Change My View – Balak 5777

This week, I heard an interview of Kal Turnbull, a young man from Scotland.  In 2013, when he was 17 years old, he asked himself what leads a person to change his or her mind.  He wanted to create a forum in which people were able to openly grapple with views about which they were embarrassed.  He also wanted to keep conversations civil and substantive.

So Turnbull created a Subgroup on the website Reddit called “Change My View.”  For those who are not familiar with it, Reddit is a website that serves as a discussion platform.  Users can submit content, post ideas or questions, and comment on postings by others.  The site prohibits harassment.

Turnbull established several rules for both submitting and commenting on a post.  His goal was to create a space in which users could really get into the details.  If someone wants to submit a post, there are some rules, including:

• The submitter cannot just make a claim.  He or she must also include the reasons for the claim.

• The submitter must personally hold the view and be open to it changing.

• The purpose is to encourage lively debate, so a submitter should only post if he or she is willing to have a conversation with those who reply within 3 hours of posting.

There are also rules that apply to anyone who wants to make a comment, including:

• Direct responses to a post must challenge at least one aspect of the stated view or ask a clarifying question.  In other words, I can’t simply agree with the previous person’s post.

• No rude language or hostility.

• No low effort comments.  I can’t just write, “I agree.”

Submissions and comments that do not follow the rules are reported by users and promptly removed by editors.

If a person who submits a post ends up changing his or view, he or she gets to award a Delta to the person whose comment prompted the change.  The Greek letter Delta is the symbol for change.

I was intrigued.  It seems to me that one of the problems we face is that too many of us stubbornly hold on to our views without being open to other ways of thinking.  We do not like to change our minds.  To do so is seen as week, or wishy washy.

The internet encourages this kind of intellectual siloing.  We get our information from sources that already agree with us.  We ridicule and look down on those who do not share our opinions.  Much of the Talk Back and comment sections that follow articles seem to devolve into insults and hate speech.  The irony is, that these kinds of aggressive writing rarely change minds.  Quite the opposite, they tend to encourage further entrenchment.

But there are many of us that want to engage in polite, substantive, and open conversation with people who disagree with us.  We recognize that receptive exposure to different ways of thinking makes us better.  What is so great about “Change My View” is that it forces users to put forward their best arguments, and to respond thoughtfully to others’ best arguments.  It seems to have struck a chord.  There are over 300,000 subscribers.

Through these rules, “Change My View” has reversed the normal reward structure of the internet.  Now instead of winning by insulting or belittling one’s opponent, a person only wins by taking one’s opponent seriously and responding respectfully.

In the great Jewish tradition of arguing, it is supposed to be this way.  Since the days of the Talmud, Jews have been arguing back and forth through the issues, recognizing that Truth emerges through the dialectic.

In this morning’s Torah portion, which is named after him, the Moabite King Balak sees the approaching Israelites and determines to prevent them from passing through his territory.  He sends a delegation to Balaam, intent on commissioning him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  Balaam is known as a Prophet whose blessings and curses are fulfilled.

The delegation makes it pitch, and Balaam has them stay overnight to receive his answer.  That night, God appears to Balaam and instructs him in no uncertain terms that he is not to curse the Israelites, for they are blessed.

The next morning, Balaam informs the Moabite messengers that it is a no-go, and they return home.

Balak will not take no for an answer.  He sends an even more distinguished delegation to Balaam, promising to reward him richly.  Balaam responds, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.”  (Numbers 22:18)  Nevertheless, he invites the messengers to stay overnight.  Perhaps God will change God’s mind.  This time, God permits Balaam to return with the men, but reminds Balaam that he must do whatever God tells him.

Upon waking, Balaam rises and departs with the Moabite dignitaries.  God is furious, and sends an angel to interfere with his journey.

On the surface, Balaam seems to have done everything right.  He repeatedly insists that he can only do what God tells him to do.  Eventually, God tells Balaam that he is allowed to go.  So why is God so angry with Balaam when he actually does it?

Rashi, reading the text closely, says that there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Balaam is sending subtle messages to King Balak to indicate that, indeed, he is more than willing to curse the Israelites.

