May 28, 2009

Ruth and Moses

Regardless of Shavuot's pastoral origins, the emphasis on Torah and the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation is now the dominant theme. What was once a rare kabbalistic custom of staying up all night to study, the Tikkun, has become pretty universal. For example, in the Manhattan JCC on Thursday night there will be thousands of Jews of all degrees of commitment, practice and beliefs gathered to study and discuss all sorts of topics of Jewish interest and socialize as well. So in recognition of Shavuot, instead of my usual light fair, here is something more substantial

Is being Jewish an objective statement about one's historical and genetic heritage or is it a statement of one's personal identity based on subjective experience? We have the Biblical narrative of how Moses received the Ten Principles (not really "commandments" as such) on Sinai, which were then expanded into what we now call Torah. And we are familiar with the story of the Book of Ruth, of how one non-Jewish person came to commit herself to Judaism. In fact, they represent two very different ways of looking at the relationship of individuals to Torah on the one hand and the nature of the relationship to the people on the other

There are many covenants in the Torah, from the covenant of Noah to that of Abraham, from the physical act of circumcision to the "constitutional" commitment at Sinai, to the later reaffirmation of national commitment on the Plains of Moab. But with regard to the Children of Israel, two covenants are conflated into the Sinai experience: the covenant of Torah and the covenant of peoplehood. I want to differentiate between a covenant of identity, a personal commitment to God, and a national covenant in which one subsumes one's individuality within the nation. Both feature in both sets of narratives

In fact, there are at least three differing accounts in the text of the Bible of what happened at Sinai. The first is Chapter 9 of Exodus. God tells Moses to address the nation: "Go and speak to the House of Jacob and tell it to the children of Israel." Exodus 9:3); and then the expression of the Divine hope that, if they accepted the covenant and listened to God, they would be a "nation of priests" (Exodus 9:5). The "people" then reply, unanimously, with one voice, that they will listen, which implies acceptance. This then is purely national

Except the text goes on to have God saying, "I will appear to you in a pillar of cloud so that the people will hear when I speak to you and they will believe in you forever." Once the notion of belief is introduced, then of necessity we have moved from national to personal. How else does one use the word "believe" if not of as a very personal commitment, something a person can only do for himself? Belonging can be a matter of deciding to join, pay one's dues, conform. But genuine belief requires a personal process either of feeling or thinking

The text goes on to describe the preparations and the limitations imposed on the people so that they should remain disciplined. There is a lot of heavenly noise, thunder and lightning. The people are afraid. This, like "belief", is a personal emotion. But both emotions are separate from the acceptance of a code of law and morality. That was what the Tablets of stone, also known as the Tablets of the Covenant, also called the Ten Commandments meant. Emotions need the structure, the consistency and objectivity of a constitution. The feelings facilitated the acceptance of the covenant

The second version comes in Chapter 24. Here the emphasis is less on the National Covenant and more on the Constitution, the Mishpatim (24:3)--a word not used in the first version. That is when the people reply again, unanimously, "We will listen", except this time they add, "AND we will do." You can't "do" belief but you can do actions. Moses writes down the words of the Covenant and the Covenant is sealed with the blood of sacrifices, an obviously ritual response to a behavioural obligation. Only then does Moses go up the mountain to receive the tablets and the rest

But at this moment something else happens. There is a kind of epiphany. In 24:10 it says, "They saw the God of Israel and underneath His feet it was like sapphire as pure as the essential heavens." It is not entirely clear who the people who had this experience, called the Atzilei Benei Yisrael were. Were they princes, or rebels, or anyone who was not up the mountain, or those half way up

