If You Steal My Sunshine

This week’s Torah portion features a talking ass, a bad guy who won’t get the point, and a not-very-low-key condemnation of intermarriage.

So, it’s busy. I’m going to leave for next year the murderous intermarriage condemnation. That’s not because that theme is unimportant; it’s very important, but the Bible’s complicated interaction with the idea of Israelites marrying non-Israelites is not what grabbed my attention this week.

But the talking ass and the bad guy who won’t get the point? That’s some interesting stuff right there.

If you turned on a Top 40 radio station in 1999, you couldn’t avoid this song:

Okay, so I know lots of people don’t like that song, but tough. It’s catchy and has a pretty great hook, and makes great use of a sample of the guitar from “More More More.” And, while we’re at it, some of the lyrics are almost wildly inscrutable: “My sticky paws were into making straws out of big fat slurpy treats/An incredible eight-foot heap.”

Inscrutable lyrics, a great hook…sounds like an ancient near eastern prophecy! How’s that for a tie-in to parshat Balak, which is all about Balak trying to more or less force the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, to bless his efforts to defeat the Israelites?

To expand on the recap: parshat Balak is in the book of Numbers, which, after a census, spends a whole lot of its time telling stories about a period of years in which the Israelites are said to have lived in the wilderness, moving from place to place, not entering into the land of Israel itself because of their recalcitrance. Story after story centers on Israelite complaints against Moses and Aaron. By the time the reader gets to Balak, the story has come to a point where the Israelites are said to be moving from one ancient near eastern kingdom to another. In each new territory they enter, they try to obtain passage along a road with the promise that they will not despoil the land in which they are traveling. In each territory, they are rebuffed, often leading to wars which the Israelites win.

The Israelites, as Balak begins, arrive at Moab and seek passage, promising again not to despoil the land. King Balak of Moab has, however, received word of the Israelites’ travels, has learned of their numbers, and refuses passage. Knowing the Israelites’ numbers, Balak seeks assurance that he’ll defeat the Israelites when he meets them with his army. So Balak turns to a non-Israelite prophet whose activity is even reported outside the Bible (in the Deir Alla inscription): Balaam son of Beor.

Balaam’s reputation is such that Balak recognizes that those whom Balaam blesses prosper, so Balak sends messengers to Balaam multiple times, offering Balaam fabulous wealth if he will bless Balak. Balaam insists that this is not how it works, stating that Yahweh tells him who will prosper, and refuses the first demand for him to see Balak. Balak sends another set of messengers. Balaam again wants to decline the invitation, and Yahweh appears to Balaam and tells him to do only what Yahweh commands. But Balaam gives in to Balak’s second set of messengers, saddles his ass (notably, a female donkey), and sets off.

This wasn’t what Yahweh told him to do, and so an angel appears to the donkey to frighten it and trap Balaam. Eventually Balaam starts to whip the donkey, the donkey steps on his foot, and Balaam keeps whacking away until the donkey talks — I said there was a talking ass — and explains, in essence, “Uh, dude? I’ve served you loyally, and you should trust me here — there’s a freaking angel with a sword in the middle of the path!” Balaam finally sees the angel, has a “whoops!” moment, and is told to continue on his journey but only to say what Yahweh says he should say.

This leads to a series of misadventures. Balak gives Balaam a hard time about not being willing to take his money. Balaam has Balak set up altars and offer sacrifices, and says, in essence, “I’ll talk with Yahweh and we’ll see what he says.” Yahweh causes Balaam to return as a prophecy a blessing for Israel — not Balak. This begins a series of shleps from one high place to another, with Balak setting up altars and offering sacrifices to obtain Balaam’s blessing. Each time, Balaam comes back with a blessing for Israel, not for Balak. After three go-arounds of this, Balak sends Balaam on his way, dropping his effort to get a blessing — in essence, a prophecy from the god worshipped by Israel — promising that he will triumph over Israel.

So, first: let’s remember that the Bible is often pretty weird, and this story is a great example of that.

Second: rabbinic midrashic tradition twists this story around and makes Balaam an unsympathetic character attempting curse the Israelites, but instead blessing them against his will. That’s not exactly how the plain sense of the biblical story goes: Balaam is instead portrayed as attempting to avoid Balak’s entreaties, and constantly adds provisos that he can only say what Yahweh tells him to say.