With the first delegation, when God tells Balaam “Do not go with them,” Balaam responds, “All right, then I will stay right here and curse them,” according to Rashi.  The next morning, Balaam tells the messengers “The Lord will not let me go with you.”  According to Rashi, Balaam is hinting that he wants King Balak to send higher ranking dignitaries because he is so full of himself.

With the second dignitaries, Balaam does not simply say no, he adds the bit about Balak giving him his entire house full of silver and gold.  Somewhat sneakily, Balaam has actually just named his price.

So why does God allow him to go?  According to the midrash, God is not going to prevent a wicked person from continuing on the wicked path to which his heart leads him.  Why does Balaam choose to go?  Rashi says that he thinks he will be able to change God’s mind.

Of course, Balaam cannot change God’s mind.  Three times he tries to curse the Israelites, but God places words of blessing in his mouth.

Balaam is duplicitous.  He presents himself as an easy-going guy.  He does not just send the messengers away.  He suggests that, perhaps, if they spend the night, he can convince God to change God’s mind about cursing the Israelites.  He asks God for permission.  But when God says no, Balaam does not really accept the answer.  He leads Balak’s emissaries on in a ploy to negotiate a higher fee, all the while saying, “Hey!  It’s not me.  I’m just the messenger.”  In reality, he is an arrogant profiteer.  Balak may be wicked, but at least he is honest and up front about his intentions.

Balaam is not interested in changing his mind.  If he was as open-minded as he claims, he would accept God’s declaration that the Israelites are blessed.  Instead, he has to learn the hard way, as God takes over his faculties of speech and forces words of blessing to come out.  Even afterwards, Balaam still plots against the Israelites, advising Balak to lead the Israelites astray by sending in women to seduce the Israelite men.

Balaam has not gone into this episode with a willingness to have his view changed.  Rather, he thinks that he can manipulate everyone around him so as to change their views.  Perhaps this duplicitousness explains how he has gained his reputation as a successful Prophet.

Sadly, this kind of closed-mindedness is all around us.  We ourselves fall victim to it.  We take an attack on our beliefs or views as an attack on our persons.  We belittle those who disagree with us, calling them uneducated, backward, naive, elitist, or out of touch.  And we often are not prepared to acknowledge that people who disagree with us might have really good reasons for doing so.

But maybe it does not have to be this way.  Intrigued by the “Change My View” project, I decided to join the group and post a comment.  I suggested an idea that I have an opinion about, but about which I do not feel confident enough to speak with certainty.  I stated that a National Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax in the United States is the best option available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Without going through my entire post, it does not unfairly penalize the poor.  It is simpler to implement than a Cap and Trade system.  And it is politically more likely to win approval from both liberals and conservatives.  Even ExxonMobile has recently come out in favor of it.

Within four hours, there were eleven comments -not a single insult among them.  No words in ALL CAPS.  Most of the comments were quite well-informed, and helped me think about the issue in more depth.

I awarded one delta to a commentor who explained how a Cap and Trade system could do a better job of letting the market determine an appropriate price for carbon, whereas a fixed tax would be somewhat arbitrary and would not be able to adjust to changing circumstances.  I conceded that there might be room for some sort of hybrid system, with taxes on commodities that consumers see directly, such as gasoline, and Cap and Trade for big industry applications.

It was a great experience to be able to have a conversation with educated people with thoughtful opinions

In the interview, Kal Turnbull agreed that the rules for the website are really rules that ought to guide our disagreements out in the real world:  Make your claim.  Back it up.  Respond to others with substance.  Don’t insult.  Be open to change your mind.  Acknowledge when another person has made a great argument.

I am not sure that I have time to become a regular contributor to “Change My View.”  But I do know that I crave more opportunities to have my ideas challenged, and to challenge those of others – but only in ways that bring us together.  I suspect that all of us want that.  For that to happen, we need to start with a willingness to let the other person “Change My View.”

The Shemitah Ideal: Forego Profit and Renounce Ownership – Parashat Behar 5776

Parashat Behar presents the laws of shemitah, the sabbatical year.  The Israelites are allowed to plant and sow, prune and gather for six years.  Then, on the seventh year, the land is to be given a sabbath of complete rest.  No cultivation can take place, but people are allowed to consume whatever happens to grow on its own.  The Torah explains that when the laws of shemitah are followed, the sixth year will produce such abundant crops that there will be plenty of food to go around for the next two years.

