The Origin of the Hebrew Calendar – Bo 5775

Parashat Bo continues the story of Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, demanding that the King of Egypt allow the Israelites to go out into the wilderness to worship God.  As he refuses, they announce each calamity that God is about to bring upon the Egyptians.  The devastation wrought by the plagues on Egypt worsens, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness begins to show cracks.  He offers to let just the men go, but then he changes his mind.  Then he agrees that the children and the elderly can go as well, but he backtracks once again.  Finally, Moses announces that the entire nation is simply going to leave with all of their belongings.  Furthermore, Pharaoh himself will supply the cattle that will be used as offerings to God.

Moses declares the upcoming tenth plague, the death of all first born humans and animals in the land of Egypt, and then the Torah takes a break.

God speaks to Moses and Aaron, saying the following:

Hachodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim, rishon hu lakhem l’chodshei hashanah

This chodesh shall be for you the head of the chodashim, it shall be first for you of the chodashim of the year.  (Exodus 12:2)

Our tradition understands this to be the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot.  Because of its position as number one, and because it interrupts this dramatic story, we can assume that it is telling us something highly significant.

Indeed, this verse is the origin of the Hebrew calendar.  The Rabbis do some very close reading to explain how the Hebrew calendar, which came into existence long before they came along, is rooted in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron are told that this chodesh will serve as the first chodesh of the year.  But what is a chodesh?

Chodesh is from the same root as chadash, meaning new.  The chodesh is something that is mitchadesh, that experiences renewal.

The appearance of the moon changes from one day to the next, such that it renews itself once per month.  The sun, on the other hand, appears the same each day.  Thus, the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Megillah 5a) explain that we count the year by months, rather than by days.  The term chodshei hashanah, the months of the year, illustrate this requirement.  This is why our calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar.

But this leads to several problems.

A lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.976 seconds, approximately.  Twelve months is 354 days and a fraction.  This would make a lunar year about 11 days shorter than a solar year.  If we were to follow just a lunar system, the months, and the Jewish holidays, would float across the seasons, taking about 33 years to return full-circle to the season in which they started.  That is, in fact, how the Muslim calendar works.

Deuteronomy states shamor et chodesh ha-Aviv v’asita Pesach.  “Observe the month of Aviv and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, for it was in the month of Aviv, at night, that the Lord your God freed you from Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 16:1).  Aviv is the only named month in the Torah.  It literally means “new ears of grain” because it is the month in which the ears of grain first appear.  If the calendar were to float over the course of the seasons, then we would not be observing Passover during Aviv.

Furthermore, with regard to Succot, the Torah says b’asaf’cha et ma’asecha min hasadeh – “when you bring in your produce from the field.”  This means that Succot must always take place at the time of the fall harvest.  Therefore, the Rabbis of the Talmud explain, we have to occasionally make an adjustment by adding a thirteenth month.  (BT Rosh Hashanah 7a)  In this way, we will be able to celebrate Passover and Succot in the appropriate seasons.

In ancient times, the adjustments would be made based on the observance of spring-like changes.  If the trees had not yet begun to blossom or barley had not yet started ripening, then the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court that met in the Temple, would delay the beginning of the year by adding a thirteenth month.  The additional month, following Adar, we now refer to as Adar Bet.

Now that we have a fixed calendar, the addition of the extra month happens on a predetermined schedule, seven times out of every nineteen years.

But there is another problem.  When is the Jewish new year?

In the Mishnah, we read that there are actually four, or maybe even five new years, each marking something different.  Nisan is the New Year for counting holidays and for kings.  Tishrei is the new year for counting years, sabbatical and jubilee years, and for several other agricultural purposes. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

The Talmud records an argument between two rabbis about when the creation of the world occurred.  One Rabbi says that it happened in Nisan.  The other says it happened in Tishrei.  So we seem to have some ambiguity.

In the Torah, the new year occurs on the first day of the month we know as Nisan.  This is the same month as the month of Aviv I just mentioned.  The Torah, indeed most of the Bible, does not have names for any of the months.  Instead, it references the month number, always referring back to the month in which the Israelites went out of Egypt.

For example, what we refer to as Rosh Hashanah, occurring on the first of Tishrei, is instead name Yom Teruah, a Day of Blasting, and takes place on the first day of the seventh month.  When the Israelites get to Mount Sinai and camp out around the base, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah states:

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.  (Exodus 19:1)

The Book of Numbers begins as follows:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…  (Number 1:1)

Centuries later, the Bible continues to look back to this moment.

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the month of Ziv―that is, the second month―in the fourth year of his reign over Israel, Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.  (I Kings 6:1)

Throughout the Bible, whenever dates are referenced, it is by a number counting back to the first of Nisan in the year in which the Israelites left Egypt.

What we know as the Hebrew months (Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet…) do not appear until later books of the Bible, such as Esther.  In fact, the “Hebrew months” are in fact Persian names which were assimilated into the Jewish calendar at some point late in the Biblical era.

Why is all of this important?  Couldn’t the Israelites haves simply taken the Egyptian calendar with them, or adopted the Canaanite calendar?  Why did our ancient ancestors need to have a different calendar?  Why is it important for us to continue to keep a different calendar?

How we measure time is extremely important.  Having a Jewish calendar, and marking our years according to it, distinguishes us, especially when we are living in a society that counts time differently.

The twelfth century Torah commentator Rashbam explains that the calendar is oriented in this way so that we always have the Exodus from Egypt in our consciousness.  The Exodus is the formative moment of the Jewish people.  Its memory is supposed to have a profound effect on our lives, both individually and collectively.

As we read in the Haggadah for Passover, we are instructed to recall the Exodus all the days of our lives, and even the nights.  We mention it in our daily prayers.  We connect it to Shabbat by calling it zekher liztziat mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, when we recite Kiddush.  And, our calendar itself also reminds us of that formative event.

Nachmanides points out that when the Torah states “this month shall be for you…” it puts things into a relative context that is particular to the Jewish people.  While Tishrei might be the universal month of creation, and the month from which we count the earth itself, we are also to think of time in its relationship to our particular story.  Our story began when our ancestors first became free.

Being conscious of Jewish time offers great meaning for our lives.  We count our week from Yom Rishon, the first day, up to Yom Shishi, the sixth day, keeping ourselves oriented towards the day of rest throughout the week.  We mark our months by the waxing and waning of the moon, and experience renewal every 29 or 30 days.  We remember our exodus from Egypt, and express our gratitude for freedom by caring for those who are suffering.  And we mark the yearly birthday of the world, marveling at the miracle of Creation and committing ourselves to do better and be more.

That is what it means to live in Jewish time.

Va’era 5775 – France Without Jews is not France

We are still in shock over the murders by Islamic terrorists a week and a half ago of Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada as they were doing some last-minute shopping before Shabbat.  Those killings, along with the attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been a wake-up call.  Much soul-searching is taking place in France, and around the world.

It seems that some people outside of the Jewish community are finally recognizing that there is a connection between antisemitic attitudes and rhetoric and terrorism – that ignoring the former will invariably lead to the latter.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared last week that “France without Jews is not France.”  To back up this sentiment, he announced on Monday that 10,000- military troops would be deployed to protect sensitive sites, and that 4,700 police officers would protect Jewish schools and synagogues.

At the rally in Paris last Sunday of a million and a half people, in addition to signs declaring “Je suis Charlie,” there were some that read “Je suis Juif.”  I am Jewish.

I imagine it must be at least somewhat reassuring to French Jews to have both the leaders of the country as well as some of its citizens taking their safety seriously and making commitments to protect them because they recognize that French Jews are citizens of the country who make up an important and integral part of the national fabric.

Not everyone is so hopeful.  On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, attending the rally in Paris, explicitly invited the Jews of France to move to Israel.  “Israel is your home,” he said.  This was not the first time that an Israeli leader urged French Jews to make aliyah.  In 2012, at a joint press conference with President Francois Hollande, Netanyahu said:  “In my role as Prime Minister of Israel, I always say to Jews, wherever they may be, I say to them: Come to Israel and make Israel your home.”

It has not only been Netanyahu.  At a ceremony in 2004 welcoming new immigrants from France, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advised French Jews to “move immediately” to Israel to escape “the wildest antisemitism” in France.

The French were not pleased then either.

There is something of a rhetorical tug of war going on here between those who say that “France without Jews is not France,” and those who claim that there is no future for Judaism there.

This is not the first time the Jewish people have faced this question.  In this morning’s Torah portion, Va-era, there is also a tug of war over the future of the children of Israel.  At the opening of the parashah, they are enslaved in Egypt.  God has identified Moses as the prophet who will carry the message “Let my people go” to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery and to the Promised Land.

Not everyone wants to see the Israelites leave, however.  Pharaoh and his court, certainly, do not want to see their enslaved workforce disappear.  The Israelites themselves are skeptical of Moses’ insistence that God is going to lead them away.  They prefer an enslaved life that they know to an uncertain life of freedom.

God knows, however, that there is no future for Israel in the land of Egypt.

God hears the groaning of the Israelites and remembers the commitment made to their ancestors generations before.  God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their offspring would be as numerous as the stars and would one day inherit the land of Israel.  They would be a blessing to the world.  This is a destiny that cannot be fulfilled by slaves in a foreign land.

God tells Moses:

Say… to the Israelite people…  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:6-7)

These four verbs – “I will free you, I will deliver you, I will redeem you, and I will take you” – are the four stages of redemption that our Passover Seder identifies as the basis of the four cups of wine.

In this redemption, freedom is only part of God’s promise.  God also means to build a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people.  Central to that covenant is the establishment of a Jewish society in the Promised Land.  Only then can the Jewish people become what God has intended for them to become.  Only then will they realize their potential and flourish.

This tug of war in the Torah between slavery and freedom, between Egypt and Israel, is black and white.  In the millennia since our ancestors first became free, the question of where the Jewish people can best flourish has been more complicated.  Maimonides, fleeing persecution in Spain and then Morocco, made his way to the land of Israel.  There, he found a backwards Jewish community in which he did not see a future.  So he kept going South and settled in the thriving Jewish community of Fustat, Egypt.

We are a people that is both rooted in our Promised Land, and capable of bringing our faith and identity with us wherever we go.  We have been successful at it, developing tight-knit communities whose members support one another and are a force for good in their surrounding environments.

Part of the importance of the State of Israel today is that it truly functions as the homeland of the Jewish people.  Robert Frost said “Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  Israel is that home for Jews, wherever we happen to be living right now.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has opened its doors to refugees from the Holocaust, masses of Jews fleeing pogroms in North Africa and the Middle East, Jews of the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.  “Welcome home,” Israel said.

So what of the Jews of France today?

The Jewish community in France is significant.  There are an estimated 500,000 Jews living in France.  The is the largest community in Europe and the third largest in the world.  It is a diverse, cosmopolitan community, comprised of Jews across the religious spectrum – from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and everything in between.

