Tag Archives: #metoo

Why Can’t We Edit the Torah? – Naso 5778

One of the greatest points of confusion regarding Jewish law is the following:

The Torah is NOT Judaism.

More accurately, the religious tradition described in the Torah is not how we practice Judaism today. Yes, certain items in halakhah / Jewish law appear in the Torah, and you can make the case that Judaism is derived from the Torah. But Jewish practice today contains far more complexity and subtlety and detail than what is found between the two atzei hayyim (posts) of a Torah scroll.

This is especially important in understanding parashat Naso, which we read today, and in particular, one of the most disturbing passages in the Torah, found therein: the description of the ancient ritual for the Sotah, the woman who is suspected by her husband of being unfaithful.

In short, the Torah’s description is like this: the Kohen (priest) writes a curse on a scroll, and then pours water over the scroll to dissolve the ink. The inky water is collected and the suspected wife is given some to drink. If she dies (or suffers greatly, or miscarries; it’s not exactly clear; the text says “latzbot beten velanpil yarekh,” causing her “belly to distend and her thigh to sag”), she was guilty. If she survives the ordeal, she is innocent.

Antique Print-CEREMONY-BITTER WATER-RITUAL SOTAH-ADULTERY-Cunaeus-1682

Now, you probably did not hear about that in Hebrew school. And for sure you have never heard of such a thing practiced by Jews, and there is a good reason for that: it’s barbaric. Nonetheless, the rabbis of the Talmudic period thought it interesting enough that they put together a tractate on it: Massekhet Sotah, in which they detail the process. However, toward the end we discover that the practice had been discontinued some time in the past, although of course they do not know how far back. (Scholars cannot confirm whether or not the ritual was actually ever practiced.) BT Sotah 47a:

משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים

From the time when adulterers proliferated, [the performance of the ritual of] the bitter waters was nullified; [they would not administer the bitter waters to the sotah.]

This is, it seems to me, a rabbinic cop-out. They can’t say, “When they realized that the ritual was cruel and unjust, they stopped performing it.” Rather, they cite the proliferation of adultery as the reason – i.e. there were just too many adulterers for us always to be performing this ceremony. But this is not really a logical conclusion; it is, rather, in line with the traditional rabbinic attempt to mitigate the harsh punishments encoded in Torah law. The Talmud often seeks to lessen the severity of the Torah’s harshest decrees. We do not put people to death for violating Shabbat in public, or for being disobedient children, both of which appear in the Torah as commandments. Likewise, we do not perform cruel punishments like the ritual of the bitter waters. And we likely never have.

But what do we do about passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable? After all, there are many: the tale of Noah’s drinking and his son Ham’s apparent misbehavior; Lot and his daughters; Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar; the Torah’s apparent condoning of slavery, concubinage, prostitution, etc.*

When I was working on my first master’s degree at Texas A&M University, a very traditional, conservative campus, I would occasionally hear very serious Christians talk about living according to the Bible. My (thought, not spoken) response was, “Aha. So do you check your garments for sha’atnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah)? Do you plan on marrying multiple wives? Should you kill the entire family of somebody who raped your sister?”

The writer AJ Jacobs seized on this idea a few years back in his book, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he describes his attempt to live according to the Torah, literally. What results is an often hilarious series of episodes. But his overarching point is clear: neither Judaism nor Christianity takes the Bible at its word. And we should acknowledge this.

We do not live according to the Torah. We live according to rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, which is colored by centuries of societal development and modifications to account for how we live today.

So what on Earth could be the reason that we still read about the sotah ritual? Can’t we just edit it out? Doesn’t it make us look bad?

I mentioned earlier that Massekhet Sotah (the Talmudic tractate) covers many of the details of the sotah ritual, as if the rabbis discussing it, long after the practice had been abandoned, was meant to be preserved, as if some day, like the Temple sacrifices, it would be reinstated (has veshalom / God forbid!). But the Talmud is not necessarily a linear book, and, as a text devoted to argument, you find within it pieces that comport well with contemporary sensibilities, even when the subject matter is arcane and/or obsolete. Elsewhere in Massekhet Sotah, we read the following (17a):

דריש ר”ע איש ואשה זכו שכינה ביניהן לא זכו אש אוכלתן

Rabbi Akiva taught: When a man and a woman merit it [through their appropriate behavior], the Divine presence stands between them; when they do not, fire consumes them.

I have often used this piece of wisdom at weddings. It plays on the fact that “ish” (man) and “ishah” (woman) share the letters for esh (fire), and the additional letters between them are yod and heh, which spell out Yah, a short name for God. So when you take God out, when you remove the qedushah, the holiness from a sexual relationship, all you have left is fire – empty passion – which will not last, which will consume itself.

