Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Light, Darkness and other Religions: Thoughts on the 8th Night of Hanukkah

Driving down the streets of Manhattan after Shabbat, I was struck by the sight of hundreds of Protestants walking towards the Cathedral for Midnight Mass. I returned home to discover Catholics had lined the sidewalks outside my house waiting to enter a local church. There’s something very moving about seeing people go to shul.
With Chanukah candles in some windows, and Christmas trees in others, December in America lends itself to mushy ecumenical statements of “hey, we’re not so different after all”. I believe the differences between religions and identities are critical, but pointing out the shared moments is just as important.
This week, as the pope bemoaned the fact that “the superficial glitter” hides the real meaning of the religion and its values, I too was nodding: "Today Christmas has become a commercial celebration, whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity." The Pope was calling it the way it is: out of the legitimate desire to turn Christmas into a less religious day and more of a “one size fits all” December holiday, the deeper meanings of the day are often lost. It’s good to have a day to celebrate family, and exchanging gifts is a great way to strengthen relationships. I also find value in families of diverse religious backgrounds finding creative ways to showcase their complex identities in their homes. But rituals and holidays have deeper meanings and statements that can easily be lost if there is nothing but glitter and gift wrapping, and it is up to us to infuse our rituals with the deeper meaning, values and narratives we wish to give as a gift to ourselves this year.
Agreeing with the pope and being inspired by people of other religions as they pray, reminded me that while as a Jew I have a strong coalition with Jews of all practices and beliefs, Jews are not my only coalition. As a religious person in the modern world, I have a coalition with religious people of other faiths, as we claim together that living a spiritual life of humility and observance is a value in this secular age we live in. Watching the news from Beit Shemesh this week, where extremist Ultra-Orthodox men have pushed all boundaries in their misogynistic ways, I was reminded that religious extremists have their own coalition, with communities of various religions reacting to modernity in similar fundamentalist ways. In response to them I belong to a third coalition, of people who promote liberal and humanistic values, beyond and within categories of religiosity or faith. But that deserves its own post…
So how do I hold a complex identity that shares values across political and religious boundaries, and yet retains its unique authenticity? Hanukkah offers us the ability to celebrate both within our Jewish identity, alongside celebrating a deeper human phenomenon that is shared across cultures. People love to point out the “ancient pagan” origins of certain holidays, but for the non-historicists among us this is just another word for “ancient human” origins. Hannukah, like many other winter holidays, is a festival of lights which arrives around the darkest night of the year. The Talmud itself retells the Hanukkah story as a humanistic holiday. In this version, from Tractate Avodah Zara (as part of a discussion of what distinguishes Jewish from pagan!) Hanukkah is described as having been enstated by Adam, the first human being. The language of the Adam Hanukkah myth mimics, almost parodies, the story of the Maccabees’ Hannukah:
Our Rabbis taught:
When Adam [the first human] noticed
that the days were getting shorter, he said:
"Shame on me,
the world is perhaps becoming darker because of my sins,
and will soon return to chaos! Is this what the heavens meant when they punished me with mortality?"
For eight days he prayed and fasted.
When the period of Tevet [the month after Kislev] arrived
and he saw that the days were now growing longer,
he realized: "This is the way of the world." 
Adam then made eight days of celebration.
The following year he instated these and those as holidays.
Talmud Bavli Avodah Zara 8b
תנו רבנן  [שנו רבותינו]:
לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך,
אמר: "אוי לי, שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו,
וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים",
עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה],
כיון שראה תקופת טבת
וראה יום שמאריך והולך,
אמר: "מנהגו של עולם הוא",
הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים,
לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים
(תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף ח עמוד ב)
The admittance of the Talmud that Hanukkah did not start with the Maccabees holds a critical lesson for living in a world of multiple narratives. It allows me to celebrate my story, the Maccabean Hanukkah, alongside recognizing the universal elements of the holiday, and rejoicing in those as well. We could rewind all the holidays into a humanitrian unitarian mush, or fast forward them into a bland commercial festivus, but I personally am invested in each group celebrating their own narrative, while recognizing and rejoicing those other narratives as well. It bears the danger of becoming hyper-particularistic, but it also retains the rich authenticity of unique traditions, that each hold their own recipe for a better world.
Before leaving Hanukkah and this Talmudic passage, on this night of 8 candles it is worth pointing out that this story also makes a very moving statement about the human reaction to darkness. When Adam first realizes that sunlight is diminishing and the nights are getting longer, he immediately turns to blame himself for this suffering. But once he realizes that this darkness is not about him, his guilt or even his repentance, but rather that this is “the way of the world”, he then CELEBRATES it.
In this story, Hanukkah is a celebration of the fact that there are times in which darkness happens, and yet it is followed by times of increased light. Human beings lighting candles during the darkest nights is perhaps part of a divine-human covenant: when God’s world (tragically?) provides more darkness, we human beings promise to step up and provide more light. Mortality is not a “fall of man”, it is “the way of the world”, and it requires a certain response from us – lighting candles. I was reminded of this story last week when the father of an alumnus told me how he left in the middle of a pivotal conference attended by the President, in order to sit at the deathbed of his best friend. The suffering of death is unfortunately the way of the world. The candles we light through our own acts of compassion are what will help us get through the darkness and the cold, until spring arrives again.
Hanukkah Sameach and have a warm winter,