Another aspect of shemitah required indentured servants to be set free during the seventh year.  There were elements of the shemitah system in effect during years one through six as well.  Landowners had to give ma’aser oni, 10% of their crops to the poor every 3rd and 6th year.  They had to allow the poor to come on to their fields to harvest the corners and gleanings every year.

Maimonides identifies two separate mitzvot, commandments, pertaining to shemitah (Hilchot Shemitah v’Yovel 1:1, 4:24).  1.  It is a positive commandment to suspend work on the land and cultivation of trees.  2.  It is a positive commandment to release all agricultural produce.  In other words, farmers are not allowed to put up barriers around their fields, vineyards, and orchards.  Their property must be open to the public.  Furthermore, Maimonides adds, farmers are not allowed to gather in excess produce into their homes.  Small quantities can be brought in.  But for the most part, everyone is supposed to have equal access to the produce that happens to grow during the shemitah year.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides suggests two reasons for the shemitah requirements.  The first is that these laws promote sympathy for our fellow human beings.  The second is that by letting the land lie fallow on the seventh year, it will result in greater overall production.

Regarding the second reason, Maimonides is wrong.  Farmers have practiced crop rotation since ancient times.  Without going into specifics, simply letting land remain uncultivated once every seven years is not crop rotation.  Many other commentators specifically repudiate Maimonides for suggesting this.

Most agree with Maimonides, however, regarding his first explanation.  Sixteenth century Italian Rabbi Abraham Porto writes, for example:

This law was given in order that we may show sympathy for our fellow men who have neither land nor vineyards, and that they may be happy in the Shemitah year, as the rich are happy every year.  (Minchah Belulah)

Another commentator explains that

the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one.  Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain to the supreme end…  (Akedat Yitzchak)

Think about what it would be like to be an Israelite landowner in a society that observes Shemitah.  I have to stop all work on the land.  I cannot even allow my non-Israelite workers to do anything.  I have to take down any fences or barriers around my fields.  As for produce that happens to grow naturally, I am not allowed to harvest it.  Instead, it remains in the ground, on the tree, or on the vine.

When I need food, I can go out to my field.  But I will be joining everyone else from my community when I do so.  The poor, the strangers, the property-less Levites.  All of us have equal access to the lands that I once thought of us as mine.

For one year, all social and economic differences are set aside.  The wealthy stand side by side with their servants, the poor, and the strangers among them.  Just think about the impact on social interactions if our society followed an institution like shemitah – to forego profit and renounce ownership.

Perhaps this is a utopian socialist ideal – but remember that it is only once every seven years.  The Torah recognizes the inherent competitive nature of humanity.  Rather than try to suppress it, it asks us instead to harness it.

We desperately need this ethic here in California, where we are living the opposite of the shemitah ideal.

There is an unprecedented housing crisis in our state.  The cause of this housing crisis is not a secret: income inequality.

This week, the Mercury News reported the following statistics:  Home ownership rates statewide are at the lowest level since the 1940’s.  The median price of a home in Santa Clara County is $1,070,000.  To qualify for a mortgage for such a home, a homebuyer would need an annual income of $219,870.  Assuming the homebuyer made a down payment of 20%, the resulting payment on a 30-year fixed rate loan would be $5,500 per month.

So many people struggle to meet even their basic housing needs; the idea of taking off a year to pursue more spiritual matters is a pipe dream.

Our society is structured in such a way that people of different economic levels are separated from one another.  There is not a whole lot of social interaction taking place between blue collar and white collar workers.

These kinds of inequalities are precisely what Shemitah addresses.  The walls between us, quite literally, come down.  The pursuit of wealth is put on hold.  Rich and poor, executives and janitors, stand shoulder to shoulder as they pick food for themselves and their families.  And everyone uses their time to pursue spiritual matters: the study of Torah, the development of relationships, the cultivation of compassion.