So one advantage to studying and re-reading passages that make us uncomfortable is that we might in fact uncover gems of wisdom when we dig deeper. But in order to find those gems, we have to keep reading.

Another lesson we might glean is that our understanding of what it means to be Jewish and to practice Judaism changes. Just as the Talmudic rabbis, living around Baghdad in the 3rd century or so, could not stomach the ritual of the bitter waters (!), so too can we look back on Jewish practices historically and make judgments based on who we are and how we live today. Halakhah, Jewish law, evolves. The world changes, and Judaism changes with it. We treat women and men equally under Jewish law (i.e. egalitarianism). We uphold the values of Shabbat, even as we encourage people to drive to synagogue if they live too far away from the synagogue. We ordain gay men and women as rabbis, and join them in marriage under the huppah (wedding canopy).

At the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (late-night study session on the first night of the festival of Shavuot) last Saturday night, we read the words of Rabbi Neil Gillman, who taught that our understanding of God, the Torah, and halakhah changes as we change, and these things are shaped by our cultural context. “Halakhah is indispensible,” he wrote, “‘because it is what the Jewish community understands God’s will to be.” Not God’s will, but rather our understanding of God’s will. And that changes.

The final message we might glean here is, you might say, related to the current “#MeToo” moment. The sotah tale sits there in Bemidbar / Numbers to remind us that horrible things have been done by people to other people, and in particular by men to women, throughout history, and that these historical wrongs must be righted. Even if it was never performed, even if the tale found herein is merely to scare women and men away from adultery, the descriptions in the Torah and the Talmud are there as a caution: this is the kind of thing that can happen when we do not count women as equals.

Why is this here? As a reminder that we need to struggle to overcome it. We do not edit the Torah; on the contrary, we edit our behavior to reflect the holiness in all of us.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/26/2018.)

* Given the death of Philip Roth this week, one might ask the same question about Portnoy’s Complaint, and other works in his oeuvre that do not necessarily make the Jews look so good.

 

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To Prevent Harassment, Change the Power Dynamic – Vayyishlah 5778

Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Charlie Rose, Louis CK, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Leon Wieseltier, playwright Israel Horovitz, John Hockenberry, etc., etc.

My daughter, who is in 5th grade, asked me a few days ago what “harassment” is. I fumbled through an answer appropriate for a precocious 10-year-old who can’t help but hear what’s going on in the world.

I must say that in the wake of all of the allegations that continue to splash across our collective consciousness, I have had three thoughts bouncing around in my head:

  1. I wish that fewer of the accused were Jewish.
  2. This is not going to stop anytime soon, until people change their behavior such that they do not abuse others based on a power dynamic.
  3. While the inherent sexism in Judaism’s ancient texts might tend to reinforce that power dynamic, we have to ensure that we work to reinterpret our tradition so that it does not.

So I have what may be construed to be some good news on that front: that we at Beth Shalom and the Conservative movement, by standing up for egalitarianism wherever possible, by re-affirming our commitment to the equality of women in all aspects of Jewish life, we are in fact actively working to change the equation. Let me explain.

Let us consider, for example, the Dinah narrative, which is featured today in Parashat Vayyishlah (this week’s Torah reading).

As you may recall from last week in Vayyetze, when Dinah is introduced, unlike all 12 of her brothers, her name is not given an etymology in the Torah. Leah merely gives birth to Dinah (Gen. 30:21), and the event is reported tersely in seven words; no mention of why she is named Dinah; no mention of how Leah rejoiced at giving birth to a girl. Nothing.

What we read today in Vayyishlah then takes it from bad to worse. The passage is downright judgmental; in Gen. 34:1-2, the Torah effectively slurs Dinah as a yatz’anit, which you might translate into English as a “streetwalker”:

א וַתֵּצֵא דִינָה בַּת-לֵאָה, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב, לִרְאוֹת, בִּבְנוֹת הָאָרֶץ.  ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר, הַחִוִּי–נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ; וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ, וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Ya’aqov, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shekhem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

This is undeniably a classic case of “blaming the victim.” And we should read it as exactly that, through 2017 lenses. The Torah sees this case of rape as Dinah’s fault, for going out and visiting with the women of the land. Rashi even worsens the matter, by pointing out that because Dinah is identified here as “bat Leah” (daughter of Leah) but not “bat Ya’aqov,” (daughter of Jacob) it is an indicator that her mother was also a yatz’anit.