Single Malt Scotch for Feminists: A Book Review

The Masculine Dilemmas of the Partnership Minyan

Published in the Forward, 30 December 2011, this is my review of:
The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World
By Elana Maryles Sztokman

A few years ago, a friend announced that he intended to start a “Kiddush club” at our synagogue. “Our shul needs more of a social scene,” he declared, “and some high-quality single malt whisky!” he added jokingly. I was vehemently opposed. Our synagogue is a “partnership minyan,” which seeks to maximize women’s participation in the prayer service within the bounds of Halacha and the Orthodox community. A Kiddush club smacked to me of a classic patriarchal construction, a complete contradiction of our attempt at re-aligning the gender dynamic of Orthodox synagogue life.
I was thinking of this exchange as I was reading Elana Sztokman’s new book, “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World,” an ethnography of men in partnership minyanim. Sztokman asks a fascinating question: What do the men get from it?
As Sztokman describes at the beginning of the book, the partnership minyan phenomenon started in 2001 with two small minyanim in Jerusalem (Shira Chadasha) and New York (Darkhei Noam). Those two are now regularly attended by hundreds every Shabbat and have prompted 25 other such minyanim in places as far flung as Melbourne and Beersheva and as traditional as Skokie, Ill., and Englewood, N.J. At these minyanim, women and men share equally in Torah reading and speaking before the community, and women lead some parts of the service — but men and women are separated by a mechitzah, the barrier between the genders that is the hallmark of an Orthodox synagogue. While still considered anomalous in the eyes of most of the Orthodox community, partnership minyanim are no longer beyond the pale.

Read the rest of the review at: http://www.forward.com/articles/148302

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah and the Battle for Re-Interpretation