Rav Kook, the early religious Zionist in the early twentieth century, wrote a book about shemitah called Shabbat HaAretz. – the Sabbath of the Land.  You can hear the idealism in his beautiful words as he imagines Jews living in harmony in with each other and the land.

It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God Who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness.  There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life…  Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten.

Bibliography

Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, pp. 509-522

 

Reading – and Speaking – About Sexuality on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.

Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest.  Also included  are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.”  It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness.  The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.

Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.

This morning,  as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor.  In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.

When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read?  This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.

As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.”  This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.

As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice.  That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other.  Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.

I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider.  When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back.  As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot.  Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition?  Sometimes, of course, change is necessary.  But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history?  I don’t take that dilemma lightly.

For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue.  Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset.  I lose sleep knowing this.  Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith.  I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously.  I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.

Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things.  We read the entire Torah every year.  We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them.  And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling.  This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading.  We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur.  When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room.  At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey.  Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives?  Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension.  From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.

I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.

So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions?  Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings.  It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.

I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement.  He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law.  Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.”  He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality.  He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”

In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?

Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a).  A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”

The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays.  There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia.  But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences.  We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.

But why this reading?  The Talmud offers no answers.  In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising.  Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”

One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.

There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’

With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them.  This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen.  It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.

Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming.  They also tend to be secret.  And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.

Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur.  The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.

Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:

In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.

Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard.  Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?

I think not.

Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today.  It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.

Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.”  In it, she writes:

As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision.  While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men.  Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety.  To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.

We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.

If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.

This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition.  There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading.  The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way.  Torah is not supposed to make us feel good.  It is supposed to challenge us.  If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.

Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist.  It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.

In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important.  Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today.  I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Of course, I am here to help.

It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  This solution puts Sinai in good company.

One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow.  She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place.  But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”

May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.

 

Bibliography

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.

Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot  on Levitucs 18.

Judaism and Science Need Each Other

Shabbat, April 22, 2017, 26 Nisan 5777

 

At this moment, in Washington D.C. and in cities around the country, Marches for Science are taking place.  This movement identifies itself as a “diverse, nonpartisan group [that] …champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”  It “call[s] for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

The march offers us an opportunity to consider the relationship between science and religion.

I find that people make a lot of assumptions about Judaism’s position vis a vis science, and draw certain conclusions regarding what I must believe as a Rabbi.

It is not a secret that, for the past century or so, Jews have been drawn to study the world around us.  Our people has been awarded a vastly disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes in science-related fields, including 41% of Nobel Prize winners in economics, 28% in medicine, 26% in physics, and 19% in chemistry.  This, despite comprising less than .2% of the world’s population.

It is safe to say that Jews have an affinity for science.

When I was in middle school in the 1980’s, the Orthodox Jewish Day school that I attended sponsored a Shabbaton one weekend.  I remember a conversation that I had with one of the Rabbis from the school.  Looking back, I suspect he was the product of an earlier generation of education.  He insisted that the world was a bit less than six thousand years old.  So I asked the obvious question.  “What about dinosaur fossils?”

“God put them in the earth to test us,” he responded.

I was not convinced.

While there may be some corners in the Jewish world in whcih science is shunned, the vast majority of Jews, from secular to Orthodox, enthusiastically embrace the mutual compatibility of religion and science.

But it has not always been the case.  Rabbis in ancient times expressed conflicting attitudes about science.  They often criticize the Roman Empire.  Despite its sophisticated culture, architecture, roads, bridges, and aqueducts, it is morally rotten and ethically hypocritical.

They even express discomfort with medicine.  The Talmud (BT Berachot 10b) praised the Biblical King Hezekiah’s for suppressing a book called Sefer Refuot, the Book of Remedies.

A disagreement between medieval commentators captures our tradition’s ambivalence.  Rashi explains that the Book of Remedies was full of prescriptions for medications that effectively treated all sorts of maladies.  Because they were healed, people were no longer turning to God in prayer.  Efficacious medicine was causing people to lose their faith.  So King Hezekiah hid it away.  And the Rabbis praise him for it.