Third: this story has some interesting present-day resonances, which is what grabbed my attention when I read it this year. Of late, there has been quite a bit of outrage on the part of the Christian Right, accusing various members of the U.S. Democratic Party of antisemitism. At the same time, Christian Right and various U.S. Republican Party politicos have expressed sentiments that can safely be called antisemitic themselves.

Take, for example, this tweet from a Trump campaign official:

“Cultural Marxism” is a well-known antisemitic dog whistle. See: https://jewishcurrents.org/the-lethal-antisemitism-of-cultural-marxism/

And that is to say nothing of the fact that the President’s closing campaign argument used antisemitic tropes.

So the irony here, then: non-Jewish conservative politicians crying antisemitism, and even claiming personal offense as though they were personally targeted by antisemitism, while trading in antisemitism when beneficial to them.

Nothing quite says being like Balak quite like trying to appropriate the blessings and curses piled onto others for one’s own benefit, propriety be damned.

Sticky paws making straws out of big fat slurpy treats, piled eight-feet deep indeed.

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Joseph and the Not-So Technicolor Dreamcoat

I’m always tempted, when the annual Torah reading cycle gets to the Joseph story, to just let my eyes glaze over. I took a seminar on the Joseph story in grad school, and read it all in Hebrew along with Rashi’s commentary, and you know when you’ve read something before and you kind of go, “Eh, I know what this says”? That’s usually what happens to me. This year, it had been long enough (twenty years!) that I remembered only the very basic outline of the story and didn’t really remember the Rashi for any of it.

"Joseph Recognized by His Brothers,"  Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers (public domain)
“Joseph Recognized by His Brothers,”  Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863 oil on canvas, at the Musée Municipal Frédéric Blandin, Nevers (public domain)

My brain was finally ready to re-engage with the story, and things were quite different this time. I appreciated the family drama much more than I had before. And I thought much more about how the Torah seems to hint that  being like another nation might be good but then undercuts that alternate narrative.

Prof. Susan Niditch, writing at TheTorah.com, discusses the curiosity of the Torah advancing a positive view of the Egyptians. It’s an important point, since generally the biblical authors are pretty anti-Egypt. We should also, I think, realize that this is subject to some qualifications not only within the broader biblical context — really, mostly the biblical authors are down on Egypt, with the narratives in Genesis being occasional exceptions — but also (and especially!) within the Joseph story itself. 

Prof. Niditch’s article isn’t focused on events that come after Joseph reveals his identity to Judah and his brothers, so she doesn’t focus on the anti-assimilation message bundled into the Joseph story. That’s one big piece of the story that drew my attention this time around.

As some backdrop: As Prof. Niditch points out, Joseph’s success in Egypt is pretty plainly laid at the feet of the God of the Bible. Joseph explicitly attributes his dream interpretations to God, and he tells his brothers that it was a divine plan that led them to sell him into slavery in Egypt. Here’s the outline of events that comes from Joseph’s revealing himself to Judah and his brothers: with Pharaoh’s blessing, bids his brothers go back to Jacob to tell him that Joseph is still alive and wants them all to come to Egypt. On the journey to Egypt, Jacob passes through Beersheva and offers sacrifices there “to the God of his father, Isaac” (Gen. 46:1). That night, God speaks to Jacob (now called Israel) and tells Jacob not to be concerned about going to Egypt, because it is in Egypt that the nation of Israel shall become great, and because God will bring the people up from Egypt to fulfill the promise to give the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham and Isaac.

Eventually, when Jacob and the rest of the family arrive in Egypt, Joseph has them appear before Pharaoh and tells them to ask to be allowed to settle in Goshen. Why Goshen? Because Joseph’s family are shepherds, “every shepherd is an abomination to Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). (Where is Goshen? If it existed as a distinct place, it was probably between the Sinai Peninsula and the eastern delta of the Nile River.) Somehow Goshen is both part of Egypt and yet not part of Egypt: it’s sufficiently Egyptian to be under Pharaoh’s control, but not so Egyptian that Joseph’s family’s primary occupation as shepherds would end up disturbing the Egyptians.

These pieces — the narrative portraying Jacob’s reassurance and the request to settle in Goshen, some sort of place apart — serve in the broader narrative to foreshadow that things will not stay rosy for the Israelites in Egypt. Interestingly, there’s not any major problem of belief posed by the narrative: Jacob and Joseph both seemingly remain devoted to Yahweh. Later on, we’ll read in Exodus 1 that at least Hebrew midwives maintain some level of devotion to the God of Israel. And in fact there’s no real question of the Israelites denying who their god is when they’re in Egypt: Moses and Aaron act to persuade the Israelites that they are God’s messengers and that it’s time for the Israelites to act — they have to persuade the Israelites to believe in them. Yet even (on the telling of the biblical narrative) several hundred years after the movement of Jacob and his family to Goshen, the Israelites are apparently still living there: “And I will separate out on that day the land of Goshen, upon which my people stand” (Ex. 8:18).