The last few years have seen a rise in acts of antisemitism.  This has led to increasing numbers of French Jews deciding to move to Israel.  Last year, nearly 7,000 French Jews made aliyah, more than double the previous year.  With continued anti-Jewish violence, that number is expected to be even higher this year, perhaps as many as 10,000.

When we consider the long history of Judaism in France, it is particularly sad that the community finds itself facing so much pressure now, because France has really come a long way.

The first Jews probably arrived about 2,000 years ago.  Attracted by economic opportunities, they did well in the early middle ages.  Charlemagne embraced the Jews, seeing them as a blessing to his kingdom.

The Crusades brought new attitudes across Europe.  Rulers stoked antisemitism, and peasants took out their frustrations on their vulnerable Jewish neighbors.

The persecutions began around the year 1000 CE.  Jewish communities were often confronted with the choice of conversion to Christianity, death, or exile.  Several waves of expulsions took place in 1182, 1306, and 1394.  Jews often had property and assets seized, or debt owed to them cancelled.  Blood libel accusations were frequent.

Don’t think, however, that it was all bad – that the middle ages were centuries upon centuries of pure suffering.  Also during this time, there were Jewish communities that thrived, enjoying prosperity and cultural flowering.  Some of the most important Jewish leaders and thinkers in history came from France.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, more commonly known as Rashi, is the most important commentator of the Torah and Talmud in Jewish history.  He lived and taught in Troyes, in Northern France in the eleventh century and gave rise to a school of innovative Jewish thinkers that flourished for several generations.

As the years passed, the Jews of France, as they were everywhere else in the world, were seen as other, and treated as second-class citizens, at best.

By the 1780’s there were approximately 40-50,000 Jews living in France.  They had legal status to be there, but with extremely limited rights.  They were basically restricted to the money-lending business.  Things were changing in Europe, however, especially in France.  The Enlightenment had taken hold, and there were finally some Christian voices that were calling for tolerance and acceptance of minorities.

The French Revolution of 1789, with its ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, introduced the notion that all residents of a nation could be considered citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation.

The change was sporadic and haphazard, as the chaos of the revolution proceeded and the Reign of Terror took hold, but the Jews of France recognized that something new was happening, and they were excited about the possibilities.  Jewish communities helped fund the revolution, and Jewish soldiers joined the Army of the Republic in its battles against other European countries.  Many Jews patriotically gave their lives for the sake of their French homeland.

When Napoleon came to power, he wanted to finally resolve the Jewish question.  In 1806, he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables, naming it the Grand Sanhedrin.  Twelve questions were posed to it members, the answers to which would determine the future status of the Jews of France.  Those questions included:

• May a Jewess marry a Christian, or [May] a Jew [marry] a Christian woman? or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

• In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or strangers?

• Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

• What kind of police jurisdiction do the rabbis exercise over the Jews? What judicial power do they exercise over them?

The answers the Assembly gave essentially declared Jews to be French citizens first, and Jews second.  Intermarriages would be considered binding.  French Jews would consider non-Jews to be their brethren.  Jews would consider France to be their fatherland, and would defend it when called upon, etc.

When asked if they wanted to be citizens, with all that it would entail, the Jews of France answered with a resounding “oui.”

In 1807, Napoleon added Judaism as an official religion of France.  As his armies moved across Europe, Napoleon liberated Jewish communities of other lands from the ghettos to which they had been restricted.

Emancipation was not yet complete, however.  In 1846, the Jews of France became fully equal when the French Supreme Court found the More Judaico, the Jewish oath, rooted in medieval antisemitism, to be unconstitutional.  Legally, the Jews of France were now fully French, with rights equal to Catholics and Protestants.

The social reality, however, was quite different.  Despite tremendous efforts by Jews to assimilate into French society, antisemitism was still widespread.  At the end of the nineteenth century, a traditionalist faction of army officers concocted a plot to frame a young Jewish Captain named Alfred Dreyfus for treason.  The subsequent trials were a major political scandal in France that lasted from 1894 – 1906 and that divided the country between the anticlerical, pro-republic Dreyfusards and the pro-army, mostly Catholic anti-Dreyfusards.

Theodore Herzl was a secular Jewish journalist who had grown up in antisemitic Austro-Hungary and moved to France due to what he perceived as its progressive, humanist values.  He was a strong proponent of Jewish assimilation into European culture as the solution to the Jewish problem, which had become “an obsession for him.”  (Dictionary of the Dreyfus affair, Nichol, p. 505.)  Herzl’s coverage of the Dreyfus Affair in 1895, however, led him to conclude that Jews would never be accepted by the non-Jewish world.  As much as Jews had given up to become citizens, they would never be seen as equals.

In his book, Der Judenstaat, Herzl writes:

If France – bastion of emancipation, progress and universal socialism – [can] get caught up in a maelstrom of antisemitism and let the Parisian crowd chant ‘Kill the Jews!’ Where can they be safe once again – if not in their own country? Assimilation does not solve the problem because the Gentile world will not allow it as the Dreyfus affair has so clearly demonstrated.

Herzl subsequently founded the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, creating Zionism as a political movement and laying the foundation for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.  If the Gentile world is incapable of accepting Jews as equals, Jews will have to establish a land of their own where they constitute a majority and are free to determine their own fate.

At the beginning of World War Two, there were 350,000 Jews living in France, a number of them having fled Germany in the 1930’s.  During the Holocaust, one fifth of France’s Jewish population were murdered by the Nazis, often with the collaboration of French officials and citizens.  There were also many enlightened French who saved Jews.  France has the third highest number of people honored as Righteous Among the Nations among any country.

Between 1948 and 1967, France was a strong supporter of Israel, with close military ties.  The Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona was built with significant assistance from the French government in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Israeli Air Force pilots flew French fighter jets in the Six Day War in 1967.

By the end of the twentieth century, France’s population had among the most favorable attitudes towards Jews of any country in Europe.

The resurgence of anti-Semitism over the last fifteen years has come from a non-traditional  source.  While there are still antisemitic attitudes from those on the far right and the far left, the rise in anti-Jewish activity has been attributed mainly to increasing violence by people in the French Muslim community.  Flare-ups have tended to occur especially when there is political tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to the terrorist attack on the Hypercacher grocery store, there have been other murders, acts of vandalism, attacks against synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, anti-Jewish demonstrations and chants, and more.

That is why French Jews are increasingly nervous, why French emigration is up, and why real estate prices in Israel are soaring.

I am not French, but I doubt that we are going to see a mass Exodus of the entire Jewish community of France to Israel.  I hope and pray that there is a thriving future for the Jews of France.

Like you, I am extremely concerned for our Jewish brothers and sisters who had to cancel Shabbat services at some synagogues last week and who require police and military presence at all of their institutions.  I hope that this wake-up call to the French people will lead to action, will help them realize that the Jewish people are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, because the Prime Minister is correct when he says “France without Jews is not France.”

Why Doesn’t Christmas Violate the Separation of Church and State? – Vayiggash 5775

I hope everyone had a wonderful time on the national holiday of the Twenty-Fifth of December.  I sure did.  It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The shul is closed.  The streets are empty.  No responsibilities.  I get to sleep in.  We usually go on a family hike.  This year, it was a beautiful crisp, sunny day.

Growing up, I was always pretty sensitive this time of year.  When I was in first grade attending public school in Atlanta, our music teacher had us singing gospel songs that were certainly of a religious nature.  I told my parents, and my dad was on the phone with the principal that night.  The next day in music class, the gospel songs were gone, and a token Chanukah song had been added to our repertoire.  So yes, I was the Jewish kid who destroyed Christmas.

I think this was a pretty common experience for Jewish kids growing up in a largely Christian society.

We are fortunate to live in a time when there is a great deal more sensitivity to these kinds of issues, and in a part of the country that is especially diverse.

But the dominance of Christmas is still inescapable.  How is it possible that in a country like the United States, which prides itself on having a separation between church and state, one of our national holidays can be Christmas?

Let’s take a look at the First Amendment.  It begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is understood to have two clauses.  The first is the anti-establishment clause, which is summarized quite well by Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in the 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education.

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another … in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State’ … That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

Simply put, the government cannot establish or favor any particular religion, or even religion in general.

The other aspect of the First Amendment is known as the free exercise clause.  The government is not allowed to curtail the beliefs of any individual or group, nor can it restrict a person’s religious actions unless those actions are “subversive of good order.”

How is it possible that Christmas could be a federal holiday?  Is not this a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Probably not.  But maybe.

When did Christmas become a national holiday?

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill passed by Congress creating the first federal holidays in the United States.  Most of the states had already established state holidays, but this was a first for the national government.  Initially, it only applied to employees of the federal government in Washington, D. C.  Several years later, it was expanded to include all federal employees.  There were five days.  The bill’s title was:

An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia.

It went like this:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia…

Notice a couple of things.  First, the title of the bill does not mention the word “Christmas.”  It says “the twenty-fifth day of December.”  The bill itself also uses that expression, adding, almost as a sidebar, that the day is “commonly called Christmas Day.”

In 1870, just five years after the end of the Civil War, there were still deep divisions between the North and the South.  Northerners tended to get really excited about Thanksgiving, while Southerners made a big deal about Christmas.  One impetus behind the federal holidays bill was to create national unity.

As you can imagine, there have been cases brought to the courts, usually regarding Christmas displays on public property.  The courts have basically drawn a line between what they see as secular symbols and what they define as religious symbols.  For example, a nativity scene in which an angel is holding a banner with “Glory to God in the Highest” written in Latin was seen as religious.  Images like Santa Claus, reindeer, a Christmas tree, or a menorah, for that matter, are typically seen as secular.  In a court case involving Jersey City’s public holiday display, the presence of symbols from different traditions like a Christmas tree, Kwanza symbols, a Menorah, Frosty the Snowman, and a sign expressing the city’s intention to “celebrate the diverse cultural and ethnic heritages of its people” was accepted by the 3rd Circuit in 1999.  As long as minority traditions are also included with the majority, the courts tend to permit it.

As a people, we have had to deal with being a minority in the midst of a dominant culture for most of our existence.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Joseph is finally reunited with his family.  He invites them to join him in Egypt, where they will thrive under his protection and favored status, but it is clear from the beginning that they do not in.  Joseph instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh that they are breeders of livestock, because that is a profession which is abhorrent to Egyptians.  By telling this to Pharaoh, Joseph’s family receives rights to settle in the fertile land of Goshen, and to receive a special commission to care for the royal flocks.

On their way down, God appears to Jacob with a message of assurance:  “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation.  I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will also bring you back…”  The commentator Ha-emek Davar explains that God is reassuring Jacob that his descendants will not forget who they are.  They will maintain their distinctiveness first as a family, and eventually as a nation.

Initially at least, we see tolerance on the part of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.  They permit this tribe, with its strange customs, to live in Egyptian society, and to maintain their cultural and religious practices.  In next week’s Torah portion, when Jacob dies, the Egyptian dignitaries participate with Joseph and his brothers in the mourning rituals as they bring their father’s body back to the ancestral burial site in the Land of Canaan.

