Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Psalm 27 - ה', אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי

A thought on the first verse: "The Lord, my light and my help."

Is there any significance to these opening words?

Perhaps the Psalmist is capturing the dual nature of man's relationship with God.

On the one hand, we can relate to God, in times of trouble, as the source of help. As a cynical friend of mine once joked: "God, I know you don't exist, but I'm in a spot of trouble here...". When we are in trouble, we instinctively pray.

On the other hand, in times where we might not feel troubled-- when one can focus on spiritual matters -- the Psalmist recalls God as his light.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heda Margolius: 1919 -2010

I'm reading her amazing story, Under a Cruel Star. Just one excerpt, thanks to Kindle's copy and paste...
Sometimes a bedraggled and barefoot concentration camp survivor plucked up his courage and knocked on the door of prewar friends to ask, “Excuse me, do you by any chance still have some of the stuff we left with you for safekeeping?” And the friends would say, “You must be mistaken, you didn’t leave anything with us, but come in anyway!” And they would seat him in their parlor where his carpet lay on the floor and pour herb tea into antique cups that had belonged to his grandmother. The survivor would thank them, sip his tea, and look at the walls where his paintings hung. He would say to himself, “What does it matter? As long as we’re alive? What does it matter?” At other times, it would not turn out so nicely. The prewar friends would not make tea, would not suggest any mistake. They would just laugh and say in astonishment, “Come on now, do you really believe we would store your stuff all through the war, exposing ourselves to all that risk just to give it back to you now?” And the survivor would laugh too, amazed at his own stupidity, would apologize politely and leave. Once downstairs he would laugh again, happily, because it was spring and the sun was shining down on him. It would also happen that a survivor might need a lawyer to retrieve lost documents and he would remember the name of one who had once represented large Jewish companies. He would go to see him and sit in an empire chair in a corner of an elegant waiting room, enjoying all that good taste and luxury, watching pretty secretaries rushing about. Until one of the pretty girls forgot to close a door behind her, and the lawyer’s sonorous voice would boom through the crack, “You would have thought we’d be rid of them finally, but no, they’re impossible to kill off – not even Hitler could manage it. Every day there’re more of them crawling back, like rats...” And the survivor would quietly get up from his chair and slip out of the waiting room, this time not laughing. On his way down the stairs his eyes would mist over as if with the smoke of the furnaces at Auschwitz. Friends from the country would send an invitation: Come see us! We want to feed you. We have plenty of everything! The survivor would arrive at the village, unable to believe his eyes. The farmhouse would be twice its prewar size. A refrigerator would be standing in the kitchen, a washing machine in the hall. There would be Oriental carpets on the floor and original paintings on the walls. The sausage would be served on silver platters and the beer in cut glass. The old farmer would stroke his whiskers and worry, “No sense denying it – we did very well during the war. People had to eat, you know, and with a little thinking... But now things are different... Just as long as the Communists don’t take over...” It took me some time to muster up the courage for a trip to the village of Hut where we used to spend our vacations. Our country house there was as much of a home to me as our apartment in Prague had been, maybe even more so for all the happy memories it held. To return there all alone, the only one of my family who was left, was hard. On the way out the train seemed to be moving too fast, the air was hot and stifling, my head throbbed, and my stomach ached. In Beroun, where I had to change trains, I was seized with such anxiety that I almost returned to Prague. At last I reached Hut and made my way haltingly from the station to the village, glimpsing from far away those windows where I used to see my mother looking out, alive and happy. The trees in our orchard were past their bloom and no one seemed to be about. The door of our house was locked. I rang the bell and, after a while, a fat unshaven man opened the door, stared at me for a moment, and then yelled, “So you’ve come back! Oh no! That’s all we needed!” I turned around and walked into the woods. I spent the three hours until the next train back to Prague strolling on the mossy ground under the fir trees, listening to the birds.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Horror of Divine Silence

This weekend we lit Hanuka candles without the usual festive spirits. The memory of 41 lives, lost in Israel's most dreadful event in recent years seemed to darken any room lit by candles.

For all their political incorrectness, those religious leaders who rushed to give their own theological interpretations to the senseless loss of life weren't really that far off the mark - at least from the mood of the people. It's natural to ask why. It's also dangerous to answer that question. But just because there is no answer doesn't mean there is no question. And perhaps all one can truthfully do is meditate on the question. 41 public servants, doing the right thing, family members, representatives of the law and the order that ultimately justify our State's continued existence. Why? It is painful to ask.

