The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

Cash Bail in Jewish Law – Shoftim 5778

Of the many problems that California is currently facing, bail reform is one that has recently been in the news.

That is because there is a bill, SB10, that has been going through the California State Assembly and is going to be up for a vote this week after numerous modifications over the past year.

The latest version represents a compromise that does not please everyone.  The law would eliminate the cash bail system.  Instead, each county’s court system would determine whether to incarcerate an accused criminal based on a pre-trial assessment of whether a person would be a risk to society or pose a flight risk.

If SB10 passes the Assembly, it will still need to clear the State Senate and then be signed by the Governor.

Let me state at the outset that I do not know whether this law will solve the problem.  But the problem certainly needs solving.

Even though all of us are experts on the judicial system due to our careful viewing of Law & Order, please allow me to review a few details.

Bail is the release from custody of an accused person before the trial.  

It originated in England in medieval times as a way to make sure that a suspect would show up in court.  It does not necessarily involve the payment of money.

Cash bail, which SB10 would eliminate, means that the court requires the accused to come up with a certain amount of money in order to be released.  If the money is not raised, then the accused remains incarcerated through the end of the trial.  If the money is raised, the accused is released on bail, with the money being returned after the trial is complete, minus fees. 

In the 8th Amendment, the Founding Fathers included the clause – “Excessive bail shall not be required.”  The Supreme Court has never determined what “Excessive” means.

Under current federal law, certain crimes are not subject to bail.  Suspects must be kept in jail before the trial.  This includes cases in which there might be a sentence of death or life in prison, certain drug offenses, and a few other categories.  A judge who determines that a suspect would pose a risk to his/her community or be a flight risk can also deny bail.

For all other crimes, there is a bail hearing.  Most states use the cash bail system.  Accused persons who are unable to afford the bail amount face a choice.  In states where it is legal, like California, they can go to a bail bond agency, which loans them the money in exchange for a payment, usually 10% of the total bail amount.  The bail bondsman then makes sure that the accused shows up in court.

A person who cannot afford the bail bond must remain in jail, even though bail has been granted.

There are a number of problems with the cash bail system.

Keep in mind, first of all, that under American law a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.  This means that when a person accused of a crime who is kept in jail, he is kept there as a legally innocent person.

The median bail amount in California is $50,000.  Only 1 in 10 can afford to pay it.  63% of those who are currently sitting in jail have not been convicted of anything.  They are waiting for trial or sentencing.  A person who is in jail awaiting trial is unable to work.  He (it is usually a he) typically loses his job, and possibly his home.  He is unable to support his family.  He has great difficulty meeting with his legal team and preparing his defense.

In contrast, a person who has the means to post bail can continue to work and has a much easier time of meeting with his lawyer and preparing his case.  The result is that for those convicted of the same crime, those who post bail, on average, receive a lesser sentence than those who have to remain in jail before the trial.

There is evidence, as well, that bail rates for black and Hispanic defendants are set higher than for white defendants who are charged with the same crime.

Finally, the prospect of spending a long time in jail awaiting trial encourages innocent people to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.  This gets them out of jail, but it also gives them a criminal record, which can have a lifetime impact.

SB10 tries to address these issues.  As the bill itself states:

It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this act to safely reduce the number of people detained pretrial, while addressing racial and economic disparities in the pretrial system, and to ensure that people are not held in pretrial detention simply because of their inability to afford money bail. (SB10, Sec. 2)

I do not know whether SB10 will achieve these goals.  I am trying to learn more about it, but am certainly no expert.  I encourage all of us to educate ourselves on this issue.

When trying to understand an issue of criminal reform, it can be helpful to look at other systems.  While not perfect, our Jewish legal tradition is rooted in principles of fairness and equity.  It turns out that Jewish law, or halakhah, has something to say about bail as well.

This morning’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is primarily about the justice system.  Moses instructs the Israelites, collectively, to establish and maintain just institutions of government.  In the second verse.  Regarding judges, he declares:

Lo tateh mishpat, lo takir panim, lo tikach shochad ki hashochad ye’aver einei chakhamim visalef divrei tzadikim.

You shall not skew judgment.  You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent.  (Deut. 16:19)

These are the three principles of judicial fairness.  They appear numerous times in the Torah.  Usually, the Torah addresses them to judges specifically.  Here, Moses delivers these requirements to the Israelites collectively, as if to say that we all bear responsibility for the behavior of soceity’s officials.  We must make sure that those whom we appoint as justices and magistrates abide by principles of equality and fairness.