Unfortunately, this tolerance does not last, and a new Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph, and who does not share his predecessor’s generosity and open-mindedness.  So we understand well how important it is to protect the religious freedoms of others.

I have always felt that, as a Jew, I had a greater awareness of the experiences of minorities than those who were in the dominant culture.  Being a minority prepares us to better respect religious diversity.

But what if Jews were in the majority?  How would we deal with issues of religious freedom then?

In 1948, Israel was established as the nation state of the Jewish people.  The Declaration of Independence, issued shortly after the United Nations Partition Plan passed, “declare[d] the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

It went on to declare certain freedoms which should sound familiar to us:  “…it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

So how can Israel, on the one hand, be “the Jewish State” while also ensuring equality and freedom for all, irrespective of religion?

To be fair, many, if not most of the world’s democracies have official state religions, or offer certain favorable status to one particular religion while still protecting religious freedom.  It is the United States which is unusual in not favoring any particular religion.

In building a new nation in 1948, Israel’s founders had some important decisions to make.  Most of them were fiercely secular Jews, yet they looked to Jewish history, traditions, and customs to determine some of the core aspects of the State.

One basic question they had to address was: when is the weekend?

In the U.S., the weekend was originally just Sunday.  The two day weekend developed over the course of the twentieth century.  Would Israel follow the example of the rest of the Western world and go with Sunday, or would it copy its Muslim neighbors and choose Friday?

Of course, you know the answer.  Shabbat has been the weekend of the Jewish people for thousands of years, not just in religious terms, but in national terms.

What about holidays?

Again, Israel’s founders looked to Jewish tradition and established the Yamim Tovim, the holidays on which work is religiously forbidden, as national holidays.

In the Ordinances of Law and Government, Section 18a, subsection 1, paragraph a, it states:

Shabbat and the Jewish holidays—the two days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, the first day of Succot and Shmini Atzeret, the first and seventh days of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—are the fixed days of rest for the State of Israel.

What about non-Jews?  Israel’s founders were emphatic about ensuring equality and the right to freely practice religion.  This brings us to paragraph b.

For those who are not Jewish there is reserved the right to observe their days of rest in accordance with their Sabbath and holidays. These holidays will be set in accordance with each community by the government and published in the public records.

To summarize, the law states the following in subsection 2:

The laws of work hours and rest of 1951, which apply to weekly periods of rest, will apply:

a. To Jews—on their holidays

b. To non-Jews—on the Jewish holidays or on the holidays of their community, whatever is acceptable to them.

In other words, if you are Christian, you can take your weekend on Sunday, and celebrate all the Christian holidays when they occur.  If you are Muslim, you can take your weekend on Friday, and celebrate all the Muslim holidays when they occur.  And those are not considered to be vacation days, but rather national holidays.

While it can get kind of complicated in the workplace, and I imagine that it is a nightmare for Human Resources departments, this is practiced and taken very seriously in Israel to this day.  Every religion gets its own weekends and national holidays.

We had a taste of something like this when we lived in New York.  Ostensibly to keep the streets clean in the five boroughs, but really to discourage car ownership, the city imposes alternate side of the street parking rules.  Pretty much every day of the work week, car owners have to get in their cars and move them to the opposite side of the street to make room for the street cleaners.  Failure to do so results in a fairly hefty ticket.

But what if you are an observant Jew (and there are a few of those in New York) and it is Rosh Hashanah, when it is forbidden to drive a car?  To deal with that situation, there are holiday suspensions of the alternate side parking restrictions.

“Wait,” you say.  Isn’t that a violation of the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment?

Not if you make the holiday suspensions available to everyone.  Here are just a few examples of holidays on which alternate side parking restrictions are suspended:  Yom Kippur, both days of Shavuot, Purim (driving is technically allowed, but you can probably guess why the city doesn’t want Jews getting in their cars on Purim), Good Friday, Holy Thursday, Ash Wednesday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Diwali, and the newest entry in the list, the Asian Lunar New Year.

So I guess having a national holiday on the 25th of December does not bother me as much as it once did.  I can accept that for many Americans, as well as the U.S. courts, it is seen as a secular holiday.

So to all of us, Happy National Holiday of the 1st of January, coming up in just a few days.

 

Dinah, The Yatzanit – Vayishlach 5775

There is a current trend in Hollywood of making epic movies based on stories from the Torah.  Earlier this year, we saw the release of Noah, by Darren Aronofsky.  Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings opens next weekend.  This Sunday night is the premier on Lifetime of a mini-series adaptation of Anita Diamant’s biblical-historical novel, The Red Tent.  I can only assume that it has been timed for release with this morning’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, in which we read the story of the book and mini-series’ central character, Dinah.

I saw the trailer for the miniseries.  It is what I would have expected: stunning desert scenes, dramatic music, beautiful actors, violence, and quite a bit of skin.  According to the journalist Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “the miniseries provides Lifetime’s heavily female audience with gauzy love scenes that verge on soft porn.”

When the novel, The Red Tent, was first published in 1997, it had no advertising budget and did not attract much attention.  Anita Diamant, however, wisely hit the synagogue lecture circuit, and by 2001, it had become a New York Times bestseller.  It has since sold over 3 million copies.

It also pioneered a literary trend of Jewish female-centered novels set in times in which women’s voices have rarely been recorded.  Maggie Anton wrote her Rashi’s daughters trilogy, and is now two thirds of the way through her Rav Hisda’s daughters trilogy, for example.

Anita Diamant was prompted to write The Red Tent by Dinah’s total silence in the biblical text.  Dinah does not get a single word in the thirty one verses that describe her ordeal.

Many readers have described The Red Tent as a modern midrash, an effort to fill in the gaps and thereby describe what happened then in a way that also connects with our view of the world today.

Interestingly, the author disagrees.  She writes the following:

The Red Tent is not a translation but a work of fiction. Its perspective and focus—by and about the female characters—distinguishes it from the biblical account, in which women are usually peripheral and often totally silent. By giving Dinah a voice and by providing texture and content to the sketchy biblical descriptions, my book is a radical departure from the historical text.

Simply put, The Red Tent is a novel based on a biblical story.  But for the millions of people who have read it, especially Jewish women, it has been a powerful and religiously meaningful suggestion of what life might have been like for the women who lived in our Patriarchs’ households.

The Red Tent makes significant, and intentional, departures from the text.  It describes what the Torah depicts as Shechem’s rape of Dinah instead as a consensual, loving marriage that Dinah freely enters.  It presents the women of Jacob’s household as idol-worshipping pagans.  And of course, it gives Dinah voice and volition, both of which are absent in the text itself.

The language in chapter 34 is extremely deliberate.  Let’s focus on some of the verbs.  Dinah is the subject of exactly one verb in the entire story.  Ironically, her verb is the opening word of the chapter.  Vatetze Dinah.  “And Dinah, Leah’s daughter,whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to go seeing among the daughters of the land.”  (Genesis 34:1, Translation by Robert Alter)

For all other verbs in this story, Dinah is an object to be seen, taken, slept with, abused, defiled, and given away.

The medieval commentator Rashi records a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 80:1) that asks why Dinah is described as Leah’s daughter rather than Jacob’s daughter.  It is because her “going out” is similar to something her mother, Leah, had done a few chapters earlier.  After making a deal with her sister and co-wife Rachel, Leah goes out into the field to inform their husband Jacob that he must sleep with her that night.  Thus “going out” is associated with wantonness and promiscuity.  “Like mother like daughter,” as the Prophet Ezekiel states (Ezekiel 16:44).  Dinah, says Rashi, is a Yatzanit.

While there are other commentators that do not find fault with either Dinah or Leah, and indeed praise them both, we see in the midrash that Rashi chooses to cite the sexist and dangerous attitude that seeks to blame the victim.  “She was asking for it.”  “She should have known better than to go out looking like that.”  And so on.

How sad that the one verb attributed to Dinah in the entire Torah is interpreted so horribly!

Indeed, the verbs in the rest of the story also reflect the classic misogyny in which women are not seen as agents who can determine their own fate, but rather as property to be owned and traded.

Two verbs that occur numerous times are lakach and natan – take and give.  There is nothing unusual about these two words.  Both are ubiquitous and among the most common words in Hebrew.  In this story, these words are used almost exclusively to describe the transferring of possession of females by males.

Here are a few of the many examples:  Shechem takes Dinah and rapes her after he sees her.  Later, in love with Dinah, Shechem begs his father Chamor to “take for me this girl as a wife.”  When Chamor speaks to Jacob about it, he asks him to “Please give her to him as a wife.”  Chamor then suggests that the two tribes should intermarry with each other.  “You give your daughters to us, and our daughters you shall take for yourselves.”

When they hear about it, Dinah’s brothers are unhappy.  “We cannot do such a thing,” they say, “to give our sister to a man who has a foreskin…”  Negotiations go back and forth.  Eventually, the men of the town agree to be circumcised so that their respective daughters can be given and taken accordingly.  As per the agreement, Dinah is sent to Shechem’s house.  But it is all a ruse.  Shimon and Levi sneak into town and slaughter all of the men.  “Then they take Dinah from the house of Shechem and they leave.”

While incredibly upsetting, it should not surprise us that this ancient text presents women as passive chattel.  That was the social structure in the Ancient Near East.

These texts are part of our holy Torah, however.  Our tradition considers these words to be sacred, and insists that they contain ultimate Truth.  As Jews, we have to find how these words speak to us today.  In some cases, as in this story, there are elements both of the story itself and of how it has been traditionally understood, which many of us find deeply problematic.

That does not mean there is not a Truth that can speak to us from this text.

At this moment, a national conversation is taking place, primarily on college campuses, about what constitutes consent.  The old adage was “no means no.”  Now there are those who advocate a higher standard of “yes means yes.”  In other words, if both parties do not verbally consent, a sexual act may be considered rape.

In the course of this national conversation, attitudes are emerging that suggest that the clothing a person chooses to wear, or the decision to attend a fraternity party, for example, makes a victim at least partly responsible for the sexual assault she suffers.

While we as a society have come far in terms of promoting gender equality, and creating equal space for women’s voices, it is clear that we still have a way to go.  The way that we speak about gender and equality in religion is a central part of that progress.  Religion both reflects and, in some cases, leads the progress that society makes.

Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent has been a very important step that is both symbolic of and has inspired the embrace of women’s experiences and voices in Jewish tradition.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and watch the Lifetime miniseries.  It will probably be entertaining, as well as “gauzy,” but I am not expecting any fabulous new insights.  Personally, I will not be watching it because I do not subscribe to cable.  I will just have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

But I see the trend of creatively considering how we might understand the voices of previously-silenced Jewish women to be an important one, whether in a miniseries, in a novel, or even more importantly, whenever we read our ancient holy texts.

Jewish Sovereignty and Its Possibilities – Chayei Sarah 5775

In 1913, Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, wrote a book called Totem and Taboo, exploring issues of archaeology, anthropology, and religion through the perspective of psychoanalysis.  Freud was an Austrian Jew who was totally secular.  He did not observe Jewish traditions in any significant way.  He could not read Hebrew.  Yet, he felt himself to be a Jew, and he never renounced his Jewish identity.