Boris Shatz (bottom) with his Matityahu in the background
Oh, the joy of Hanukkah. Such a popular holiday, yet with no clear message or meaning. There seem to be more interpretations to the holiday of lights and Maccabees than the calorie count of a latke. Indeed, every few years a media fistfight breaks out about the meaning of the holiday. In 2009 David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes about Hanukkah, pointing out the zealous actions of the Maccabees. Many liberal dreidel-spinners were horrified to be reminded that their beloved holiday of religious freedom was based on the acts of violent religious zealots.
I found Brooks’ piece disheartening not because of the questionable actions of the Maccabees, but rather because he ended up denying the right to creatively interpret the holiday. Brooks’ expectation that holidays must be confined by a historicist representation of their original context revealed a deep misunderstanding of how Judaism works.  Judaism is a “community of interpretation,” and it is those interpretations that make Judaism an interesting, vibrant and moral tradition, that walks the line between adhering to its authentic calling and being continually relevant.
No Jewish ritual exemplifies this “community of interpretation” more than the way Hanukkah was interpreted by Jews in the modern era. Travel among Jewish homes as they light their menorahs, asking what the meaning of Hanukkah is, and you’ll discover extremely divergent stories:
In many an American home, Hanukkah is a battle of a minority against those who deny it religious freedom. In Orthodox homes Hanukkah is about a civil war against hyper-free assimilated Jews who gave in to their neighbors’ Hellenized ways. 
In secular Israeli Zionist homes God and the oil lamp were summarily evicted and the battle of the Maccabees was re-christened a battle for national political freedom. In the home of a Habad family near you the Maccabees wear black hats and battle to ignite a Jewish spark within their fellow Jews.  (If you’ll excuse the product placement - you can read more about these interpretations in my father, Noam Zion’s Hannukah anthology).
Each community uses the rituals and metaphors of Hanukkah in order to shape and celebrate their ideological world view – and this is exactly as it should be!
In 1907 a wild Hanukkah party rocked the world of the early Zionist settlement in Jerusalem. Betzalel, the heady Zionist art school of Jerusalem had just opened its doors, and its founder, Boris Shatz, had place his baroque-like sculpture of Matthias, the first Maccabean zealot, at the center. The polemic that followed on the OpEd pages of the Israeli Zionist newspapers of the time rivals was immortalized in Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s novel “Tmol Shilshom”:
When Professor Boris Shatz founded his Betzalel, he was struck by Hanukkah, the holy day that people started calling the Holiday of the Maccabees. They went and turned it into a lusty party.
They placed a large statue of Matityahu the High Priest, with a sword in hand ready to stab the villain who dared sacrifice a pig on the altar placed in honor of evil Antiochus. They danced the night away in revelry and excess.
The next day [Eliezer] Ben Yehuda wrote in his newspaper good words about the party, but he was disturbed on account of that statue that they had placed in the ballroom: For Matityahu was a zealous for his religion – his  religion and not his country. As long as the Greeks controlled our country, and stole, robbed, murdered, killed and destroyed cities and villages, Matityahu and his sons stayed in their city Modi'in and didn't do a thing, but the second the Greeks began harming the religion… he jumped up like a lion, he and his heroic sons…
And now, says Ben Yehuda in his essay, now I have no doubt that when we gathered yesterday in his honor, if the statue would have come to life, or if Matityahu was alive today - that he would have stabbed us all in one go with the sword in his hand! Wouldn't he have sacrificed us on top of that altar?!
כשעשה הפרופסור בוריס שץ את הבצלאל שלו, פגע בו חנוכה, חג קדוש זה שהתחילו קוראים לו חג המכבים. הלכו ועשאוהו נשף חשק.
העמידו פסל של מתתיהו כהן גדול, כשהוא אוחז חרב בידו לדקור את הפריץ שהקריב חזיר על גבי המזבח שעשו לשם אנטיוכוס הרשע. עשו כל הלילה בהוללות ובזוללות.
למחר כתב בן יהודה בעיתונו דברים של חיבה על הנשף, אלא שדעתו לא היתה נוחה בשל אותו פסל שהעמידו באולם, שהרי מתתיהו זה קנאי לדתו היה, לדתו ולא לארצו, שהרי כל הזמן שפשטו היוונים על ארצנו וגזלו וחמסו ורצחו והרגו והחריבו ערים וכפרים ישבו לו מתתיהו ובניו במודיעין עירם ולא נקפו אצבע, אלא משהתחילו היוונים לפגוע בדת... קפץ כארי הוא ובניו הגיבורים... ועתה, אומר בן יהודה במאמרו, ועתה אין אני מסופק שבשעה שנתאספנו אמש לכבודו, אילו היו נופחים רוח חיים בפסל, או אילו היה הוא עצמו חי, כלום לא היה דוקר אותנו כולנו כאחד בחרב שבידו?! כלום לא היה מעלה אותנו על גבי המזבח?!
ש"י עגנון, "תמול שלשום", עמ' 386