These three concepts present three aspects of judicial fairness.

Jewish law recognizes that judges are human beings.  A judge may not do anything in the court that would show favor to a wealthy person or an acquaintance.  Not only is a judge not allowed to take a bribe, for obvious reasons, a court is not allowed to charge fees to the plaintiffs in a case.  Mishnah Bechorot (4:6) states that “anyone who charges a fee to the litigants to judge – his judgment is nullified.”

The judge cannot allow anything to occur in the courtroom that might prevent a plaintiff from presenting the best possible case.

The judicial system the Torah describes is fairly uncomplicated.  In a real legal system, however, there are a lot more moving parts.  It is not difficult to imagine a flawed court that is comprised of well-intentioned, knowledgeable professionals of high moral character.

Regarding bail, the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 78b) deals explicitly with the question of what to do with a suspect before the trial is held.  If it is a capital crime – in other words if the accused has been charged with murder – he must be jailed by the court until guilt or innocence can be determined.  In such a case, no bail is permitted.  If the accused has severely injured a person, and it is not clear if the victim will survive, he is also held in jail.  The reason is because the court does not yet know if he will need to be tried for murder or for injury.  Rashi explains that the accused is imprisoned out of a concern for flight-risk.  If the suspect injures another, but the injuries are not considered to be life-threatening, then he is released until the trial.  

The Mekhilta (Mishpatim, Ex. 21:19, 2), an early legal midrash collection on the book of Exodus, addresses the question of cash bail directly.  In the situation described in the Talmud, the accused is not permitted to post bail and go free.  He must remain incarcerated until the victim’s fate resolves.  

An entry under “Bail” in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia concludes as follows:

…as a rich man can readily give Bail and the poor man can not, the release of the prisoner on Bail would run counter to that other oft-repeated rule of the Torah, ‘One law there shall be to you.'”

Over the centuries, Jewish law has not traditionally employed incarceration as a punishment in the legal system.  It was basically used just for holding an accused murderer before trial out of concern for public safety and potential flight.

There are essentially three types of punishments that a Jewish court can administer.  For capital crimes, the punishment is death.  For sins, the court can administer lashes.  For civil and personal injury cases, there are fines.

One form of imprisonment that is mentioned in ancient sources is called the kippah.  It was a small cell in which a person would be imprisoned and fed meager rations until he died.  This could be used in a case in which a murderer was found guilty, but could not be sentenced to death because of a technicality.  There is no evidence that the kippah was ever actually used, though.

Dina d’malkhuta dina is an ancient concept that is applied in particular to monetary laws.  “The law of the land is the law.”  In order to participate in the economies of the societies in which they live, Jews need to adopt those society’s laws, including when they do not conform to Jewish law.

For most of the past two thousand years, Rabbis did not have the authority to issue legal rulings except in cases that were internal to the Jewish community.  Many of the discussions on criminal and civil law, therefore, are theoretical.  But there is a historical record of a cash bail system being utilized by a Jewish court.

Rabbi Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet, known by his acronym as the Rivash, was a 14th century Spanish Rabbi.  He wrote a teshuvah, a legal decision, that deals with a question of whether a debtor who could not pay off his debts could be incarcerated.  He rules that this would be forbidden under Jewish law.  But then he laments:

The truth is, in my own city, the judges’ custom is to imprison a person who is liable in this manner, according to an act of the community.  And they further enacted that even without being found guilty, any person can be held over a lawsuit, unless they pay collateral, and they call this a ruling of the court.  I did not want to allow this act to stand, because it is not in accordance with our Torah’s law.  And they said to me: this is in accordance with the “marketplace act” [a principle allowing new rules that make commerce smoother], because of swindlers, and so as not to bar the door in the face of borrowers. And I allowed their custom to stand. (Teshuvot HaRivash 484) 

In other words, in the Rivash’s day, Rabbinic courts were sending Jews to debtors prison and allowing them to post bail.  This was apparently the dominant practice in the area, and was deemed necessary by the leaders of the Jewish community to preserve the integrity of the marketplace.  Knowing that it was against the Torah, the Rivash reluctantly allowed it to stand.

The existence of the modern State of Israel has made the question of how to punish criminals in a Jewish legal system practical.  

