Friday, October 30, 2009

Lech Lecha—Good To Be The King?

The first recorded instance of a “declared” war between “kingdoms” or otherwise defined polities occurs in this weeks parsha. The seeds of war, however, are sown in the story of Migdal Bavel, the first instance of a totalitarian project surrounding a “cult of personality”—Nimrod—who raised himself to level of a god and got people to believe him. [Although one might note that G-d waited for the project to get to a certain point: according to the medrash, it was when those who died on the project were ignored but broken bricks were eulogized. Even the “communist” Nimrodians had their corporate priorities.]

Thwarted in the 11th hour only by Divine intervention, Nimrod—now identified as Amrafel—does the next best thing: he invents the state, or even the concept of the polity, with him at the center; 14:1 is the first time the word “melech” appears in the Torah. It only takes until 14:2 that the word “milchama” appears for the first time.

Leaving aside the obvious propensity of localities to engage in belligerencies [one might view professional sports as a healthy modern sublimation of this tendency], the proximity of melech and milchama indicate that a government has violence built right into DNA. That also can be a jump off point to explain why the Mishnah in Avos [2:3] says “Watch out for the government: They befriend a person to meet their own needs, appearing friendly when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person in their moment of distress” [trans. Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz].

It would seem that politicians from Machiavelli all the way to Barack Obama are familiar with this Mishnaic proscription, only they have taken it as an instruction in how to run government. If anyone wonders why the Obama administration has backed off its “commitments” to Sudan and has failed to intervene on the side of the “angels” in Iran…[or why George HW Bush deigned to help the uprising against Saddam in 1991… why LBJ didn’t lift a finger during the Prague spring in 1968…why Ike didn’t stop the Russians in Budapest in 1956…FDR didn’t stop the Holocaust…Wilson didn’t stop the Turks in Armenia in 1916] this Mishnah should provide one instruction. [In her history classic “A Problem From Hell”, Samantha Power conclusively proves the US State policy is to employ diplomacy to avoid intervention at all costs during genocidal episodes].

But a real illustration of the nature of power, its propensity to violence and tenedency to shirk responsibility may be taken from Maurice Sendak’s children’s parable “Where The Wild Things Are”, now a major feature film. Max convinces the creatures about to eat him that he has immense powers and he is immediately crowned king; however, he discovers that power is not all its cracked up to be [being admonished that repeatedly that he was “supposed to make everything better”], and he finds himself mostly at the mercy of Carol, the most powerful and likely de facto leader of the Wild Things, who seems to exude power but is unwilling or unable to use it responsibly—which is why he has to find a King in the first place: so someone else can be “responsible”. In the end, when Max leaves and is told “You’re the first king we haven’t eaten”, the suicidal nature of power is revealed.

In the end, a reversal of the feminist dictum “the personal is political” may be in order: that is, the political is always personal. Its no accident that Nimrod sets himself up ass the first king in the Torah; last week, in making himself “a mighty hunter before G-d” [10:9] used his ego to eventually set himself up as G-d’s biggest rival [if not, kevayachol, equal], therefore establishing forever the nature of power and its tedencies toward the absolute. Max may have been a child Nimrod with no idea of what it meant to be responsible; Carol could have been a Nimrod, except that he may have had enough of a conscience to realize that there was some responsibility involved in leading. Nimrod himself, apparently, was so good at aggregating followers that his ego inflated to the point where he never had to grow up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Noach--Sex and Violence

What is Sefer Bereishis about? What, in a nutshell, is its purpose?

If you take either the literal translations of the five Chumashim [Beginning, Names, Called, Desert, Words] or the given “non-Jewish” names of the Books [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy], you usually get a clear indication of a/the unifying theme running through that particular chumash--the exception of Bereishis/Genesis.

It might be because it’s the only sefer that deals with the world at large outside of Bnei Yisrael at any length.

It might also be because of the 2528 years covered in Chumash, Bereishis covers 2238 of them, 1948 of them in Bereishis and Noach.