In 1930, Totem and Taboo was translated into Hebrew.  In the preface to this version, Freud, writing from his home in Vienna, describes how he feels about his book appearing in the revived and modernized language of his ancestors.  You’ll have to excuse him.  He writes about himself in a somewhat disjointed third person.

No reader of [the Hebrew version of] this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.

Thus it is an experience of a quite special kind for such an author when a book of his is translated into the Hebrew language and put into the hands of readers for whom that historic idiom is a living tongue….

Freud is so moved by the translation of his book into Hebrew, but he has no idea why.  Something about the revitalization of the ancient national language of his people in their land has awoken in him a profound sense of identity, even though his active participation in Jewish life is negligible.  How can that be?  What has been awakened in the father of psychoanalysis?

Something quite ancient.

This morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with the death of our first matriarch.  Abraham, the lonely widower, must now attend to her burial.  Abraham has a problem, however.  He has no place to bury her.  Although God has promised that his descendants would inherit the land, he has yet to take possession of any property.  He is still wandering.

Abraham turns to his neighbors, the Hittites, and asks them to sell him a plot of land so that he can take proceed with his wife’s funeral.  He identifies the Cave of Machpelah, owned by Ephron son of Tzochar, as his intended property, and offers to pay full price for it.

“No, my lord…” Ephron objects, “I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people.  Bury your dead.”  (Genesis 23:11)

What a deal!  Abraham should take it, shouldn’t he?  No.  He should not.  Abraham can read between the lines, and he understands that if the land is merely given to him, it will not be truly his.  Ephron or his descendants could come back to Abraham or his descendants and repossess it.  Abraham knows that he must pay.  Ephron knows this too, by the way.  So they enter into a back and forth negotiation, resulting in a final purchase price of 400 shekels of silver.  Abraham pays and takes possession of the land in the presence of all the Hittites, so there is no question that he now owns it.  This is the Jewish people’s first foothold in the land of Israel, nearly four thousand years ago.

This property remains highly significant.  At the end of the Torah portion, Abraham himself dies.  Isaac and Ishmael, estranged half-brothers, return to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together.  Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah would also be buried there in subsequent generations.

At the end of the book of Genesis, Abraham’s descendants are all living in the Diaspora, in Egypt.  His great grandson, Joseph, has risen to be the Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh.  At the moment, life is good for them there, but they know in their hearts that Egypt is not home.  As death approaches, Joseph calls his family to him and makes them swear an oath.  “I am about to die,” he says.  “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…  When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”  (Genesis 50:24-25)  This is Joseph’s dying request: for his bones to be returned to the land of his ancestors.

It would take many generations to fulfill Joseph’s instructions.  The family of Abraham would transform into the Israelite nation, and be enslaved by a new Pharaonic administration.  When Moses arises to lead his people to freedom, centuries later, he still remembers the oath.  On the night that they leave Egypt, Moses makes one extra stop to collect Joseph’s bones so that they can be returned to the land of the Patriarchs.

The story ends at the end of the book of Joshua, where we are told that Joseph’s bones are finally laid to rest in Shechem, on land that Jacob had purchased from the children of Hamor for one hundred kesitahs.  We see that from the very beginnings of our people, connection to the land of Israel is intimately tied up with our national identity.

Perhaps this explains why Freud is so moved when his book is translated into the language that is being spoken by his fellow Jews who are trying to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  Freud and Joseph both feel the same sense of longing for the land of their ancestors.

In 1950, soon after the formation of the State of Israel, the Knesset passed Chok Ha-Shvut – the Law of Return, giving Jews everywhere the right to live in Israel and become citizens.  In the debate preceding its passage, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion outlined the philosophy behind the Law of Return.

The Law of Return…. comprises the central mission of our state, namely, ingathering of exiles. This law determines that it is not the state that grants the Jew from abroad the right to settle in the state. Rather, this right is inherent in him by the very fact that he is a Jew, if only he desires to join in the settlement of the land…. The right to return preceded the State of Israel and it is this right that built the state. This right originates in the unbroken historical connection between the people and the homeland, a connection which has also been acknowledged in actual practice by the tribunal of the peoples.

According to Ben Gurion, the authority to pass the Law of Return does not come from the State of Israel.  The Law of Return does not exist because the Knesset said so.  It is, in fact, the other way around.  The Knesset exists because the Jewish people have a core connection to the Land of Israel that extends back in history to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, originating in God’s Promise to Abraham and Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah for four hundred shekels of silver.  Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.  This has always been an essential aspect of our national identity.  This has been true both during times of Jewish sovereignty, as well as when our people lived in exile.  The longing to return home has always been a source of hope for our people.

Why is sovereignty over our land so important to us?  Because it provides us with the opportunity to put Jewish values and principles into practice.  When we lived as an exiled people, always as a minority within a dominant culture, much of our values could only be dealt with theoretically, in the study hall or on the bookshelf.

Our tradition has a lot to say, for example, about how to conduct a criminal trial.  The Torah, and later the Rabbis, imposed a high burden of proof.  Witnesses are warned repeatedly about the importance of giving true testimony.  A verdict is thrown out as untrustworthy unless someone can make a strong case on behalf of the accused.  Our tradition has an extensive theoretical tradition about how to conduct a trial fairly.  Only in the State of Israel is it possible for our Jewish people to wrestle with how to bring principles that were once theoretical into the real world.  The result has been that, except for the solitary case of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Israeli courts have not executed a single criminal.

Another example is relevant right now.  This year is a shemitah year, the sabbatical year during which, according to the Torah, agricultural land in Israel must lie fallow.  Trespassing restrictions are lifted, and the poor are entitled to enter landowners’ fields to harvest whatever happens to be growing there.  Indentured slaves are released as debts are forgiven.  Shemitah, as it appears in our sources, reminds us that the land ultimately belongs to God, not ourselves.  It emphasizes the importance of social justice, and resets the economic inequities that inevitably develop so as to prevent multi-generational poverty.

There are many ways in which the laws of shemitah are incompatible with a modern, capitalist, globalized economy.  They were not practical in the ancient world either, and probably were never observed.  But with Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel today, we have an opportunity to bring the institution of shemita out of our books and into the marketplace.  What would it mean to create an economy that promoted the principles of social justice and ecological humility that are at the heart of shemita?  This has not yet happened in Israel, by the way, where people either ignore shemitah, or find a creative loophole by selling the land to a non-Jew so that they do not have to suffer the economic loss.

A third example has implications for health care policy.  I do not have to tell you that our Jewish tradition values children.  It is considered a mitzvah to have kids, although the reality is that this is sometimes a challenge, as expressed in numerous cases of barrenness in the Torah, including three out of the four matriarchs.  The Israeli health care system offers unlimited, free, state-funded in vitro fertilization up the age of forty five.  As a a result, Israel has the highest per capita rate of infertility therapy in the world.  This is a decision that is surely an expensive one, but one that has been deemed worthwhile by the State.  As an expression of Jewish values, this is only possible in a place in which Jews have sovereignty.

For Jews living and flourishing outside of Israel, sovereignty is also important.  It changes how we see ourselves, and challenges us to bring our expression of Jewish identity out of our homes and synagogues and into the world.  The pride and openness of being Jewish that we feel here in America is made possible, at least in part, by a flourishing Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

If this conversation interests you, I would like to encourage you to join a course that I am teaching on Thursday nights called Engaging Israel, from a course offered by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  My words this morning, along with some of the sources I have used, are taken from the topic of this past week’s class.  The overall goal is to explore our people’s connection to Israel and to identify how Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland opens up new possibilities for the the expression and fulfillment of core Jewish values, whether a person is religious or secular, or living in Israel or the Diaspora.

Let Us Make a Name for Ourselves – Noach 5775

According to the Torah, all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve.  Then, after humanity is wiped out in the flood, all humans are descended from Noah and his wife.  Why is it so important to specify that we all share a common ancestor?  According to the Mishnah, it is so that no one can say another, my father is better than yours.  We are all descended from the first Primordial Human, Adam, whom the Torah describes as created in God’s image.  (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Thus, equality and freedom are central concepts in our tradition.

Soon after creation, however, humanity starts to move away from this ideal.  Within ten generations, human society has become so corrupt and violent that God simply cannot take it any more.  God looks at all of the wickedness and violence, sees the way that human beings have corrupted the entire planet, and becomes sad and regretful for having ever made humanity.

So God brings a flood, appointing Noah and his family to be the sole human survivors, protectors of each animal species, and progenitors of human life in the new world that will follow.

What will change this time?  Presumably, things will be different in Creation 2.0.  Indeed, God plans ahead for the change, giving rules to humanity this time so that they do not repeat the same mistakes.

But has anything really changed?

God knows that Noah’s offspring will be no better than their ante-diluvian ancestors.

After Noah exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice.  That’s a good start.  God appreciates the gesture, and declares “Never again will I doom the earth because of man…”  (Genesis 8:21)

Fantastic!  Is it because God is so pleased with Noah’s piety?  Not exactly.

The Lord continues, “…since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.”  Nature or nurture?  It’s nature.  Humans have the same capacity for evil that they have always had.  It is part of our D.N.A.  Nevertheless, God makes a commitment to let the experiment continue, acknowledging that it an occasional intervention may be warranted.

Within a few generations, humanity seems to be heading down a familiar path.  The Torah introduces us to major characters in the generations following the flood and occasionally shares brief notes or stories about them.  We meet Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  Nimrod is described as “the first man of might on earth.  He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”  (Genesis 10:8-9)  He built a kingdom in Shinar, otherwise known as Babylonia, otherwise known as Mesopotamia, otherwise known as present-day Iraq and Syria.

Tradition identifies Nimrod as the first King.  How does he ascend to that position?  The medieval commentator Abravanel points to Nimrod’s hunting prowess.  People see how powerful he is to be able to defeat lions and bears, and stand in awe of him.  When Nimrod turns his attention towards his fellow human beings, he easily vanquishes and conquers them, thus building the world’s first empire.  With empire comes progress.  The development of political life, technological innovation, human wisdom – all are made possible by civilization.

But Nimrod and his generation go astray, according to commentators, pursuing progress for its own sake, rather than as a means to a greater good.  Power begets power, as the saying goes.  Where the violence and oppression before the flood had been chaotic and random, now it is state-sponsored.

The Torah continues with the well-known story of the Tower of Babel.  At this time, we are told, everyone on earth speaks the same language and lives in the same place.  Humanity has gained the ability to control the environment in which it lives.  From their place in the lowlands, people figure out how to take mud, shape it, apply fire, and make bricks.  They now have the ability to make life better, safer, and more meaningful.  They can build structures to protect them from the elements, buildings to store food, schools to learn, libraries to store knowledge, and temples in which to worship.  So what do they do with this technological innovation, this amazing new ability?

“Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…” they say to one another.  For what purpose?  Efficient apartment dwelling?  A university?  A hospital?  A town hall?  A sanctuary?  No.  Those are not what the people are interested in.  They are not going to use their technological abilities to serve a greater good.    Their aims are more self-centered.

V’na’aseh lanu shem.  “Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky to make a name for ourselves.”  (Genesis 11:4)

They want to build it as a timeless monument to human progress.

A midrash teaches that the tower gets to be so high that it takes a really long time and a lot of effort to travel from the bottom to the top.  Whenever a brick would fall, the workers would collapse to the ground and weep, “Woe is us.  When will another brick be hauled up to take its place?”  But when a person falls, nobody pays any attention.  (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24)

Why do they build the tower?  Because they can.  This is the end result of what Nimrod introduces to the world.  It is a description of a totalitarian society in which the state is everything and the individual is nothing.  There is no God in such a situation.

God looks down at this rising edifice to human power and sees that something must change.  This is not what God had intended.  So God babbles their tongues, and they can no longer understand one another.  The building project grinds to a halt.  Then God scatters the people over the face of the earth.

On one level, The Tower of Babel is an origin story that explains why the earth contains so many people with different languages, cultures, and beliefs.  But it is also a story with lessons about human nature, politics, and equality.

Judaism is highly skeptical of political leaders.  The idea that power corrupts seems to be ingrained in the Torah.  Deuteronomy’s laws of Kings are all about limiting the powers and rights of the monarch.  Kings and societies are judged not by how much land they acquire or taxes they collect, but by how the most marginal people in society are treated.  Why are political leaders so suspect?  Because politics inevitably leads to inequality.  A subject, by definition, is not equal to the king.

In our democracy, ideally, the power of government is derived from the people, and there are checks and balances to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power.  In reality, we know that American society has gross inequalities, whether in money, political power, educational opportunities, health care access, and so on.

The Tower of Babel suggests that the solution to the problem of too much power is diversity.  People and nations need to be free to pursue meaningful lives in different ways.  Our tradition recognizes this as ideal.

The Messianic future envisioned by Judaism does not imagine that all nations will one day unite and become a single people.  That has never been our vision.  In the Messianic Age, it is simply that all peoples on earth will recognize God as the Creator and ruler.  It is in this morning’s parashah that the Rabbis identify the seven Noachide commandments; seven laws given to all humanity that form the backbone of ethics.  As long as a people abides by those essential norms, it should be free and encouraged to go its own way, while respecting other peoples’ rights to do the same.

A thirteenth century Spanish commentator, Menachem Meiri, in considering the Christians and Muslims of his day, declares that as long as they are gedurim b’darchei hadat, bound by the laws of morality and justice, they are to be considered as equal to Jews in all respects.  That is a fairly remarkable position for that that time and place.

Elsewhere in our texts, we are taught that the righteous of all the nations earn a share in the world to come.  So you see, Judaism advocates a healthy respect for diversity.  There are other ways to worship God and other ways to organize societies other than the Jewish way, and that is a good thing.  This is a lesson from the Tower of Babel.

It is also good from a practical perspective.  A society’s embrace of diversity and pluralism serves as a check against oppression and violence.  It is why a country’s freedom is typically measured by factors like religious freedom, the fairness of elections, the existence of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and the absence of corruption.

In every age, there are Nimrod’s who seek to suppress freedom and deny equality.  Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has been in Washington D.C. this week.  I heard an interview in which he was asked about ISIS.  He predicted that the Middle East is never going to return to what it was a few years ago.  The borders of countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran, were drawn up arbitrarily after World War One.  The countries themselves were held together for almost a century by totalitarian dictators from minority tribes who forcefully imposed themselves on their populations, much like Nimrod thousands of years ago, who exercised power for the sake of power.  But these artificial nations were comprised of diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and languages.  In order to maintain power, that diversity had to be suppressed.  The violence and terror we are witnessing today is driven by religiously-fueled zealots who also reject the value of diversity, deny equality, and subjugate all who come under their authority.

We have been watching in horror as ISIS and other militant Islamic groups fight to create a caliphate, an empire, that would oppress anyone who does not conform to their narrow belief system.  It is a scary, totalitarian ideology.  How ironic that the story of the Tower of Babel took place smack dab in the middle of the war zone!

If we learn one thing from the Tower of Babel, let it be that God wants diversity.  The Mishnah cited above regarding humanity’s shared common ancestor (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) also teaches that when a person kills another, it is as if s/he has destroyed the entire world.  It goes on to explain that when people mint coins from a coin press, every single coin comes out exactly the same.  Not so with God, for God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and yet no two people are alike.  Thus each person is obligated to say, “For my sake was the world created.”

People of faith would do well to remember this.

Blinded by Fear – Rosh Hashanah 5775 (first day)

Today is the day when Jews around the world celebrate the new year, so it is a good time for us to take stock of how things are going around the world for the Jewish people.  Let us start with a place where things are great for the Jews – Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s closest allies.  In 1991, when Azerbaijan declared independence from the U.S.S.R., Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize it.  A community of around 10,000 Jews live there, with the Mountain Jews tracing their roots back 1500 years.  The Jewish Agency has had a school in Azerbaijan since 1982.  There is very little antisemitism, and Jews there are an important part of society.

Israel and Azerbaijan have close diplomatic relations.  Trade connections are strong and growing.  Israel is one of the major providers of military equipment, and has helped modernize Azerbaijan’s armed forces.  They have cooperate closely in intelligence gathering and in the fight against terrorism.  If Israel ever has to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it is likely that the plan will involve the use of an Azerbaijani airfield.

In 2010, the Azerbaijani President banned the issuing of visas at the airport for visitors from every country in the world except for two, one of which was Israel.  The majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim.  So there is one shining example of sanity in our world.

Of course, much of what our people have experienced around the world has not been so positive.  Our brothers and sisters suffered through a fifty day war with Hamas this summer.  Incidents of antisemitism have been on the rise in Europe.  In Belgium a few months ago, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, by a suspected Frenchman of Algerian descent who had come back after a year fighting with ISIS.  Just a couple of weeks ago, there was an arson attack against a synagogue that was also firebombed back in 2010.

Two Muslim girls were recently arrested for plotting to blow up the Great Synagogue in Lyon, France.

A cell phone store in Istanbul recently posted a sign which read “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.”

European synagogues typically station armed guards outside for weekly Shabbat services.  If you visit the website of many European synagogues, you will see something like “To attend services, please bring photo identification or fax a copy of your passport.”  Jews in Europe are feeling less and less safe.  Perhaps that is why the rates of aliyah of Jews from Western Europe increased by 35% in 2013, and are continuing to increase this year.  It is too bad for Western Europe.  Historically, nations who expel their Jews tend to go downhill shortly afterwards.

So…  Did you pay more attention to the good news or the bad news?  Which evoked a stronger emotional reaction – Azerbaijan or Europe?  I am going to guess that it was the latter.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, one that blinds us to the blessings that stare us right in the face and often leads us to behave irrationally, bury our heads in the sand, or adopt fatalistic attitudes about the future.

If this is the time of year for taking stock of our lives, for conducting a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, then it behooves us to look both inward and outward with open eyes.  Accountants, after all, need accurate data to make their calculations.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, fear leads to nearly disastrous consequences.  At Isaac’s weaning celebration, Sarah sees something that terrifies her.  Ishmael, her handmaiden’s son with Abraham, is playing with Isaac in a way that causes her to fear for her son’s future.  To ensure that Isaac will not have to deal with his half-brother, she demands that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.  Although troubled, Abraham complies after God assures him things will turn out okay.  He gives the unfortunate mother and son provisions and sends them away.

When the food and water run out, Hagar begins to despair.  Thinking the end is near, she places Ishmael under a bush so that she will not have to watch him die.  Then she bursts into tears.  She is despondent and passive.

The boy is also wailing, and his cries reach heaven.  God sends an angel to Hagar, who scolds her: Mah lakh Hagar?  Al tir’i – “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy by his hand for I will make a great nation of him.”  (Genesis 21:17-18)

Then God opens her eyes and shows her a well of water.  Ishmael survives and grows to become the father of a great nation.

How is it possible that Hagar could have missed a well of water that was right there all along?  In the desert, wherever there is water, there are signs of it.  Plants grow where springs bubble up from the earth.  How could she not have seen it?

And how could she not have seen her son’s greatness, his destiny to become the father of a great nation?

It was fear.  The angel recognizes it instantly.  “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not…”  Fear blinds her to the blessings that are in front of her.

This story presents two different responses to fear.  Sarah reacts to her fear by lashing out.  Hagar’s fear leads her to bury her head in the sand, abandoning her son in his time of need.

Edmund Burke, the eighteenth century Irish statesman and supporter of the American Revolution, once said:  “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”

How much are our lives controlled by fear!  Fear-filled messages surround us.  They are so ubiquitous that we do not even notice them.  Here are a few examples.

The cosmetics industry.  The marketing of makeup, hair products, age-defying skin creams and the like, is based on the premise that we should be afraid of our bodies getting old, as if that is something than can be prevented.

The organic food industry is growing at a rate of approximately 14% per year, driven by fear.  We pay more money to ostensibly protect ourselves and our children from pesticides, growth hormones, and genetically modified organisms.  Milk containers often include the following two contradictory statements:  “This milk is from cows not treated with rbST,” implying that rbST is something we should be worried about, and “The Food and Drug Administration has determined there is no significant difference between milk from rbST treated cows and non-rbST treated cows.”  So is rbST safe?  I have absolutely no idea… but am I willing to risk it for myself and my family?

Politicians are notorious for using fear-mongering to attract votes and raise funds.  To avoid setting off any partisan debates with a contemporary example, let’s go back fifty years.  The famous “Daisy” ad of 1964 features a cute little two-year-old girl standing in a field, picking petals off of a flower while she counts to ten.  As soon as she reaches nine, an ominous male voice starts counting down.  “Ten, nine, eight…”  The camera zooms in to the girl’s face and her eyes open wide as she sees something alarming in the distance.  When the countdown reaches zero, we are shown the image of a nuclear explosion and its billowing mushroom cloud.  Lyndon Johnson’s voice then warns, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” Then another voice summons us to “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  The ad was only shown once before it was pulled, but it left its mark.  Fear attracts votes.

In reporting the news, it is accepted as an ironclad law that good news will not sell more papers, but a headline about the latest ISIS attack, the spread of the Ebola virus, or the most recent grisly murder in San Jose will.  The growth of the internet and social media, and the change in the news business, have only exacerbated this.  Information moves so fast, and there is so much competition, that those who hope to share information are pressured to use any means possible to get attention, and that means fear.

Do not think that we Jews are above it.  Jewish organizations frequently use fear to garner support, whether we are talking about the the existential threats facing Israel, worsening cultures of antisemitism on college campuses, declining rates of Jewish affiliation, and so on.

The pervasive messages of fear that inundate us leave their mark.  Our world feels like a dangerous place.  The United States no longer has the influence and clout that it once enjoyed.  Our economic recovery is precarious.  Terrorism is on the rise, along with violence against women, human trafficking, illegal immigration, economic inequality, rising sea levels, pollution, drought, disease, war…  The list goes on.