The narrative here, then, is not quite so positive toward Egypt and the idea of seeming Egyptian as perhaps it appears on first blush. Joseph’s success in Egypt isn’t really something to be credited to the Egyptians; the credit, the story says, belongs to the god of Israel. In fact, after arriving in Egypt, the Israelites will live separately and are almost by nature unwelcome in Egyptian society, and the Torah is okay with that. That is consistent with the Torah’s (and the broader Tanakh’s) overall approach toward what today we’d likely call assimilation, and it’s consistent with the Torah’s theology generally. The story of Jacob at Beersheva is almost necessary to sustain that theology: after all, a reader is entitled to wonder, as Jacob et al. head to Egypt, “Wait, what about the promise of an inheritance in Canaan?” The text tells the reader that Egypt is a waypoint, not the final destination.

Why is all of this important? This part of the Joseph story allows us to remember that the tension between belonging to a place and belonging to a separate people is written into Judaism’s foundational texts. This isn’t a new thing; it’s not simply the post-Enlightenment West that has created opportunities for Jews to resemble the lands in which they live.

But more than that: there’s a tension in how we respond to the opportunities we find. Consider the broader narrative, just as a story: Joseph comes to Egypt and becomes in almost all respects an Egyptian (more on that later). He shaves his head, takes an Egyptian wife, and is embalmed when he dies. But when he brings his family, he warns them that what they do for a living will set them apart from the Egyptians, and so it’s necessary that they live somewhat apart.

Then we come to Exodus’s first chapter, and we read that the Joseph has died, Egypt is led by a king who doesn’t know Joseph, and the Israelites have grown so numerous that Pharaoh and the Egyptians conclude that the Israelites are a threat. But let’s back up a moment and ask: in the world of the narrative, after the passage of time, how would the Egyptians know who was who?

Looking in the text for an answer: the Torah portrays the Israelites as settling in Goshen because of their distinctiveness. By the middle of the story of the ten plagues in Exodus, the text says that the Israelites are still in Goshen. (Let’s not fight the narrative too much right now, and set to one side that 1) keeping all your slaves in one place is a really bad plan, and 2) there’s almost no way Egyptians would have allowed humans treated as property to remain culturally separate and concentrated in a single area.) The Torah’s answer to the challenge of Egypt was to resist joining the majority culture. That’s not a surprise if you’ve read elsewhere in the Torah about not behaving like other nations, about divorcing foreign wives, etc. And the Torah as a text is consistent about that: the Israelites are portrayed as remaining separate from the time they come into Egypt until the time they leave. The text portrays only Joseph as taking on Egyptian mannerisms. Even so, Joseph’s body will not remain in Egypt, according to the Torah, but will instead leave Egypt along with the Israelites (Ex. 13:19).

There are, to be sure, a few texts here and there in the Tanakh that suggest more universalist approaches. Ruth and Jonah come most readily to mind. But Ruth suggests that Israelites should be willing to open the gates to allow more people in, not so much that Israelites should look out. Jonah seems universalist in religious orientation more than national orientation — and Jewishness is more than just a religious orientation. And when zoom out a little bit more, we can understand the broader narrative arc involving Jacob as being one that’s got an anti-outsiders edge: after all, the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34 is essentially a story of revenge against Shechem’s people.

So while the Joseph story suggests an openness to Egyptian culture or at least the possibility of being part of another nation’s body politic, we shouldn’t take it for more than it’s worth. Joseph’s striped coat is not a technicolor dream coat of pluralism. If we value our multiple identities and greater integration with other cultures and with the nations in which we find ourselves, we need to acknowledge that we do so because we’ve made a judgment that we don’t wish to be truly separate — not because Joseph is our model or because The Torah Says So(TM), but because that’s how we’ve judged our obligations and our places in the world as Jews and as people.

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

10,000 Lawyers for Shavuot

Tomorrow evening marks Shavuot. Among many Jews, Shavuot is called z’man mattan torateinu, the traditional reckoning of the day when the Torah was given to the Israelites at Sinai (literally the time of the giving of our Torah).