I will submit that the thread running through Sefer Bereishis is—relationships. Specifically—adult relationships [well, ostensibly adult relationships]. Even more specifically—sex and violence and the inexorable link between them. If you look at the first ten parshiyos, every one of them has either a central relations-related story, usually right in the text. [Homework: go find them.]

Go beyond that, however, the stories surrounding these relationships—and their attendant “relations” [and, in many cases the bloodshed that results]—reveal the inherent tension between a G-d given morality and human beings trying [or, as the case too often may be, trying not to] both intuit and act in accordance with said morality. One way to do that might be to try to behave in a way that demonstrates a complete absence of said ethic: the first series of events precipitating the mabul [no pun intended] in Ch 6 [“…u’banos yuldi lahem”] may actually start earlier, at 4:19: the story of how Lemech took two wives and played blatant favorites [or, to be even more blatant, how he created an androcentric sex ethic: according to Sefer HaYashar 7, pregnancy was deemed an “abomination” in this period.]

It is, therefore, no accident the sexual of the “zayin mitzvos” are actually learned from a series of remazim in parshas Bereishis 2:24 [see also Sanhedrin 58a] as opposed to from Noach itself. [By way of contrast, murder is beferush in Noach, though Kayin obviously betrays in Bereishis that he knew what he’d done to Hevel was wrong—and why.] The mabul, among other things, was consequential to the absolute complete lack of an ethic surrounding relationships—and that what began with sex [se Rashi on “mikol asher bacahru”, 6:2] usually ended in violence [“chamas”.]

Unfortunately, this lesson seemed to be lost on Ham and Canaan…because almost as soon as G-d promises that there will be no repeat performance of the mabul [9:12-17], they engage in—depending on who you ask [cf. Sanhedrin 70a]—sodomy, incest, rape, and castration. The justice this time comes in the form of the curse of eternal servitude Noach places upon Canaan and his descendants. [Canaan apparently returned the favor with his “five commandments” to his descendants: “love each other, love theft, love wantonness, hate your masters and never speak the truth” [Pesachim 113b]]. Also, the above section is the first—and only—detailed homosexual act in the entire Tanach [the anshei Sodom outside Lots house never got to “know” what they wanted to] and its not an accident that there are so many sordid behaviors attendant to the incident, which might shed some light on the Torah’s attitude towards homosex: it ipso facto involves violence being done to [at least] one party, in that view.

I’ll take it a step further: it might actually detail the Torah’s ambivalent attitude toward male sex drive, [the Talmud’s misigivings about the female sex drive [see especially Sotah 20b] may be balanced by the Biblical one regarding the male if you look hard enough], as it might always have an element of “violence”—certainly a level of “invasion”—attached to it. [Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon—radical feminists who went further and theorized that all heterosex was ipso facto rape-- may have been closer to the mark than they realized.] The classic reason given for mot making a bracha on sex is “i efshar bli ta’aroves hayetzer”: this may be one reason.

In theory, it may explain the powerful symbolism behind bris mila. In recent years there have been various movements to either ban circumcision, or reverse it, or declare it as mutilarory a practice as clitoridectomies, or—pace Rambam [but in reverse]—conemn it as unnecessarily denying sexual pleasure. [New York magazine recently had a pro/con feature on the subject]. These people miss the point. Leaving aside Rambam’s attitude [which is questionable, both hashkafically and medically], circumcision may be a symbolic way of “leveling the playing field”, as it were: taking away the violent dimension of sex. [The arayos yetzer is enough; the damim yetzer just makes things even more complicated].

There’s another element to all this, however: it involves how to educate about sex from a Torah point of view, particularly since the Chumash is so chock full of it [albeit couched in as oblique language as possible]. Before I even moved up to the upper west side, the first speech I ever heard the nieghborhood’s mora d’asra [Rabbi Allen Schwartz, OZ] give started with this question: why are we so reluctant to address issues of relations in chinuch [e.g. when we skip perek 38 in Vayeishev, dealing with Er and Onan and Yeahuda and Tamar], but we have no compunctions about teaching the mass bloodshed in places like Sefer Yehoshua.