Nevertheless, I am happy to report that things have never been better.

Fact:  On a global scale, we are living in the safest, freest, most peaceful time in human history.

Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that war is tragic, and violence produces real human suffering.  Nearly two hundred thousand people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, and millions have fled as refugees.  In Nigeria, Boko Haram takes schoolgirls captive and terrorizes through rape and murder.

As a people, we know what it means to be the victims of persecution and discrimination.  It has sadly been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years.  During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe, representing more than one third of Jews globally.  This cannot be minimized.  We must never trivialize the loss or suffering of anyone who has been the victim of violence, whether war, genocide, domestic, or other.

But speaking about humanity as a whole, we have allowed fear to blind us to the many blessings of our world.

Profesoor Steven Pinker, a Pyschologist at Harvard, wrote a book a few years ago called The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he looks at actual data about violence throughout human history and finds that the twentieth century was the safest, most peaceful century in human history.  So far, the twenty-first is looking even better.

But what about World War One, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria, Ukraine?  Conventional wisdom says that the twentieth century was the bloodiest, most violent ever.  The problem with that claim, Professor Pinker points out, is that nobody who makes it looks at evidence from any other century.

Previous centuries saw wars with names like “The Thirty Years War,” “The Eighty Years War,” and “The Hundred Years War” (which was actually 116 years).  Five hundred years ago, the Great Power nations typically spent about 75% of their time in a state of war with each other.  There has not been a Great Powers War since 1945.

Contrary to what all of the experts forecasted during the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union never went to war against each other.  Nuclear weapons were not used since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The truth is, the overall trajectory of human history demonstrates a falling likelihood that any given person would die a violent death.

Professor Pinker starts at the beginning.  Looking at the archaeological remains of prehistoric human skeletons around the world, it turns out that approximately fifteen percent of them show physical signs of having died by human caused violence.

In Europe and the United States through the entire twentieth century, including both world wars, approximately .6% of deaths resulted from violence.  Globally, during the twentieth century, violent deaths, including those resulting from man-made famines, account for about three percent of all deaths.  In the year 2005, .03% percent of deaths globally were the result of violence.

Violence within societies has also fallen dramatically.  A person living in England today has about 1/35 the chance of being murdered as his or her medieval ancestor.  This is true in every European country for which we have data.

Corporal punishment, once common, was outlawed in the United States by the 8th Amendment, which banned cruel and unusual punishment.

Although the US is the only country in the western world that has not abolished the death penalty, our execution rate is only about 45 per year in a country with almost 15,000 homicides.

Violent crime has been steadily declining for decades in both per capita and absolute terms in every single category, including murder, robbery, rape, assault, property crime, and so on.  Society is getting more peaceful.

Slavery was legal everywhere on earth until the middle of the 18th century.  As of 1980, when Mauritania abolished it, slavery is now illegal in every country on the planet, although it does persist as an underground problem.

Extreme poverty is also declining globally.  In 1990, 43.1% of human beings lived on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day.  In 2010, it was down to 20.6.  We still have a long way to go, but that is a remarkably fast improvement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the average global life expectancy was 31.  In 2010, the world average was 67.2.

Globally, 84.1% of people fifteen and older know how to read and write.  Under the Millennium Goals, between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of children enrolled in primary schools in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 58% to 74%.

Freedom is spreading also.  Approximately half of the world’s population now lives under some sort of democratic rule.

Women’s rights have improved dramatically.  While domestic abuse is still a problem, it is nearly universally condemned in the US today, as we are currently witnessing as the NFL is trying to address domestic violence by professional football players.

Gay rights have expanded at a very quick pace, with nineteen states plus the District of Colombia and the federal government now recognizing same sex marriage.

What has caused all of this improvement?  It is not because human nature has changed.  Pinker identifies several factors.  One is the expansion of international commerce.  It is in everyone’s best interest to have trade between countries, and that requires peace.  Literacy and education have also been huge factors.  The ability to read exposes a person to other ideas, other ways of living and believing.  And this expands what he calls “the empathy circle.”  If I can imagine what it might be like to stand in another person’s shoes, I am much less likely to take pleasure when I watch that person burned at the stake.

Societies comprised of people with more education tend to experience lower violence and less racism, and are more receptive to democracy.

Do not get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect.  There is still tremendous suffering, injustice, and inequality that requires a lot of focus.  Civil wars rage.  The spread of militant Islam cannot be ignored.  But as a human species, we must acknowledge that we have made incredible gains.  For vast numbers of people in the world, life has never been better.

What about in the Jewish world?

Again, I do not want to deny the seriousness of the threats facing Israel, nor of Jews in Europe who are dealing with often violent antisemitism, nor of the oppressive culture on many college campuses.  But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

In his 2010 book American Grace, based on a massive survey of Americans’ attitudes about religion, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam reports that Jews are the most admired religious community in America.  A 2009 study by the Anti Defamation League found “anti-Semitic attitudes equal to the lowest level in all the years of taking the pulse of American attitudes toward Jews.”  (http://forward.com/articles/133047/robert-putnam-assays-religious-tolerance-from-a-un/)

Reacting to the good news, Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL, said that “…the significant diminution of widespread prejudice against Jews is tempered by the manifestation of violence, conspiracy theories and insensitivities toward them.”  (http://archive.adl.org/presrele/asus_12/5633_12.html#.VBn32Uu7uoo)

Can’t we just be happy that they like us?

As Abba Eban once said, “Show us a silver lining and we will search for the cloud.”

I am sure that you have probably received dozens of emails listing all of Israel’s extraordinary accomplishments.  Let me mention just a few to make the point.  Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any country on earth – by a lot.  It has the highest concentration of high tech companies in the world outside of Silicon Valley.  Israel is number two in the world for venture capital funds, behind the U.S.  It is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in trees.  It has developed dozens and dozens of life saving medical devices, not to mention all of the other high tech innovation.  Israel is a leader in solar power and water desalinization technology.  Israel has more museums per capita and is second in books published per capita.  Israel is the one country in the Middle East in which Christianity is growing.  It is the only country in which women can travel freely without the permission of a male guardian.  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-steven-carr-reuben-phd/imagine-a-world-without-i_1_b_5706935.html)

And so on…

But isn’t Israel a dangerous place?  That is a question that people ask me all the time.

In 2013, the rate of violent deaths per capita in Jerusalem was slightly less than that of Portland, one of America’s safest cities.

In the more than 100 year history of violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors, there have been 70,000 fewer deaths than in the Syrian civil war of the past three years.  In 2013, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, about the monthly murder rate in Chicago.  (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/183033/israel-insider-guide)

Even in this summer’s fighting, the enormous lengths that Israel undertook to minimize civilian deaths on both sides of the border were extraordinary.  Can you imagine how that war would have gone if any other country had been in Israel’s position?

Some will call it naive, but Israel is doing pretty good.

But in the words of the Israeli author S. Y. Agnon upon receiving the Nobel Prize: “Who remembers the blessings?  I have received so many.  I remember those who did not bless me.”

As we celebrate the beginning of the year 5775, let us start to look for the blessings.  Let us recognize and be thankful that we live in one of the most diverse, tolerant, and affluent communities in human history.

Let us look with open eyes at this world that God has created.  Where have things gone well?  When have we reached our fullest human potential?  How have we made life better for each other?  What problems that used to cause suffering are now solved because we pulled together?  It should be a long list.

Then, when we look at the persistent challenges facing us today, let fear not cause us to hide, nor to overreact.

One hundred years from now, what global challenges of today will our descendants look back on and wonder why it took us so long to fix: rising carbon emissions, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, income inequality, lack of treatment for those with mental illness, oppression of women in the developing world, lack of universal access to safe drinking water?

Which challenges facing the Jewish people must we address?  There are communities in which our fellow Jews are struggling, where synagogues, because of real threats, station armed guards 365 days a year, not just on the High Holidays.  At anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe,  people shout “Death to the Jews.”  At some college campuses, 18 year old Jewish students must walk by people screaming at them as “baby killers” on their way to class.  Israeli children live under the threat of rocket attacks.

What are we doing to support them?  Not enough.

Fear gets in the way.  A sizable portion of the Jewish community responds by burying its head in the sand.  Why be tied to the fate of a people that constantly faces existential threats?  Another portion of the community responds with bellicosity, stifling debate and branding anyone who disagrees a “self-hating Jew.”

Where is the community solidarity that we demonstrated in the movement to free the Jews of the Former Soviet Union; the willingness of Jewish communities across America, including this one, to welcome refugees into their homes?  We need to bring the best of what Judaism offers to the challenges facing our people, and the challenges facing our world.

As Jews, we have learned much about building caring communities based on the values of Torah, passing Jewish tradition down to our children, and keeping our identity while engaging positively with a surrounding non-Jewish culture.  We have learned to succeed in science, medicine, art, politics, finance, philanthropy, and the pursuit of social justice.  As Jews, we have a lot of accomplishments.

So instead of always asking, “what is wrong with the world,” this year, let us ask “what is right with the world?”

L’Shanah Tovah.

Limits on Kings and Presidents – Shoftim 5774

In Hebrew, the name of the United States is not a translation of “United States of America.”  If it were, it would be something like Medinot HaIchud shel Amerika.  Instead, our nation is described in Hebrew as Artzot HaBrit, “Lands of the Covenant.”

While not a direct translation, this name expresses an aspect of our nation that is particularly valued in our Jewish tradition.  What is the covenant of which Artzot HaBrit speaks?  It is the Constitution of the United States of America, the supreme law of the land.

This concept appeals to us because we are the first people in the history of the world to have a document that functions as the supreme law.  Of course, it is the Torah.

Having a written brit, or covenant, at center of national identity is not the only similarity between Judaism and the United States.  Both polities imagine some of the same qualities in the ideal leader.

The Declaration of Independence, after establishing the fundamental human rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with the rights of people to reject a government that fails to ensure those rights, lists a number of grievances against the King of Great Britain.

In establishing the Republic, the Founding Fathers wanted to draw clear distinctions between the monarchy that they had rebelled against and the democracy that they were establishing.  They understood the need to have a unitary executive, but they were fearful of the abuses that could ensue if power was left unchecked.

In creating the office of President, the Founding Fathers limited his powers and ensured that he would have to serve the Constitution, rather than the other way around.  That is why, when the President is sworn into office, he promises to “Preserve, Protect, and Defend the Constitution of the United States – so help me God!”

The Federalist Papers were published in the years 1787 – 1788 under the psuedonym Publius.  They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution by each of the States.

In Federalist Paper number 69, Alexander Hamilton enumerates some of the differences in power between the President of the United States and the King of England.  He notes that the President is limited to a four year term, while the King serves for life.  The President can be impeached and removed from office, while the King is personally sacred and inviolable.  The President has veto power, but he can be overruled, while the King’s veto is absolute.  Both are the supreme commanders of the military, but the President cannot independently declare war, sign treaties, or raise armies, while the King can do all three.  The President does not have unlimited power to appoint officials, and the King does.  And finally, the President has “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” while the King is the “supreme head and governor of the national church.”

