Friday, March 19, 2010

Vayikra—House Rules

Historians often grant certain eras chronological labels that often lie outside said eras actual chronology: e.g., the twentieth century is theorized to have begun with the onset of World War I and have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall; or, that the “Sixties” actually began with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 1964 and ended with Watergate. In a certain sense [leHavdil], Sefer Vayikra can be determined to truly begin with Parshas Teruma, where construction of the Mishkan—the first incarnation of “G-d's House”—is begun, and could almost be said to end in Parshas Acharei Mos, Chapter 18, where the halachic inclination of the Biblical text starts to move away from its almost heretofore exclusive focus on korbanos and other “kodashim”.

It is also this stretch of Chumash that, aside from being the more difficult and involved stretch inside, is also the least taught, at least in most conventional chinuch circles. As I discussed in Vayikra-Tzav: Cleanup, this is midly ironic, being that the first five pesukim in this week's parsha are, according to some strands of tradition, supposed to be the first ones to be taught. Expanding on the more particular “teachable moment” I illustrated then [to “use spiritual endeavors [] to illustrate the idea of why stealing is wrong”], one can generalize this notion, in a certain sense, to the idea about how to get one’s house in order before putting it to its appropriate use. Indeed, it might make sense that Ki Sisa interrupts between Teruma/Tetzaveh and Vayakhel/Pekudei: it took more than one shot to get it right [actual “mukdam/me-uchar” notwithstanding.]

Unfortunately, once again I have to digress into an inyan I’ve discussed repeatedly here [Re'eh--Dry Cleaning; Ki Savo--Child Predators: Makah Be-seser] that just doesn’t seem to go away.

It’s been posited that one of the reasons that moderns can’t relate to animal sacrifice—the linchpin of Sefer Vayikra—is that the ability to perceive its importance was dulled when the Anshei Knesses ha-Gedola slaughtered the Yetzer Hara of idolatry; there was a concomitant dulling of spiritual sensibilities [see Yoma 69b]. However, recent news indicates that there is still a lion in the mikdash, as it were. Right in Jerusalem.

Maybe there is a true, ironclad halachic due process for the trial and removal of predators in chinuch. However, what has emanated from the crisis of a prominent Jerusalem Rosh ha-Yeshiva who was exiled to the northern reaches of Israel rather than disciplined indicates that the emphasis is still on the “process” rather than the removal of potential harm to talmidim.

Also, while the recent treatment of the issue by Rabbi Nathan Lopez-Cardozo was somewhat closer to the mark, I have to disagree with one of his assertions: “should we now believe that all of Rabbi Elon's teachings were hypocritical and must be banned? Definitely not.” If allegations of misconduct can be proven, any offending educator’s entire derech and life work gets SHOULD get called into question: there is no way to elevate one’s students while inflicting this kind of harm on them at the same time. When a chillul shamayim beseser is nigleh like this, everything has to be reassessed.

I am usually loath to ever give credence to those to who would say that “because of X, Y happened”, as we have seen with certain declarations vis-à-vis the Haiti earthquakes; this is an unfortunate practice that should probably be left in the repertoire of minhagei American Fundamentalist religious right. However, I might be less prejudiced to an equivalent declaration to the effect that the inability and/or unwillingness to slay the contemporary “lion in the mikdash” correlates to any Jersualem crises. In any case, the impulse for clerical self-preservation will prevent such a thing from ever happening.

In anyone going to get this house in order?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ki Sisa/Parah—Reboot

Ki Sisa might actually be the one parsha where I might welcome the “educational misimpressions” I have referred to in other posts, where I might have simply accepted that Bnei Yisrael actually worshiped the Egel, and that both the tshuva and the punishment were commensurate with the sin. Yet, like everything else, it’s obviously never that simple.

Even here.

Whether it’s Rav Dessler explaining that it might simply have been a question of timing, as the nachash nechoshes of parshas chukkas served as a Divinely commanded analog of what the egel might have been had it originated from On High [a major distinction, to be sure]. Or, one could take it as far as Rav Isaac Sher, who goes as far as to say that even the construction of the egel was not in and of itself a sin.

So—if such a miniscule amount of people were actually out-and-out guilty [0.5% percent of the eligible 603,550; none of the women, children, or Leviim were involved at all]—why the draconian Divine response? Why even the threat of kelaya? It starts to make sense that Ki Sisa and Parah follow immediately after Purim, the holiday where we celebrate the cancellation of such a gezera.

It all has to do with relationships. Among the assorted mixed metaphors attached to Matan Torah is, of course, the chuppah metaphor [one of which are the inability of a me-anes to ever divorce, and kfiah har ke-gigis being the ultimate “ones”…but that’s another discussion]. Consider that Matan Torah was the beginning of a very close relationship…and that any insult to that relationship, however theoretically slight, could damage it even if said insult was only one of perception [which could be exemplified by the various range of explanantions and/or “whitewashes” of the chet ha-egel, especially ones that deny that there was any “real” chet.]

