Thursday, November 04, 2004

Haftarah for Chayyei Sarah: What would be, was; what will be, who among us knows?

1 Kings 1: 1 - 31

The story told in this haftarah concerns the succession to the dying King David. He had promised Bathsheba that her son, Solomon, would succeed him, but Adonijah schemed to replace his father, even having himself proclaimed king while David still lived. Bathsheba, with the help of the prophet Nathan, roused David, who repeated his oath to Bathsheba.

In retrospect, everything seems inevitable. Solomon naturally followed David, the wise and reverent king succeeding the politically and militarily adept king. But as something is happening, it is by no means clear to those involved what the outcome will be. "Minerva's owl spreads its wings only at dusk," Hegel wrote, meaning you can't understand something until it is over.

God certainly knew who would and should replace David. Only Solomon could have built the Temple. Without what the Chinese call "the mandate of Heaven," it was not possible to rule ancient Israel. Adonijah never had a chance to be a legitimate successor (although there's no way he could have known that). Nor was he the last to plot for a throne. The breakdown of David's kingdom later on, as schemers fought each other, was one of the causes of the exile to Babylonia and the destruction of Solomon's Temple.

But it isn't always clear what God's will is, not then and especially not now. We can read the Bible, but, as I said, the past always looks inevitable. People who insist that they know who God wants to rule are at best misguided and at worst knaves. There are no more prophets, unfortunately. We're on our own. Lincoln prayed, not that God was on his side, but that he was on God's side. So may we all pray. But we can never be certain, so we should all be humble.

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Chayyei Sarah: The life of a woman in the ancient middle east

Parshah for Saturday, Nov. 6:

Chayyei Sarah [Bereishit, Ch. 23, verse 1 - Ch. 25, verse 18

Ironically for a parshah called "The Lives of Sarah," it starts immediately with her death at the age of 120. Abraham buries her in Hebron, where he had once built an altar to God. This is one reason why many religious Jews in Israel are avid to hold on to Hebron, now in the West Bank and surrounded by Palestinians.

The rest of the parshah deals with Abraham finding a wife for his son Isaac. He sends a servant back to his homeland, who finds the beautiful and generous Rebecca. She is kindly and hospitable to the stranger, convincing the servant that she is the one for Isaac. The tribes of the middle east have historically made almost a cult of hospitality, and the Torah reflects this, not surprisingly. It is one of the highest virtues, much admired by whoever wrote the Torah.

Everyone in this story recognizes that this is truly a match made in Heaven. "Then Laban and Bethuel answered, 'The matter was decreed by the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be a wife to your master's son, as the Lord has spoken." Clearly these are good men, even without partaking of the covenant, since they recognize the one God.

Women in the middle east were not permitted to live independently of men, either father, brother or husband. The best they could hope for was to find a kind, loving man as protector. We are told, "Isaac then brough her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death." Not a word about Rebecca's comfort (having left her entire family behind), but, as I said, if Isaac truly loved her and took care of her, she was better off than most women of her time and place.

The parshah ends with a lengthy list of Abraham's descendants. Not quite as numerous as the stars in the sky, but the old boy was certainly fruitful.

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Haftarah for Va-Yera: We can all be someone's miracle

2 Kings 4: 1 - 37

Not every haftarah is potent with meaning or insight, not every one resonates with power, not every one is memorable. This is one of the more workaday haftarot, concerning a pair of miracles performed by the prophet Elisha. In the first, he provides a near endless supply of oil to an impoverished woman, which she sells to pay off a crushing debt. In the second, he rewards a woman for her generous hospitality to him by promising her a son and then by later bringing the son back to life.

There are two lessons in this reading. The first is that we should all emulate Elisha and help, as best we can, those who are living in poverty. We can't all perform miracles, but for the poor, practically any assistance borders on the miraculous. Once you fall into debt, it can seem all but impossible to get out. In addition, the woman fears her sons may be sold into slavery to satisfy her creditors. All Jews are specifically commanded to redeem Jewish slaves into freedom. Debt itself is a form of slavery, especially when accompanied by high interest payments. It is true that many people find themselves in debt through their own improvidence, but even stupidity should not be a life sentence. If we can help people to self-sufficiency, we are all but obligated to do so.