From beginning to end, Dinah is not treated equally to her brothers.

But we have an obligation today to learn from this story that while we cannot change the Torah, we can indeed change the dynamic. It is our responsibility, as contemporary Jews, to make sure that we acknowledge the equal measure of qedushah / holiness allotted to every single human being, and that we reinforce at every turn that men and women be treated equally in a Jewish context and in the wider world.

Why? Because if we internalize the notion that men and women are equal, then we have a better shot at maintaining the qedushah in all our relationships; we have a chance of re-affirming respect for all people, despite their intrinsic differences; and we might be able to eliminate the power dynamic that enables harassment of all kinds.

Those of us who are committed to egalitarianism are still fighting that battle. And, given the demographic trends of the Jewish community, in which Orthodoxy is growing and non-Orthodoxy is shrinking (see, e.g. the Pew Study of Jews and Judaism of 2013), we have to keep fighting it.

You may have heard some people in the Jewish world, who perpetuate the halakhic inequity of men and women say that women are not obligated to the positive, time-bound mitzvot (holy opportunities of Jewish life) because they are “on a higher spiritual plane.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call “apologetics.” (Now, I’m not saying that women are NOT more spiritual; I’m just saying that has nothing to do with their being exempt from most of the mitzvot of Jewish life.)

But I have some even more good news: Orthodoxy is moving, ever so slowly, toward an acknowledgment that times have changed, and that women deserve greater roles in Jewish life. Within the past few months, a new demographic study of Modern Orthodox Jews, produced by Orthodox researchers, revealed the following tidbits:

  • 74% of respondents approved of women serving as synagogue presidents
  • 80% support co-ed classes in an Orthodox context
  • 69% support women reciting Qaddish (the memorial prayer) without men
  • 85% support women giving sermons from the bimah
  • 53% believe that women should have the opportunity for such expanded roles as clergy
  • 38% said they strongly or somewhat support women in clergy holding a title of rabbinic authority.

All of this despite the fact that the Orthodox Union, which the largest Orthodox synagogue movement, earlier this year published a report written by seven prominent rabbis, which concluded that women should be prohibited by serving from rabbinic roles. (There are four such women right now serving in Orthodox congregations; about 50 Modern Orthodox rabbis wrote a letter in response asking them not to “expel” these synagogue.)

As a captivating aside, the report also found that:

One third of respondents said their attitudes towards sexuality have changed, most citing an increased acceptance of gay Jews; 58 percent of respondents support synagogues accepting gay members, and 72 percent report being “OK with it.” While support is highest among the liberal factions, significant support exists on the right as well (24 percent of the right-most cohort support gay Jews joining their synagogues).

Two more interesting anecdotes:

I was unable to attend the Yonina concert, produced by Derekh, which, for those of you who have missed it, is Beth Shalom’s new programming rubric, because I was attending a friend’s wedding in Cleveland. About 350 people did attend, and it was a great and joyous success. But a quick glance at the crowd revealed that there were many Orthodox men in attendance, who were openly flouting their communities’ norm of men not being permitted to listen to women’s voices (from the Talmud, Berakhot 24a, where Shemu’el says, “Qol be-ishah ervah,” a woman’s [singing] voice is a sexual prohibition; there have been a range of understandings of this prohibition, and it is entirely discounted in the non-Orthodox world).

Women, Tefillin, and the Orthodox Schism - Paperblog

In another quarter of the Jewish world, I was party to a discussion a week and a half ago at CDS, where a group of 8th-grade girls are not only putting on tefillin (phylacteries*) regularly, but also advocating that the school change its tefillin policy to be more egalitarian. Right now, the school requires that boys in 7th grade wear tefillin during morning tefillot, and teaches the application of tefillin to all, but does not require girls to do so. I am very happy indeed that these discussions are going on, and that our young women are committed not only to the mitzvah of tefillin, but also to the principles of egalitarianism.

We are continuing to right the historical wrongs of Jewish life and living; we are continuing as a people to lead by example, by changing the dynamic.

To those friends and colleagues who maintain a non-egalitarian position, I love and respect you, but I can only say, “Open up the doors! You have nothing to lose except the inequality.” If you are, in fact, committed to modernity, then be modern! Acknowledge that the world has changed; that the judgment of Dinah in the Torah and rabbinic literature is no longer acceptable. Your wives and mothers and daughters are doctors and lawyers and judges and engineers and programmers and professors; why should they be relegated to second-class status in their synagogues?

We’re past this. We have made that change. And you know what, it works. We in the progressive Jewish world are leading by example, challenging the existing power dynamic. And, by the way, there’s room for you in our tent.