The text says that nothing untoward happened to them, "They saw God and sat down to eat and drink." They were warned not to come too close, but they did and saw "an impression of God." The implication is that the sort of visual, mystical experience they had was not necessary but accidental. Does this mean that mystical experience, personal experience, is unnecessary, even dangerous, but that if it happens it can actually be a good thing? Is this an acceptance of personal autonomy to complement national obedience? Is it a personal covenant with God in addition to the national? That indeed is what Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik suggested when he coined the phrase Brit Yeud, A Covenant of Personal Choice, to balance Brit Goral, the Covenant of one's National Inheritance

You might think that this is a typically mystical event. Something almost magical happens and as a result the people then reacted by eating and drinking, celebrating, were trying to relate that spiritual high to their material lives. Perhaps therefore this narrative talks about the personal mystical experience of God. And it is as an adjunct or addition to the national covenantal experience which is accompanied by Thunder and Lightning. Notice how the National Covenant is associated with sounds and awe, whereas the personal is associated with celebration through food and drink. You can be a committed practising Jew without experiencing God spiritually, but ideally one should try to. Spirituality is an extra dimension

Finally after the Golden Calf episode and the smashing of the first tablets in Chapter 33:17-23, Moses engages directly with God. He too sees, experiences an impression of God. Except he is shown the back, rather than the feet as in Chapter 24. Moses then returns up the Mountain to the cloud and the thunder and sounds of the shofar. There the text quite specifically refers only to his receiving the two tablets, the covenant, the "Ten"

When he descends his face is shining and people cannot look directly at him. To some he was almost a God substitute. He could relate to God directly. The people on the other hand could not even bear to look at him without the mask on his face. Does this mean the end of a direct man-God relationship and the need for intermediary, or is it simply a unique episode

This is a statement about the nature of people. For most people, religion is concerned with doing, performing, obeying. Priests and rabbis are there to do it for you. Most people do not struggle to experience God or mystical enlightenment. They tend to stay within received parameters, social and religious. Only a small number embark of a journey of spiritual enlightenment. Judaism requires both, but recognizes that only a minority will be able to sustain the pressures and tensions of experiment and exploration

Now consider the Book of Ruth, seemingly just a pastoral tale of redemption on different levels. It is read on Shavuot because the main action takes place during the barley harvest from Passover to Pentecost. But it is no accident that it also coincides, in Rabbinic thought and Biblical calculation, with the anniversary of the Sinai Covenant. Of course the book focuses on Land, both agricultural and national, a feature missing from the Sinai Covenant and that is another subject for discussion.

Naomi is the wife of a Judean leader who abandons his responsibilities and his people during a famine and escapes with his family to Moab. He has reneged on the National Covenant. He and his two sons die in Moab, but not before the sons have married two Moabite girls. The Midrash suggests they were princesses, so we see a classic example not just of relinquishing responsibility but positive assimilation into the upper classes. Other religions and other peoples seemed more attractive to those seeking to escape their Jewishness

Naomi, left destitute, wants to return home because she has heard that God has "visited" the land (PaKaD)--a hint to "visiting" the sins of the fathers in the Decalogue. But equally, the same word used of God's remembering his people just as He did in Egypt. Initially both daughters-in-law want to return with her, but she tries to dissuade them. She makes reference to the Biblical laws of levirate marriage. This suggests, contrary to what I have said previously, that the Judean family did remain loyal to Judean Law and custom

One of the daughters-in-law, Orpa, returns to her home. But Ruth persists with the famous phrase "Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people are my people, your God is my God, where you die I will die and there I will be buried." She is accepting the individual religious commitment as well as the national covenant

It is Ruth's goodness, devotion, and hard work in supporting Naomi that attract the attention of Boaz, the wealthy landowner. But it also recalls the servitude of the Jews in Egypt prior to redemption. She merits reward simply in her own right, regardless of background or nation. Boaz is good to Ruth, simply out of charity. He praises her and gives her extra supplies.