Second, not every generous, hospitable act will lead to a miracle. The second woman seems inclined to be hospitable to Elisha because he is a holy man. Perhaps she would not have been as generous to anyone else. Still, she does not appear to have an ulterior motive in mind; she asks for nothing. Elisha has to approach her to find out what he can do to thank her. Even then, she does not personally ask for a son; in fact, she does not even believe him.

You never know where a miracle may come from. You never know when an act of kindness will repay itself a thousandfold. Even if it doesn't, an act of kindness, an act of generosity, helping a person in need, is itself a miracle. We are not all prophets, we can't help a barren woman conceive, or bring a beloved child back from the dead, or fill countless vessels with oil. But we can all help others, we can all be that unexpected and blessed miracle for someone. What we get back will be even greater than what we give.

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Va-Yera: Judge and Justice

Parshah for Shabbat, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004:

Va-Yera [Bereishit, Ch. 18, verse 1 - Ch. 22, verse 24]

This parshah contains the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a tale of iniquity and punishment. These sinful cities are irredeemable, despite Abraham's great efforts on their behalf. "Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?" he famously asks God. This is the great question that must be asked of all systems of law. The word judge is both noun and verb. We call senior judges Justices. We expect they will deal justly, but that expectation has its origins in this parshah.

It is clear that Abraham has had it with blind obedience. He learned his lesson on Mount Moriah. God deserves our faith, our thankfulness, our worship - but that's it. When God asks us to do something that violates our conscience, we can say no. We can resist, we can make demands of our own. God is God, but even God is not above the law. For the sake of even one righteous person, the wicked should not be destroyed.

One can argue from that, that an innocent man should never be punished, even at the risk of letting the guilty go free. That is the ultimate in justice. Given that at least 100 Americans on death row have been freed when it turned out they had been wrongly convicted, we should think long and hard about the immorality of capital punishment. We have almost certainly executed an innocent man - there is no greater violation of God's justice.

If God himself must be just, then none of us has an excuse to do otherwise. It is incumbent upon all of humanity to establish a system of justice. We still have a long way to go to fulfill that Noachide commandment.

This parshah also contains the unpleasant tale of Lot and his daughters. Lot, who resides in Sodom, has taken two angels into his house. The evil men of Sodom demand that he send them out to them to be raped. Rather than dishonor his guests, Lot offers the rowdy townspeople his two virgin daughters. The angels don't let this happen, but the fact that Lot made the offer cannot but disquiet any modern reader. The fact that the Torah is silent about Lot's offer is even more disquieting.

But there is a lot in the Torah that is disquieting. We will deal with this in future weeks. Anyone who attempts to read the Torah as a coherent, unified, consistent whole has to do a lot of intellectual juggling and rationalizing. The Orthodox insist that every word, every letter in the Torah is identical to what they believe God dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Even Conservatives sing "Vzot ha-Torah" - this is the Torah - "asher sam Moshe lifnei b'nai Yisroel al pi Hashem b'yad Moshe" - that Moses displayed to the children of Israel from the mouth of God by the hand of Moses. Except, we don't really teach that. We teach that the Torah was compiled, possibly by Ezra the Scribe in the fifth century B.C.E., from a lot of extant holy texts.

That's for later discussion. What's important is that there is no explanation given for Lot's treatment of his daughters. Perhaps he recognized his guests as angels, or for some other reason had faith that God would not let him sacrifice his children. But none of that is in the bare text. Lot simply says, take my daughters but leave my guests alone. That's carrying hospitality to an extreme. A lot of ancient middle eastern cultures did indeed demand that a man protect those he had given refuge to, no matter the cost. But sacrifice your virgin daughters? And the Torah doesn't condemn this? What was God thinking?

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Haftarah for Lekh L'kha - The power and the glory

Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16

Isaiah again, but this time he is not merely telling the people what they want to hear. This time he is calling them to renew the covenant, to trust God, to believe in Him. In return, God will renew His covenant with Israel and restore them to greatness.