I love how the polemics of a century ago continue to be relevant today.
Schatz's Matityahu 1894
The irony of inviting Matityahu to a secular artists rave, surrounded by idols and sculptures, is awesome, and it reminds us to always be a little tongue in cheek about our reinterpretations. I hear Ben Yehuda’s criticism, but I would side with Boris Shatz here. We have the right, in fact, we have the need, to be reinterpreting our holidays for ourselves and our communities in ways that are relevant, that charge our lives and our Judaism with a content that is fresh and motivating. When we weave Jewish narratives back into our lives, we galvanize our focus towards greater meaning and action. These reinterpretations need to resonate within Jewish values and narratives authentically, but they must also be renegotiated so as to be a response to the needs and vision of our communities.
What is the meaning of Hanukkah in 2011? What do the Maccabees tell us this year? Is it the continuous call to let the affluence of the American Jewish community spill into the public realm, as symbolized by Jewish lights in the window lighting the public streets, or is it about our need to light candles inwardly, reminding ourselves of the light of our heritage in a time of existential darkness? Are today’s Hellenists those who are mimicking European neo-fascist sentiments in the land of Israel, and it is time for Maccabean democracy fighters to “banish the darkness,” or are the Hellenists those who blindly accept a post-ethnic mentality and are ashamed to call the Jewish people their family? I hope you’ll see that I am not claiming that Hannukah is any one of these stories, rather that within the spectrum of stories that can be told within Jewish narratives and values, we must take ownership of this story, redeem it from its “original historical” significance (a Greek idea if ever there was one!) and reinterpret the holiday, placing a big Matityahu in the center of our Hanukkah parties and actively choosing how we are telling the story of his battle. This is what the Zionists and American Jews of previous generations did so effectively. We must not feel alienated from these rituals because of their historical underpinnings, but rather retell them creatively, turning them into tools as we encounter the greater challenges of our own existence.
Perhaps that is the ironic fate of Matityahu the Zealot: to hear widely divergent explanations of his heroism and have people wolf down fatty foods espousing narratives he would scarcely recognize. That too must be symbolized somehow through the narrative of Hanukkah.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Joseph in Egypt, Israelis in New York: Christmas and “Book-bag Judaism”