Naomi misreads the message and believes that Boaz, as a family redeemer, has designs on Ruth. Naomi encourages her to go down to the threshing floor at night and to cement the relationship by sleeping with him. This act was sufficient for marriage in Biblical times. But it seems Boaz was not thinking in those terms at all. It might appear to us moderns that Boaz has a problem with relationships and in a way needs Ruth to light his fire. The Talmud in Ketubot says he was a widower and the Midrash suggests he was simply very old and actually died after the wedding night. When Ruth informs him he is a redeemer Boaz replies that there is someone closer who has the right of first refusal

At this point the legal side takes centre stage. Biblical law mandated that tribal property should be redeemed within tribes if it was sold to outsiders. But here, unlike Biblical law, it seems at the time an additional custom was to take in the widow together with the land. This would have been a variation on the levirate marriage which Biblically only applied to brothers of childless males

Boaz has to appear before the judges to demand that the closer relative redeem Naomi's husband's lands. This he is prepared to do. But then when he is told about his obligation to Ruth he pulls out. Was this obligation to marry Ruth a halachic obligation? Unlikely. Probably it was more of a moral one. His argument about destroying his inheritance is difficult to understand unless it is a reference to taking in another wife over his present ones, something that would not be a problem for an old bachelor (or widower) like Boaz. Others have suggested he did not want to marry a convert (though, interestingly, there is no hint in the text of any formal process of conversion). And of course Ruth was a Moabite woman and the Torah explicitly forbids Moabites from joining the Children of Israel ( the legal solution was to see the ban on men only!). Boaz is now free to redeem the land and marry Ruth, which he does

I believe this emphasis on the law and legal procedure is an important cross-reference to Sinai. Religious or ethical commitment without the structure of law and the association with a National Covenant is too vague and fragile. Ruth's personal commitment and goodness needs the seal of law, just as conversely law without commitment is a shell and a sham

Naomi is then redeemed in every sense. Her position is restored, thanks to Ruth, and she cradles the grandfather of King David. Of course, David not only symbolizes ultimate redemption as the Messiah, but he, of all Biblical characters, is the most passionate, poetical, and mystical in his religious expression. Therefore, if Boaz represents Law and Ruth represents Passion, it is Ruth who is the precursor of David rather than Boaz, her genes rather than his

There are those who argue that after Boaz marries Ruth she seems superfluous and it is Naomi who is regarded as the mother, rather like the barren wives of Abraham and Jacob. But the title of the book, I think, confirms what tradition has always argued--that Ruth is the inspiration of the Psalmist who "Overwhelmed the Almighty with shirot VeTishbachot", songs and praise. And they pun ShiRUT (songs) to refer to RUT (Brachot 7b). Law without the songs, structure without religious passion is dry and insipid.

This final reference to King David is significant, because it emphasizes the national again. The Book of Ruth starts with an escape from the nation and ends with its great establisher, who combined the national with the spiritual. By tradition (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagiga), King David was born and died on Shavuot. So what starts inauspiciously, may end in glory. A personal expression of faith can only grow, expand and be passed on, if it is allied to a structure and a people and not simply kept within oneself

May 17, 2009


I am not a fan of beauty competitions (even though the Jerusalem Talmud tells us to thank and bless God when we see a beautiful woman). However I do read newspapers and learned that a Carrie Prejean, Miss California, was the favorite to win the Miss USA beauty competition this year until she made one terrible mistake.

She was asked whether all states in the US should allow homosexual marriages. She replied that she was delighted that in America people had choices and freedoms, but that she was brought up to think of marriage as being between a man and a woman. All hell broke loose.

The news channels and the blogosphere went wild condemning her as an evil antediluvian primitive, a crazy right wing religious fundamentalist fanatic. The only difference between her and the Taliban was that they cover up whereas she uncovers. I have some sympathy with her, even if I think she was remarkably naïve in the way she expressed herself. She might have said that she was in favor of the complete liberalization of civil marriage laws but that religious people should also have the freedom to make their own choices, or some such formula.

