Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Radical Understandings of the Most Famous Line in Torah

How do you understand the most famous line in Jewish tradition, Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad--"Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal God alone?"

What does this sentence signify for you?

Specifically: how do you understand its primary claim, which could variously be understood as:

"Our ('Jewish') God is the only God." (a declaration not only of the supremacy but of the uniqueness of our God)

"Our God is One" (as opposed to many - a polemic against polytheism)

or, perhaps, as I wish to propose in this week's segment, an understanding derived from Mystical and Hasidic teachings:

"Our God is the only reality in the cosmos; there is nothing else but God!" (Please also consider Deut. 4:35 in the context of this rendering.)

How would your view of existence and, indeed, the meaning of life, change if you adopted the understanding of the Mystics? If indeed God could be defined and described as "everything in the universe," if you adopted the viewpoint that "there is nothing in the universe that is not God," how might your day-to-day existence be shaped by such a view? Would you be able to perceive heretofore unseen connections among what might have appeared to be random circumstances?

Watch, listen, and please share your thoughts on our blog. We'll meet to study Torah on Shabbat morning at 9:00 AM.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Parashat Devarim: Opening thoughts for Deuteronomy

A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim, 5769

This week’s commentary will be in written form (back to videos next week, I hope). We begin the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) this week, a book chiefly concerned with legislation. The Book of Deuteronomy envisions an Israelite society governed in accordance with the laws given here by God, to Moses, communicated in compelling rhetoric to the Isr

aelite people. Within Deuteronomy we find laws that have been understood over the millennia as instrumental in the daily life and practice of the Jewish people. Civil law, cultic law (i.e., laws pertaining, for example, to Festivals and ritual observances), and laws governing ethical conduct all fall under the purview of the Book of Deuteronomy.

So I thought it a good idea to reflect briefly on the nature of law in Jewish tradition, as informed by this week’s portion, Devarim. The word Devarim, the namesake of this portion and this Book, can mean many things. Often translated as “words,” an equally accurate translation could be, “laws” or “legal principles.” The word d’var is frequently applied to a legal matter.

The chief question I’d like us to consider this week is: “How strictly doe

s Judaism intend for us to interpret and apply the laws of the Torah?” It turns out that some commentary to a short selection from this week’s portion provides ample guidance.

In Deuteronomy 1:16-17, Moses recapitulates the way in which the juridical authorities are to adjudicate legal cases. “I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, ‘Hear out your fellow Israelites, and decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no one, for judgment is God’s. Any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.’”

Moses’ insistence, “hear out low and high alike” intrigued the great Medieval commentators. RaSHI understands this to mean that cases affecting the wealthy, or in which a hefty sum is at stake, should not be privileged over cases over a meager sum, cases affecting the poor (RaSHI to Deut. 1:17). He evenhandedly demands that cases involving the poor should not be given priority over those affecting the rich (even though genuinely noble motives might incline a judge or a court to try to avoid humiliating the poor person). Cases, RaSHI concludes, should be adjudicated in the order in which they come before the magistrate. RaSHI calls for strict justice, absolute impartiality.

His view is echoed in the Talmudic literature. “Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yosi the Galilean said: ‘It is forbidden to arbitrate…., and he who arbitrates commits a sin. The law must prevail, even if it involves cutting through a mountain, for it is said, “Judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:17). Thus, Moses used to say, “Let the law cut through the mountain”’” (Sanhedrin 6b).

“Let the law cut through the mountain.” These are important words in a Jewish tradition that has always prized and privileged the rule of law. Indeed, the very same Talmud famously declared that “the law of the land is the law,” a guiding principle for the Jewish people throughout our history in foreign lands and under foreign regimes. “Let the law cut through the mountain” and “The law of the land is the law” are Jewish ways of saying that the rule of law is a value consonant with Jewish self-interest, preferable even to Jewish self-determination. We would rather live as law-abiding citizens in a land where the law of the land is fairly and faithfully upheld among all than insist on living lives apart, governed by our own set of mores.