This week and next, our Israeli Bronfman Fellows (or Amitim, as we call them) are visiting New York and Boston. This “reverse-Birthright” is a powerful experience for the seventeen year old Israelis as they explore what it means to be Jewish in America, and what that inspires in them regarding Israeli Judaism. 
In this week’s parasha, VaYeshev, another seventeen year old, Joseph, is sent down to Egypt as a   prisoner. He will quickly turn into a prince and beckon his family to leave the land of Israel and join him in the goldene-medine  of Egypt.
With all the hullabaloo around the Israeli Government’s advertisement campaign guilting Israelis who left for “Egypt” to come home, I was especially curious to see how the Israelis would respond to visiting America around Christmas-time. Today, as they visited Rockefeller Center (to discuss New York City as a “modernist project” through Jose Maria Sert murals and the Atlas statue), they were totally taken in by the charm of Salvation Army bell-ringing and mid-town Christmas Markets. Standing by the Christmas tree, a religious amit began arguing with his secular counterpart who was jumping up and down to the music: “You see, this is why secular identity doesn’t stand a chance outside Israel: One Christmas song and you’re a goy.” The secular amit stopped dancing, looked his religious friend in the face and said: “I speak Hebrew, so I’m safe. It’s the Americans who should worry.”
Their argument reminded me of a passage in a book by Fania Oz-Salzberger, Israeli author Amos Oz’s daughter and a scholar in her own right. She wrote a fascinating book about the experience of Israelis in Berlin, and writes insightfully about the Israeli yearning for Europe (or “hutz la-aretz” – anywhere outside Israel) and the charm of Christmas. Like the secular Amit, her reflections bring her to suggest that Hebrew is enough to sustain a Jewish identity:
There is something misleading about our [=secular Israelis'] Mediterranean yearnings to the north-European winter. Europe was always described to us in a foresty-green color, wet with rain, with all kinds of red and purple berries and spotted mushrooms. Or dressed in soft snow and stillness under a distant blue sky.
But no: It's grey here, and wet. No colors either…
And maybe because of that their Christmas is so assertive, so colorful and protestful. In the market along Berlin’s Unter-Den-Linden, one of the many markets that is filled with holiday decorations, sweets and tiny Christmas trees, over a cup of mulled wine, I suddenly find myself thinking about my fathers-fathers and my mothers-mothers - stiff necked and stubborn in the European winter. How did those generations and generations of Jews survive these sad northern winters, passing by the holiday markets on a daily basis, with their finely decorated evergreen trees; passing by those candies and sweets; walking, with their children holding their hands, past the Goyim's holidays and banquets… and not be tempted?
Only at the very end of that long road, the Berlin Jews gave in. Gershom Scholem's family already celebrated Christmas, with a nice "roast duck or a rabbit", and a decorated tree taken from the market by the Church. A German folk holiday, which you celebrate not as Jews but as Germans.
But that wasn't the end of it, because Scholem spoke clearly on a different matter. Maybe he didn't mean to, but he and Bialik and Agnon made sure that lost Jews like myself can never just get swallowed and disappear, never to return again. Because Scholem and Bialik and Agnon cast this wicked spell on us heretics, so that even after our mistaken ways have led us back to this European world, and we were tempted towards those Christmas markets and ski trails and beaches, and after we became pagans and "Canaanites" and "stam Hilonim" – simply secularist – we still will never be able to get rid of the book-bag on our backs. For even after we cast out the Yiddish, we are still prisoners of the Hebrew language, and through our Hebrew we will forever be the prisoners of memory. And through memory we will be prisoners of the duality, of multiple worlds…
Because we'll always be carrying those books on our backs.
Fania Oz-Salzberger, "Israelis in Berlin" | Keter 2001 (Hebrew), pg. 74-77

What is that wicked spell of Hebrew? Does it really need to be Hebrew literacy, or is being literate in Jewish texts enough to become a “prisoner of the duality” that Oz-Salzberger claims to be the essence of a Jewish identity. Couldn't this “book bag” vision of Jewish identity work be being an English speaking Jew who is equally connected to Jewish texts and learning, or is the language necessary for the spell to work? What building blocks are required to create a robust Jewish identity when “Jingle Bells” and “Noel” are playing in my ears? (yes, I’m writing this sitting in a Starbucks café…)
I have no answers, only questions. Yet as much as I happen to love prayer, a synagogue community and talk of God, my hunch is that it is a rich cultural Judaism, a "book bag" Judaism, which secular and religious alike can enjoy, that holds the key to the spell binding nature of Jewish identity. But it'll take a whole lot more work...
With Joseph in the parsha and Christmas cheer all around me there is no better time to ponder the secret to creating a spell-binding Jewish existence in Israel and in America. At least this is an advantage to being a Diaspora Jew – as one of the Amitim put it today: In Israel I never have to actively give meaning to my Judaism – here I do.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Shimon and Levi: Navigating the Dark Side of Biblical (and Modern) Justice