Rabbi Haim David HaLevy, the former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who died in 1988, wrote a Tehuvah in which he stated categorically that a person who is being charged for a capital crime should be incarcerated without bail under any circumstance.  Citing the Rivash, he concludes that “that for all other crimes, for which the punishment is monetary, we let them go [on bail] until the determination of the sentence.”  (Aseh L’kha Rav 3:48)

Like any legal system, Jewish law is not perfect.  Nevertheless, for more than three thousand years, it has strived to conform to principles of justice and equity that are rooted in the Torah itself.  As such, it has something to teach us today.

I would never suggest that state or federal law must conform to Jewish law.  We Jews should be nervous whenever a religious group tries to impose its beliefs on secular law.

But our ancient tradition has much to teach us concerning the establishment of societies and institutions that are guided by justice and equality.  We would be wise to improve our understanding of Jewish law as we try to determine the best way forward for our community, our state, and our nation.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Incarceration in Jewish Law: A Brief Overview

10 things you need to know about money bail

Judaism and Science Need Each Other

Shabbat, April 22, 2017, 26 Nisan 5777

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was not convinced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

 

Judaism, Meat, and the Environment – Acharei Mot 5776

This morning’s Torah portion contains some of the central principles of kashrut, our Jewish dietary practices.  While other sections of the Torah describe the kinds of animals that may or may not be eaten, Parashat Acharei Mot tells us how they are to be eaten.

It seems to be describing an early stage of ancient Israelite society, when there were lots of local shrines with altars throughout the land of Israel.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites that when they get a hunkering for meat, they may not just slaughter animals from their herds wherever they want.  It must be done in the sanctuary.  The blood must be poured out, and certain internal fats must be burned on the altar as a pleasing offering to God.  This requirement essentially transforms all meat consumption into a sacrifice, and elevates our eating into a sacred act.

The purpose of this requirement, God tells Moses, is to stop the people from making their offerings to the se’irim.  The se’irim seem to have been some sort of goat-demon that resided in the wilderness, and ancient Canaanites would apparently make offerings to them out in the wild.

The Torah goes on to state that whenever an animal is slaughtered outside of this sacred context, that person is considered to be cut off from the rest of the people.

The next restriction has to do with hunted game.  There were certain undomesticated animals that were kosher, and could be hunted.  Elsewhere the bible mentions deer, gazelles, roebuck, and several other unidentified species.  Most likely, these were only available to the elite.  But the Torah has to account for these as well.  So it specifies that when someone hunts an animal, it’s blood must be poured out on the ground and covered in order to be eaten.

You might be thinking right about now, “but Jews don’t hunt.”  And you would be correct.  These rules about eating meat have not reflected Jewish practice for thousands of years.  They describe an earlier time, before worship was centralized in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was possible to bring an animal to the local shrine so that it could be slaughtered in a sacred context.

Later, as described in the book of Deuteronomy, the local shrines are abolished and worship is consolidated to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Along with this change, Israelites are given permission to slaughter animals on their own, outside of a sacrificial context.

Our great commentator Rashi notices something about the Torah’s regulations regarding meat – and specifically the hunting clause.  The word “hunt” appears twice.  asher yatzud tzeid-chayyah.  …anyone who “hunts down any hunted wild animal…”  Seemingly superfluous words are typically interpreted to have additional meanings.  Rashi cites the Talmudic teaching that a person should never eat meat as a casual thing.  (BT Chullin 84a)  Any time we eat meat, we should consider it as if we had gone through the extensive trouble of actually hunting it down.  In its context, the Talmud seems to be concerned with what in those days was the exorbitant cost of meat.  It advises that a person should not impoverish himself or neglect his family’s needs to satisfy his cravings.  It reports that a given quantity of meat costs 50 times the same quantity of vegetables.  And so, the Talmud recommends that, except for the very wealthy, a person should only have a little bit of meat once a week, on Shabbat.

Rashi cites the Talmud’s initial conclusion that eating meat should not be casual to us, but he does not cite the economic reasons.  Rather, meat consumption itself should be uncommon and special.

This would seem to reflect the early practice of our ancient Israelite ancestors, for whom meat could only be eaten in a sacred context.  By taking life to nourish ourselves, we commit an inherently violent act.  That is why it can only be done in a sacred context, recognizing that it is only God who has the right to determine matters of life and death.