Maimonides understands the passage differently.  He (who it should be noted, was a physician) explains that the Book of Remedies was quackery.  It was full of false charms that had no healing potential.  So King Hezekiah suppressed it to protect the people from nonsense, possibly even idolatrous, beliefs.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud praise him.

For thousands of years, Jewish culture has placed a tremendous focus on the mind.  Education is one of our most important values.  For thousands of years, knowledge and wisdom have been valued more highly than physical strength.

But up until the modern era, that did not, for the most part, include science.  There are a number of literary genres that developed over the centuries: halakhah – legal writings, aggadah – exegesis, mysticism, commentaries,  liturgy, poetry – both secular and religious.  But there never developed a tradition of Jewish scientific writing.  Until the Enlightenment, there were barely any original works of science written by Jews.

There were certainly some outliers, Maimonides being the most well-known of them.  A Rabbi, doctor, philosopher, and community leader, Maimonides voraciously consumed every kind of learning he could get his hands on.  It goes without saying that he received the best Torah education available.  But he also wanted to learn Greek wisdom and science.  This kind of learning was not available within the walls of the Jewish academy, so he had to seek it elsewhere.  Maimonides went through the typical program for an educated person of the twelfth century.  As a teen-ager, he studied mathematics, astronomy, logic, and physics.  He then went on to metaphysics, ethics, politics, theology, and medicine.  Throughout his life, he studied Arabic philosophy, theology, and legal writings.  He regularly corresponded with the great thinkers of his day.

This kind of embrace of all forms of knowledge was looked down upon by mainstream religious thinkers.  It eroded faith and took students away from the study of Torah, they feared.  But Maimonides was enamored with rationalism.  He sought to combine the study of the natural world with the study of Torah.  He tried to explain Torah using the metaphysics of Aristotle, seeking to reconcile them as much as possible.  Knowledge of the world and its Creator are to be found in nature no less than in Sacred writings.

There was one major Aristotelian principle that Maimonides rejects: Aristotle’s belief in the eternity of the universe.  But in his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes that he is open to being convinced otherwise, if someone can bring him empirical evidence.  If a scientific proof is found to contradict Torah in some way, he explains, it means one of two things.  Either the scientific proof is incorrect and needs to be revised, or our understanding of Torah is incorrect and needs to be revised.

What is the purpose of studying the world around us?  What should human beings do with our scientific discoveries?  There are a number of possibilities.

We can employ science to make life more pleasurable.  This is a sort of utilitarian argument.  We harness and manipulate our world in order to enhance human pleasure.

We could study science purely for its own sake.  The conceptual joy of learning, without applying our discoveries.

Or, we can turn science into a religion.  Ethics are expressed by Natural Law itself.  Society should imitate nature.  This can lead to outcomes which most of us would find horrifying.  Nazi ideology saw itself as implementing Darwinian survival of the fittest.  Its warped pseudo-science led to the Holocaust.

At the end of the day, Maimonides feels that science ought to be subservient to Torah.  Learning about the natural world should lead a person to greater knowledge of God, and greater piety.  The Torah concerns itself, ultimately, with truths that are higher than science.

While there were some Jewish thinkers who followed Maimonides’ embrace of philosophy and science, Jews for the most part did not pay much attention to it.

In Europe, it was the Church which expanded the study of empirical science.  Why did Judaism not embrace science during this time period?  First of all, Jews were kept out of the universities.  As an exiled people living an often precarious existence, there were not too many opportunities for precocious students to embrace secular studies.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when modern science began, increased antisemitism turned Jews inward.  Mysticism had also become hugely popular throughout the Jewish world.  It emphasized that the fundamental truths about God and the cosmos are not to be found in empirical reality.

It was in the late nineteenth century that a radical shift took place.  The universities were opened up.  Jews began to write our own history.  Zionism emerged, awakening the prospect of Jewish self-determination.   Jewish interest in the world around us exploded.  After prizing knowledge and wisdom for millennia, and developing tools for critical thinking in every generation, Jews were ready to study the sciences – with fervor.

Science and Torah should never be seen as mutually incompatible.  Quite the opposite.  They need each other.  Science’s purpose is to explain what is.  Torah’s purpose is to tell us what ought to be.