To draw another analogy—and to further mix the metaphor—one can compare the beginning of a relationship to the onset of a pregnancy, when the smallest insult to the developing embryo can result in the termination of the pregnancy. Vis-à-vis relationships, anything one party does or says—even if not technically “wrong”—can but an end to the relationship. Something like that seems to be about to happen here, until Moshe’s extraordinary intervention.

And to even further confuse the picture, one can draw a thru-line of sorts that actually connects all of the arba parshiyot: shekalim in the beginning; zachor/Purim as a function of kimu v’kiblu and the actual giving of the Torah [31:18]; Parah as the chet ha-egel and its immediate aftermanth; and, finally, Chodesh as the renewal, the second giving of the luchos.

However, this is usually not the advised course of action with regard to forging a relationship. To employ yet another analogy [groan], it is advised that one not turn off ones computer and reboot if not necessary because of the damage it can do to the OS and hard drive. What we might have in the case of the egel was an unnecessary reboot.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Post-Purim Post-Part(y)m

As I did last year, I spent the bulk of the past three weeks expending my journalistic energies writing and producing the local Purim Shpiel, basically our version of the State of the Upper West Side. Unlike last year’s production however, I did manage to slip in a political statement of sorts, almost partly unwillingly: during our “Purim Update” [modeled on SNL’s “Weekend Update”], I came onstage as the President for a mock interview, in oversized ears…and a kaffiyeh draped around my shoulders.

I had actually run this by a few people around the neighborhood during the scripting phase of the shpiel and I was surprised by the number of people who seemed to be find the notion offensive…not so much the physical alteration [grudgingly admitting that I was not, exactly, employing a caricature analogous to blackface], but the implication—or implications—regarding the President’s perceived religious and Judeophobic inclinations. It occurred to me that, obviously, some Orthodox Jews with more liberal political inclinations who voted for Obama may feel somewhat defensive about their electoral choice, as if they are trying to pre-empt accusations of placing personal sentiment over communal responsibility [as you will see below, I would not nearly go that far], and my costume was another reminder of how they felt. It also occurred to me that, like the New Yorker cover of the Obamas as, respectively, an African Muslim and an Angela Davis clone, my costume may have been a slight dig at those in my community who actually believe the absolute worst about the President.

As can be evidenced by my writings in this [and my other] blog, I have had serious misgivings about this President and his Administration, not only [but certainly not least] due to his Middle East policies—although, again, I have been fully open about that particular “bias”. However, I have been equally uncomfortable with the tactics of the far-right tarring the President as either Muslim, or a terrorist, or a communist. [V’hki teima that he’s a socialist—well, keep in mind that at a recent CPAC conference, Newt Gingrich quoted Camus and Orwell to warn against the dangers of socialism, forgetting that both Camus and Orwell were democratic socialists. Lomed mikol adam, indeed.] This may be due to my LEFTOVER goyish college-nurtured liberal sentiments. It also might be because, sometimes, extremism in defense of anything is a vice, as can be evidenced the damage done to cause of anti-communism by Joe McCarthy.

However, should one need more “traditional” evidence, one need only look at the Purim story.

One of the best treatments of Megillas Esther I have seen is Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn, which is basically a political analysis of the sefer. One of the points Hazony makes is that Mordechai’s refusal to bow down before Haman was not necessarily just a religious statement [although Rabbi Howard Jachter’s Why Did Mordechai Refuse to Bow Down to Haman? basically covers the issue of Haman’s questionable status as Avoda Zara], but also a political statement: Mordechai was essentially protesting Achashversosh’s dispensing of the political process and instituting a totalitarian dictatorship through Haman in a specific response to Bigsan and Teresh’ assassination attempt.

With regard to my point about an extremist ad hominem approach to opposing Obama and his policies, my points from the Esther story would be this: one, we see that Mordechai’s response was measured, in that it took nine years from the assassination attempt to the genocide decree; two, his refusal to bow down was not even unanimously approved by the rabbinnic authorities of the time; and three, as the gemara points out, Achashverosh was as much an eliminationist antisemite as Haman, but Mordechai never takes any political action against him.

I don’t think anyone can characterize Obama as an eliminationist anti-Semite, and although I would certainly agree that his foreign policy is on the whole not friendly to Israel, I can think of at least three other Presidents whose policies were even less favorable [Carter, Bush I, and Eisenhower]. I think any communal effort expended at painting Obama himself as an anti-Semite on the level of, say, Bin Laden or Ahmadinejad only serves to hurt our credibility in our fight against the real antisemites. The story of Mordechai’s political machinations may teach us this: mistakes will be made, possibly even ones of life or death; but we must always be judicious and never prejudicial.