How far we have descended from that lofty ideal.  Now, most of us never meet the animals we eat.  We buy them off the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, wrapped in styrofoam and plastic.  Kosher meat is no different.  Are those of us who do eat meat living up to Rashi’s ideal of meat consumption not being casual?

The most famous Jew to argue for vegetarianism from a religious standpoint was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.  Rav Kook was a Chassidic Rebbe, a mystic, an early Zionist, and a prolific thinker and writer.  He believed that religious and non-religious Jews needed to work together, and that Judaism needed to be an active and involved force for change in the world.

Rav Kook notes that God’s original plan for creation is for humans to be vegetarians.  When Adam and Eve are placed in the Garden of Eden, they are given the plants and the fruit bearing trees for consumption, but not the animals.  Only after humanity has corrupted its ways on Earth, prompting God to wipe out all creation with the flood and start over, does God introduce the idea of eating meat.

It is a concession, argues Rav Kook, to humanity’s inability to reign in its appetites.  While God’s compassion is equal for all creatures, God recognizes that humans need to be given an elevated view of themselves vis a vis other animals in order to get them to concentrate on improving their relations with each other.

And so, God authorizes Noah and his descendants to have dominion over the animals, including eating them – but with certain restrictions.

To the Jewish people, God gives even more restrictions.  The menu of available animals is severely limited to us.  We are forbidden from consuming the blood.  We cannot mix meat and milk.  And there are additional restrictions as well.  Each of these restrictions, according to Rav Kook, is intended to elevate our moral consciousness and instill in us a profound reverence for life, even while we are eating animals.  We should never take eating meat for granted.  As Rashi says, it should not be a casual thing for us.

For example, Rav Kook explains that pouring out and covering the blood of the hunted animal is an act of “shame” on our part for committing such a “morally base” act of killing a living creature which had once known freedom.  There are similar moral and spiritual dimensions to each of the other mitzvot that regulate our eating of animals.

If we are paying close attention, we will as individuals come closer and closer to the ideal.  We will live in greater balance with the world around us.  We will treat God’s other creations better, reduce suffering, and be altogether more peaceful in our lives.  As a people, and collectively, as humanity, our heightened consciousness will produce greater unity and harmony in the world.

Rav Kook’s vegetarianism was an integral part of his Messianism.  The permission to eat meat is only temporary, he says.  It is a “transitional tax” until we arrive at a “brighter era” when we will all return to vegetarianism.  When that day arrives, human beings themselves will detest the idea of eating meat with “moral loathing.”  We will all become vegetarians, and balance between the species will be restored.  The sacrifices which will be offered in the rebuilt Temple will be exclusively plant-based.

In his personal life, Rav Kook would eat a small amount of chicken each Shabbat in acknowledgment that the day had not yet arrived.  Rav Kook was incredibly optimistic.  He lived at a time when Jews were building a life in the land of Israel.  He saw humanity as moving forward, closer and closer to perfection.  Rav Kook died in 1935, and so he did not witness the cataclysm of the Holocaust which surely would have affected his positive view of human moral progress.  But he has much to teach us.

In recent weeks, we have received reports of collapsing populations of coral in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and across the globe off the coast of Florida – the results of rising ocean temperatures and acid levels.  I am scared about what that portends for ocean ecosystems upon which we are more dependent than we know.

As a global species, we have done a terrible job of managing our consumption of this planet’s resources.  The Jewish laws of kashrut, in placing limitations on our consumption of meat, offer us a model for how we might relate to our consumption of the other resources of our world.

While Rav Kook’s vegetarianism does not reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes, he gives us something important to consider.  He suggests that there are spiritual and ethical dimensions of consumption, along with the environmental.  God created our world with the intention that its creatures live on it in balance.  As humans, our purpose across generations is to gradually approach that ideal of perfection.

Our Jewish tradition offers us thoughtful limits on our behavior when it comes to diet, and most other aspects of our lives.  If we are paying attention, living by the Torah will refine our character and help us to become our ideal selves.

In the contemporary world, with our scientific abilities to study the global environment and understand our lifestyles’ impacts on the global ecosystem, we would do well to consider what limits we ought to impose on ourselves, not only on our consumption of meat, but of are use of all the resources of this wonderful world that God has created for us.

Rav Kook, by personally eating a little bit of chicken each week, models for us that it does not have to be all or nothing.  Let’s pay a bit closer attention to what we consume.  Let’s try to distinguish between what we need to survive, and what we want.  What is necessary for us to live, and what, if we are really honest with ourselves, can we live without?