"But you, Israel, My servant,/Jacob, whom I have chosen,/Seed of Abraham My Friend...You are My servant;/I chose you, I have not rejected you - /Fear not, for I am with you...O men of Israel:/I will help you...I your Redeemer, the Holy One of shall rejoice in the Lord,/And glory in the Holy One of Israel."

The mention of Abraham is obviously what ties the haftarah to the parshah. God chose Abraham to bear His covenant, and it is still valid in Isaiah's time. God protected Abraham, and he will protect the Israelites. He chose us and has not rejected us. Not then, not ever.

God also declares His power: "Stand silent before Me, coastlands,/And let nations renew their strength...Who has roused a victor from the East,/Summoned him to His service?...Who has wrought and achieved this?/He who announced the generations from the start - /I, the Lord, who was first/And will be with the last as well./The coastlands look on in fear,/The ends of earth tremble."

But God's power is ultimately at the service of His people Israel. "Shamed and chagrined shall be/All who contend with you;/They who strive with you/Shall become as naught and shall perish./You may seek, but shall not find/Those who struggle with you;/Less than nothing shall be/The men who battle against you./For I the Lord am your God,/Who grasped your right hand,/Who say to you: Have no fear;/I will be your help."

That has always been the sustaining faith of Israel, that God is with us, that God will save us from our enemies. One may take this as metaphorical, that faith in God's redeeming power gives us the courage to save ourselves. We must be something special for God to love us so much; we must have some special mission on Earth, so we cannot allow ourselves to perish. That kind of belief, that faith, is what keeps us going. Isaiah knew it 2500 years ago, and his words mean nothing less to us now.

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Lekh L'kha - Where it all starts

Parshah for Shabbat, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004:

Lekh L'kha [Bereishit, Ch. 12, verse - Ch. 17, verse 24]

If there is a place where Judaism begins, it is here. The preceding two parshahs have little to do with the Jewish people or their faith; they are parables of creation and the spread of people across God's world, basically Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. With Lekh L'kha, the Torah finally gets down to business.

Abram shows up in the last paragraph of Noach. In the first paragraph of Lekh L'kha, God tells him, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." No introduction, no prologue, no setting. No explanation that the world was iniquitous and Abram righteous, as was done with Noah. Just - go.

And Abram goes. Was it easier in those days to know when God was speaking to you? (Obviously, if you accept these stories as parables and legends rather than historical fact, the question need not arise. And if you take them as allegories, then it is also easy to accept that God spoke more directly to people in those days than He does now.)

There is great poetry and promise in this opening: "I ill make of you a great nation,/And I will bless you;/I will make your name great,/And you shall be a blessing./I will bless those who bless you/And curse him that curses you;/And all the families of the earth/Shall bless themselves by you." (Jews are still waiting for that to happen!)

Abram sets out, and once he sets out, he has trouble stopping. From Ur to Canaan and thence to Egypt. There is a very odd, and to me inexplicable, bit in which Abram tells his wife Sarai, before they arrive in Egypt, to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife, lest the Egyptians kill him and take her. Why would they respect a brother more than a husband?

In any case, Abram prospers in Egypt (clever Jew!) until God sends plagues upon the Egyptians "on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram." So his little deception has ill consequences for all. Does this mean God did not want Abram to conceal his true relationship with Sarai? Why didn't God just tell Abram? Are they not on speaking terms anymore?

Pharaoh expels Abram and Sarai. They wander around, including to Sodom and Gomorrah - which the parshah points out, the Lord had not yet destroyed (why even mention this, unless to people back then, the legend of the destruction of these cities was well known even before the first compilations of the Torah, so listeners would have wondered how could Abram have visited those cities unless they were told it was before their destruction? Evidence that perhaps the Torah was not handed down to Moses in its entirety on Mount Horeb?)

The parshah wanders as much as Abram does. He builds an altar at Hebron. He leads his followers into battle to rescue his nephew Lot. God promises to make his offspring a great nation. And he receives the covenant from God to receive the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Abram also fathers a son with his wife's maid Hagar, but Sarai suffers from very human envy and makes Abram cast Hagar Ishmael out. God promises that Hagar too will be the parent of a great nation. Finally, Abram and Sarai, at their advanced ages, have a son. God changes his name to Abraham and demands that Abraham and all his male offspring and all the males in his household be circumcised as a sign of the covenant with God. God changes Sarai's name to Sarah and blesses her with a son. The parshah ends with Abraham, Ishmael and all the males being circumcised.