Of course, some will answer that this is proof of God's uninvolved role in the world. His non-intervention policy. That is certainly a perspective that has grounding in traditional Jewish sources. The Midrash about the palace burning is the most prominent example.

But some religious people aren't satisfied with a world view of man as the only actor in history. The Bible certainly tells us God gets involved, (e.g. the Exodus) and so there is also solid ground for a religious person to reject that view of God as uninvolved in history.

Perhaps silence is the best response a religious person can give when confronted with tragedy. But if we do say "Baruch Dayan Emet", at least to ourselves, as our tradition tells us we should, we must remember to do so with tears in our eyes. We must not turn away from the suffering of those 41 families when we say those words. Those words shouldn't be an escape from their suffering.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Emil Fackenheim on Kant, Kierkegaard and the Akeida

I have been reading Emil Fackenheim's analysis of the both Immanuel Kant's and Soren Kierkegaard's understanding of the Akeida. It's taking a long time, but here is a quote that points out the problem with Kierkegaard's idea that like Abraham, all men should be willing to suspend their sense of right and wrong in order to answer the immediacy of God's calling, and if need be, even act today, as Abraham did.

The problem with that, says Fackenheim, is that we know the Torah prohibits child sacrifice, and does not want us to act today as Abraham did then. Judaism does not want us to be willing to offer child sacrifices, and thus cannot accept Kierkegaard position:

For Kierkegaard, the ethical is actually suspended in the Akeida and potentially suspended for every knight of faith after Abraham. In Judaism, the Torah ends the possibility of any such suspension... In short, whereas Kant bids Jewish thought to reject even the original Akeida, Kierkegaard demands of Jewish thought the eternal perpetuation of its possibility. Whereas Kant will not let the Akeida rest on Abraham's merit, Kierkegaard would rob us of the Torah, which forbids child sacrifice.

Emil Fackenheim, Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Understanding Leviticus

Jacob Milgrom z"l, in "Leviticus":

What are Israel's priests trying to convey through this ritual? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy (justifying the ways of God), but none found an adequate explanation. The prophets agonized over it but came up with no immediate solutions-they only prophesied that answers would be provided by a future messianic king. The wisdom teachers gave their superficial answers: for example, the wicked will ultimately receive their comeuppance-and an entire book (Job) was written to refute them. We should expect a priestly answer, but we search in vain. Is it possible that Israel's priests, whose prime function was "to teach the Israelites" (10:11), had nothing to say regarding God's providence?
We know now where to find their answer-not in words but in rituals, not in legal statutes but in cultic procedure-specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering. I call their response "the priestly Picture of Dorian Gray" In the novel by Oscar Wilde, when virtuous Dorian was granted eternal youth, he embarked on a career of increasing evil. Oddly, his evil acts did not affect his young, handsome appearance. His portrait, however, hidden away, became ever uglier and more grotesque. Like this Wilde character, the priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and, unless quickly expunged, God's presence will depart.
Thus the fourth and final principle: the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. Sinners may go about apparently unmarred by their evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, all the sinners will meet their doom.
What of the innocents who will suffer along with the sinners? The priestly doctrine of collective responsibility yields a corollary. The "good" people who perish with the evildoers are not innocent. For allowing brazen sinners to flourish, they share the blame. Indeed, they, the involuntary sinners, have contributed to the pollution of the sanctuary (fig. 2). What of the "silent majority" of every generation-the Germans who tolerated the Nazi rise to power and territorial aggression, and the peoples of the free world who acquiesced in silence?
A column by Michael D. Hausfeld in the Houston Tribune dated Friday, February 27, 2001, revealed that IBM "inadvertently" aided Nazi Germany even during
the war years by selling it advanced technological equipment that compiled, sorted, and classified information. He concluded: "Crimes against humanity are not limited to perpetrators who define or sign the orders of extermination, pull the triggers, drop the pellets, or crack the whips. Those who aid, abet, or unconsciously participate in the furtherance of those crimes have their own responsibility for which they must be held legally accountable."
In the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., there is an enlarged photograph, covering an entire wall, of Allied planes over Auschwitz flying on to other destinations. It is estimated that the Auschwitz crematorium was gassing two thousand Jews and other "undesirables" each day. Imagine, had these planes released but one bomb, they could have stopped that killing machine for months!
How would Israel's priests see our world today? Without hesitation they would spot the growing physical pollution of the earth: oil spills, acid rain, strip mining, ozone depletion, nuclear waste. They would be aghast at the unending moral pollution of the earth: the murder of thousands in Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, East Timor, Armenia, Angola, Rwanda, Chechnya . . . the millions dying of hunger or AIDS, while again the free world, involuntary moral sinners, silently observe the carnage on TV and-flip the channel. How long, the priests would cry out, before God abandons God's earthly sanctuary?
I have limited myself to one rite, of one ingredient, of one sacrifice. If only this ritual were fully understood and implemented, it could transform the world.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Akeida In Context?