Marriage, as the term is now used in the post-religious western world, is a contract between two people, without necessarily having any religious significance whatsoever. As such, it seems to me that anyone who wishes to be bound in contract to someone ought freely to be allowed to do so, particularly where such a contract provides financial and civil benefits and privileges for one or both partners. There are of course contracts and there are contracts but the State is not in the business of defining religious contracts, only civil ones.

I recall the fuss when Leona Helmsley left nearly $150,000,000 to dogs. Clearly she got more friendship, loyalty and pleasure from them than she did from any human she knew--and why should not humans be able to leave their wealth to whomever they want to? Why should civil states pay any attention to the taboos of religions? Why should not a civil state permit brothers and sisters to marry, for instance? If people wish to marry to take advantage of benefits available only to married couples, then let us simply differentiate between religious marriages and non-religious ones.

Religions are more limited covenants between members which impose other restrictions, not just of who one may live and sleep with but also how, where, and when one conducts oneself, goes to work, or behaves in a house of worship. Civil states must of necessity legislate for all citizens, regardless of race or creed, whereas religions may and do deal with conditional memberships. And why not, so long as they do not impose on others. That is why I so strongly oppose religious interference in state laws and support total separation of religion and state.

I draw a distinction between marriage as a word that carries no religious significance in itself anymore and the Hebrew word kidushin sanctification, a ceremony of specific religious significance. And to go to the other side, there are religious Jews I know who are not married in civilly but have received chupa and kiddushin and lived this way throughout their usually happy and fruitful lives.

We also need to separate this issue from that of religious attitudes to homosexuality because that adds a separate emotive dimension. I happen to be on the liberal, libertarian side of the issue but it is a shame that "gay rights", is the driving force behind the campaign because it muddies the waters. This issue really boils down to what is meant by marriage altogether. At times in history, and even today, it often was and is only a financial or political contract, not necessarily a romantic one. Terms and usages are always shifting. But there is no way I can argue that religious contracts can happen where a religion does not recognize them, even if I think it irrational and illogical.

I think that was all Ms. Prejean was saying, but because she was unable to express herself in such a way as to differentiate the civil from the religious she was excoriated. Yet she was not saying "no". She said she was in favor of free choice. So what was the row about?

The row was really more about the dogma of Political Correctness, the same correctness that will not talk about Terrorism but just Human Misbehavior, not Religious Fascists just Pious, not Warmongers just Self-Improvers, and now the sexual equality warriors insisting not on freedom of choice and rights, but the denial of any differences in the kind of choices made and even insisting on hijacking words and terms to suit only their agenda.

I never much liked crusaders ramming their orthodoxies down others' throats, and I don't like them now, insisting we must all think the same way or be damned. It seems that because religions have produced so many fanatics the other side now feels it needs to ensure equality there too!

May 10, 2009


The famous or infamous Israeli secular left wing politician, Yossi Sarid, wrote an article in the Israeli paper Haaretz (3/22/09) in response to a report that a prominent Israeli Sephardi rabbi had cursed him. In the words of his article, the important rabbi said, "After the reading of the Megilla on Purim, the names of the wicked and the righteous are mentioned; the righteous - Esther and Mordechai - are mentioned favorably, and the wicked are mentioned and cursed: Damned be Haman, damned be Yossi Sarid."

Actually the word used, arrur, means "cursed" rather than "damned"; but that is a minor refinement reflecting the greater Christian cultural influence on either Yossi Sarid or his translator. Naturally, Yossi said it was like water off a duck's back. It is a sad reflection on the primitive state of current Judaism as well as a salutary proof that a curse is meaningless and pointless (unless one is so naive or credulous as to think that nasty words have any effect).

To quote Mr Sarid's article:

Just before Purim nine years ago, Yaakov's father, gave a similar instruction after I refused, as minister of education, to pay coalition prostitution fees to the Shas party. That was when he said: "When reading the Scroll of Esther, and when you say 'cursed be Haman', say also, 'cursed be Yossi Sarid'.... God will let his blood be on his own head, and will impose on him the vengeance that was wreaked on Haman."