Science cannot tell us what to do with knowledge.  It is morally neutral.

The study of of nuclear physics tells us how to capture the energy contained within an atom.  But it can’t tell us what we should do with it.

If Darwin is concerned with “the Origin of the Species,” than Torah is concerned with “the purpose of the species.”

For thousands of years, we have been developing answers to that question.  As human beings, we are here to be stewards of the earth.  We are here to recognize the image of God that is inherent in every person.  We are here to care for one another.  As Jews, we are here to follow the mitzvot.

Learning more about God’s creation creates more tools with which to fulfill our purpose.  That means we must embrace science, and direct the knowledge we gain to solving the problems in our world.

Just last month, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for full funding for research on climate change, as well as scientific and medical research.  In addition, the resolution called “upon all governments to …utilize only science-based evidence for environmental and energy policies.”

This is certainly consistent with Jewish thinkers since Maimonides, and reflects the vast preponderance of Jewish religious thinkers today, spanning every movement in Judaism.

 

Bibliography

Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, by Joel L. Kraemer.

“Rethinking Ethics in the Light of Jewish Thought and the Life Sciences,” by Norbert M. Samuelson, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 209-233.

“Science,” by Hillel Levine, in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, pp. 855-861.

 

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.

Telephone Terrorism and Bomb Threats – Purim 5777

As you most likely know, our local Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos was evacuated on Thursday due to a bomb threat that came in via email sent to the general information address of the JCC.  We should all be proud of how professionally the staff of the four agencies that are housed in the JCC handled everything.

The JCC, Yavneh Day School, Jewish Family Services, and The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley have undertaken extensive preparations, including practice drills.  When the real thing happened, therefore, they were prepared.

Ironically, there was an open meeting the previous night in which the security protocols were shared with the community.

As a Yavneh parent, I received notifications by text, email and recorded phone call, notifying me that the evacuation had taken place successfully, and that I needed to come pick up my children from the church next to the JCC.

From the moment I pulled up, I was impressed with the response.  The first person I saw, wearing a bright orange vest, was Mindy Berkowitz, the Director of JFS.  She was standing at the corner of Oka and Lark directing traffic and answering questions from Yavneh and JCC preschool parents who were coming to pick up their children.

Other staff were strategically placed to direct us in and answer questions.  The students were inside the church sanctuary.  They were calm and well-behaved.

On our way home, my kids had questions, but they were not scared or stressed.  I am grateful that there has been such thoughtful preparation.

I am also angry.

This whole episode, and the more than one hundred other evacuations of JCC’s, schools, museums, and Jewish organizations that have taken place over the past two months are infuriating.

I imagine that the perpetrator is some person or small group of people sitting around in a basement, googling “Jewish Community Center,” and randomly sending out these threats.  It is too easy.  And we have no choice but to take it seriously, because “what if…?”

A term that has been used to describe what is going on is “telephone terrorism.”  A simple phone call or email can prompt a huge, potentially scary response.  We must remember that this is the goal of terrorism – to provoke irrational terror in a population.  So to counter it, we must find a way to respond appropriately and realistically, recognizing that antisemitism is real, but also recognizing that the actual risk is low, and our need to continue living is great.

In trying to navigate my way through these experiences, I try to balance two opposing inclinations: naivety and fear.

I am struck by the timing, just a few days before Purim.  The story of Megillat Esther is the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy.  Every detail in it is an extreme exaggeration.  It serves as a satirical parody of life in the Diaspora.  Consider if the themes in Megillat Esther have parallels to other periods in Jewish history, including our own.

The story of Purim is set in the Diaspora.  The Jews are a minority living among many other religious and ethnic groups.  They are not part of the dominant culture.

In the story, the government, at first, is ambivalent towards the Jews.  King Achashverosh does not even know they exist.  In the Megillah’s caricature of him, he is a buffoon who only wants to party.  Neither Haman nor Esther ever identify the Jews by name to the King.  Both of them refer simply to “a certain people.”

Haman, of course, is the wicked one.  Driven by personal hatred and jealousy, he sets out to exterminate the Jewish people from the Persian Empire.  He does it through lies and manipulation.