 

Bibliography: Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, Edited by Rabbi David Cohen

 

The Women’s Mirrors – Vayakhel 5776

In this morning’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites’ building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, along with all of its furnishings and the special clothing of the Priests.  This is one of two parashiyot that describe this.  And, this is after God has communicated all of these instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai over the course of two previous parashiyot.  That the Torah takes so much time to describe the details not once, but two separate times is an indication of the important role of the mishkan in ancient Israelite religion.  The mishkan, the portable Temple that the Israelites carried with them for forty years in the wilderness, symbolically represents the permanent Temple that stood in Jerusalem for nearly one thousand years and served as the center of Jewish religious life.

Once the mishkan, and later the Temple, was put into service, there were very specific regulations about who could enter its precincts, as well as how close to the innermost chamber one could go.  Only the kohanim, the priests, could enter the inner sancta, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and just once a year.  Common Israelite males were allowed inside up to a certain point from which they could watch some of the rituals, but the furthest into the interior that women were allowed did not even provide a few of the priestly service.

It was believed that if a person transgressed the furthest boundary permitted to him or her, that person risked being struck down by heavenly fire.  This included, by the way, a priest who entered while not in a state of ritual purity.

With such rigid, restrictive access to the Temple, it is somewhat surprising that the construction of the mishkan was so democratic.  The Torah regularly emphasizes the involvement of all of the Israelites.  They brought voluntary donations of precious metals, stones, cloth, leather, and wood.  A half shekel tax was required of every Israelite male.  Most significantly, everyone was given the opportunity to be involved in the craftsmanship.  It was a meritocracy.  Whoever had the skills in weaving, building, metalwork, etc., was invited to participate, regardless of tribe, pedigree, or gender.

What stands out in particular are the numerous mentions of women’s contributions to the mishkan.  Over and over, the Torah makes sure to tell us about women’s involvement in the construction of the mishkan.  And not simply general statements.  We know about specific contributions that they made.

Because the texts that we have inherited reflect more patriarchal times, whenever the Torah does say something about a woman, either individually or as a class, we ought to pay close attention.  Sometimes, stories involving women are more fully developed.  On other occasions, we find oblique references which might hint at a more complete oral tradition that has been lost to us.

Towards the end of Parashat Vayakhel, we read about the kiyor nechoshet.  The bronze laver, or washing fountain.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

“He made the laver of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”  (Exodus 38:8)

The fountain was used by the priests to ritually wash their hands and feet before entering the holy precincts and performing the rituals.  For some reason, the Torah wants us to take note that the metal used for constructing this laver came from melted down women’s mirrors.  In ancient times, a hand mirror was made out of a highly polished piece of bronze or other metal and was quite valuable.  Glass was not available.

Why this detail?  To further confuse matters, when Moses received instructions for how to build the fountain back in chapter 30, there was no indication of the source of the metal.  That detail appears only here.  We are left with questions.  Why was the fountain made out of these melted down mirrors?  Why are the women described in this unusual way:

הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

– depending on the translation “the women who flocked / performed tasks / gathered together at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting?”  This expression appears here and in only one other place in the Bible.

The contemporary Bible scholar Nahum Sarna claims that these were women who “performed menial work” and that they were “at the bottom of the occupational and social scale.”  The Torah goes out of its way to record their donation of these personal items because they “displayed unselfish generosity and sacrificial devotion.” (JPS Bible Commentary, Exodus, p. 230)  Even the lowliest women gave up their most precious possessions to build the mishkan.

The thirteenth century Spanish commentator Ramban offers an explanation of the p’shat, the plain sense meaning, of the verse.  The women were so eager to participate in the building of the mishkan that they voluntary offered a very valuable, personal belonging.  The word tzov’ot is used because the women assembled like an army with their mirrors.  Tzava means army or host.  Tzov’ot conveys a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.  They rushed, like soldiers assembling for a muster.

The commentator Ibn Ezra offers a sober explanation.  (*You might not like this.)  The way of women, he says, is make themselves appear pretty by looking at their faces in metal or glass mirrors in order to arrange the hats on their heads.  There were some Israelite women who abandoned the vanities of the world, giving up their mirrors which they no longer needed.  They would come every day to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to pray and hear the words of the mitzvot.