And yet strict adherence to the law as written is not where the conversation ends. The very same passage of the Talmud that insisted, “Let the law cut through the mountain,” goes on to recall that “Aaron, however, who loved peace and pursued peace, made peace between a man and his fellow” (Sanhedrin 6b). Shalom, or peace, with all that shalom implies--negotiation, arbitration, interpretation, compromise--must also guide us in our interpretation and application of the law. Swordlike, strict justice cuts through the intractable realities of a legal dispute. But shalom acts like water, gently eroding the mineral hardness away and making room for a new path.

So when it comes to a dispute between seemingly implacable parties in whose aid the law is invoked, which avenue shall we pursue? Strict justice? Or shalom through arbitration? The Talmud resolves our confusion by allowing appropriate measures of each, and by offering the determining factors one should consider in working out negotiations between conflicting parties with competing claims.

“We have been taught: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou follow’ (Deut. 16:20). One mention of justice refers to decisions based on strict law [which should be just]; the other, to compromises [which should be just]. How are compromises worked out? Say, two boats sailing in the same direction meet at [a narrow channel of] a river. If both attempt to pass side by side, both will sink; but if one is willing to proceed behind the other, both can sail safely. Likewise, two camels meet as they go up the ascent to Beth-horon. If both attempt to go up at the same time, both will fall [into the valley below]; but if one follows the other, both will go up [safely]. How should a compromise be worked out? If one is laden and the other not laden, the unladen should give way to the laden. If one is near [its destination] and the other not near, the one near its destination should give way to the one not near. If both are [equally] near or equally far [from their destination], a compromise should be made between them, the one [who is to go first] compensating the other [who is asked to give way] (Sanhedrin, 23b, as quoted in Bialik and Ravnitsky, trans. Braude, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 741:199).

It is so important for us to remember that pure “strict justice” under the law as written thousands of years ago will come up insufficient, unable to respond to changing circumstances and the evolution of our interpretive tradition.

This isn’t just a good message for us Reform Jews who prize our sacred history of laws that have evolved over thousands of years in tandem with changing circumstances. It should also inspire anyone who gives consideration to the parallel conversations taking place all across the United States of America with regard to our own Constitution, itself a body of laws whose interpreters range the gamut from self-professed strict “originalists” or “constructionists” (“Let the law cut through the mountain!”) to those who see in the Constitution built-in mechanisms for flexibility, negotiation, and evolution. (Call them “Disciples of Aaron,” “lovers of shalom.”)

A final caution. Remember these words from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b): “Rabbi Jochanan said: ‘Jerusalem was destroyed only because they [the Priestly authorities] gave judgments in [strict] accordance with the Torah.’ Is that because the judgments were made by those untrained to judge? [No]; it is rather because they imposed their judgments based on the strict law of the Torah, and did not go beyond the letter of the law.”

As we celebrate the privilege of beginning a new book of Torah, I hope these thoughts will provide you with a window into the complexity and creativity of Jewish law, from the Bible’s day to our own. As always, I welcome your comments and questions here on our Torah Study blog.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Monday, July 13, 2009

Morality and War, Then and Now - Thoughts for MATOT-MAS'EI

Shalom, Internet!

This is a first: I am posting this week's blog commentary from a couple hundred miles north of Albuquerque, 36,000 feet in the air. (See photo to the right, which I took with my laptop camera.) I spru
ng for the WiFi on Virgin Atlantic ($12.99/flight) so I ought to at least get some work done, you know, for tax deduction purposes. Or something.

This is a vacation week for me, so in lieu of a new video I am posting a link to a commentary written last year for Parashat Matot, the first of the double-portion (Matot-Mas'ei) read this week. The "D'var Acher" commentary by URJ Chairman Peter Weidhorn is also worth reading and I'm sure that somewhere in these words we'll find ourselves prompted to engage in a vigorous discussion. As always, your comments are most welcome.

Let me add, upon the conclusion of the Book of Numbers: Chazak, Chazak, v'Nitchazeik! Be strong, be strong, and let us give strength to one another.

Shalom to all of you from above -- way above!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Here is the article. The originally posted link to the URJ website seems to be under construction.