He tells the King that there is a certain people who are not to be trusted.  Their loyalties are divided.  They place their own laws above those of the King.  They are dispersed throughout the Empire, and thus represent a threat to his very rule.

Then, Haman promises to deposit ten thousand talents of silver, about 333 tons, a ridiculously impossible sum of money, into the royal coffers if the King will permit him to kill them all.  The King is so impressed by Haman’s report of this imminent danger, that he authorizes his scheme and declines the bribe.

Antisemitism rears its ugly head, and the Jews are powerless.  The Empire is partying and displaying its excesses, while Mordechai and his fellow refugees are struggling to eke out a living, still in shock over the Temple’s destruction.  Now, they face extermination within the year.

But then, in a miraculous turn of events, the Jews gain entry into the halls of power.  Esther, an orphan, is selected to be Queen.  She rises straight to the top.  Through her cleverness, she manages to turn the tables on Haman – in most bloody fashion.

The King claims to not be able to overturn his own decree.  Instead, he authorizes Esther’s executive order granting Jews throughout the Persian Empire permission to defend themselves against their enemies.  We don’t know who these enemies are, but they seem to be pervasive.  In two days, the Jewish people kill Haman, his ten sons, and 800 people in the capital city of Shushan.  They kill 75,000 of their enemies throughout the rest of the Empire.  Meanwhile, terror descends upon the other peoples of the lands, and a great many of them become Jews, or at least claim to be Jewish.

The story ends with Esther, Mordechai, and the rest of the Jewish people living happily ever after.

A detail that makes Megillat Esther particularly poignant is the absence of God’s name anywhere in the Megillah.  There are not even any references.  A midrash identifies the beginning of chapter six, when King Achashverosh cannot sleep, as a hidden allusion.  Nadedah sh’nat haMelekh.  The King’s sleep was disturbed.  Not King Achashverosh, but The King.  This is the turning point in the story, when things start to go well for the Jews.  Similarly, there is a tradition in many megillot for a scribe to start each column, beginning with column number two, with the word HaMelekh, putting God into the story.

We also live in a time in which God’s Presence is hidden.  It takes an act of interpretation and faith on our part to recognize God in the world.

At the end of the Megillah, Esther and Mordechai issue instructions for the annual observance of Purim, to celebrate the victory over their enemies.  How is it celebrated?  Through acts of violence to replicate the story in the Megillah?  No, quite the opposite.  Four mitzvot: reading the megillah – mikra megillah, having a Purim feast – seudat Purim, giving gifts of food to one another – mishloach manot, and giving gifts of food to the poor – matanot la-evyonim.

These are wonderful, community activities.  They bring us together in joy and merriment.  For a holiday that celebrates our violent deliverance from near annihilation, it’s pretty tame, if you ask me.  But it sets up two extreme responses to the precariousness of Diaspora life: violence and bloodshed on the one hand – and costume parties and feasting with our community, on the other.  The daily reality of Diaspora life lies somewhere in the middle.

Antisemitism is real.  We can’t be naive or complacent about that.  On the other hand, we cannot allow it to prevent us from celebrating together, from building community.

That is why our observance of Purim is so important, especially with what has been going on recently.  It helps us give voice to our fear, but also enables us to put it in context.

Thursday night, after the police announced the “all-clear” and the JCC reopened, the Yavneh school musical, Golden Dream, went ahead as scheduled.  There were so many audience members there that extra rows of seats had to be added in the back.  The musical was great.  The kids did a wonderful job.  But the evening was even more powerful given what everyone there had experienced earlier in the day.

It was a celebration of life, a celebration of our commitment to be engaged in the world despite uncertainty.

That is why I am so excited for Purim tonight and tomorrow.  I look forward to reading the Megillah together, dancing, singing, feasting, and sharing.  I hope you’ll join me.

Chag Purim Sameach.

The Compassionate Doubled Verb – Mishpatim 5777

There are a lot of Hebrew speakers in the room today, so I am going to focus on a particular feature of biblical Hebrew which is not found in English.  For that matter, it is not found in modern Hebrew either: doubled verbs.