I love sweet inspirational texts, but I find my imagination is always more engaged by the darker, complex stories of the Torah. The stories that my elementary school Torah teacher tried to act as if they didn’t exist (“we won’t be studying chapter 34 because we don’t have time”),which of course made us students actually want to read them… This week’s parsha includes one of the darkest:
A family of newcomers to the land of Canaan, Dina, the daughter of Yaakov, is raped by Shekhem, the entitled son of local nobility. When he offers his hand in marriage to Dina’s family, the brothers trick Shekehm’s townspeople into circumcising themselves as part of a covenant. And then:
But on the third day it was, when the [townpeople] were still hurting, that two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, took each man his sword, they came upon the city secure, and killed all the males… they took Dina from Shekhem’s house and went off… for they had defiled their sister.
Yaakov said to Simon and Levi: You have stirred-up-trouble for me, making me reek among the settled-folk of the land! They will band together against me… and I will be destroyed!
But they said: Should our sister then be treated like a whore!?
(Genesis 34:25-26, 30-31)
וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיוֹתָם כֹּאֲבִים, וַיִּקְחוּ שְׁנֵי-בְנֵי-יַעֲקֹב שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי אֲחֵי דִינָה אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַל-הָעִיר, בֶּטַח; וַיַּהַרְגוּ, כָּל-זָכָר... וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת-דִּינָה מִבֵּית שְׁכֶם, וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל-לֵוִי: עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי; וַאֲנִי, מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי, וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי.  וַיֹּאמְרוּהַכְזוֹנָה, יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת-אֲחוֹתֵנוּ?!
בראשית לד:כה-לא)

It is a story of vengeance and retribution, of hot headedness and betrayal. By the end of the story you too might want to bury yourself with shame, as Yaakov did.
But I am a Levite, and I can’t help but also sensing a moment of pride in all this. Shimon and Levi’s cry for simple retributive justice, unanswered by Yaakov, rings true: “Should our sister then be treated like a whore?” Simultaneously repulsed and drawn to the power of vengeance, I seek to navigate these dark waters.
Some might be so repulsed they want to erase the story from the canon. Any other year, we could get away with taking the moral high ground on our tribal ancestors. But this year we can’t just shove this story back into the recesses of Mesopotamian life.
In a year when crowds cheered outside the White House, excitedly waving American flags, upon Osama bin Laden assassination, and extrajudicial executions, even against American citizens (like cobelligernt Al Awlaki) , are a prize presidential war-time tactic, we must ask when are we happy for justice to be meted out without due process, and when do we require a higher standard, even at the price of endangering our nation.
To take a much more extreme example: When the body of Libya’s horrific dictator is mutilated and dragged across our TV screens, it might be simple to dismiss this as a barbaric act, but it awakens us to ask where is the line drawn between just retribution and unethical vengeance.
I am not trying to make an analogy between the story of Dina and modern occurrences which themselves are complex and distinct. Rather, I am demarcating a dark territory - call it “Shimon and Levi Land,” and it demands of us to define a limiting factor for retribution that would help us make the distinction between retribution and vengeance. As I was asking myself this question, I returned to the late philosopher Jean Hampton’s “A New Theory of Retribution”, quoted here as presented in Martha Minow’s “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness”:
Retribution at its core expresses an ideal that can afford proper limitation, and thereby differ in theory from vengeance. This ideal is equal dignity of all persons. Through retribution, the community corrects the wrongdoer’s false message that the victim was less worthy or valuable than the wrongdoer; through retribution, the community reasserts the truth of the victim’s value by inflicting a publicly visible defeat on the wrongdoer. The very reason for engaging in retributive punishment constrains the punishment from degrading or denying the dignity even of the defeated wrongdoer. Thus, “it is no more right when the victim tries to degrade or falsely diminish the wrongdoer than when the wrongdoer originally degraded or falsely diminished the victim.”
(see Hampton’s beautiful use of the Brothers Karamazov at the opening of her essay)
According to this definition, Shimon and Levi were acting out unjust vengeance, for their desire was to degrade and diminish the rapist (and his entire town!) just as the rapist had done to their sister. Qaddafi’s mutilation is another example of acting out of the (human) desire to shame and degrade a person that had shamed and degraded so many others. Not showing the body of Bin Laden might have been an attempt to maintain the sense of dignity of even our arch nemesis, inflicting a publicly visible defeat without unnecessary degradation (Israel made a similar choice when executing Adolf Eichman, never releasing pictures of the act – counter to popular demand – and appointing wardens and executioners only from countries where the Holocaust did not occur, to avoid the semblance of direct revenge).
At the end of the day, my own momentary pride in Shimon and Levi standing up for their sister is surpassed by the deep injustice of their actions. No one sees this more clearly than their father, Yaakov. True, in this week’s parasha he falls short: at first he is silent about the rape, then about the deceit, finally he rebukes them for the murders but on a political pragmatic level, not a moral one.
Only at the end of his days, while giving out blessings to his sons, Levi and Shimon are bludgeoned by him, in one of the most scathing poems I’ve ever read:
Shimon and Levi
Such brothers,
Wronging weapons are their ties-of-kinship!
To their council may my being never come,
In their assembly may my person never unite!
For in their anger they kill men,
In their self-will they maim bulls.
Damned be their anger, that it is so fierce!
Their fury, that it is so harsh!
I will split them up in Yaakov,
I will scatter them in Yisrael.
Genesis  49:5-7
שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים
כְּלֵי חָמָס, מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם.
בְּסֹדָם אַל-תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי,
בִּקְהָלָם אַל-תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי:
כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ,
וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ-שׁוֹר.
אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז,
וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה;
אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב,
וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
(בראשית מט:ה-ז)