Morality in War, Then

and Now (Originally published in "Reform Voices of Torah,"

Jonathan E.

Photo Credit: Jordana H.

We begin our parashah in the fortieth, and thus, final year of Israel's desert trek toward the Promised Land. The people are encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. The Israelites are preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael as a trained fighting force, ready to dispossess the native Canaanites and take possession of the land promised on oath by God.

Moses initiates a war against the Midianites (Numbers 31:3–4), purportedly to avenge the people for the sin of the Midianites. Recall that a Midianite woman, Cozbi, used sex to lure an Israelite named Zimri into illicit carnal relations—a deed abruptly ended by the spear of Pinchas, which dispatched both participants at once (Numbers 25:6–8, 25:15). Presumably her transgression spurred the men to acts of idolatry. (Some confusion lingers over this passage, because we learn that Moabite women, not Midianites, used sex as a lure and then "invited the [Israelite] menfolk to the sacrifices for their god") (Numbers 25:2).

But here our text targets Midianites. The Israelite warriors slaughter all their males and especially their kings (Numbers 31:7–8), as well as "every woman who has known a man carnally" (Numbers 31:17), sparing only the virgin females (Numbers 31:18).

After the slaughter, Moses instructs that "every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall purify himself . . ." (Numbers 31:19).

W. Gunther Plaut regards this "ritual atonement" as "a unique provision in any human code" (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 1,111), one that "introduces certain meliorating rules" (like tithes on the spoils claimed in battle). Parenthetically, Plaut continues:

(These may be compared to the various Geneva conventions of modern times applying themselves not to war as such but to the treatment of prisoners and civilians whose fate is to be bettered in conflicts still to occur.) . . . The realities have not changed greatly to this day, except that in many ways modern war may have increased the cruelties practiced in ancient, more "primitive" times. (Ibid.,emphasis added)

How sad, and true, is this last remark.

Many of us who read this section of our Torah portion understandably shudder at the religiously commanded slaughter, especially when Moses remarks in disgust, "You have spared every female!" (Numbers 31:15) before ordering their deaths, too.

But we should approach cautiously in contrasting our twenty-first-century sensibilities against biblical views of warfare. A compelling case could in fact be made that the wars of the last century and this century display humankind at our most brutal since the dawn of time. Certainly the cumulative wartime death toll since 1900 lends evidence to this claim.

Our increasingly sophisticated technologies of warfare have enabled us to wreak unprecedented destruction from an unprecedented remove—a remove both geographical and emotional. Increasingly commonplace "shock and awe" tactics of aerial bombardment do present less of a risk to military personnel than does a ground assault, but at the cost of death and injury to how many civilians?

Furthermore, we have seen in our most recent conflict in Iraq evidence that protracted war may erode basic morality. The crimes at Abu Ghraib alone should cause us sufficient discomfort in alleging any moral superiority of present-day wars over biblical wars.

The War on Terror has also been exploited by our government to justify the torture of detainees. The current [read, "former," i.e., Bush - ed. 07.2009] administration's morally dubious defense of torture (on the grounds that the practice is warranted by the threats posed by "enemy combatants") further tarnishes any disparaging claims we might make about the "primitive" wartime practices of our biblical forebears.

In 2005, the Reform Movement passed "a Resolution on Torture that affirms the validity of international treaties to which the U.S. is a party and the legal definitions of torture present in international law, and demands that the U.S. enforce and uphold domestic laws and Supreme Court rulings that make torture illegal" (as cited on the Web site of the Religious Action Center,www.rac.org). Thoughtful, influential leaders from across the political spectrum—both Republicans and Democrats—endorse this position.

That URJ resolution cites a case presented before the Supreme Court of Israel. The contours of the argument go like this: "On the one hand, the prisoner is a human being, created b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), and as such is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. On the other hand, there may exist a clear and present danger to the lives of innocent persons, whose death and injury might be prevented by information that the suspect can provide" ("Resolution on Torture," submitted by the Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees to the 68th Union for Reform Judaism General Assembly, passed—Houston, November 2005, as cited on www.rac.org).