Here is an example from this morning’s Torah portion:  u-makeh aviv v’imo mot yumat.  One who strikes his father or his mother…” and now here comes the doubled verb:  mot yumat.  (Exodus 21:15)

This presents a conundrum for the translator.  What is meant by the duplication of the verb, which means “die,” and how do I convey it in English?”

Our own Etz Hayim Chumash translates mot yumat as “shall be put to death,” while the Stone Chumash kicks it up a notch with “shall surely be put to death.”  Robert Alter embraces melodrama with, “is doomed to die.”  A hyper-literal translation would be something like that by Everett Fox, “is to be put-to-death, yes, death.”

Generally speaking, doubling a verb like this is one technique that Biblical Hebrew uses to create emphasis.  Each of the translations we just heard are trying, in their respective ways, to convey the seriousness of the command, even though just one of them actually translates the word “die” twice.

The bottom line is, for those kids who are listening right now, you better not hit your parents.

Over the course of the many laws listed in Parashat Mishpatim, there are numerous doubled verbs.  Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, from the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, points out a particular verse which contains no less than three of them.  It follows the instruction “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan”  (Exodus 22:21)  And then it continues

אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתוֹ:

Im aneh t’aneh oto ki im tza-ok yitz’ak elai shamo-a eshma tza’akato.

Here is Everett Fox’s hyper-literal translation:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them . . . !

For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,

and I will hearken, hearken to their cry  (Exodus 22:22)

This seems a little excessive, does it not?

Rabbi Goldfarb points out that the purpose of the doubled verbs is not necessarily to enhance.  In fact, there is a rabbinic disagreement about the meaning of אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה, “Oh, if you afflict, afflict them.”  The Rabbis generally assume that the Torah does not waste any words.  So if a verb appears twice, each must have its own distinct meaning.

One opinion states that the first mention of afflict refers to serious afflictions and the second refers to minor afflictions.  Thus, God is going to hold us accountable for even minor mistreatments of the widow and the orphan.  The doubled verb intensifies the message.

The second opinion states that a person is not liable until the second time that he or she mistreats an orphan or widow.  In other words, the doubled verb diminishes the message.  (Mekhilta, Mishpatim 18)

This is a pretty significant difference.  Should we have a zero-tolerance policy for repression of the unfortunate or should we give ourselves second chances after messing up the first time?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk was a Chassidic Rebbe in the first half of the nineteenth century.  He was known as the Kotzker Rebbe.  He also notices this unusual sentence, with its threefold doubled verbs, and offers a creative explanation.

The Torah is trying to emphasize something specific.  The suffering of the orphan and the widow is not like typical human suffering.  When a widow or orphan experiences mistreatment, physical harm, or financial loss, it weighs especially heavily on that person’s heart.  That is why the Torah doubles the verbs.

“If you afflict, afflict him” – he experiences double suffering.  This leads him to “cry, cry out” to God.  And God, in turn will “hearken, hearken to their cry.”  In other words, God will bring twice as much compassion, as well as inflict twice the punishment on the perpetrators of injustice.

In the Torah’s day, the widow and the orphan, along with the stranger, occupied the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder.  They had the least power and were the most vulnerable.

The Kotzker Rebbe is pointing out a timeless truth.  Those with the fewest resources tend to be the ones who are most vulnerable to misfortune.  We see this in the world today, as the poorest people are the one’s who suffer the greatest consequences from natural disasters.  Those with fewer resources do worse when the economy takes a downturn.

One of the Torah’s central messages to us is that we have a moral obligation to care for those with the least resources.  The Torah’s law codes introduce principles of social and economic equity which were unprecedented in the world at the time.

This theme underscores so many of the commandments that appear in this morning’s portion, such as: giving tzedakah, enforcing justice equally, not showing deference to the rich, making sure that punishments are proportional to the crime.

Yet the Torah also recognizes that, as much as we may try to legislate proper behavior, we are human after all.  We will mistreat each other.  And some of us will be more vulnerable than others.

The very language of the Hebrew that the Torah uses emphasizes the importance of compassion, and reminds us that even when we fail to live by the Torah’s standard, God still keeps an ear open for the cries of the least fortunate – and listens twice as closely for it.