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.

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.

Continue reading

Who’s a Jew? Maybe you!

I’m still working on another post that I think says things that need saying about a fundamental tension in modern liberal Judaisms. But I’m taking a moment here to put down a marker on a different issue–Jewish identity.

A post by Elad Nehorai at Hevria, entitled “On Loving Jews Who Aren’t Jews,” is making the rounds and provoking considerable anger. (Elad Nehorai also blogs as Pop Chassid.) Hevria’s “About” page includes the following:

We are a group devoted to spreading the idea of positive creation in a spiritual context. We want to make this world beautiful. And we want you to join us.

This statement has proven itself to be a little ironic in the last few days as Nehorai’s “On Loving Jews Who Aren’t Jews” has made its rounds.

Why?

Continue reading

When the Casseroles Don’t Come

If you’ve been following the blog for a little while, you know that Humanistic Jew, Jr., was hospitalized last year. (If you didn’t know this, now you do. I’ve been open about it. April 30 was the one-year anniversary of the start of the first of two hospitalizations.) He was in a behavioral health (that’s the nice way of saying, “suicides, overdoses, and other acute psychiatric problems”) facility twice over the course of a month.

I haven’t mentioned that while there were people who were there for us, there were people we thought would be there for us but who were decidedly not.

It was isolating. That was made worse by what treament was like.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Picture of Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.

Baruch Dayan Emet? Try Again.

Picture of Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.

Yahrzeit Candle customarily lit on the anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths.

It is customary among many Jews when hearing of another’s bereavement to say “Baruch dayan emet,” which translates to “Blessed is the True Judge.” (That judge would be Yahweh.) It comes from the blessing that halakhah requires mourners to recite upon hearing of the death of certain relatives: baruch ata adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, dayan ha-emet (“Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge”).

For some, giving a condolence with baruch dayan emet is a reflexive thing; for others, it’s a consciously Jewish response to bereavement.

It’s also a very problematic thing to say.

Continue reading

A Simple Kind of Man

This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.

That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.

You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.

Continue reading

It’s Negotiable

Wow, we’re getting busy here at the blog!

Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.

I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.

I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.

Continue reading

What kind of justice do you pursue? Thoughts on parshat Shoftim and textual adoption.

Remarkably quickly, it seems, we’ve marched through the traditional Torah reading cycle and are several parshiyot into Deuteronomy. This week’s traditional cycle takes us to parshat Shoftim, which starts us off with the appointment of judges and the necessity that they blinker themselves as to the status of the parties before them.

Like many other parshiyot, Shoftim has lots of little verses (or parts of verses, anyway) in it that are often cited as grounding the principles of liberal Judaism in the Torah. And I and many other lawyers have often pointed to Deut. 16:20–“Justice, justice shall you pursue”–as a lodestar. (I put that verse in my law school application essays, and Mrs. Secular Jew gave me a gift with that verse on it–it’s one of the Mickie Caspi pieces.)

But perhaps we’re too quick on the draw. Continue reading

An article that bears reading

Some recommended reading for you today: this article from The Forward about Chicago-area Rabbi Brant Rosen.

Why? Rabbi Rosen is a noted critic of Israel–he heads the rabbinical counsel of an organization, Jewish Voices for Peace, was named by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top-ten anti-Israel groups. (Rabbi Rosen states in the article that he finds this ironic since his wife worked for the ADL for fifteen years.)

I’m not going to advance any arguments about Israel, the ADL’s list, JVP’s positions, or the like. But I am interested in the role of the rabbi in a congregation, and in the role of Israel in American Jewish life, and this article brings up both of these issues at some length with a specific case–that of Rabbi Rosen.

Whatever your perspective, this is an interesting–and to people on various sides of all of these issues, no doubt infuriating–article.  Tze u’lmad–go and study.