It turns out that "the Court held that even in a ‘ticking bomb' scenario, torture or physical coercion is banned without exception. Experience has taught that there are more effective and moral ways of extracting information from detainees that do not reach beyond the bounds of law" (ibid.). "Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak stated in an article after the Court's decision: ‘The war against terrorism also requires the interrogation of terrorists, which must be conducted according to the ordinary rules of interrogation. Physical force must not be used in these interrogations; specifically, the persons being interrogated must not be tortured'" (ibid.).

This Israeli ruling highlights the complexity of legislating moral conduct during warfare. Yet instead of despairing of our capacity to compel moral behavior in wartime, it insists all the more that ethical standards must be applied and enforced—
especially in war.

War has always been a brutalizing, dehumanizing affair, both for combatants and civilians. Our Torah portion this week makes this fact abundantly clear.

But have we really come so far?

DAVAR ACHER | Davar Acher

Challenge and Responsibility: Finding Modern Meaning in Biblical Text
Peter J. Weidhorn

As a Reform Jew and a layperson, I have always marveled at the ability of our rabbinical leaders to lead us to see ideas within the Bible that are not always apparent to us. At the same time, however, I have been taught by some of my teachers to be very careful lest we go overboard in reading into the text ideas and concepts that are not present. Such would be my conclusion relative to this parashah of Matot and the extension drawn from its words to the politics of our moment in history.

Like so many laypeople, I am concerned about the use of the biblical text to lead people to take particular political positions for or against specific personalities. What can be read into the text by one may not be read into the text by another. So for me, I am instructed by what we learn from our Reform commentary, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005]).

Rabbi Plaut has been very specific in suggesting to us that Jews throughout history have been challenged by the moral questions of the requirement to slaughter combatants, women, and children, as occurs here in the text. Is Moses angry that the women were kept alive as a way of enhancing the amount of the spoils of war to be distributed? Or was he angry just because the women and some of the children were kept alive? Plaut points out that we should always keep in mind the time and place of biblical writing. These thoughts and acts were in keeping with the context of the time (ibid., pp. 1,110–1,111).

But even more, Plaut teaches us that this historical narrative was probably written long after the fact and is not meant to be taken literally. The numbers are much too large to be actual. Long after this event, Israel still encountered Midianites and so had not utterly destroyed them. Plaut writes, "The biblical account . . . represents a reconstruction of history as a statement of what should have happened rather than what actually happened. It doubtlessly came from an age when Israel had trouble with the native inhabitants of its conquered peoples . . ." (ibid., p. 1,111). I take from this a number of lessons concerning Reform Judaism and Torah.

First, Reform Jews read Torah differently than many other Jews. We are able to maintain its sanctity while challenging its literal words. Second, we can ask moral questions about the actions suggested in the text as to how they might or might not relate to our times. Surely, this section in Matot applies. What about other sections of biblical text? For example, how about the morality of Jacob's stealing the birthright? What about the notion of slavery?

Finally we must be very careful in how we might use the text. The third commandment ofAseret HaDib'rot ,which suggests we should not take the name of God in vain (old translation), might be understood in the following way: certain sacred things should be used very carefully and not taken lightly. Extracting political doctrine from the biblical text may be just such an example.

Peter J. Weidhorn is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism, the top lay leadership position in the Reform Movement.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pinchas: The Lonely Life of the Zealot

Does religious extremism relegate a zealot to a life of loneliness? Let's examine the title character of this week's Torah portion, Pinchas. After slaying a Midianite woman and an Israelite man with one thrust of the spear (while they were mid-sexual intercourse, no less!), Pinchas is rewarded with a promise of everlasting priesthood and what the Torah calls a "brit shalom," a covenant of peace. What on earth is the Torah trying to tell us here? In my remarks (see video), I propose that the Torah expresses a few concealed reservations about the self-motivated zealous action undertaken by Pinchas, and that in fact the Torah wishes for religious zeal to be tempered by shalom, the need to preserve peace in and among religious communities.

Please read, watch, listen, and offer your remarks. I look forward to learning with you and from you! With Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake