Friday, September 25, 2009

Ha’azinu: “It’s Not Personal; It’s Business”

History/Never repeats/I tell myself/Before I go to sleep—Split Enz

For most of the past decade, I’ve spent a good portion of the Rosh Hashana—whether at home or in shul, during a lull in prayers [or sometimes if I get bored during the actual prayers]—reading through Shoftim and/or Melachim. The stories therein generally brought home two particular points to me: one, that people—particularly my own, as the stories were generally about them—oftentimes indulged in behaviors that were grossly criminal and immoral, even given the extreme cultural differences between their times and ours [the ma’aseh of pilegesh b’givah in Shoftim 19 is paradigmatic]; and two, many of said incidents were perpetrated by individuals with WAY too much power and/or success [not for naught does one find the verse “And he continued in the evil ways of his father[s]” recurring in both books of Kings].

Mostly, it was an exercise in making myself feel better during the time of year that my tradition calls for an intense degree of introspection, both because I didn’t a) want to think I was ever that bad and b) not having to kick myself for mot having reached what ever “madrega” I was “destined” for [obviously, the bigger they were, the harder they would fall]. [This year, instead of perusing the neviim, I found myself reading about Jews in Sing Sing, and Jewish criminality in US from 1900-1940. Le’havdil, of course, but a similar theme applies.]

Similarly, around this time of year I remember my initial reaction to the Oslo process which was truly commenced on September 13, 1993 [right before Rosh Hashana] with the famous White House handshake, outside of the obvious political implications: the “frumer” elements in and out of Israel would be quicker to proclaim the need for teshuva to counteract the effects rather than resort to all-out vicious opposition. I can’t really speak for whether there was actually any introspection within those communities and its members, but my expected public proclamations and calls for tshuva didn’t happen.

When you get down to it, all of Sefer Dvarim—from the opening parsha thru the end of Vayelech—Moshe basically tells bnei yisrael two things: 1) You were bad. A lot. 2) After I pass, you’re gonna be even worse. Parshas Haazinu basically encapsulates this entire notion in peotic form [according to the midrashim, Moshe had Bnei Yisrael recite it with him responsively, lest they miss the point]. Obvious questions are raised: what is the purpose of such a national endeavor if Jewish life—and, by extension, our history—is one long rerun of the Tochacha? And does this affect any notion of an intellectually honest bechira chafshis, if our collective gross misbehavior has been decreed from on high?

While those are important questions, they are almost ancillary to the real main theme of Haazinu, which might serve to reframe he entire cycle of “Were bad, Will be bad” that runs through Sefer Devarim.

One might, in a sense, see a form of a pre-emptive rejoinder to what Bnei Yisrael tell Shmuel when they request that he set up a monarchy, so that “ve’hayinu ke-chol ha-goyim”. In a sense, Moshe is telling Bnei Yisrael throughout Sefer Devarim and especially in Haazinu: Don’t expect that your Covenant with the Divine is an ipso facto guarantee that your lives will be less nasty, brutish and short as anyone from kol hagoyim—in fact, chances are that you’ll fail, occasionally spectacularly, and incur what might seem to you and/or others excessive nastiness and brutishness, but is actually almost a built in consequence of your relationship with G-d, the only thing that makes you chosen and “special”. We may take this a step further when we see how G-d Himself will avenge his servants—but, while He k’vayachol takes our persecutions “personally”, he doesn’t spend all that much time [in Haazinu’s pesukim, anyway] detailing how he will facilitate OUR revenge: He does it all for us.

And/or Him. It’s personal AND business.

But there’s another, more positive message we can take: there is a “happy ending” to the cycle of history, hinted at in the [admittedly violent imagery of an] ending of the “poem” section of Haazinu. And while Moshe states at the beginning “Zechor yemos olam, binu shnos dor vador” [“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past”] [32:7]—Moshe certainly would not object to Shlomo Hamelech’s admonition regarding nostalgia: “Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this” [Koheles 7:10]

I propose that the historical example of the recent rebirth of Israel--but particularly as a secular democratic state—is actually the sign we would be looking for. I submit this is counter intuitive, if radical, but I would use this assertion to futher support my point: Israel is the only state in the world that, in the democratic Zeitgeist of our day and age, should be allowed to have any religious character allowed in its makeup at all [and the only state in the world that should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, if only because we invented them. But that’s another discussion]. This is in no small measure due to the ironic reason that only Jews ostensibly subvert our own religious “prerogatives” and keep the state from becoming a theocratic dictatorship [which it would be without a direct Divine imprimatur.] Can you imagine any other state with a religious foundation even allowing that sort of subversion to its “traditions”? The only other example I can think of that comes close is Ireland [and only because they elected women as their President[s] and liberalized their abortion laws, through clenched teeth, in complete contradistinction to their “traditions”], but when you consider how its adoption of Catholicism in the 16th century was a histori-political accident in the first place, one can argue that its claims to its “inexorable” spiritual roots are of far more recent vintage than ours. To those who would say that Israel should more closely emulate theocratic regimes, I would venture that we’ve demonstrated the opposite [with lots of help from contemporary theocracies]. Religion and government, religion in government—is OUR business.

[No one else would ever follow our example [or would want to]; such concepts are completely foreign to them; owing in no small part to my Judeo-centrism, I would almost say it is due to some deep-seated fear that we’re right and they’re wrong; the historical example of St. John Chrysostom’s declaration that persecution of Jews be stepped up for this very reason provides a clear illustration of this. I would ever go so far as to say it drives much of current Islamic anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. But don’t quote me on—oops.]

[Oh, and as a mildly tangential closing of the circle regarding happy endings: in both of the books I read this past Rosh Hashana—and other books about US Jewish criminality in the early part of the previous century—after 1950 or thereabouts there was a VERY significant dropoff in Jewish criminality in this country, and for the most part it has stayed that way.]

Gmar chasima tova and mechila on the House.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Nitzavim-Vayelech: Redemption Song

We thought we had enough destruction last week in the tochacha; apparently not, because after that comes a more personalized tochacha aimed at the one who engages in “shrirus halev”, [lit. “the path of my heart”] which I will loosely translate [this time, anyway] as an almost unthinking, reflexive position regarding almost anything that could have a self-serving agenda. The Torah virtually guarantees his destruction, mostly for attempting to separate his destiny from his people’s. This mini-apocalypse is followed by “hester panim” [G-d hiding His face, as it were], which Rashi terms the greatest curse of all.

I would instead like to draw an [admittedly] loose parallel between my point last week and what we see this week. I mentioned that the last and theoretically worst thing in the tochacha last week was G-d’s warning that we would all be returned to Egypt in boats in a kind of reverse Exodus/Splitting of the Sea. I mentioned that this may have been a [very disguised] blessing, as once we all realized we were in the same boat, it might serve as a unifier of sorts.

In this weeks parsha we have a similar theme: specifially, the notion of “hester panim” that occurs in Nitzavim, which one might see in this case as a sort of moral fog, exemplified by the various results of “shrirus halev” on the left and right. On the left, one only has to look at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where a brouhaha was touched off by the inclusion of a film about Tel Aviv, and petition declaring the “object[ion] to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign’ which was circulated and by an array of various artists/celebrities ( A quick perusal of the signatories reveals a preponderance not only of Jews, but Israelis. On the opposite end of the religio-political spectrum, one might see a “shrirus halev” in insistence that one has done due diligence in combating fraud and white collar crime in the frum community by inviting an admitted malefactor [one who PLED GUILTY and agreed to a 5-year prison term] to give the opening address at a religious convention ostensibly dedicated to transparency; or the kind that insists that its more important to protect educational finances by fighting legislation to remove statutes of limitation from child abuse cases; or assuming that there is never any reason to cooperate with secular authorities, even if [or especially in] cases where grievous harm is being done to children. One might conclude that there was an agenda other than, as the Torah exhorts elsewhere, “doing right and good.”

The “moral fog” of “hester panim”, I think, is the locus of the corrective process of setting one heart right instead of assuming that one’s heart is already automatically straight. It also comes in the middle of a mess of catastrophes, instead of serving an automatic beginning of an irreversible redemptive process. In fact, in Vayelech, Moshe basically ends the Torah by telling the Jews You’re gonna mess up after I’m gone. Big time.

And then the Torah suddenly says Here the Song ends.

It’s the struggle that’s the song, whether on the personal or national level. And its ongoing, and not always pretty. However, its also possible that the most positive message can be garnered simply from the titles of the parsha: Nitzavim-Vayelech—We Stood, We Walked. We have to stand up before we move forward, and we will get knocked down repeatedly [too many times we do it to ourselves]. But—as long as we keep getting up and moving, the Song keeps playing.