In some respects, the biblical story tied to Shavuot is more foundational to Judaism’s self-understanding for much of the past 2000 years than is Passover: engagement with the text and the rules laid out in the Torah is in large part what gave Judaism its shape after the destruction of the Second Temple. Many Jews mark Shavuot with some amount of Torah study, including the notable practice of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which is more or less an all-nighter of Torah study.

Finding special meaning in the rules of the Torah on account of the idea of revelation – which is what Shavuot essentially celebrates – isn’t much of a Humanistic Jewish pastime, and so the traditional understanding of Shavuot doesn’t fit easily for many Humanistic Jews. There’s a historical foundation underneath Shavuot that connects to the first fruits of the harvest in the land of Israel, and that connection to nature moves many Humanistic Jews. Others take the idea of study and broaden it out, so that Shavuot ties to the broader ideas of Jewish learning and the vast expanse that is Jewish literary history.

This year, however, I’ve found myself centering the ideas of Torah and covenant – though not revelation – in my own understanding of Shavuot. And I promise that, by the time we’re done, you’ll understand the title of this post.

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Of Sex, Leprosy of a House, and Humanism

(NOTE: The following was the script I prepared for delivery as a d’var Torah, aimed at folks who had never encountered Humanistic Judaism before, at a special Humanistic Jewish Shabbat service I led at Sixth & I Synagogue on April 27, 2018. As it happens, I forgot to print my talk, and delivered substantially the same talk – but not in these words. So, here’s the prepared speech that went…sort of…undelivered.)

If you follow the Torah reading cycle – and actually, even if you don’t, because it turns out calendars don’t ask for our opinions – this week is a double Torah portion: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are usually pretty high up on the list of Torah portions that, if you’re having a bat or bar mitzvah, you really don’t want to get. They’re not quite as apparently boring as last week, when there are multiple chapters on what to do about leprosy. There’s even a process for what happens if your house gets leprosy!

Even if they’re not as weird as all that, this week’s Torah portions aren’t exactly the easiest topic-wise, because they touch on all manner of rather adult topics: other than setting up the process for Yom Kippur, these portions spend a lot of time talking about forbidden sexual relationships.

In fact, when you double-up Achrei Mot and Kedoshim, you double-up how much time you spend reading about forbidden sexual relationships. I mean, sure, there’s also a sort of affirming chunk in Leviticus 19 that seems to restate some of the really basic, “everyone agrees murder is bad” rules. Do we really need both Leviticus 18 and 20? Do we really need to read twice about the people you’re not permitted to have sex with?

But, I’m actually sort of excited to talk about this section of the Torah. As seemingly weird as some of these laws are, they’re actually really important – even if you don’t follow any of them. Continue reading

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

A Stumbling Block

So, there’s a joke that’s funny to rabbis and cantors (and almost no one else!) that their favorite day is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month) Cheshvan, the first day of the second month of the Jewish calendar year. Why? Because Cheshvan has no holidays–finally, a break!

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan is on Saturday. 🙂 Not that I haven’t been or won’t be busy. Just that, you know, it’s a little bit lighter of a schedule in theory.

More seriously: presently the US social and political system is in a state of ongoing chaos, and it’s definitely the case that there are so many serious issues to address in an urgent manner that you can experience decision fatigue just trying to figure out where to place your efforts, or you can spend your time jumping from issue to issue and gaining little traction. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I have another issue for you to be aware of.

Let’s talk about stumbling blocks.

Leviticus 19:14 conveys as a law for Israelites, “and before the blind (Heb. v’lifnei ivver) do not put a stumbling block.” Thus, in Jewish tradition, this principle is called lifnei ivver. The rabbinic tradition takes this principle and expands it beyond its literal meaning to include cases of deception based on bad information. Rashi explains lifnei ivver to mean that one should not put a stumbling block “before the person who is blind with respect to the [particular] matter: do not give him improper advice. Do not say, sell me your land and take for yourself an ass: for you are skirting around him and taking it [the field] from him.” In a sense, then, the rabbinic tradition regarded the plain sense of lifnei ivver as being completely obvious. Of course you don’t put a stumbling block before someone who is actually blind; the Torah doesn’t bother with the completely obvious stuff. It must, they thought, mean something deeper.

And now, let’s talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Enacted during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the law placed affirmative obligations upon (among others) places of public accommodation to ensure that their premises and services were accessible to individuals with various forms of disability. This was to be done by means of “reasonable accommodation.” Heaven and earth need not be moved, but reasonable steps must be taken to ensure access.