As I said, Lekh L'kha is where it all starts. From a Jewish perspective, it is perhaps a modest start. Other than circumcision, there are no commandments to follow, no ethical laws, no social justice, no morality. But Abraham will be the father of a mighty nation, in a unique covenant with the Creator.

Why Abraham? There is nothing in the Torah to explain. Did God try to find others, and only Abram was willing to listen? There is a midrash that Terah, Abram's father, was an idol-maker, and one day he left Abram in his shop. He came back to find the idols all broken and asked his son who had done this. Abram replied, one of the idols smashed the others. Terah said, don't be silly, they're just stone, they can't do anything. So why do people worship them, Abram asked. Abraham is revered as the father of monotheism, the belief in one all-powerful omnipresent deity, creator of everything, including creation itself. But there is nothing in this parshah to document that, other than the obvious fact that it is Abram who does hear God and do what He says.

And from this little beginning, everything else will follow. For what are the Jews but the people who hear God and do what He says? At least, that's our story and we're sticking to it!

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Special Haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh - Today Israel, tomorrow everyone

Note: When Shabbat coincides with Rosh Chodesh, a special haftarah is recited instead of the one usually associated with that week's parshah. Last Saturday was Rosh Chodesh, so we heard the following haftarah instead of the one for parshah Noach.

Isaiah 66:1-24

Once again Isaiah prophesies the wonders that God will do for His people Israel, once again with little requirement from the people that they do anything to earn it. This was apparently written shortly after the end of the Babylonian exile, when joy and exultation were widespread as the Israelites were permitted to return home and rebuild the Temple. It opens with Isaiah quoting God, who says, "The heaven is My throne/And the earth is My footstool;/Where could you build a house for Me,/What place could serve as My abode?"

Next, God lashes out at pagans and idolators before calling on those who "Hear the word of the Lord,/You who are concerned about His word!" Again, God rages against those who scorn His people, promising them shame and retribution.

There follows a section rather puzzling to me full of metaphors about labor and birth. "Before she labored, she was delivered;/Before her pangs came, she bore a son./Who ever heard the like?...Can a land pass through travail/In a single day?/Or is a national born/All at once?...Shall I who bring about labor not bring about birth?...Shall I who cause birth shut the womb?"

Presumably, this means that God would not lead His people only so far only to deny them the fulfillment of His promise, their dream. Because the next passage is full of lush promise and hope, maternal love, and divine protection. "I will extend to her/Prosperity like a stream...You shall be carried on shoulders/And dandled upon knees./As a mother comforts her son/So I will comfort you...The power of the Lord shall be revealed/In behalf of His servants."

But then, God immediately threatens His foes again. But this is immediately followed by a prophecy of eventual universal worship of God, including, apparently, conversion of the nations.

Finally, the passage concludes with a promise that all who worship God shall endure, while those who don't will perish. "So shall your seed and your name endure/And new moon after new moon,/And sabbath after sabbath,/All flesh shall come to worship Me...They shall go out and gaze/On the corpses of the men who rebelled against me...And new moon after new moon,/And sabbath after sabbath,/All flesh shall come to worship Me/- said the Lord."

From the final lines, it's clear why this was chosen as the haftarah for Rosh Chodesh Shabbat. God is both father and mother in this passage, stern patriarch and loving matriarch, demanding and comforting, expecting and protecting. Israel has come through a harsh time when its very existence was in doubt. Now that the exile has ended, they need to hear that God has been with them all along and that a glorious future lies immediately ahead. Those who have been faithful in exile need no disparagement of their sins; they have been living the reminder of their failure. Now they need - and deserve - comfort and the promise of hope and joy. To know that God will reward His faithful - and punish those who do not believe in Him. And that Israel will one day be the centerpiece of universal faith in God.