As a final note here, we are approaching Hanukkah, arguably the most-misunderstood holiday of the Jewish year**. I am always in Israel during Hanukkah, and the overarching message I hear about the holiday (other than the omnipresence of various kinds of fancy-schmancy sufganiyot (donuts), is that it is a triumph of Jewish culture over Greek culture. That is certainly one historical message of the holiday, which celebrates the rededication of the Beit HaMiqdash (Temple in Jerusalem) following its desecration of the hands of the Hellenized Syrians in the mid-2nd century BCE.

All about Hanukkah - the 8 night Jewish festival of lights ...

But how should we understand Hanukkah today? About light – about spreading light in this oh-so-dark world:

  • Cast some light on the recently-invigorated forces of anti-Semitism, ethnic nationalism, white supremacy, racism, anti-immigrantism, and so forth
  • Cast some light on the political forces that want to build walls, keep us fighting against each other rather than continuing dialogue
  • And cast some light on the cultural forces that want to keep women from being seen as full, respected equals in all corners of society.

Those are the messages of Hanukkah. So as you light those candles, don’t just think about the latkes  potato pancakes) or the sufganiyot, but think about the ways that we can keep moving forward in light and in enlightenment.

Shabbat shalom.

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/1/2017.)

 

* Nobody actually knows what “phylacteries” are. Tefillin are boxes containing hand-written portions of the Torah that are bound by leather straps to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers by traditional Jews.

** It’s actually something of a stretch to call Hanukkah a holiday – it’s a minor, post-biblical commemoration that is minimal in customs and traditions in comparison to holidays like Shabbat, Passover, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, etc. It has become elevated today primarily due to its proximity to Christmas.

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The Power of #metoo – Lekh Lekha 5778

I am grateful to be the spiritual leader for a large and growing congregation. I am always honored to be there for people in need, members who are grieving, congregants who need guidance. It is a very special part of my work that few see, but that gives me a great amount of satisfaction with my job.

Frankly, I hope that Harvey Weinstein has gone to his rabbi for counseling.

I concede up front that it is far too easy for me to say from this comfortable position that Mr. Weinstein, and a host of other celebrities who have recently been named in similar incidents, need to do some teshuvah, to seek repentance. Perhaps Mr. Weinstein should have spent more time learning some of the messages of our tradition regarding respect for others.

Harvey Weinstein's A-list accusers come out, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie recount their ...

But what are those messages, exactly? And here we encounter a slight difficulty.

Whenever possible, I try to remind Jews of the essential value of Jewish tradition, the most fundamental aspect of Jewish life and learning: that our ancient wisdom teaches us to elevate the holiness in our relationships with others. That the primary benefit to learning the words of our tradition is that they will improve our marriages, our friendships, our work/life balance, our parenting insight, and our society.

But sometimes, the way that some of the female characters are treated in the Torah does not match our understanding of human relationships today. Times have changed; gender roles have changed. And so, we have to read the Torah with contemporary eyes, sensitive to the way that these stories might be read today.

Most of these tales hit the cutting-room floor in Hebrew school, edited for the sake of decency, or for the complexity of trying to explain them. But to me they speak of two things:

  1. There is no human experience that is not captured in our holy texts.
  2. We have to continue to learn not only from the admirable traits of our ancestors, but also from their failures.

Consider the unnamed wife of Noah, from last week’s parashah, who must have been a saint to have managed 40 days and 40 nights of human and animal chaos, but is barely acknowledged in the story of the tevah / ark. For everything that she did, she gets no credit. (Gen. 6-8)

https://68.media.tumblr.com/c5f62373ac20f9da15070b7ef827df7b/tumblr_mzo9z22Pb91sjkt9jo1_500.jpg

Or the tale of our matriarch Sarah, who has no choice but to be taken into the harem of the Egyptian Pharaoh with the apparent blessing of her husband Avraham so that he can save himself. (Lekh Lekha, Gen. 12:10-20)

Or the story of Lot’s wife, also nameless, who exercises some individual agency in looking back in pain and/or longing at her home town as it is destroyed in fire and brimstone, and is punished for it. (Vayyera, Gen. 19:23-26).

Or the story of Jacob’s only daughter Dinah, taken by force by Shekhem the Canaanite and slurred in the Torah as a yatz’anit, effectively a streetwalker, in what amounts to a classic case of blaming the victim. (Gen. 34)

Or the tale of Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, who is denied Judah’s third son after his first two die, in violation of the Torah’s law of the levirate marriage. In desperation, Tamar resorts to dressing as a cultic prostitute to fool Judah into lying with her himself, arguably a foil to Judah’s “male privilege.” (Gen. 38).