I don’t remember how he resolved the issue at the time, but as I was tackling this topic here, I realized that actually teaching the issues—again, however obliquely—may not be something to be afraid of. From my experience—when I learned, for example, the gemara in Kesuvos dealing with pesach pasuah—there is something about dealing with the topic of sex from a halachic/Talmudic point of view that takes all the salaciousness right out of the issue. I would think that applies even in the internaet age when the imagery associated with arayos is increasingly prevalent and less and less subtle.

I’ll end with another corollary: it was said regarding women’s Torah education at the turn of the last century that if women did not learn Torah, they would certainly learn tiflut. I’ll proprose something that may not be as radical as you think: if the next generations don’ get their “relational” information from “safer” [i.e, chinuch] settings—they’ll get it elsewhere.

If they haven’t already.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bereishis—Creationism Ex Nihilo

I’ve said before that the Torah sometimes isn’t as “frum” as it is made out to be.

Despite the importunations of the Gemara to not delve too deeply into ma’ashe bereishis [like ma’aseh merkava], I [again] will go out on a limb and proffer the following corollary/analog to my above statement: The Torah is not as creationist as it is made out to be.

This means:

*the sheshes yemei bereishis don’t add up to 144 hours;
*the whole of creation is NOT 5770 years old;
*there may have been “humans” before Adam HaRishon [though not with a neshama];
*evolution is emphatically not in conflict with ikkarei emuna;

The topic has been beaten to death, and all the evidence has been in print [and elsewhere] for a while. Authors such as Aryeh Kaplan, Nathan Aviezer, Gerald Schroeder and Nosson Slifkin have dealt with the topic expertly—and anyone with any modicum of intellectual honesty would be forced to admit that the ban on Slifkin was motivated by edu-political, rather than truly hashkafic, concerns.

Considering the overwhelming evidence, one might even wonder if one who actually believes in the sheshes yemei bereishis following the “creationist” credo might be flirting with what Yeshayahu Leibowitz considered “bibliolatry.” [I, personally, won’t go that far. Or did I just?...]

Instead, the “bibliolatrous” focus deflects from what the bigger fear is: if we have to explain ma’aseh bereishis in a more complicated [i.e. scientific] way, it will call everything else into question. That has been a problem—for people who believe in the “Bible”, as opposed to Torah. The “three stooges”—Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have mostly focused their attacks on Christianity [as did their “spiritual” forefather, Bertrand Russell], though no one should assume that any of them are sympathetic to Judaism [Hitchens’ evisceration of Chanuka at the end of his most recent tome being a case in point. I respond to Hitchens’ assertions re Chanuka in my upcoming piece on Vayeshev]. We should, however, ultimately remember that the religious right's battles are NOT ours.

Partly in response to the “three stooges”, there’s the “Evolution of G-d” which I haven’t read, but if you read the reviews [particularly Jerry Coyne in the New Republic[1]], it seems as if the book is about the scientific equivalent of the Bible codes [already mathematically debunked by Prof. Barry Simon [2], who definitely has no religious ax to grind.] We do ourselves no favors—and really do not uphold our credibility—when we “force” science to conform to religion [defense of the Torah Codes being paradigmatic: “the Torah is true, so the codes have to be”.] This is nearly as bad as if we express any sympathy for the viewpoints of those who think that creationist museums in Kentucky or Arkansas are representative of the true point of reconciliation between science and religion.

