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.

Close-up photograph of an iron chain running from the lower-left to the upper-right corners of the frame

The Game Isn’t Rigged – A High Holidays Sermon

The following was, in substantial part, delivered as a sermon during the High Holidays celebration of the Secular Humanist Jewish Circle in Tucson, Arizona, on October 8, 2016.


First, let me start by thanking you all once again for inviting me back to spend the High Holidays period with you. I’m very, very glad to be back; it means I at least didn’t completely foul things up the last time around, and I’m looking forward to talking again person-to-person after our service today.

But it’s been a tough year all the way around, so let’s talk.

I have a secret to tell you: the system is rigged.

Or at least, that’s what we’ve been hearing since the beginning of the political primary season.

There’s a lot of this we could talk about–but we’re not here to talk politics today. Yet lurking underneath this “system is rigged” talk is a sense that things are out of our control. We tell ourselves this story a lot. But it’s not what Humanistic Judaism is premised upon.

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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 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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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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“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

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Let’s Make a Deal

I have heard it suggested that the biblical book of Genesis is really just the story of a fractious family. That’s basically true, I suppose, and the family story told by the biblical text keeps on rolling this week in Parshat Vayishlach, telling the story of Jacob and Esau’s meeting to bury their father, Isaac.

It’s also one of a number of Torah portions in Genesis that includes a negotiating session. This one is, in some sense, a life-or-death dispute: the time for Jacob to reckon with Esau over the lost birthright has finally come.

I’m not all that interested in the story itself at the moment. I want instead to talk about something that legal education has made me sensitive to: bargaining practices. Let’s look at the negotiations that appear in Genesis and how the conduct of those negotiations gives readers literary clues and a bit of heightened drama in the associated stories. Continue reading

Who’s Your Daddy?

First, I hope those who celebrated Thanksgiving had an enjoyable holiday. If you haven’t read it yet, I posted a pre-Thanksgiving piece. I think it’s worth a read, though you may disagree. (If so, tough patootey, I guess.)

On to other things, then.

The Torah portion this week continues on with the adventures of Jacob and Esau–and adds in the adventures of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Laban. There’s a lot of interesting narrative that deals with the complications of dealing with fathers.

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