At the time, these kinds of restrictions on the power of a national leader were unique in the world.  But the idea of subjecting the leader to a written covenant, limiting his warmaking powers, and otherwise preventing him from self-aggrandizement was not unheard of.  In fact, it bears striking similarities to the Torah’s vision of the ideal king, as presented in the Book of Deuteronomy.

I do not suggest that the Founding Fathers explicitly modeled the Presidency on Deuteronomy’s laws of kings. but there certainly seem to be similarities.  How did this come to be?

In the 18th century, a complete education included learning classical languages like Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as acquiring extensive knowledge and mastery of the Hebrew Bible.  Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth have Hebrew inscriptions on their university seals, and until 1817, Harvard graduation ceremonies included a Hebrew oration.

For Puritan colonialists, what for them was the Old Testament had great significance.  I think it is safe to say that the Founding Fathers’ critiques of the overreaching of King George and their imposition of limits on the power of the President were influenced, at least in spirit, by the Torah.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim, teaches us much about leadership.  It commands that judges and officials administer the law justly and impartially.  It mandates the establishment of a higher court that will issue rulings on cases that are too baffling for local leaders.  (The Rabbis understand this as the basis for the Sanhedrin, the court of 71 rabbis, judges, and priests who function as the High Court of the land, with added legislative and executive powers.)

The Torah portion also deals with kings, albeit with ambivalence.  Unlike its treatment of judges, officials, and the High Court, the Torah does not command the appointment of a King.  It is optional.  “If,” Moses tells the Israelites,

after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, asima alai melekh –  “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself… (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

So what powers does a King have?  If we go exclusively by what is written in the Torah, absolutely none.  The King only has limitations.  Listen to these restrictions on the power of the monarchy.  Does this fit your image of a King?

• He is not allowed to accumulate too many horses, or send people down to Egypt to get more horses.

• He is not allowed to acquire too many wives.

• He is not allowed to amass too much gold and silver.

• He must have a copy of the Torah, written by the Priests, always at his side.  He must read it constantly so that he will learn to revere God and follow its laws.

• He may not act with haughtiness towards other people.

Nowhere in the Torah are the people actually commanded to follow the king and do what he says.  In the relationship between king and subjects, the responsibility is unidirectional – it is the king who serves the people.

When we think about royalty in pre-modern times, we usually think about the unlimited exercise of power.  The king’s word is law.  He rules by divine right.  The people owe him their total obedience and respect.  He can impose taxes and raise armies.  He gets to live a life of extravagance and pleasure.  As a famous monarch once said, “It’s good to be the king!”

Parashat Shoftim’s model is that of an anti-king.

Not only is he not allowed to build up the army, impose heavy taxation, and live the good life, he is also bound by a constitution – the Torah.  His job is to promote and enforce the commandments, and lead the people in observing the terms of the covenant not with a human king, but with God, the King of Kings.

It is a utopian vision of leadership not so dissimilar to other systems that place a wise, benevolent executive in charge of leading a society in accordance with principals of justice, “the good,” or philosophy.  Think Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and so on.

But is such a utopian vision realistic?  Apparently not.

After the Israelites conquer the Promised Land under the leadship of Joshua, they split up into tribes.  Various local and regional chiefs lead the people through one crisis after another.  Order gradually breaks down over the next two hundred years, and the Israelites have finally had enough.  They turn to the Prophet-Chief Samuel and ask him to appoint a King over them.  Tnah lanu melekh lshofteinu – “…appoint a king for us, to govern us…”  (I Samuel 8:6)

Samuel is disappointed, but God reassures him and tells him to ascede to the people’s request.  Samuel’s reaction is surprising, because the Torah already anticipated the Israelites’ future desire to be ruled by a human king.  Had not Samuel read Parashat Shoftim?

The nineteenth century Polish Rabbi, Yehoshua Trunk from Kutna (1821-1893), points to a subtle distinction between what Deuteronomy allows, and what the people request.  In Deuteronomy, when the people ask to set a king over them, they say asima alai melekh.  Whereas in Samuel, the people say t’nah lanu melekh, give us a king.  What is the difference between setting and giving?

Without going into the complexities, Rabbi Yehoshua from Kutna says that Deuteronomy’s vision of sima, setting a king, implies that he is going to be immersed in the people, and his job will be to guide them in the ways of God, influencing their thoughts and actions, and helping them to focus on the innermost realm of the heart.

When the Israelites in Samuel request n’tinah, to be given a king, they are asking to have a leader placed above them.  What they want are the pomp and circumstance, the external trappings of power that characterize the leaders of all the other nations of the world.

But God does not want Israel to be like the other nations of the world, and certainly does not want its king to fall to the hubris that afflicts so many human leaders.

In telling Samuel to go along with the people’s request, God knows that they are not motivated by the lofty ideals of the Torah, but as the saying goes, “people get the leaders they deserve.”

Samuel warns the people what the king is going to do them.  He will draft your sons into his army and your daughters as cooks and bakers.  He will seize farmlands, vineyards, and orchards.  He will tax you, and consign you to serfdom.  Eventually, you will regret this decision.

But the people insist that they want someone to go out in front of them and lead them to victory in battle.

Things start to unravel almost immediately.  The first king, Saul, turns out to be deeply flawed.  David brings the nation to greatness, capturing Jerusalem and expanding the borders, but not without his share of trouble.

His son Solomon builds the Temple, but violates every single  one of Deuteronomy’s laws about Kings, fulfilling Samuel’s warnings from just three generations ago.  He imposes heavy taxes and forced labor to build the Temple.  He buys horses and chariots from Egypt.  He accumulates vast riches.  Solomon marries seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, whom he allows to introduce their idolatrous foreign practices into the Holy Land.

When Solomon dies, the united monarchy ends as the northern kingdom of Israel breaks off from the southern kingdom of Judah.  The righteous king, as described in Shoftim, is an ideal that turns out to be exceedingly difficult to implement.

The establishment of Israel in 1948 has reignited issues about Jewish power that have not been practical considerations for nearly two thousand years.  Is Israel a nation like any other, or do Jewish history and values make it different?  What should the role of Torah and Jewish law be in a country that is committed to freedom of religion and equal rights?  Who is authorized to interpret Jewish law?  How does Israel maintain itself as a Jewish state and a democracy?  What does it even mean to be a Jewish state?

You might be surprised to know that Israel does not have a constitution.  According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948, there was supposed to have been Constitution in place by October 1 of that year.  But the above questions were so difficult to resolve, the question of an Israeli constitution was placed on the back burner.

Because of the international and domestic pressure cooker that Israel always finds itself in, these questions are being dealt with and tested on a daily basis.  Israelis wrestle with the dilemma of creating a society based on the lofty ideals and values expressed in Jewish law and tradition while facing the very real and practical challenges that often are a question of survival.

One of the reasons that Israel is so important to Jews everywhere is because it creates powerful opportunities to put Jewish values into practice on a national level.  That is a possibility that did not exist for nearly two thousand years.  As we see on a daily basis, it is not easy.

We refer to the modern State of Israel in our prayers as reishit tz’michat geulateinu, the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.  The question of whether that is true or not depends on how Israel the country and Israel the people deal with these challenges.  I take it as a positive sign that Israelis, as well as Jews in the Diaspora, are actively engaged in wrestling with the question of how to exercise power in ways that embody the ethical principles of the Torah.

Our Conveniently Dark Past – Masei 5774

Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish settlement at Kiryat Arba, in Chevron in the West Bank, issued a halakhic ruling this past Sunday, July 20, with regard to the killing of civilians during war.  He was asked the following question.

…what is the halakhic position with regard to attacks against a civilian population that does not have a direct connection to the terrorists in the area?

Rabbi Lior begins his one page reponse with this:

The Torah of Israel guides us in all walks of life, private and public, on how to behave during war and also how to keep moral standards.

As a halakhic precedent, he cites the Maharal of Prague, from the 16th century.

The Maharal from Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew – A.K.), in his book Gur Arye, clearly writes that… in all wars the attacked people are allowed to attack fiercely the people from whom the attackers came from and they do not have to check if he personally belongs to the fighters.

He bases this on the story in Genesis in which Shimon and Levi massacre the entire town of Shechem, killing three hundred men, in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah by the chieftain’s son, Chamor.  Rabbi Lior concludes:

Therefore, during war the attacked people are allowed to punish the enemy population in any punishment it finds worthy, such as denying supplies or electricity and also to bomb the whole area according to the discretion of the army minister and not to just simply endanger soldier’s lives but to take crushing deterrence steps to exterminate the enemy.

In the case of Gaza, the Minister of Defense will be allowed to instruct even the destruction of Gaza so that the south will no longer suffer and to avoid harm to our people who have been suffering for so long from the surrounding enemies.”

Any kind of talk about humanism and consideration are moot when speaking of saving our brothers in the south and in the rest of the country and bringing back quiet to our country.

For the last several weeks, we in the American Jewish community have been praying for our brothers and sisters in Israel.  But not just in Israel.  We have seen protests in cities around the world, especially Europe, turn scarily to anti-semitism.

It has been so frustrating for us to observe media outlets that do not seem to understand or care about aspects of this war that have been so important to us.  Specifically, the great care that the Israel Defense Forces have given to minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza.

As Jews, we have been proud of the Israeli government, its soldiers, and its citizens for doing their best, amidst the chaos of war, to protect Palestinian civilians.

I have personally given several Divrei Torah and written an article adressing this over the past few weeks.  So that is not what you are going to hear from me today.

The legal ruling by Rabbi Lior points to minority attitude that exists amongst the Jewish people.  I would imagine that his endorsement for not just ignoring civilians, but even targeting them, might offend many, but he brings up somthing that we ought not ignore.

In this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Masei, God provides some details for Moses to tell the Israelites regarding how they are to settle the Promised Land.

First, they are told to disposess all of its current inhabitants.  The Israelites must destroy every last trace of idolatry, including idols, figurines, and sacred shrines.  Then, the Israelites are to divide up the land amongst themeslves, apportioning tribal territories by lot.

God warns the Israelites that they had better clear out all of the current inhabitants, because any Canaanites who are left behind will continue to harrass them.

Next, God describes the borders of the country which the Israelites are about to invade.  The Bible has several different accounts of the boundaries of the Promised Land. Parashat Masei‘s version has the land of Israel extending south into the Negev, travelling up the entire Mediterranean coast (including Gaza, by the way) all the way through Lebanon and over to Damascus.  The Eastern border follows Lake Kineret down the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Imagine for a moment that you are an Israelite, hearing your aged leader Moses giving you these instructions after he has successfully led you through the wilderness for the past forty years.  What is he telling you to do?

The word used is l’horish, “to dispossess.”  The commentator Rashi explains that it means that the Israelites have to expel them from the land.

