Friday, April 26, 2013

God Abuse: Fighting Hillul HaShem

Hillul – to vacate, desecrate, defame, violate, pollute.

Baruch Goldstein ruined my Bar Mitzvah. On Purim of 1994 Goldstein entered the shared mosque/synagogue which is Me’arat haMachpelah, the shrine of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs in Hevron, armed with an assault rifle. He massacred 29 Palestinians, injuring 125 more. The world was outraged – and so was I: it was the morning before my Bar Mitzvah, and the horrified membership of my parent’s synagogue called for a mournful Shabbat, asking us to tone down the festivities. In my pubescent mind, all I could think was “What? We’re not going to sing all the songs we planned, not going to serve the Yerushalmi kugel? (Yerushalmi kugel with black pepper – the age-old coming of age food for Ashekenazi men, or so my imagination had it…) Couldn’t he have waited until next week!?” Perhaps I wasn’t quite as mature as I was made out to be in those speeches...
Of the many lessons of that weekend, what remained with me was a deep curiosity around the idea of “Hillul haShem” – the desecration of God’s name. Others kept repeating that Goldstein took the resting place of those who “carried God’s name in the world” – Avraham and Sarah, Yitzhak and Rivkah, Jacob and Leah – and turned it into a place of death and hatred. Yet the massacre was bad enough for its human, political and national consequences, what was added by describing it as a desecration of God’s name?
Over the years I’ve come to understand how much this event, and the many that followed, have shaped my consciousness. The last two decades have seen so many religious Jews, Muslims and Christians take God’s name in justification of acts of murder and violence. To make things more complicated, while to my community Goldstein’s act was clearly a desecration of God’s name, for some of my co-religionists his act was a sanctification of God’s name. Pluralism is tested to its fullness: can we continue to be the same community if what I see as the ultimate desecration you see as the ideal sanctification?

As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing unfolded last week, I found myself hoping that whoever this was, that it not be an act in the “name of God”. This week, as the media tried to decipher the motivation for the Tsarneav brother’s actions, I wondered: What is at stake if God’s name is involved in this act or not – and why does this question make my blood boil all the more, as it does each time religious people kill in the name of God?
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, includes the verses from which the Rabbis learned the commandment to sanctify God’s name – Kiddush haShem, and its inverse, the avoidance of Hillul HaShem. Sanctification is what Leviticus is all about, but how that sanctification is achieved has changed dramatically over the centuries, and continues to be in intense debate. The original context for this verse – appearing at the end of Vayikra 22 – is the responsibility of the Priests and the Israelites to maintain the proper sacrificial procedures: not to eat donated food in a state of impurity, not to serve up a blemished offering, etc. The chapter ends with this ringing exhortation:
And you shall not desecrate My Holy name,
And I shall be sanctified within the People of Israel
I am God, the One-who-sanctifies-you. (Leviticus 22:32)
וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי
וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. (ויקרא כב:לב)
As Jacob Milgrom puts it - “The ideological thrust of this verse is: if all Israel refrains from desecrating God’s name by faulty sacrificial procedures, it will hasten its progress toward the divine goal: the attainment of holiness.” Yet in the hands of the Rabbis this exhortation for ritual purity becomes a larger calling to sanctify God – Kiddush haShem. How is this sanctification to be achieved for the Rabbis?
As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has taught, sanctification of God’s name happens for the Rabbis through celebrating life, not death: in the commandment to create new life, the celebration of time and lifecycle (marriage, brachot, holidays), or the reverence and dignity we give to human life (mitzvot bein adam lechavero). Even the laws of kashrut are about celebrating life (vegetarianism is the messianic ideal, but in the meantime there are more prohibitions the more human-like an animal is).
Kiddush haShem is often associated with martyrdom, dying for God. However, in the Talmud it is very clear that sanctifying God’s name is achieved first and foremost by refusing to die (see the text from Maimonides’ Code at the bottom of this post). Indeed, at times the deep honoring of life requires that one forfeit life in order to protect its value: only when forced to perform the three gravest acts: murder, idolatry and sexual violation – should life be forfeited to protect, well, life.
For centuries, Kiddush haShem as martyrdom was the act of the utterly disempowered to give their most valuable possession – their life – in exchange for not violating their most core beliefs about the value of life. “Dying for God” means “Dying for Life”.
Religious violence, such as Goldstein’s massacre or suicide bombings represent the opposite act: killing for God. The Rabbinic “Dying for God” is the last resort of the disempowered who is fully forced into a situation, a passive stance to avoid an act even at the price of death. In that passive disobedience God’s name is sanctified. “Killing for God” however – from biblical Samson to our own newsfeed – is a choice to mete out human retribution under the banner of a Holy Name. This is not Kiddush HaShem, and outside the confines of a justified war it is the very opposite: a grave Hillul, a desecration.  

