Sunday, May 10, 2015

Emor: What Kind Of Mother…


Toya Graham, the Baltimore woman who became a media sensation when videoed beating her son about the head in the streets of Baltimore when she caught him about to throw a rock at the police while rioting with his peers, has been termed the “mother of the year” in certain circles [mostly conservative] and the paradigm of why American society is irredeemably white supremacist in other circles [mostly…other than conservative].   While very few people actually think that what she did at the moment was inappropriate, is it really the model of motherhood to exemplify?

In this week’s parsha, the megadef [blasphemer] has his maternal lineage delineated by the Torah [partly because his biological father was the ish mitzri Moshe killed—see below].   Shlomit [his mother] said “shalom” to everyone; Divri [his grandmother] was—for lack of a better term—ostensibly the quintessential Biblical yenta.

So they talked to everyone.  Was this a lesson in “tznius”?

Ostensibly, but not necessarily.  It’s more a lesson in being nondiscriminating.  Shlomit slept with the mitzri assuming it was her husband.  And the way the medrash and Rashi spells it out—he didn’t have to rape her [which was likely de rigeur in a slave society].   Aside from her apparently happy-go-lucky attitude displayed by the midrash, the way the narrative lays out about the mitzri beating the ish yisrael indicates that in most other cases the beating would have been unnecessary; a slave never has anything.  This was different.  He objected to the fact that his wife was willing if duped, and the power dynamic had to be reinforced.  So you have a clearer indicator of the wife’s inability to discriminate.

Being nondiscriminating in relationships—even without intent—was more than just sloppiness.  It might even be inferred that both Shlmoit and Divri might have pursued relationships with the masters of the time, or were willing to sleep with the enemy, and not necessarily because they felt forced.  While an enslaved population is definitely targeted to have their women exploited until they can’t figure out how to control their own lives, some women actually might go willingly to the enemy.  It therefore might be possible that this ben Dan was discriminated against because everyone knew what his mother and grandmother were about.    [The question remains why no one stepped in to try and help in out, but there doesn’t seem to have been too much time between the lawsuit and the blasphemy, so it became a moot point.]

Toya Graham—a single mother of six—clearly knew her son did not belong on the streets at that moment last week in Baltimore and, while society clearly frowns upon corporal punishment as a disciplinary method [as, for the record, does this author], at that specific moment it was not an issue of a teachable moment or even a disciplinary action.  It might very well have been a matter of life or death for him as she saw it: doing what she did to get him out of there.

Which means it’s the exception that proves the rule: the use of force as interventionary versus as disciplinary.   The real “teachable moment” is that not every disciplinary situation requires an intervention.  S’mmol docheh, yemin mekareves.

In the case of the megadef, we can see that there was a possibility that he had neither.  Obviously his mother was busy with other things.  His biological father was dead before he was born, although it was unlikely he would have acknowledged him or had anything to do with him.  And the text and midrashim seem to be silent about what happens to his mother’s husband after Moshe kills his oppressor, but we might gather that he didn’t want to have anything to with the future megadef either.

So here we have the ultimate unwanted child.  Furthermore, we see the nature of the discrimination against him.  And yet when he commits what might be considered one of the most serious Torah offenses, there is no hesitation about the punishment, although all manner of Torah due process is afforded [and may even be taught from the passage dealing with the incident.]  But he is dispatched with nary a word said about mitigating circumstances.

We see that there are times where no matter the ostensibly proximate causes—and no matter how pervasive—an egregious act can be taken completely out of any other context and treated as the offense that it is.  I would posit that principle applies in the case of rioting, which is ipso facto a metatstatic threat to public order and in Baltimore’s case is exacerbated by the plethora of sympathy from some quarters for that kind of reaction to perceived injustice.

Toya Graham was having none of it.  At that moment she staged an intervention.

Now it’s plausible the media plaudits that ensued were because people appreciated an apparent display of “tough love” in a zeitgeist where progressive educational theory that disdains anything “tough” holds sway, or as an antidote to the aforementioned riotsplaining.  But I think what we can take away from this incident without overplaying the socio-political implications are two things: one, she is obviously not an absent parent; two, there are times where an intervention is not only legitimate, but mandated. 

And: we can do that without lionizing the action as a disciplinary tactic because we don’t know that it was, nor does it say anything about whether her parenting skills up to this point are or aren’t admirable or whether lack of general discipline led to this point [like the possible complete lack of structure in the case of the megadef], when that moment arrived—in the case of the megadef, the court case, in this case, the riot—the mother was there in this case to make sure the authorities didn’t get involved.  The megadef wasn’t as fortunate to have that kind of mother.

As an aside and coda, there is a Biblical model for a WORSE mother that Shlomit bas Divri: the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general and her koffeeklatch of female friends.   The Song of Devorah details how while she wailed about her missing son’s fate, her friends assured her that he was not only winning the battle but procuring his share of the requisite spoils, including the kind of extracurricular activity with captive females that was almost a job requirement of soldiery at the time.   It’s almost as if Toya Graham would have instead been encouraging her son’s riotous tendencies on the barricades; that’s the kind of mother Em Sisera was.  And yet—ironically—it’s em Sisera’s wailings from which we learn how to blow shevarim on Rosh Hashanah.  There might be the last difference between even the megadef’s mother and em Sisera: even if she obviously raised him wrong, em Sisera raised him.  The megadef’s mother seems to have not bothered.  