Deuteronomy is even more extreme.  It gives explicit instructions to utterly wipe out idolatrous towns, killing all of the inhabitants and burning their possessions.  The Israelites are not allowed to make peace with them or allow them to surrender.

In modern parlance, we would call this ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Does this sound like Judaism?  It certainly does not align well with the maxim of “love your neighbor as yourself” that we like to repeat so often.  But it is in the Torah, our holy book.  What are we to do with it?

When admitting out loud that our sacred scriptures advocate holy war, Jews today, myself included, typically explain why those texts do not reflect Jewish tradition.  Our Sages, even in ancient times, were uncomfortable with what the Torah seems to be saying.  It not only violates common moral sense, but it also seems to go against the spirit of so many other mitzvot mitzvot telling us to give tzedakah, to treat our employees properly, to care for the strangers living among us, to enforce the law fairly for both citizens and strangers.  When we talk about Jewish ethics, those are the kinds of ancient laws that we highlight.

So the Rabbis feel a strong obligation to do away with holy war.  It may have applied back then, when Joshua led the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel, but it is no longer relevant. Here are several justifications that are typically offered.

One.  They never actually did it.  It is apparent from later books in the Bible that the idolatrous nations of the land stayed right where they were, living side by side with the Israelites.  Of course, we did annihilate the Midianites in last week’s Torah portion.

Two.  The Torah is really concerned with the immoral influence of idolatry.  The only way to remove idolatry is to completely eliminate its practice in the land.

Three.  It is a practical warning that as long as the Canaanites remain in the land, they will continue to be a thorn in the side of the Israelites.

Four.  We have to understand the Torah in light of its historical context.  This is how war was conducted in the ancient world.  If it was written today, it would have been written differently.

For the fifth explanation, we turn to Maimonides.  He qualifies the Torah’s instructions by saying that, in fact, a pagan town must first be offered the choice of renouncing its paganism.  Only if it refuses must it then be destroyed.

Maimonides acknowledges that it is indeed obligatory to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations, and one who has an opportunity to kill a Canaanite but fails to do so has violated a commandment from the Torah.  It is a moot point, however, as Maimonides concludes, “but their memory has already been lost.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 5:4)

He bases this on a passage in the Mishnah that declares that the Assyrian King Sennacherib came along at the turn of the seventh century b.c.e. and scattered all of the nations of the land of Canaan.  (Mishnah Yadayim 4:4)  Conveniently for Maimonides, and for us enlightened twenty-first century Jews, it is now impossible to fulfill the Torah’s command to commit genocide because the people we are supposed to kill on the spot do not exist any more.

The problem with all of these explanations is that none of them address the core moral issue.  We sit back, confident of our own uprightness, absolved of any responsibility for our the actions of an earlier generation.

We, in 2014, have an ancient connection to the land of Israel.  It was promised by God to Abraham four thousand years ago.  As a people, we inhabited the land autonomously for hundreds of years during the First Temple era.  In the Babylonian exile, we wept as we longed to return.  Then we built the Second Temple and inhabited the land for another five hundred years.  After it was destroyed by the Romans, we went into exile for nearly two millennia, always keeping Zion in our hearts.

But if we go back to the beginning, the entire notion of a Promised Land is founded upon a violent conquest that took place more than three thousand years ago.

Do we bear any responsibility?

What about the modern State of Israel?  In his new book My Promised Land, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, a left wing journalist, writes with full honesty about the home that he loves.

He describes a well-known writer, Israel Zangwill, who travels to Palestine in 1897.  While most of the early Zionists see only a barren land devoid of inhabitants, Zangwill sees what is really there, and he speaks about it.  In 1905, Zangwill delivers a speech in New York City in which he reports that Palestine is populated.  Then he points out that no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  Therefore, he tells his audience, the sons of Israel must be prepared to take action, “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zangwill is rejected as a heretic by the Zionist establishment at the time, but his ideas persist.  A couple of decades later, he writes that “there is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. ‘To fold their tents and silently steal away’ is their proverbial habit: let them exemplify it now… We must gently persuade them to trek.”

According to Shavit, Ben Gurion and the rest of the leadership knew that for Israel to be viable, the majority of the Arab population would have to be relocated.  While there was no explicit policy of forced population transfer, there were numerous examples of Jewish forces encouraging Arab villagers to flee.

It seems that the legacy of the Torah’s commandment to our ancestors to conquer the land by force and eliminate the inhabitants is not as distant from us as we might like to think.

Let us not get embroiled in arguments about who is at fault or who has a more legitimate claim.  We all know it is complicated – and highly emotional.  I bring this up because I believe that it is important for us to be honest about our past.  We ought to at least acknowledge that the blessings we enjoy in our lives today sometimes come at a cost that was paid by innocent suffering extracted by others.

Today, we all benefit from the free, open, and prosperous society in the United States.  But how did we get here?  Our nation’s founders had to wage a brutal war of independence against Great Britain.  Before that, of course, European colonialists had dispossessed, by force, the former inhabitants of the land, killing 95% of them through war and disease, and shutting the rest up in reservations.  We must not forget that the Native Americans had come from somewhere as well, and fought their own wars againt rival nations.

As Israel Zangwill said in 1905, no populated country has ever been won without the use of force.  In a similar vein, Mao wrote in his Little Red Book that without violence, “it is impossible to accomplish any leap in social development.”  I fear that they may be right.  I challenge us to name a nation that was not formed by expelling or subjugating the local population and/or defeating the former rulers by force.

We have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years, so it would seem to be inevitable.  If this is simply the way of the world, then what is wrong with Rabbi Dov Lior’s call to protect Jews by ending the restraint and demolishing Gaza?  After all, this is how human societies have protected themselves for hundreds of thousands of years.

The Torah challenges us to become holy by overcoming our DNA, and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.  Our world is a messy, morally ambiguous place.  Good people are often forced into situations in which they have to make difficult decisions.

As justified as a young soldier may be in fighting to protect his family and his country, war leaves a permanent mark on a person’s soul.  I say this presumptuously, as someone who has thankfully never had to go into battle.

We are challenged in every aspect of our lives to be holy: in how we do business, in how we support members of our community, in how we eat, in how we love, and yes, in how we make war.  We honor those who have fought on our behalf in the past and who do so today when we open our eyes and admit that the things in our lives that we count as blessings sometimes have been accompanied by the suffering of innocents and the sometimes difficult moral struggles of people who tried their best to live good lives.

We must say to Rabbi Lior that what he advocates does not represent Judaism.  God asks more of us.  Although it is often not clear, may we discern the path of holiness in this difficult world, and may our striving to be holy one day soon bring us to peace.

Staying Strong in Israel’s War against Hamas

This is a speech that I delivered at the Silicon Valley Solidarity Gathering for Israel on July 22, 2014.

The Jewish State of Israel distinguishes itself among the family of nations to the extent that it is governed by middot, the positive attributes of our Jewish tradition.  When we make decisions, as individuals and as a nation, that embody the values of our ancient faith, we bring light into the world.  Unfortunately, the world is not always ready to be enlightened.

In Pirkei Avot, we read Eizehu gibbor?  Hakovesh its yitzro.  Who is strong?  One who conquers one’s inclinations.  Usually, we use this teaching to emphasize that true strength is not about physical might, but rather the ability to control our passions.  While Israel has indeed demonstrated its physical prowess in the present war, we are strong in the fullest sense when we remain focused on our goals while maintaining our values.

When we see how our brave soldiers have comported themselves these last three weeks, we can only be proud of their strength, both in their success on the battlefield, and in maintaing their humanity while pursuing the military goals.

What are those goals?  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated it clearly in an interview this past Saturday night: “…restoring quiet to Israel’s citizens for a prolonged period while inflicting a significant blow on the infrastructures of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza,”

Specifically, that means eliminating the thousands of rockets and other weapons and destroying the network of tunnels that Hamas uses to transport arms and personnel.

But there is an ethical principle at play as well: to minimize civilian casualties – on both sides of the border.

While voices around the world shout about the massacre of innocent civilians, pointing to the discrepancy between Israeli and Palestinian deaths like a scorecard at a sports game, the truth is quite the opposite.  In every war, sadly, civilians are killed.  Did you know that, because of the IDF’s preoccupation with protecting innocents for decades, the ratio of civilians to militants killed has been lower by far than in any other conflict around the world.

How does Israel protect civilians?  On the Israeli side of the border: by building reinforced bomb shelters, by operating an incredibly sophisticated early warning system so that Israelis have time to find cover before the rockets fall, and by developing, with the United States, the Iron Dome, which has prevented most rockets from landing in populated areas with a remarkable 90% success rate.

Because every life is treasured as an olam kattan, a small world, we are committed to doing absolutely everything to keeping our people safe.  We see this in the outpouring of heartfelt emotion and loss whenever there is a death or injury.

But what is truly remarkable is the way that Israel has gone out of its way, at the expense of military success, to protect the people of Gaza.  The IDF calls cell phones and drops leaflets to warn civilians in advance before destroying a target.  Then it launches a small projectile to “knock” the roof of a building as a warning to get out before the real missile is launched.  Did you know that Israel has been providing Gaza with humanitarian supplies while the fighting is taking place, and that the IDF has set up a field hospital on the border to care for wounded Palestinians?

These life-saving acts are unique to the IDF.  No military force in history has gone to such measures to protect the civilians of its military opponent.

Let us not be so condescending as to expect the other side to be grateful.  After all, there have been more than 600 Palestinian deaths in the last few weeks, many of whom are innocent civilians.  I would expect them to blame Israel.  How could they not?

But who is really responsible for the suffering in Gaza?

Hamas deliberately places its rocket launchers and weapons in locations like schools, hospitals, private homes, mosques, and even UN facilities.  When Israel tells civilians to flee so they will not be harmed, Hamas orders them to stay, to serve as human shields.

So far in this war, there have been two calls for temporary cease-fires for humanitarian purposes.  Israel accepted both of them right away and stopped fighting.  Hamas used those temporary lulls to immediately launch more than 70 rockets against Israeli civilians.

Hamas has used many tons of concrete that Israel has allowed into the Gaza Strip not for the construction of buildings and infrastructure that will improve lives, but for underground tunnels to carry on its relentless pursuit of death.  Hamas commanders are now using those tunnels to hide, safe from attack.  But are the underground bunkers made available to civilians?  No.  They are left above ground to fend for themselves.

What does Hamas want?  Death.  The death of Israeli civilians, and the death of Palestinian civilians.  Because they know how those images are perceived around the world.

In 1969, Golda Meir said, “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”  What a perverse reality!

This is not a war that any of us want.  But while it continues, we pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel’s Defense Forces.  We pray for the millions of Israelis living under the constant fear of terror from above.  And we pray for all those who suffer in Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of the young soldiers who have been killed defending the Jewish people.  We mourn for the civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim, who have died.  Our hearts go out to their families.

And we pray for both kinds of strength for Israel’s leaders, its soldiers, its people, and Jews everywhere: the strength to be victorious, and the strength to maintain our humanity in the face of chaos.