Shana Tova to all.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ki Savo: Shipmates

The parsha begins with the formulation to be recited along with the bringing of the bikkurim, the recitation beginning with “arami oved avi”. Rashi ad loc quotes the classic midrash about how this posuk serves as the reference point for the concept of “machshava ke-maa’seh” regarding non-Jews’ with Judaicidal designs. The parsha ends with an ostensibly bizarre close to the “Tochachah”: “G-d will return you to Egypt in boats, along the way in which he said you would no longer see….” A closer examination of both will allow one to discern subtle variations on a particular theme.

Rashi and the midrashim both here and at the end of Vayeitzei mention that Lavan pursued Yaakov with murderous intent, only to be dissuaded by Divine vision. The Gemara [Sanhedrin 105b] notes that Bilaam was a direct descendant of Lavan, possibly even his son [some midrashim identify him AS Lavan]. The entire series of events in Parshas Balak, from the transformed-curse blessings to the incidents at Avel Shittim, can be seen as a more concerted effort on the part of Lavan’s descendants—if not Lavan himself—to “finish the job” that he wanted to, but couldn’t, at Har Gilead.

To further develop the theory, one must look at the centerpiece of the Balaamic “blessing” that went against everything he stood for: "Hen am levadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashav," "Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations" (Bemidbar 23:9). Here is a more “classic” explanation of the concept, courtesy of Rabbi Yaacov Haber:

According to Bilaamism there can never be a chosen people. It is a step backward and very dangerous for one nation to be destined to show others the way. Universality denies national uniqueness, and therefore denies the existence of a chosen people. Chazal tell us that he was called Bilaam because of his universality; “b’lo am” (without nation). He taught that everyone should shed his or her nationalism and become a “citizen of Planet Earth”. He was above politics, war, racism and power struggles. He grew to be a “prophet like Moshe” among the nations. Bilaam was the Guru of universalism. [Parshas Balak--Bilaam, Mr. Planet Earth:]

With all due respect, R’ Haber may be missing the point. While Bilaam may have had strong misgivings with a “morality” that wasn’t “universal”, evidence from the Gemara and midrashim indicate that in truth, “Bilaamism” was all about Bilaam, and the best vehicle for Bilaamism was…a cross between immorality and amorality, or even a corss between Arendtian and Dionysian totalitarianism, by not divulging his true philosophy: whether there was no such thing as right or wrong [as indicated by his use of divination] or whether it was good to be bad [indicated by the fact that he possessed “knowledge of G-d” that made it impossible for him to intellectually honestly harbor a belief that no moral distinctions existed]. Furthermore, the medrash regarding his advising Pharaoh to slaughter Jewish babies and use their blood as a leprosy cure indicates that he was not really “above politics, war, racism and power struggles”.

The real curse of “badad yishkon” might be the kinds of “friends” we actually do have [e.g., Alan Keyes, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, etc] while rather prominent members of our own people who have turned on us in the name of an ostensible Universalism [e.g. Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Ilan Pappe] or a more convoluted form of “real” Judaism [Michael Lerner, Neturei Karta, Elmer Berger].

So we don’t have to necessarily go to Egypt to be in Egypt. Nowadays we have the unique situation of having both an Eretz Yisrael and an Eretz Mitzrayim. In his Haggadah, the Netziv explains the need for G-d’s rescuing the Israelites from Egypt with both a “yad chazakah” and “zeroa netuya”—there were Jews who needed to be rescued, and the Jews who needed to be forced to leave. G-d took them both out, both ways—and krias yam suf ensured no boats were needed. So when you look at the curse of Bilaam again, you can see the connection between “arami oved avi” and returning to Egypt in boats—it’s as if at the end of the tochachah G-d is threatening to completely reverse the process of krias yam suf: a shipborne return to an Egypt that won’t even give you the courtesy of re-enslaving you.

And yet—Rashi’s elucidation of “v’ein koneh” notwithstanding [they’ll kill you without bothering to enslave you]—its possible that one can find a positive message in the boat[s]: that all of us—from Neturei Karta to Noam and Naomi—will be on the boat. Certainly NOT our “friends” from EITHER side of the political fence [more likely they’ll be fighting over who gets to cut the rope]. In any case, one might do well to remember the series of statements in Baba Basra 10b regarding the notion that tzedaka performed by aku”m is reckoned to them as a CHET. One of the reasons given is that they just do it to make us look bad; I would reckon that concept can be extended to anyone who offers friendship to us pretending that there are no strings attached--when we know better.

We should always remember who our real shipmates are.