My Sefardi spiritual advisor got me thinking today.

It seems fair to ask how Avraham could challenge God on the suffering of the righteous when he is told about the impending destruction of Sdom, but not do the same when told to sacrifice his son. The question isn't new, but today, in our discussion about moral authority, I was led to ask whether the two stories are placed near each other precisely because they represent different approaches to moral authority?

In fact, in the one story that separates Avraham's brazen challenge to God from his unquestioning submission to God's will is another story about moral authority. And in this story, it is Sarah who's authority wins the day.

So in short, I wonder if there is a structure here:

1) Avraham and Sdom represents man's own notion of right and wrong.

2) Avraham, Sarah and Hagar represents societal values and their influence on personal decisions

3) Avraham at the Akeida represents total submission to God's will.

Perhaps these are the three influences on our lives when it comes to moral authority. Our own sense of right and wrong, our environment, and God's will.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Micah 6:6-8

A bold reminder from this week's haftarah reading - Micah 6:

6 With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

The Hebrew words "Laasot Mishpat" are translated above as "to act justly". (This JPS translation offers "to do justice"). There are different words for rules in the Torah (e.g. chok, mishpat, torah) , so the word mishpat isn't so easy to translate. It seems, however, to be closely linked to laws that are concerned with justice.

Parshat Mishaptim (Exodus 21:2 -23:33) seems to support this, as we are given a list of laws that overwhelmingly are concerned with justice between people. It should be noted, as and side, that there are other laws in this Torah portion that don't seem primarily to concern justice, such as the celebration of festivals which thank God for acting in history for Israel.

JPS says that Micah was written around the 7th century BCE, around the time of the collapse of the northern kingdom of Israel. I wonder if when Micah uses the word "Mishpat" in 6:8, the reference is to the rules in Exodus?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Quick thought

Interesting that in Parshat Balak the Torah tells us a story about a king who attempts to defeat Israel spiritually - not only militarily - by having the nation cursed by Bilam, who has a close connection to God....

Saturday, May 1, 2010

More on book burning

I'm currently struggling through chapter 5 of Avoda Zarah which has an in depth (and not easy) commentary by a Tosafist called Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise.

It turns out that Rabbi Samuel

took part in the renowned controversy instigated by the baptized Jew Nicholas Donin
went to Rome, presented himself before Pope Gregory IX, and denounced the Talmud. Thirty-five articles were drawn up, in which Donin stated his charges of virulent attacks on the virginity of Mary and the divinity of Jesus.

The Pope was persuaded that the accusations were true and dispatched to the authorities of the Church, transcripts of the charges formulated by Donin, accompanied by an order to seize all copies of the Talmud and deposit them with the Dominicans and Franciscans. If an examination corroborated the charges of Donin, the scrolls were to be burned.

This order was generally ignored, except in France, where the Jews were compelled under pain of death to surrender their Talmuds (March, 1240). Louis IX ordered four of the most distinguished rabbis of France -- Yechiel of Paris, Moses of Coucy, Judah of Melun, and Samuel ben Solomon of Château-Thierry -- to answer Donin in a public debate. In vain, however, did the rabbis argue against the charges of blasphemy and immorality which were the main points of Donin's arraignment. The commission condemned the Talmud to be burned. In 1242, fire was set accordingly to twenty-four carriage loads (ten to twelve-thousand volumes) of written works.

So -- much more than just sharp rational analysis.

Ed: I wasn't sure if Samuel ben Solomon of Château-Thierry and Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise are the same person, but it turns out that Château-Thierry and Falaise are near each other.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Burn it

This Shabat we shared a picnic with a family of Messianic Jews, followers of "Rabbi Yeshua". We were meeting them because Tova has an anthropology project about communities in Israel, and this was a good opportunity to gain some insight into their way of life.