In a slight variation, the commentator Hizkuni says that the women assembled there daily to hear the praises and singing of the kohanim and leviim.  Another commentator, Sforno, claims that they came to hear the words of the Living God.

All three of these explanations set up a dichotomy between concern with female attention to physical appearance, on the one hand, and piety, on the other.

Rashi cites a midrash that offers a more colorful explanation.  When the Israelite women showed up with all of their mirrors, Moses was disgusted.  These objects that women use to adorn themselves serve the purposes of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.  Moses wants to reject the gift.  But the Holy One sees something different.  God says to Moses: Accept them.  These mirrors are more precious to me than anything else!  When the Israelites were in Egypt, the men would be off working in the fields, too exhausted to even come home after work.  So their wives would bring food and drink out to them in the fields and feed them.  And they would bring their mirrors.  They would entice their men, looking together at their reflections and exclaiming, “look how much prettier I am than you.”  And they would awaken their husbands’ desires.  That is how the Israelite population flourished in Egypt.

The Torah describes the mirrors with the words b’marot hatzov’ot.  The Israelite women used these mirrors to create a host – an army – of children in Egypt.  The Talmud cites this midrash as one of several supports for the claim that the redemption of the Israelites from slavery took place due to the righteousness of women.

Why were these mirrors used specifically to make the bronze fountain?  Rashi explain that the fountain played a central role in subduing a jealous husband and restoring peace to the home.  The ritual of the sotah, the suspected adulteress, involved the use of water drawn from the bronze fountain.  A woman whose husband suspected her of cheating with another man would drink the water in order to prove her innocence.

In contrast to Ibn Ezra and the others, Rashi’s explanation integrates sexuality with pious intent.  In the midrash, Moses acts like a prude, but God sees something holy and life-affirming in these mirrors.

Yet all of these explanations reflect the age-old stereotype that women are vain and focused on their looks and must use their sexuality to succeed.  For Ibn Ezra and the others, it is a rejection of the mirror, a denial of their sexuality, that leads to piety.  For Rashi, it is the wives’ embrace of sexual desire during a particularly dark and depressing time in our history that prompts God’s praise.  For all of them, the fountain made from the women’s mirrors is the primary item in the Temple that restores the relationship between husband and wife when she is suspected of sexual impropriety.

Because our traditional texts so rarely describe women’s experiences, we must try to celebrate them where they occur, even though they may reflect a patriarchal worldview.  As society has become more egalitarian over the past two centuries, we have tried to include women in traditionally male aspects of religious life.  Perhaps we ought to consider seeing men in light of women’s traditional roles as well.

Even today, in 2016, in Northern California, we still fall into traditional patterns of gender stereotypes in so many ways.

I like the idea of God rebuking Moses, almost playfully, for his negative reaction to the women’s mirrors.  There is a wisdom and a piety expressed in the ability to integrate the physical with the spiritual.  It is the women who are aware of this.  It is Moses, and by extension the men, who are in the dark.  It seems that God wants to bring us into the light.

Terumah 5773 – Our Life Can Be The Spelling Of An Answer

In Parshat Terumah, God begins to give Moses the detailed blueprints for the mishkan, the Tabernacle, or portable sanctuary that the Israelites will build and carry with them in the wilderness. The section is introduced by a fundraising appeal, identifying all of the precious stones, metals, fabrics and other materials that will be used. Then, we read the famous line v’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham. “Make for Me a sanctuary that I might dwell amongst them.”*1*

And then, a final instruction before the details:

“Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it.”*2* v’khen ta’asu.

The commentator Rashi asks a question. Why, immediately after telling Moses “Make Me a sanctuary…” does God declare “…so shall you make it”?

The Torah is usually so conservative with words. Doesn’t this seem redundant?

To answer the question, Rashi cites the Talmud. It is not redundant, after all. In fact, it is a separate commandment, l’dorot, he explains, “for the generations.” If, God forbid, one of the numerous vessels or holy items that the Israelites are about to build becomes damaged or lost at some point in the future, these blueprints here in the Book of Exodus must be followed precisely, and in exactly the right sequence, when building the replacement.

The Chassidic master Rabbi Simchah Bunim takes this explanation in a different direction.  He applies the idea of following a process systematically, in the right order, to us today, even though we do not have a Tabernacle.

In every generation, when Jews set out to do holy work, we must do it systematically, recognizing that spiritual growth happens mi-madrega l’madrega, from one step to the next. There is no elevator. We can’t skip steps in the spiritual journey.