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Friday, October 15, 2004

Haftarah for Parshah Noach - No demand, all deliverance

Isaiah 54:1 - 55:5

Isaiah prophesies the triumphant return of the exiled Israelites from Babylonia to Zion. Once again, his theme is redemption, God's promise being kept: "For a little while I forsook you, / But with vast love I will bring you back. / In slight anger, for a moment, / I hid My face from you; / But with kindness everlasting / I will take you back in love / - said the Lord your redeemer."

This is one of the more stirring haftarot, in that Isaiah is not asking anything of the Israelites; this is pure promise, the goodies without pain, all carrots and no stick. There is a time to reproach and a time to reward, a time to demand and a time to deliver.

The is also one of the haftarot with only a tangential at best connection to the parshah it accompanies. Isaiah sayeth, "For this to Me is like the waters of Noah: / As I swore that the waters of Noah / Nevermore would flood the earth, / So I swear that I will not / Be angry with you or rebuke you. / For the mountains may move / And the hills be shaken, / But My loyalty shall never move from you. / Nor My covenant of friendship be shaken / - said the Lord, who takes you back in love." No mention of why God had sent the flood, no sense that the exile to Babylonia was in retribution for any wickedness of the exiled, no requirement that the Israelites requite their return from exile with repentance.

On the other hand, there is also no sense that the Israelites deserve their return. And Isaiah wants to make sure they understand this. His prophecy is one of hope, but also one of challenge. The Flood was a punishment to people who may not have understood what they were being punished for. But the Israelites cannot offer that excuse. Those who perished in the Flood may not have known God. The Israelites, however they may have strayed from the Torah, however they may have quarrelled amongst themselves, know that ultimately everything good in their lives comes from God. When they return to the Land, Isaiah wants them to appreciate God's gift and earn it after the fact with their loyalty. "Incline youre ear and come to Me; / Hearken, and you shall be revived. / And I will make with you an everlasting covenant, / The enduring loyalty promised to David." If we did not deserve to be brought back to Jerusalem before the fact, we can deserve it after the fact.

God, who ran out of patience with the first group of people he created, has made a promise to the Israelites. He is keeping His promise now. Isaiah wants the people, finally, to be worthy of it.

Parshah Noach - Does God ever feel guilty?

Parshah for Shabbat, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2004:

Parshah Noach [Bereishit, Ch. 6, verse 9 - Ch. 11, verse 32]

This is the famous story of Noah and his ark, and the rain that lasted 40 days and 40 nights, and the flood, and 2 of each kind of animal, and the dove and the olive branch and the rainbow.

What I find interesting about this is, it's only 10 generations from Adam and Eve, and already the people of the Earth have descended into wickedness so vile and irredeemable that God has basically decided to delete the file and reboot. He talks to Noah - the one righteous man left - and tells him to build a big ship and collect a menagerie and set sail with his family (wife, sons, sons' wives). That way, he's got something to start over with when it comes time to repopulate the planet; although God could surely create a new Adam and Eve.

One of the comments in Eitz Chayim quotes Rashi: "Rashi cites the tradition that Noah did not enter the ark until the water reached his ankles. Did he not really believe God's threat? Or was he hoping to the very end that the people would see the rain and repent, making the punishment unnecessary?" (This is a bit reminiscent, although in reverse, of the tradition that the when the people of Israel entered the Sea of Reeds, God did not split the waters until they Israelites were up to their chins or maybe even their noses, thus testing their faith.)

My question is, how could the people have repented? How could they have known what God was planning for them? Did God send messengers warning them to shape up or drown? Did prophets walk among them foretelling doom if they didn't change their wicked ways? The Bible doesn't mention anything of the kind.

How could they have known that they were wicked? Ten generations had passed since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banished from Eden. God had not instructed them in all that time how to live, how to behave. That they did badly I have no doubt, but it's not as if they truly knew what God wanted.

The Torah is the story of the Jewish People accepting God (and, sometimes - many times - straying) and His laws and finally inheriting the Land of Israel. But it is also, especially in Bereishit, the story of God realizing that He cannot simply assume that people, any people, will know what God wants for them and how God wants them to behave. God cannot simply leave us on our own and expect that we will figure it out.

Theologically, Jews believe that God is always good. Always. In every possible way. God wants only the best for us, His People, but also for all people. When we misbehave, it is because we have failed to follow in God's ways.