How does one make sure this happens, since the federal government wasn’t going to send out inspectors to measure ramps, assess sound levels, test gas pumps, etc.? One of the enforcement mechanisms in the ADA permits lawsuits by individuals affected by the failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The fact of inaccessibility, together with proof that there were no reasonable accommodations made, is enough to succeed in many of these cases. The ADA permits the payment of attorney fees for the plaintiff who succeeds in such cases, but otherwise no damages are assessed; instead, the business is required by the court to remedy the situation.

But that was 1990, and this is 2017.

This year, Representative Poe (TX), with several others, has introduced H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. (See bill details here.) I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. It would amend the ADA to bar a lawsuit unless notice has been provided and a fixed period of time (60 days after notice for a reply, plus another 60 days for implementation of an accommodation) has passed without compliance by the possible defendant.

Understand precisely what this does. This kills an enforcement mechanism of the 1990 law.

“Why?,” one might ask. “After all, it’s giving the business a chance to fix the problem.”

Here is what the notice must be: “written notice specific enough to allow such owner or operator to identify the barrier.” And from the date of the notice, the owner or operator can’t be sued unless they “fail to provide [within 60 days of the notice] … a written description outlining improvements that will be made to remove the barrier,” or “fail[] to remove the barrier or to make substantial progress in removing the barrier” within 120 days after the notice.

Questions to ask:

  • How specific is specific enough? What does “identify” mean? What does “barrier” mean? (In case you’re wondering, the law doesn’t actually define “barrier,” and ordinarily uses “barrier” in conjunction with physical or institutional features of premises.)
  • What kind of description outlines improvements? Is a written statement of, “Yeah, we’ll take care of that” enough? What does “outlining” mean?
  • What is “substantial progress”? And if you start, do you have to finish? Or can you point to your progress and stop there?

So, let’s sum up: your average person is not going to be able to meet a lot of these requirements. They need a lawyer to make that happen in many cases.

Lawyers usually want to get paid so they and their families can eat. Under the ADA, the lawyer gets paid in a successful suit or – only if the client has money – because the client pays out of pocket.

And now, here are hundreds, and maybe thousands of dollars of legal work that has to be done on spec, because lots of persons with disabilities don’t have money to pay a lawyer.

So, we have 1) delays, 2) inability to hire lawyers, and 3) a law drafted so poorly that maybe nothing ever really has to be fixed.

In any case, I think Sen. Tammy Duckworth has it right:

This offensive legislation would segregate the disability community, making it the only protected class under civil rights law that must rely on “education” — rather than strong enforcement — to guarantee access to public spaces.

Take the time to read her op-ed, as she explains how unnoticeable differences become stumbling blocks that she didn’t recognize and never would have – until she herself became a person with a disability.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and legislators who no doubt parade their adherence to “biblical principles” are sponsors of this bill. Rep. Poe, the principal sponsor, “is a student of the Bible, and loves the Old Testament.”

Leviticus 19:14 is in “the Old Testament.” Perhaps Rep. Poe forgot? Or perhaps Rep. Poe and others care more about business’s desires than individual persons’ needs.

What can you do? You can contact your representatives and the members of the House Judiciary Committee and, if you oppose this bill, let them know.

And there you go: no break for Cheshvan.

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons"

“Give Us an Inheritance”: Patriarchy and the Five Daughters of Zelophehad

I had reason recently to read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27 and 35, and…

I lost you right there, didn’t I? Because you’re thinking, “Zelo…who? I can’t even say that.” (Ze-lof-e-had. Now you can say it.)

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from

The Daughters of Zelophehad from “The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons”

Right, so, back to his daughters.

In Numbers 27, we find a story in which Zelophehad has died without any sons, but with five daughters–Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. No surviving sons poses a problem for inheritance purposes: who gets the land if there are no sons but there are daughters? Israelite law is constructed around inheritance through sons, after all.

Zelophehad’s daughters go to the tent of meeting (we’re still in the wilderness here–this is before the story of crossing the Jordan River in the book of Joshua) and, we are told, say to Moses and Elazar (this is also after Aaron’s death, and Elazar is his son and successor), “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the group that rebelled against Yahweh–among Korach’s group. He died on account of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from among his family [i.e., his specific tribe] because he didn’t have a son?! Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers.” In other words: our father died, but our family shouldn’t disappear–so give us the portion of land our father would have received.

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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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