Let’s be clear: I believe in G-d--THE One G-d--and that He is the creator of all things [there can only be One.] I also believe there’s an evolutionary process and He’s behind all of it [if that description is incomplete, fine; that alone doesn’t make me a kofer]. However, I believe that any defense of “creationism” against a perceived conspiracy of science—whether motivated by politics or actual belief—is not Judaism’s most salient option. When G-d Himself says “lulei osi azvu ve’torasi shamaru”, He’s making a point about priorities, almost as if to say: it’s not helping even if you think it is.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vezos HaBracha/Simchas Torah—Brotherhood

Devarim 33:9-- “He says to his father and his mother, ‘I don’t recognize him/her’; and his brother he does not acknowledge; and his children he does not know..."

The recent news that J Street has been the recipient of generous sums of funding from Arab and Muslim groups that are at least nominally hostile to Israel, if not outright antisemitic, that the non-Jewish enemies of Israel have caught on to making common cause with Jews seeking to undermine the Jewish character of Israel if not make it disappear outright [at least, those who aren’t Neturei Karta] is unfortunately never surprising.

A recent article in Harper’s by Naomi Klein—“Minority Death Match”—may provide a window into the new “replacement theology” of J Streeters and their “progressive” chevra. To be sure, J Street are probably not “frum” enough in their adherence to progressive ikkarei emuna, at least in the mind of those like Klein, who seems to have wrested the mantle of formulator of said tenets from the likes of Michael Lerner. [And say what you will about Lerner…he has a son serving in the Israeli army.]

In other words, its not surprising that the Left has employed their own version of 33:9. What might be more surprising is that, from the Right [again, not even having to mention Neturei Karta], occasionally we might actually be SUGGESTING a version of 33:9.

For Jews to get upset that evangelicals do exactly what their faith demands of them is ridiculous. In the free market of ideas, what suffuses the Jews to think that we can’t complete? Let the evangelicals do what they like. To whatever extent they succeed, the indictment is not on them, but on us.

This from an Orthodox Rabbi [Daniel Lapin] who has adopted conservative ikkarei emunah with the claim that they closely dovetail the real ones. Which is nearly as disingenuous as the J Street/Tikkun progressives claiming their “theology” is, or should be, the I’d like to see if Lapin would express similar sentiments if you replace the “evangelicals” with “radical Islamists” or “homosexuals”. After all, he actually mentions the “free market” beferush, so maybe their expressing their “beliefs” falls into that category of a conservative ikkar emuna.

I would say that ALL of these cases, to various extents, embody 33:9 [with Neturei Karta serving as a paradigm].

And, I’m willing to actually give the progressives a leg up here: first, because at least I don’t have to countenance the impression that they’re on my side; and second, for a very salient historical reason, articulated by Michael Medved, in a recent Commentary symposium addressing Norman Podhoretz’ query “Why are Jews liberals?”:

The liberal belief that Jews should be pro-choice and pro–gay marriage has nothing to do with connecting to Jewish tradition and everything to do with disassociating from Christian conservatives. According to this argument, Catholic and evangelical attempts to “impose” their values on social issues represent a theocratic threat to American pluralism that has allowed Judaism to thrive. Jews, like all Americans, vote not so much in favor of politicians they admire as they vote against causes and factions they loathe and fear. Jews fear the GOP as the “Christian party,” and as the sole basis of Jewish identity involves rejection of Christianity, Jews will continue to reject -Republicans and conservatism.

As you may have guessed, I have no problem with that sentiment; maybe I’m ging the liberals too much credit, but doest the Gemara say about Mordechai that “since he rejected idolatry; and all who reject idolatry are called Yehudi (Jew)" (Megillah 13a)? Israel Zangwill [who married out] once wrote “The Jews are a frightened people: sixteen centuries of Christian love have broken down their nerves.”

Obviously, this is oversimplifying, and yes, Christianity is certainly no longer the driving force behind apocalyptic anti-Semitism; that theology has [ironically] been replaced. Still, one who do well to remember a converse of “Es echav lo hikir” [or is is inverse? Contrapositive? Now you know why I gave up on the LSAT’s]:

“Hatzileni miyad achi miyad Esav”.

Beware of any proclamations of brotherhood, whether it comes from our brothers…or our other brothers.