“Sanctifying God” is a concept that continues to elude me. “Desecrating” however is quite intuitive. The term Hillul HaShem captures two Hebrew words in its many layers of meaning. The usual understanding is ח-ו-ל – turning the Holy into Profane. But close to it is the Hebrew word ח-ל-ל, which means void, vacancy. Hillul haShem is not simply “desecrating” the Holy (turning it into חול), but it is turning the Presence into Void (אהיה becomes חלל), it is vacating the meaning from God’s name. Perhaps the best term for this in modern terms would be “God Abuse”: when God’s name is used against God’s Will (so to speak). If the challenge of the 20th century was mass murder by atheistic regimes, God Abuse is the challenge of the 21st century.
I believe religious communities are the conduits for much blessing, inspired by the Sanctified Name of God. But when God’s name is associated with – ironically – murder, sexual violations and idolatry/corruption, then both God and religious communities become vacant of their meaning in the world. It is a violation for which I cannot stand idly by. It is up to those of each tradition to fight back for God’s name within their own tradition, and for us all to come together to sanctify God within our world.
And you shall not desecrate My Holy name,
And I shall be sanctified within the People of Israel
I am God, the One-who-sanctifies-you. (Leviticus 22:32)
וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי
וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם. (ויקרא כב:לב)

P.S. Two more texts: The non-Jew and the Beloved
There is a third Rabbinic concept of Kiddush and Hillul HaShem, and I believe it holds the key to counter-acting the rampant “God Abuse” in the world around us. At first glance, far less is at stake in this third model. This is not about killing or dying for God, rather it is about the most mundane acts. Yet it is in those mundane acts that the battle is fought. It is best described in the following Rabbinic text.

All violations can be cleansed… but one who has performed Hillul haShem - neither Teshuva, nor Yom Kippur, nor suffering,  can cleanse them.
What is Hillul haShem? […]
Abaye said: as we have learned:
"And you shall love Adonai your God" (Devarim 6)
This means: that the Name of Heaven should become beloved on account of you.
When a person who studies and repeats,
And their speech with others is sweet,
they deal in business in good faith,
what do people say concerning them?
"Blessed are the parents and teachers who taught them Torah; woe unto people who have not studied Torah; for this person who has studied the Torah –
look how fine her ways are, how righteous his deeds! .
Of such people does Scripture say: "Thou art My servant, Israel, in, whom I will be glorified"

But if someone studies and repeats,
and does not speak pleasantly with people
is not faithful in business,
and is discourteous in relations with people,
what do people say about them?
"Woe to those who study Torah,
woe unto his parents and teachers who taught him Torah!
Blessed are the people who do not study Torah,
For this person who studied Torah: Look, how corrupt are her deeds, how ugly his ways.
(Talmud Bavli 66, Midrash Tannaim Devarim 6:5)
מי שיש חילול השם בידו אין לו כח בתשובה לתלות ולא ביוה"כ לכפר ולא ביסורין למרק אלא כולן תולין ומיתה ממרקת ...
היכי דמי חילול השם?
אביי אמר כדתניא
"ואהבת את ה' אלהיך" –
שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך.
בזמן שאדם קורא ושונה
ודבורו בנחת עם הבריות
ומקחו ומתנו בשוק נאה
ונושא ונותן באמונה
מה הבריות אומרין עליו?
אשרי פלוני שלמד תורה
אשרי אביו ואשרי רבו שלימדוהו תורה
אוי להן לבני אדם שלא למדו תורה
פלוני שלמד תורה –
ראיתם כמה יפין דרכיו וכמה מתוקנין מעשיו
עליו הכת' אומ' (יש' מ"ט ג') ויאמר לי עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר:

ובזמן שאדם קורא ושונה
ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות
ואין מקחו ומתנו בשוק נאה ואינו נושא ונותן באמונה
מה הבריות אומרין עליו?
אוי לו לפלוני שלמד תורה
אוי לו לאביו ולרבו שלימדוהו תורה
אשריהן בני אדם שלא למדו תורה
פלוני שלמד תורה ראיתם כמה מכוערין מעשיו וכמה מקולקלין דרכיו