Even though Reb Bunim lived in early 19th century Poland, his comment is especially applicable today.

We live in a an increasingly impatient era. Things that used to take a long time now happen in an instant.

Until the invention of the telegraph, for example, if a person wanted to communicate with someone far away, he or she would have to hand write a letter and physically send it with another person. It could take months for a message to reach its recipient. Now, communication is instantaneous.

Until just the last two decades, if I wanted to learn something about an obscure topic, I had to go to the library and actually open books. Now, in the era of Google and Wikipedia, I have instant results in my pocket.

If I want to buy something, I don’t even have to go to the store any more. I can order a case of my favorite cereal at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Instant gratification certainly has its benefits. But I fear that we have also become a less patient society. Things are expected immediately, whether we are talking about work deadlines, a new purchase, or research.

But when it comes to serving God, patience is a virtue. Reb Bunim’s teaching reminds us that there is no such thing as instant gratification in the religious life. Rather, progress is slow as in the metaphor he uses of ascending one step after the next, in order. No skipping.

Despite the impatience of modern life, we still understand that reaching goals takes a lot of systematic effort.

If you want to become a good cook, you can’t just open a cookbook and create a gourmet meal. Learning to handle a knife, understanding how different flavors complement one another, and mastering sauces only comes through experience, and many failed attempts.

The same is true of learning to play a musical instrument. Nobody is going to pick up an instrument for the first time and be able to play the song in his mind that inspired him to pick it up in the first place.

What about starting an exercise regimen? Whether the goal is to lose weight, or increase strength and endurance, it is going to take serious commitment. It will take regular workouts, and lots of time.

Whenever we start something new, there will always be a gap between our goals and what it will take to reach them. Progress requires us to go in a certain order. It is impossible to master more difficult techniques before mastering the basics.

And so, we know and accept that anything worth mastering requires a serious commitment. So why would we expect this to be any different when it comes to religion?

Think back to Reb Bunim’s staircase. To get up to the next step requires a large expenditure of energy. Then, we plateau for a while. That is what happens for someone trying to master a skill, and it can also be true in the spiritual life. There are times when we don’t feel connected. When performing mitzvot does not feel like serving God. This can be discouraging. In an age of so much impatience, we are tempted to look for shortcuts.

I worry that organized religion today has succumbed to the era of instant gratification. We plan shul activities as if they are stand-alone events. When planning anything for the synagogue, I am always asking myself, “what is going to attract somebody to this program.” We have to think about marketing and advertising to attract people to religion. Shuls nowadays need to have slick websites, and Facebook pages. We have to be able to get our vision and mission out there, so that the general public will get what we are all about in five seconds or less.

The pressure is on for our religious services to be spiritually moving for everyone who walks through the door.

But spirituality is not something that we consume in single servings. Our innate human curiosity about what is out there, and where we come from, and what the purpose of our lives is, is not going to be answered in one program.

We are all spiritual beings. But to be engaged in these questions requires a lifelong commitment. It is like learning to master an instrument. The more we play, the more music we can create. And the more complicated the music we create, the more variables come into being.

Journeying down the spiritual path will only lead us to more questions. But they are precisely the questions that make our lives matter.

In Man is Not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes “our life can be the spelling of an answer.”*3*  So we should not be discouraged. Whatever step each of us finds ourselves on, we can strive to reach the next step.

For someone, that may be learning how to read Hebrew to keep up in the service. For someone else, the next step might be taking some time to meditate on the meaning of certain prayers.  In other aspects of Jewish life, it might mean trying to increase the amount of charity that a person gives. Or it could mean finding opportunities to volunteer.  Maybe the step for someone is starting to introduce kashrut into his or her life. Maybe for someone else it is trying to cut back on gossip.

Notice that some of the examples I gave were in the ritual sphere, and some were more in the ethical sphere. Being on a spiritual journey requires us to recognize that everything we do has to do with God.

When the Israelites received the instructions to build the Tabernacle, they were given something special. It was not only at Mount Sinai that our ancestors could experience something spiritual. They were invited to be engaged with God wherever they went, at every moment.

And here we are thousands of years later, also invited to be engaged with the questions that matter, and to strive to have the patience to take the next step up the staircase.

*1*Exodus 25:8

*2*Exodus 25:9

*3*Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, p. 78.