the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings is terribly difficult to explain from a different feminist lens: the rabbis weren’t thinking about women when they fixed the Torah portions. The rabbis were probably thinking of the thing as a kind of unit: they’re focused on covenant, fulfillment of promises, atonement, and the high stakes associated with Isaac. I suspect they were not especially concerned about Sarah and Hagar per se. Continue reading

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

An Apology Isn’t Enough

There’s a pattern, and I should know it exists by now: I will post a note saying, “I’ll be silent for a little while.” Then, I’ll see something and just need to post about it, ordinarily within two days of the post saying there would be no posting.

And so it goes.

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

Torah at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

At InterfaithFamily, Rabbi Mychal Copeland has a post entitled, “When Sacred Text Hurts Others.” In it, Rabbi Copeland describes her experience at a largely Christian interfaith gathering where after she blew the shofar, texts from the Gospel of Matthew that excoriated the Pharisees (almost certainly the main predecessors to rabbinic Judaism) were recited, the pastor who cited the text apologized, and the entire gathering recited a liturgical piece of apology for harms done in the misuse of and abuse of scriptural texts. Rabbi Copeland goes on to wonder about what to do with texts that are harmful to members of her own community, and whether placing the text in historical context is enough:

But at a time when more interfaith couples are choosing a Jewish life for their families, I feel what the pastor felt for me — that our texts, attitudes and parts of our liturgy may be doing harm to their hearts even as they gift us with their presence and the presence of their children.

If you could reach out to someone who may be hurt by our texts, who would it be?

What, then, of this problem?

I think the answer for liberal Jews should actually be straightforward. It starts with acknowledging, as Rabbi Copeland does, that the texts are products of their times. And you then need to use the texts with intention each time. You have to think about why the text is going to be used, what it says, and, after you know the harm the text can do, whether the text should be used. If the text can’t be used without doing harm–or can’t be used unless you make the reason for its use known clearly and immediately so that you can prevent that harm–perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be used in that setting.

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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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Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Cane-Users Need Not Apply

Civilization, writ large, has a complicated history when it comes to dealing with neurodiversity, disability, poverty, and any number of other perceived differences.

Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Ancient cobblestone road: stumbling blocks?

Indiana hasn’t always been at the forefront of advancement in these areas: it was the first U.S. state to enact a eugenics law calling for the forced sterilization of certain persons, on the notion that poverty, criminality, and other perceived defects were a result of genetics. On the other hand, in 1921 the Indiana Supreme Court struck the 1907 law, even as in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court would say such laws were permissible under the federal Constitution, in part on the conclusion that “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927).

Jewish culture is no exception to such problems. This week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, gives us a not-too-subtle reminder of that.

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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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Pencil drawing of the biblical prophet Samuel Cursing King Saul after Saul has attempted to spare King Agag, the Amalekite - by Hans Holbein the Younger

Drek and Amalek

It’s still Jewish Disability Awareness Month, but I read something related to Purim that I found provocative. Though maybe it wasn’t provocative in a good way.

Over at Mosaic, Atar Hadari has an article in the “Observations” section of the site, “What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance.” It’s about the Haftarah for this Shabbat, Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. As Hadari says, the Haftarah is from I Samuel 15:1-34, the story where Saul decides to forego fulfilling Yahweh’s instruction to kill the Amalekite king, Agag; Samuel steps in, slaughters Agag, and informs Saul that his monarchy will soon come to an end.

Hadari says the story is a study in character and leadership styles: Saul vs. Samuel, or outer- versus inner-directed leaders.

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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.

In Advance of Jewish Disability Awareness Month: There Are No Four Children

Hey, all, guess what? It’s January. That means next month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month! And wouldn’t you know it? This week’s Torah portion on the traditional cycle is Parshat Bo.

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

Used under Creative Commons license

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “And…so?” But Bo contains this nugget:

And it will happen, when you come to the land which Yahweh, your god, is giving you–just as he said–that you will take care to perform this worship [the Passover lamb and blood]. And it will happen that your children will say to you, “What is this worship to you”? And you will reply, this is the Passover sacrifice for Yahweh, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt. (Ex. 12:25-27a)

Notably, this is the statement of the “wicked” child in the Passover Seder.

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