And we also should not forsake an obvious case of harassment in the Torah, the tale of Yosef, who is coerced by the wife of his employer Potiphar in Egypt, and imprisoned when he does not fulfill her desire. (Gen. 39).

For most of Jewish history, nobody read these stories as being about “blaming the victim” or “male privilege.” But we are living in different times. One principle, which you have all heard me say by now, is that we have to read the Torah in the context of today, as a text that brings meaning to how we live right now.

A few weeks back, when the accusations against him began to emerge as numerous women came forward, Harvey Weinstein stated, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse…”

When I read that, I had two thoughts: (a) many decades have passed since the 1970s; did it really take him this long to get the message? And (b) the changing of the times and what is acceptable behavior is something that we, the Jews, are acutely aware of.

Jews have survived for thousands of years precisely because rabbinic Judaism, our belief system as conceived by the rabbis of the Talmud, was conceived to be malleable.  From generation to generation we have been charged with reviewing our tradition and figuring out how to apply them in every new age.

You might even make the case that it is the series of changes that have made us who we are today: the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The paradigm shift from Israelite religion and sacrifices to study and prayer of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain. The establishment of the State of Israel. Each of these reshaped the contours of the Jewish world dramatically.

And when was the very first such change? In Parashat Lekh Lekha, which we read from today. At the beginning of the parashah, Avraham was given the command to pick up and leave his homeland and his family behind and head from Mesopotamia to Canaan, which would ultimately be known by the name given to his grandson, Israel. But it’s not yet Israel, and Avraham cannot properly be called an Israelite. Instead, he was referred to today (Gen. 14:13) as “Avram ha’Ivri,” Abram the Hebrew. It’s the first time that anybody is given this label.

There are midrashim that suggest etymologies of the Hebrew word for “Hebrew,” that is, “עברי” / “ivri.” It comes from the shoresh / root meaning “to cross over.” Avraham is the first ivri, the first Hebrew, because he crossed over the river Euphrates to get to Canaan, but also because he crossed over from an idolatrous society to a monotheistic one.

We are the people who have metaphorically crossed many rivers to get to where we are today, and every time we do so, things change: language, dress, foods, of course, but also, society changes; what is socially acceptable changes; the understanding of gender continues to change.

What has not changed is that our tradition understands that each of us has a certain spark of the Divine within us; that every person deserves love and respect; that there are good, solid reasons for boundaries in our behavior, boundaries that protect the qedushah / holiness that exists between us in all our relationships.

The Talmud teaches us (BT Sanhedrin 82a):

כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב

Wherever the desecration of God’s name [hillul hashem] is involved, one does not show respect to the teacher.

It comes in the context of a discussion of prohibited liaisons. The suggestion is that, no matter the power or rank or knowledge of the transgressor, the subordinate is forbidden to allow inappropriate behavior to continue; rather, the teacher or manager or politician or celebrity must be called to account for his/her actions.

God help us if “the casting couch” at which Mr. Weinstein hinted in his statement was at one time considered acceptable in Hollywood or anywhere else. The very idea is revolting. Such behavior can only be described with the rabbinic term, “hillul hashem,” a desecration of God’s name.

But if we are to truly prevent people from the kinds of abuse that have been splashed across headlines in recent weeks, we have to make sure that the abusers know that those whom they abuse will not be silent. We have to ensure that the power dynamics that enabled Mr. Weinstein and others to do what they have done to so many is eclipsed by the strength of #metoo, by the strength of knowing that if all of us speak up, then the power of the abuser is broken. That those of us who have been abused can take the control away from the abusers.

We cannot be rendered anonymous and silent, like Noah’s wife, or powerless like Sarah; we cannot allow people to be shamed, like Dinah, or forced into desperate situations like Tamar, or harassed like Joseph.

Instead, we have to stand up and raise our voices. To say, “Me too.” “Gam ani.” To make sure the abusers of this world are cast out of the shadows and into the light. To make sure that the young women (and young men) who are called to the Torah this year are not victims in the next.

And whatever happens with Harvey Weinstein, I just hope that he has an opportunity to reflect on the words of our tradition, about changing times, and about how his actions have caused such damage to so many.

If you have been a victim or know somebody who has, speak up, even if it is just a phone call to the right person. I or my assistant Audrey can put you in touch with somebody who can help. Change does not happen overnight, but Ani veAtah neshaneh et ha’olam – you and I will change the world.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/28/2017.)

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