The vengeance that was wreaked on Haman? As everybody knows, they hanged his 10 sons on trees even though they had done no wrong. But, oy! I do not have so many children for a lynching - or for child allowances.

These are your shepherds, Israel - Ovadia for Shas and Yaakov for national unity, as he is one of the heads of "the Council of Rabbis of the Torah and the Land" to which the National Union party pays allegiance.

The two parties of these two spiritual leaders will now be the mainstays on which Benjamin Netanyahu's government is based, and they are even preparing an independent education ministry for them. Only a chosen people can permit itself such cuckoos in the nest of government.

Divine curses might give one cause for concern, but the Bible does use "popular" language; so, like Maimonides, I suspect they were intended to deal with a specific audience at a specific time. But that humans could have the power to randomly condemn a human being, without due process, simply by uttering words or spells, is reminiscent of medieval witchcraft and I can only understand its power as auto-suggestive. Superstitious folk think that if they break a mirror they will have bad luck and then every accident or event that happens during the day, that would normally not be noticed, takes on significance and is proof of the bad luck, so that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humans have believed in witchcraft all through history but that does not mean that curses have intrinsic power or effectiveness.

I can understand the positive impact of a really good man, a Tsaddik, and his encouragement and "blessing". Though too many of those who masquerade as Tsaddikim nowadays are charlatans. And the proof is that a genuine Tsaddik would not go round using hurtful language so cavalierly.

I have been cursed so many times by former pupils, parents, congregants, and just plain nutcases that I am amazed to find myself at my age healthy, happy, and thankful to the Almighty for all the wonderful things I have been privileged to enjoy and experience. One curse I recall delivered in Yiddish that I should suffer an agonizing death and be buried alive at an early age has so far neither transpired nor has it cost me a moment's distress. So if anyone out there feels like giving me a good curse, and it will make them feel any better, then please, be my guest.

Of course it will be argued that I should not "open my mouth to the Satan" nor give the Evil Eye (another mythical imposter) a chance to get me, and I guess it is possible that tomorrow a crazy cab driver might mow me down as I return from a heavenly performance at the Met—but, I'll worry about that when it happens, just as I will worry about burning in Purgatory if that situation arises.

No dear readers, I do not give a fig for any of these dangers. I believe them to be totally and completely silly. I am only sorry that so many people I have met do not feel the same way and suffer agonies over perceived curses they suffer from.

Of course unspeakable things happen, horrible things, diseases of all sorts; but no one can show that they are the result of curses. My father always used to quote to us Numbers 23:23, "There is no magic in Jacob and no witchcraft in Israel." Our actions determine, in as far as anything in life can be determined. The saints who died in the Holocaust were not cursed but simply caught up in the awesome great mill of life that turns first one way then the other and is powered by human criminals as well as good people, by actions and error, not random words or curses flying in the wind.

The Bible says, "Those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you will be cursed", and I take that to mean that those who wish evil will be hoist with their own petard and conversely those who help and praise others are more likely to be dealt kindly with in return. God's curses in the Bible are ways of saying we will face the consequences of our own actions as individuals or as a nation. They are poetic, not legal or scientific statements. Blessings are expectations and wishes, and so are curses. But the determining factor is who you are and what you do.

We are commanded to be careful how we use language. Words can, of course, hurt. Curses are ways witchdoctors, or rabbis behaving like them, exercise power over the naive, of which there are far too many. The only response is, like Yossi Sarid's, to laugh it off and get on with one's life. All exorcisms and lifting of curses I am happy to carry out on your behalf will be free of charge.

May 01, 2009

HaTikva Again

I have written before about the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva. I wrote about how difficult the words made it for an Israeli Arab, however positively committed and supportive of the State of Israel he might be, to sing a song about a Jewish people yearning to be free. This time I am coming at it from a very different position.