Shimon and Levi are punished for their acts by becoming wanderers, never receiving a proper portion of the land. May we merit a better fate as we navigate these tough decisions in our countries and in our personal actions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

No Easy Answers: Seeking a Path of Integrity

In 19th century Baghdad, a group of students turned to their teacher with a question, seeking guidance on one of the most elusive human dilemmas: when is it justified to lie?
Question: We know that deceiving is a grievous act, so much so that deceivers are said to “not see the face of the shekhina” (divine presence).
Yet we also know that at times it is justified to deceive, as the Rabbis taught that “it is permissible to fib in the interest of peace”…
Now there are many occasions when a person could find justification to lie and to justify it as being in the interest of peace… Therefore we ask our teacher to instruct us in other situations in which it is justified to lie, so that we shall recognize the right path to take, and may your reward be multiplied by the heavens.
Responsa Torah Lishma #364, Iraq 19th Century.
מצינו בענין השקר שהוא חמור מאוד והוא מארבע כיתות וכו' ומצינו שנעשה בו היתר לפעמים שאמרו רז"ל מותר לשנות מפני דרכי השלום... והנה יזדמן כמה עניינים שהאדם יוכל לעשות להם היתר לשנות בהם ולתלות ההיתר משום דרכי השלום ... על כן יגיד לנו מורנו אופנים אחרים שיש בהם היתר לשנות כדי שנדע את הדרך אשר נלך בו ושכמ"ה.
(שו"ת תורה לשמה סימן שסד)
Striving to lead a life of truth, one confronts this question constantly, in various iterations: Should I tell this “white lie” in the interest of peace? Was it right to avoid the truth that time? Do I forsake peace and order for the sake of speaking truth to power? Should I stick by the rules or can I play dirty for the sake of a greater cause?
Writ large, this dilemma touches upon the question of civil disobedience (Occupy anywhere), of how much governments should tell their people (Wikileaks), of legal deals settled in back rooms in the interest of “moving forward” (Judge Rakoff vs. the SEC-Citibank settlement), or nations preventing full democratic rights from the people in the interest of peace (hello, Egypt).
Yaakov and Lavan, the heroes of this week’s parsha, VaYetze, are the paradigms of this dilemma. Lavan goes down in Jewish memory as the paradigm of the deceitful, untrustworthy “other.” He tricks Yaakov by giving him Leah and swindles him from the profits of shepherding.
But our Yaakov himself is the paradigm of uncomfortable Jewish stereotypes: the runaway-victim-cum-sneaky-businessman, the master of deceit whose tricks get played right back at him. Yaakov literally means “Heel/Sneak,” and the end of this week’s parsha sees him sneaking off with Lavan’s daughters and flocks back to Canaan.
Back to our Iraqi students and their dilemma: They are hoping for clear guidelines: when is it justified to lie, and when is it not. In between the lines of their question, you can hear that more than a fear of the consequences of lying, they are afraid of themselves, of the power of their sharp minds to justify any situation under the rubric of: “it is OK to fib in the interest of peace”.
The teacher on the other side of the question was the leader of the Iraqi Jewish community, and perhaps the greatest sage of Arabian Jewry in the 19th century, Rabbi Yosef Chayim, aka the “Ben Ish Chai”(son of a living man). Unfortunately, he offers no easy solutions:
Answer: To produce before you my own understanding of the exact iterations where it is justified to lie – that I will not do!
Rather I will quote the stories where this dilemma is brought up in the Talmud, and you will learn directly from them.
And so I shall begin:
המצאות של אופנים שיש בהם היתר לא אעשה לכם מדעתי בדבר זה ורק אביא לכם אופנים הנזכרים בתלמוד ואתם תלמדו מהם וזה החלי בעזר האל צורי וגואלי.
The Ben Ish Chai then quotes 45 (!) scenarios of lying and deceit from Rabbinic texts (read them all – in Aramaic - here). He concludes by saying:
I have now set before you a table full of the various iterations about lying and deceit mentioned in Rabbinical texts that are justified. And you must be punctilious in learning these scenarios yourself, and logically deduce one thing from another. Only keep the fear of God on your face: do not create leniencies for yourself beyond the bounds through remote analogies. And this is sufficient guidance – may it bring peace.
הרי סדרתי לכם שלחן מלא כמה אופנים בענין השקר וגניבת דעת הנזכרים בדברי רז"ל להיתרא ואתם תדקדקו בכל דבר ודבר ותלמדו דבר מתוך דבר אך תשימו יראת ה' על פניכם לבלתי תעשו קולות חוץ מן השורה בדמיון דחוק... ודי בזה,  והיה זה שלום. ואל שדי ה' צבאות יעזור לי. כ"ד הקטן יחזקאל כחלי נר"ו.
The Ben Ish Chai, R. Yosef Hayim
What I find fascinating about this obscure responsa is the way the Ben Ish Chai refuses to delineate exact guidelines for navigating this dilemma. The Ben Ish Chai is “setting the table” for his students, not spoon feeding them. In a Halakhic tradition that is often quick to seek higher authorities to tell people exactly how to behave, the Ben Ish Chai offers an empowering cry for autonomy: study the stories yourself, and reach your own conclusion (it is fascinating that this is a choice Jewish law makes often in the realm of the ethical, and rarely in the realm of ritual…). He avoids giving strict moral guidance, and instead offers a moral education, hinting that each person must go through their own journey of studying and encountering the detailed dilemmas of differentiating right and wrong, truth and lie, for themselves.

Next week, Yaakov will turn into Yisrael. The conniving anklegrabber will find the courage to become a face-to-face confronter, as he struggles with an angel and is granted a new name:
“Not as Yaakov/Heel-Sneak shall your name be henceforth uttered, but rather Yisrael/God-Fighter, for you have fought with God and men and have prevailed.”    (Genesis 32:29)
וַיֹּאמֶר: לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ, כִּי אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.בראשית לב:כט
Perhaps Yaakov needed to go through his own biographical education into the depths of deceit in order to establish his own commitment to truth. For the Ben Ish Chai it is the stories of the Talmud that help him design a life of truth amid the occasional need to deceive. As we try and walk the “straight and narrow” ourselves, we must make use of the resources that our biographies and cultures give us, being “punctilious in learning these scenarios ourselves” as well as sharing the stories that were helpful to us, with those who walk alongside us. There will be moments when we might find ourselves still being Yaakov’s, let’s hope it will only be a step on the way to being Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom,

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