And: em Sisera didn’t switch sides.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Acharei Mos/Kedoshim: “Why Aren’t You Married?”


In a day and age where a lot of moral and cultural stock is being placed in a particular Supreme Court decision vis-à-vis marriage, Vayikra chapters 18 and 20 are once again being dragged to center stage.   But it might be no accident that this weeks’s double parsha—where the Torah’s sexual moralities are clearly legislated—begins with what might be death from non-marriage.

The deaths of Nadav and Avihu are attributable to—among a myriad of other factors—their unwillingness to marry because there was no one on their level.   This can be compared to Chizkiyahu HaMelech’s near-death experience because of his unwillingness to amrry at all.

Both used their spiritual standing for some form of illegitimate avoidance of relationships—Nadav and Avihu because c it would affect their standing as the next Kohanim Gedolim [and they were already restricted] and Chizkiyahu because his ruach hakodesh showed him Menashe’s future malevolence.   [Why didn’t G-d show him Yoshiyahu instead of saying “It’s none of your business”?  G-d was doubling down, as it were: bein letova bein leraa it wasn’t Chizkiyahu’s business.]

But even in that case there is a qualitative difference between the two.

On the one hand, the King was worried that he would be the cause of the eventual destruction and exile to befall the Jews because of Menashe’s sins [indeed, its hinted that the decree became irrevocable during that time], and he thought he was actually performing a public service; while Nadav and Avihu’s reluctance to wed may have been less of an issue of tzarchei tzibbur than their own self-assessments of their station and—when you look at the other attitudinal indicators in Rashi and the midrashim about what led to their deaths at the hands of Heaven—that they theoretically concluded that their potential mates’ fitness absolutely had to match their stations and responsibilities.

So why were Nadav and Avihu called “krovai” and worthy of the posthumous adulation the Torah accorded them, while Chizkiyahu was threatened with oblivion in the afterlife?

For one thing, the reluctance to marry was one among many spiritual imbalances in Nadav and Avihu’s case, and not the ultimate proximate trigger of their deaths.  Additionally, there’s no indication that they refused to marry EVER; it was that they hadn’t married YET, and the exegesis provides the explanation.  The Divine response to Chizkiyahu’s absolute refusal to marry and produce progeny might have been as draconian as Chizkiyahu’s decision.

Is this supposed to be a lesson to—for lack of a better term—“upper west siders” and ostensible perpetual singlehood?   It’s possible that it might serve as a teachable moment about certain attitudes in the singles community that might need adjustment; however, it does not indicate for any kind of support for the notion that we are undergoing a “shidduch crisis” deserving of crisis responses.  Furthermore, it’s the adjustments that are needed that essentially prove that this matza is nowhere near crisis mode.

One attitude that might need adjustment is willingness to “date”—even long term—someone one would never marry.   This might be a step up from the number of places in Shas where the gemara mentions tav lemetav tan du—that women will marry beneath their station just to have a man in the house, but said “settling” is almost accompanied by “vechulan meznaos vetolos beba’alehen”— some extracurricular activity and a concomitant pointing back to their husbands as the fathers of the resultant offspring.   However, in a day and age where men don’t have the polygamy option, one would see this kind of behavior way more from the male side, as exemplified by the frum unmarried male’s pursuit of self-contradictory goals so brilliantly described by R’ Arnie Singer here.  

Does this mean that people should get married even if they know there’s a mismatch in stations and that adultery and bastardy is the inevitable result?   Ironically, the gemara might have found the “vechulan mezanos” state of affairs [!] preferable to the one indicated in Kesuvos 82b, where the perceived inequities in the text of the kesuva led to a full-blown actual “shidduch crisis”: as Rashi explicitly states, women would not get married at all until Chazal acted twice to adjust the terms of the kesuva so the women and their families wouldn’t end up cheated out of marital assets.

So we see a few things from this: one, “settling” is not always the best idea, particularly when there really isn’t “settling”; two, sometimes the system itself is the problem and needs fixing; and three, while one can look askance as “frumsplaining” one’s reluctance to marry, particularly when the “’splaining” doesn’t match the “frum”, sometimes there are salient reasons to hold off.

And that may be indicated by the difference between what conventional wisdom holds “upper west siders” are doing and what Nadav and Avihu and Chizkiyahu were doing.   The kind of influence those eminences had on klal yisrael could very well have been policy setters—maybe their rationalizations for delaying or eschewing marriages might have been salient [though we way they ultimately were not], but the masses would have rationalized similar or analogous destructive behavior without the same level of justification [as we see from the tav lemetav and “shidduch crisis” gemaras].  Such a thing HAD happened before, when Amram divorced Yocheved after the Pharaonic decrees and EVERYONE ELSE followed. 

But those are the exceptions that prove the rule.   Conventional wisdom dictates that singles today “aren’t getting married”.  Whether a woman would actually say “tav lemetavbeferush nowadays is a different matter; we are certainly not at the level of “lo rotzos lihinasei”.   And we see that when there was a real “shidduch crisis”—as in Kesuvos 82b—no one invoked Nadav, Avihu, or Chizkiyahu to fix it.

Instead—they fixed it.