And yet, early on, people did not know God's ways, and yet, God blamed them and destroyed them. It's almost as if a young, inexperienced God did not know how to deal with unruly, lawless humanity. They screwed up, so he destroyed them. How God could have thought they would do otherwise is the question.

It is noteworth, and of course has been noted, that God never did anything like this again. The famous rainbow is God's promise never again to send such a flood (although James Baldwin famously wrote in his book, quoting a Negro spiritual, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!")

But what is interesting is what God does next: God figures it out. You can't hold people to a law they don't know. You can't assume they will know Your intentions. People are thick and stubborn. (Moses will find it almost impossible to get them to obey a law they do know!) You've got to beat them over the head with it, again and again and again, and even then they may not get it. But You have to give them a chance, You have to teach them, and You can't do it all at once. You have to find the right person and start slowly.

It takes God another ten generations to find Abraham. But this time, God gets it right. People will never be left entirely on their own again. After Abraham, people will know what God wants of them.

But still, for all the people who perished in the Flood, that's scant comfort. "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age." Was he really the only such worthy figure? There was not one other, outside of Noah's family? Even among the children of all the other wicked ones? How did Noah come to be so virtuous? Could not God have urged Noah to be a prophet, to at least try to persuade others to repent? Or did God not figure that out until later? (And Noah could have done what Abraham does later when it comes to trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, but Noah doesn't even think of trying to find other righteous people, nor does Noah plead with God to spare the rest of humanity; so exactly how righteous is Noah, really?)

God does not come out looking too great in this parshah. God comes off a bit like a bully. I don't care how wicked the rest of the people were, God is impatient and reckless and just mean. And God learned His lesson, clearly. But that does not mean we should let God completely off the hook. We call tornados and fires and floods "acts of God," although they are really acts of nature that we can explain rationally but not emotionally. But the flood was truly an act of God, so God must be held accountable for it and for all its consequences, good and bad. Punishing the wicked is fine, as long as you punish only the wicked, and as long as they have had a chance to understand that they are wicked and have been given an opportunity to repent. Which did not happen here.

So, did God feel guilty after the Flood? Because God should have.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Haftarah for Bereishit: Redemption, whether we deserve it or not

Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10

This reading begins with the prophet quoting God: “Thus said God the Lord/Who created the heavens and stretched them out/Who spread out the earth and what it brings forth,/Who gave breath to the people upon it/And life to those who walk thereon.” The prophet goes on to say, “I created you, and appointed you/A covenant people, a light of nations.”
There is a tension running throughout the Hebrew scripture, between the Jewish people as unconditionally God’s chosen, and their status only as long as they merit it. This is very problematic, because on the one hand, if God can choose the Jews, cannot he someday decide to unchoose them? But does God break promises? Throughout scripture, the prophets rail at the people Israel as stiffnecked, treacherous, fickle, undeserving, scoffers, who have failed to love God as they should have. And many of the disasters that have befallen the Jews are looked on as the proper consequence of deserting God.
But God has never deserted us. It is the ultimate message, even of the fiercest condemnation in the prophetic literature, that God will redeem us, that God is waiting to redeem us, if we will but return.
This haftarah contains vigorous, even violent language. “The Lord goes forth like a warrior/Like a figher He whips up His rage./He yells, he roars aloud/He charges upon his enemies.” But all this energy serves a noble purpose: “I will lead the blind/By a road they did not know/And I will make them walk/By paths they never knew/I will turn darkness before them to light/Rough places into level ground/These are the promises – I will keep them without fail.”
Isaiah was talking to the Jews who had been exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E. They had ample reason to believe God had abandoned them. Among other peoples, destruction of a central religious space had frequently been followed by widespread apostasy. That undoubtedly happened, as some Jews who felt they’d been abandoned by God decided to repay the favor.
Isaiah’s response was to preempt this by charging that God had not abandoned them but that they had abandoned God – and that God was waiting for them to return, after which he would return them to their home. “But now thus said the Lord – /Who created you, O Jacob/Who formed you, O Israel:/Fear not, for I will redeem you;/I have singled you by name/You are Mine.”
The passage selected for this haftarah ends with God promising that after their redemption, the Jews will be seen as God’s witnesses and servants.
Thus, God will save us not just for our own merits but so that God will not be seen as powerless or as a breaker of His promises.
There is an implicit challenge in all this – God will redeem us nevertheless, but Israel should and must return to God so as to truly deserve God’s redemption. This is one of the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, of course. In a sense, it is the theme of all of Judaism: God loves us even though we constantly fall short of His ideal, but God will never give up on us.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Parsha Bereishit: Science vs. Scripture?