In the run up to Israel's Independence Day, a colorful Hungarian-American rebbetzin, Esther Jungreis, has written in the Jewish Press a complaint that God's name does not occur in the Hatikva. She compared this unfavorably with America, where God gets invoked practically all the time.

In England we sing God Save the Queen all the time, even though religion is very much out of fashion with the vast majority, despite the technical fact that the Queen is the Head of the Church of England. I have no doubt that very soon it will be changed to "Allah save the Queen" so as not offend Muslim citizens. Don't get me wrong. That would not in itself be a problem for me. According to Maimonides a Jew may just as well take an oath by Allah as by God.

In the US, where religion plays a far more significant role despite the official separation of state and religion, those who get through the early verses of the national anthem will finally come across the phrase "In God is our trust". And of course a popular patriotic song is God Bless America. God's name is even printed on the currency, which I find strange, not to say ironic.

Throughout the Muslim world the blood curdling cry, "Allahu Akhbar", is heard hourly. But in Israel even the Declaration of Independence only ambiguously mentions the "Rock of Israel" (which Ben Gurion later claimed referred to the Defense Forces).

This raises the hackles of the pious. As indeed does the line in Hatikvah about being "Am Chofshi" (a free people). In Israeli popular usage, Chofshi also means "secular", free from the shackles of religion. So a Charedi singing it might be implying he would rather be someone else. This issue is of course fatuous.

But what about God? Despite the significance to me personally, I oppose bringing God into it! Let me explain why.

People often assume that Judaism is simply a religion. In fact it is much broader than that. If being Jewish meant being religious, then one might understand the logic of including God as much as possible. But the reality is that the vast majority of Jews are not religious and certainly do not conform to Orthodox or conventional religious standards.

There are Jews who are not only uncomfortable with the idea of God but find the concept offensive. I can completely empathize with a Holocaust survivor who finds the idea of a loving God totally irreconcilable with what happened to millions of innocents in Auschwitz. There is even room to debate whether one has to believe in God to be Jewish, but certainly the Israeli armed forces do not require religious commitment to enlist or die.

So on Jewish grounds, keeping as many Jews within the ranks of an ethnic culture that is essentially but not exclusively religious is something I desperately want to do. I recognize that my religious tradition insists on exclusions, but my ethnicity wants to be as inclusive as possible. It is in the interests of a small beleaguered minority to enlist as much support and as many fellow travelers as possible. So when we are in national or inclusive mode then we certainly need to minimize differences and tension points.

The truth is that even those who do believe in God accept or pay lip service to such a wide, often irreconcilable, range of concepts, ideas, and fantasies that to suggest we all believe in or accept the same thing is laughable. The rationalist considers God something that can be proved whereas the mystic relates to God as something to be experienced. The range is as wide as that between lust and love.

Hatikva is an anthem of a secular democratic state. A national anthem is not usually experienced as a religious moment. It is "civil religious" phenomenon, like a flag, which has no spiritual significance at all. These are devices for national social cohesion in a modern state which will include atheists and agnostics as well as believers. A state needs to be as inclusive as possible.

Now Israel has a big enough problem remaining a Jewish state in the widest sense of the term, what with all its conflicting cultures, religions, ethnicities, ideologies, even races. Why should it possibly want to alienate large sections of its Jewish populace? After all, it is a civil state, not a religion. Those who confuse states with religion are seeking to turn the clock back to a world before enlightenment when individuals were expected to obey and conform and not think for themselves, if doing so meant challenging authority.

Belief in or experience of God is very personal for those whose lives have been made fuller and more meaningful through it. But what works for me may not necessarily work for everyone and the last thing I want to do is to impose my own religious beliefs on others. Israel suffers too much from attempts to ram religion down people's throats. To thrive and survive as a nation state, we need to encourage and welcome, not try to impose.