(בבלי יומא פו, מדרש תנאים לדברים פרק ו פסוק ה ואהבת )

God’s Name is hostage in the hands of human beings. It’s meaning, it’s very sanctity, depends on the acts of those who carry his name: “And I shall be sanctified within the People of Israel”. And it is acts of “mundane morality” that are the first and final test of such sanctification. If God’s name becomes beloved through your acts, then God’s name is sanctified. If it isn’t, you have contributed to its deepest desecration, no matter how many pristine ritual actions you’ve exercised.
I know that others might claim that my acts, that “coming together with other religions”, or “cooperating with other Jewish denominations”, is the true Hillul haShem. That the loss of traditional paths in the name of equality for women, LGBT, or minorities – are all a Hillul haShem. I believe in the value of traditional paths and in religious communities built around those paths, and share a criticism and a sadness for those who fail to see the value in them. But traditional paths can become idolatries of their own. The notion of Hillul haShem the Rabbis have given us serves as an internal correction within religious communities. This is what the midrash (BR 49:9) teaches when is cites Avraham as warning God against Hillul haShem if he punishes innocents people in Soddom: It is the our role is to be wary that Word of God doesn’t desecrate the Name of God.
The Rabbis also make a point of claiming that the paths to sanctifying God’s name are not learned only within Judaism, but far beyond. In this (last) text they present Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law who is also described as “dallying in all the idolatries in the world”, as teaching Moses something about preventing Hillul haShem through acts of “mundane morality”:
Why did Yitro [leave Moses and] return to his land?
He said to himself: For all these years, people have been depositing their savings by me, for I was the Trustee of the town.
If I leave them and go – they will say: “Yitro absconded, took all of our savings and gave them to his son-in-law!” and I will end up defaming myself and you. Rather I should return and pay them all back.
Another interpretation:
Yitro said to himself: This past year was a drought, and I borrowed money and distributed funds to the poor. If I do not return and pay off my loans, I will be desecrating God’s Name. Rather, I am return and paying off my loans.
(Sifrei Zuta Bamidbar 10:30)
"ויאמר אליו לא אלך כי אם אל ארצי ואל מולדתי אלך." - למה חזר לארצו?
אלא כך היה יתרו מחשב ואומר:
כל השנים הללו היו בני אדם מפקידין אצלי פקדונות שאני הייתי הנאמן שבעיר, ואם אני מניחן והולך לי הן
אומרין ברח לו יתרו ולקח כל פקדונותיו ונתן לחותנו. נמצאתי מוצא שם רע עלי ועליך. אלא הריני הולך ומחזיר
את כולן.
דבר אחר: "ויאמר אליו לא אלך" למה חזר?
אלא היה מחשב ואומר: השנה הזאת שנת בצורת היתה ואני לויתי ופרנסתי את העניים ואם אין אני הולך ופורע את החובות נמצאתי מחלל שם שמים. אלא
הריני הולך ופורען.
ספרי זוטא במדבר פיסקא י סימן ל

Maimonides’ Code: Basics of the Torah
The Family of Israel is commanded to sanctify God’s name, as it says: “And I shall be sanctified within the People of Israel” (Vayikra 22:32); and are warned not to desecrate God’s name, as it says: “And you shall not desecrate My Holy name” (ibid).
How is this achieved?
If forced by a non-Jew to violate any of the commandments of the Torah or be killed, one should violate the commandment rather than submit to death, for it says: “and you shall live in them” (Yayikra 18:5) – and not die in them…
This is the case in all commandments, except for idolatry, sexual violation, and spilling blood. For those three violations, of given a choice between murdering, raping or idolatrousness, and death – one must choose death and not violate.
כל בית ישראל מצווין על קידוש השם הגדול הזה, שנאמר "ונקדשתי, בתוך בני ישראל" (ויקרא כב,לב); ומוזהרין שלא לחללו, שנאמר "ולא תחללו, את שם קודשי" (שם).  כיצד--בשעה שיעמוד גוי ויאנוס את ישראל לעבור על אחת מכל מצוות האמורות בתורה או יהרגנו, יעבור ואל ייהרג:  שנאמר במצוות, "אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם" (ויקרא יח,ה)--ולא שימות בהם.  ואם מת ולא עבר, הרי זה מתחייב בנפשו.
ב  במה דברים אמורים, בשאר מצוות--חוץ מעבודה זרה, וגילוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים.  אבל שלוש עבירות אלו, אם יאמר לו עבור על אחת מהן או תיהרג, ייהרג ואל יעבור.