Parsha for Shabbat, Saturday, October 9, 2004:

Parsha Bereishit [Bereishit (“Genesis”), Ch. 1, verse 1 - Ch. 6, verse 8]

Everyone knows this verse, even if they know nothing else about the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth.” Or, as the original Hebrew should be translated, “When God began to create heaven and earth.”

Bereishit” (“created” in Hebrew, the book known in English as "Genesis") is the story of how everything came to be. “When God began to create heaven and earth--the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” (From the Jewish Publication Society translation.)

What are we to make of this? Specifically, I mean, those of us trained in history and science, who know perfectly well that God did no such thing? That back when light first came into being – the Big Bang, the Earth was not “unformed and void,” the Earth did not exist? Are we to surrender our intellectual faculties, the knowledge slowly gathered over centuries and millennia, all because a few ancient Hebrews thousands of years ago wrote down a nice fairy tale about Creation? Before telescopes, before spectroscopes, before even prisms.

The Torah is an amazing story about how my people, our people, Am Yisroel (the peole Israel), all people, came to be. Its history can be debated, its archaeology can be explored, its morals can be argued back and forth, its meaning can be examined unto the most abstruse threads of significance. But it is not, as many liberal Jews have agreed, a science textbook. It does not replace our evolving understanding of physics.

I do not understand the extreme resistance some “believers” put up when science contradicts what they think they believe. My understanding of Judaism is not in the least threatened by my understanding of science. It does not depend on the literal truth of the creation story in Bereishit.

In any case, when science contradicts Scripture, sooner or later Scripture must bow and give way, either gracefully or otherwise. Always been this way and always will. Scripture has no choice; it can’t make any counter-arguments. The story of creation in Bereishit is an argument based on faith, not knowledge. But no matter how much a true believer wants to claim otherwise, in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary, he cannot claim to really know that the Genesis story is correct. A scientist, however, can make the claim that what he knows, he really knows.

And there’s really no contradiction. Bereishit says God loves us and shows that by creating us. Isn’t that enough? Do the particulars, the details of howreally matter that much? The heart of the matter remains.

(Note: all citations from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

(Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.)

Which version of the Chumash I'm using

All citations in this blog come from Eitz Chayim ("Tree of Life"), the official Chumash (printed version of the Torah) of the Conservative Movement (copyright 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly; Hebrew text, based on Biblia Hebraica Stuttgarensia, copyright 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society; English translation copyright 1985, 1999 by The Jewish Publication Society).

Except as otherwise specifically noted and referenced, all commentaries are mine.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

What this is and where it's going

In a couple of weeks, Jews around the world will complete the yearly cycle of reading the Torah - and immediately start up all over again, with Bereishit (literally "created" but known in English as Genesis). I attend synagogue each Shabbat (a Conservative shul in central New Jersey) where we read each week's portion (in Hebrew "parshah"). There are, of course, tons of Torah commentaries out there, and I will eventually start linking to them. What I want to do is post my own thought on each week's parshah. I was born Jewish but for most of my life was not observant. A few years ago I got interested in Judaism and am now fairly observant. But I'm coming at this from my lifelong beliefs in history, science and skepticism. I don't take things simply the way they are given, including my faith. I'm not claiming any unique or profound observations, but I just want to reflect on each week's Torah portion and what it says to me from my perspective. We'll see where this leads me. This is as much for me as it is for anyone else, as a kind of discipline. There's a lot of stuff in the Torah that I have found, over the past couple of years, to be interesting and a lot that I don't find all that appealing. I want to talk here about both. I don't even care if anyone else listens.