Half way through the picnic, a friend of theirs who is not fully mentally fit, walked over and gave me a New Testament. Our co-picnickers were horrified as they realized that his actions could easily be seen offensive. I didn't, however, take offense, for a few reasons, one of which was that our friends clearly didn't want that to have happened.

Anyway, to the point of the story, I had this gift and wasn't sure what to do with it. The truth is I don't mind having a copy of it around the house, for reference (for example I didn't know that Mathew 2.20 has one of the first uses of the term "Land of Israel" outside Tanach) just like I don't mind having a copy of the Kuran to hand. But at the moment we live a small apartment, our books are in the living room, and I just don't feel like having it out there on display next to everything from the Chumash to my Excel book. It's just very political, and at the moment I can use the internet if I want to look something up.

So, what to do? I decided a good option would be to just hand it over to a Christian. San Simon park has a Greek Orthodox monastery and I walk past there often, so this morning I took a detour and tried to find the entrance. It turns out that the entrance is opposite an old age home, and as I buzzed and buzzed, I felt eyes watching me. Behind me were two men, sitting next to a third more elderly man. I assumed they were visiting their father or grandfather, and they were just watching me buzz. Nothing.

Eventually, a bewildered looking monk popped his head up from the roof top and asked me in Hebrew what I wanted. I'm not sure if he was annoyed because he had been meditating, or had little trust for Israelis, but he looked a bit scared and clearly had little time for me. I yelled up - "I have a book for you!" and he just looked at me blankly. "It's a Christian book!". Still a blank look , and then he was gone.

I waited, and nothing happened.

Then the men opposite me started talking. "Just burn it, why are you giving it back?"

"Burn it??"

"It's Avoda Zarah"


"They would burn your books"

"So that means you should burn theirs? Leviticus 19:18 - Love your neighbor as yourself. If you don't want them to do that to you, don't do it to them".

An astounding exchange. Burning books reminds me of what was done to us so often in our history. As if in recognition of how much faith and strength we find in our texts, the burning or our texts is an assault on our faith and identity. And whilst I might not share a faith with a Greek Orthodox monk, the last thing I want to do is attack it, or him.

Of course, I don't think these men represented anything other than a bunch of brutes, similar to those that I have found in the US and UK. I placed the book inside the gate on a ledge (hopefully out of the two men's reach) and walked away.

But the one line I wish I would have had to mind was a line in Almansor, a play by Heinrich Heine written in 1821:

"Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings."

How true.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tough Faith

Tonight is the Hebrew date of passing of my father's father, who died about 20 years ago. I didn't have a chance to know him at all, and I suppose its normal not to give too much thought, growing up, to someone who you didn't know.

But a Granddad is a Granddad. And they should occupy a certain place in your mind. One of the only memories, or should I say images, that I do have of Zeidi Chaim is of him sitting with a Talmud in his hand. The truth is that I suspect even this memory is more a manufactured one -- my grandmother told me one thing about him -- that he learned a lot.

My father asked me to honor his father's memory by leading a prayer service tonight, which I did. At the end of the service, I decided to say a few words.

I've included them here:

With the permission of the tzibur I wanted to say a few words about my grandfather Zeidi Chaim, who lived just round the corner from this shul, and who passed away before I had a chance to know him well. Before my grandmother, his wife, passed away last year she wrote an essay about her life with the help of her daughter. In the essay she wrote about how Zeidi Chaim lost two daughters in the Auschwitz concentration camp (she also lost a child there). We shouldn't know such horrors. This was something that I had either not been told before, or was told at an age when I didn't remember it. One of the only images I have of Zeidi Chaim in my mind is that of him sitting with a Gemarah in his hand. He remained dedicated to his Torah after everything he went through in WW2.

I am reminded of a story that the Chief Rabbi of England, Rav Jonathan Sacks recently told. He tells of how a woman once wrote to him and asked him why God doesn't just give us irrefutable proof of His existence, so that we could just know once and for all that He exists. Rabbi Sacks answered her that knowing God exists is not so hard at all. What is hard is having faith in God.

When I think about the trials that Zeidi Chaim's faith must have endured, I am humbled by the memory of him learning Torah. To experience what he did, and to come through it, and build a family again, remaining dedicated to his faith, is I think, an example of what Rabbi Sacks means when he says that it is faith that is the hard part.