Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mercy 1000, punishment 4

The Torah reading for the Shabbat during Sukkot bears no obvious relationship to the Sukkot festival.

It’s from Exodus, and contains no reference to Sukkot (passages containing commandments about the festival are read on other days of Sukkot), but rather the request of Moses to know more about God—even to see God.

God responds, “I will make all My goodness pass before you,” but warns, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live,” and also instructs Moses to carve two more stone tablets to replace those that he shattered when he saw the golden calf.

Then, astonishingly, God passes in front of Moses, and the famous 13 attributes of God are named: “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

It is not clear from the Hebrew text whether God says this, or Moses. The Jewish Publication Society translations attribute the words to God; some others attribute them to Moses. It makes sense to attribute them to God because they are an answer to Moses’s request to know more about God.

But why should this reading be assigned to the Shabbat in Sukkot? One answer is that the description of the grandeur and majesty of God contrasts so sharply with our experience of Sukkot. That is, the fragile, temporary sukkah reminds us of the fragility of human life.

It’s a tradition of Ashkenazic communities also to read Qohelet, Ecclesiastes, on the Shabbat during Sukkot. The emphasis in Ecclesiastes on the impermanence and insignificance of human life accords with this theme.

Another reason for making this the Shabbat reading might be its description of God as compassionate and merciful. The list of God’s attributes should be fresh in our minds from the Yom Kippur liturgy, and there is a traditional belief that an unfavorable judgment sealed on Yom Kippur can still be reversed during Sukkot.

The idea that God visits the iniquity of parents on children, even “upon the third and fourth generations,” is troubling. That children should suffer for their parents’ sins seems objectionable. It also seems to conflict with the statement, in the same passage, that God shows kindness “to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.”

The explanation of traditional commentators that we should compare the promise of a thousand generations of mercy with that of up to four generations of punishment also seems less than completely persuasive. It makes more sense to interpret this contrast as a reflection of reality: some sins have effects that are real and lasting, and it is not always in the power of even the most repentant sinner to reverse those effects.

To cite a too-obvious example, it is often reported that many adults who abuse or neglect children were themselves abused or neglected as children. The effects of the abuse that they suffered are thus felt at least into the third generation. On a broader scale, conditions that impoverish people in one generation or deny them access to education will be felt in society for many years to come.

So perhaps there is a further meaning to be drawn from this selection. Before Yom Kippur we are enjoined to redress wrongs we have committed against others. On Yom Kippur we repent for those and for sins that impair our relationship with God. Perhaps in the weeks after Yom Kippur we should concern ourselves with mitigating the lasting effects of wrongs that those who committed them cannot fully redress on their own.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Family values

The traditional Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah come from Genesis: the birth of Isaac on the first day, and the “binding” of Isaac, the akedah, on the second. Many Reform congregations that observe only one day of Rosh Hashanah read the akedah on that day; a few read the traditional selection for the first day and don’t read the akedah at all, except in the weekly cycle of Torah readings.

It is hard to explain why these should have been chosen as the Rosh Hashanah readings. Both selections raise serious moral questions that the Torah does not answer; the akedah, in particular, gives rabbis an inexhaustible sermon topic.
The problem is especially acute at children’s services. If the service includes the reading of Torah, do we really want young children to hear a story in which an apparently loving father almost kills the long-awaited child? Books of Bible stories for children often omit or abridge this episode, but what choice is there when it’s the Torah reading?

Some congregations read it at children’s services, but possibly without translation and almost certainly without explanation. The Reform machzor offers an alternative reading, the Creation story, that some congregations read in family services (or in adult services on one day or the other).

That doesn’t help us as teachers. Although we may certainly be selective in choosing which parts of the Bible to teach, emphasizing those that have the most educational value for children of the age we’re teaching, the fact that the akedah is the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah suggests that it’s too important to skip. And in class, the “Ann Landers solution”—using language that young children won’t understand—isn’t an option.

Worse, the conventional lesson won’t work. Usually Abraham is presented as a model of faith: willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of his God. Would you want your father to have that kind of faith?

With older students it’s possible to confront the issue directly, for example by putting Abraham on trial for child endangerment. While that isn’t appropriate for younger students, it suggests an approach that doesn’t completely gloss over the appearance of abuse or neglect.

That is to shift the focus away from a view of Abraham’s faith as a near-insanity that drives him almost to kill his son. That is, to move toward the view that his faith allows Abraham to follow God’s call while believing that God will not make him go through with the sacrifice of Isaac. It’s a view that is more in accord with the rest of Torah, where the message (from last week’s Torah reading) that comes through most consistently is “choose life.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky, teaching about an equally disturbing episode of thinly veiled abuse in the Bible, the story of Lot’s daughters, observes that the study of Torah has healing power, and that if we avoid teaching the disturbing parts, we deny this healing to those who most need it. But we have a choice. We can teach the akedah as the story of a man whose faith is so strong that he is willing to kill his son, with God as the teacher administering a test that Abraham passes. Or we can teach that it’s a story in which God prevents him from killing Isaac, with God as the coach who keeps him from failing.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

It's not over 'til Moses sings

Parashat Ha’azinu, the Song of Moses, comprises chapter 32 of Deuteronomy. It is the last portion for regular Shabbat reading; the weekly cycle is interrupted by Sukkot, and the final verses of Deuteronomy, V’zot Hab’rachah, are read on Simchat Torah.

Although scholars believe that the “songs” in the Bible—the Song of the Sea and the songs of Hannah and Deborah—are among the most ancient of Biblical texts, many suggest that the Song of Moses is not of the same antiquity. Its structure, parallel couplets, is similar, but its language and content suggest later composition. While its assumption that the people of Israel are already settled in the land of Israel could be understood as prophecy—and tradition views Moses as the prophet par excellence—its description of Israel as a “foundling” nation discovered by God in the desert (32:10) is at odds with the Exodus narrative.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that the Song of Moses has thematic parallels to certain psalms and to Ezekiel, and that its language is similar to the writings of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. It does not, however, anticipate the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, which might suggest earlier composition than the time of Jeremiah.

A recurring theme of the Song is God’s anger with Israel, whose people, it says, have incensed God through the worship of false gods. In verses 19–25, terrible vengeance is threatened, in language worthy of any of the prophets.

Verse 26–27, however, introduce a novel reason for God’s not taking the threatened vengeance. It is not that God is merciful and compassionate, or quick to forgive. Rather, the reason is “Their enemies who might misjudge / and say, “Our own hand has prevailed; / None of this was wrought by the Lord!”

In other words, Israel’s survival is needed as evidence of God’s power, and in order to deny the enemies the satisfaction of believing that they (or their gods) had triumphed.

The next verses, however, cast a different light on this. They state that the enemies, if they themselves did not lack discernment, would realize that any victory on their part could only occur if God had abandoned Israel (which is to say, if Israel had abandoned God).

The idea that Israel exists as evidence of God’s authority has great strength in Jewish tradition. But there’s a twist: it’s not our existence that provides the evidence, but our actions. Any action is judged not only according to law, but also according to whether it displays respect for God, or disrespect: whether it is kiddush Hashem or chillul Hashem.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Not in the heavens

Parashat Nitzavim begins Moses’s final oration to the people of Israel. In it Moses anticipates the risk that some of the Israelites may turn to other gods. He both threatens them with curses and promises redemption.

What has made this parashah memorable, however, is its insistence that the Torah is for every Jew: “I make this convenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (29:13–14).

Whether this refers to the 40-year-old covenant of Sinai or to a reaffirmation of it is not entirely clear. Unlike a slightly similar passage in Joshua, it contains no formal covenant ceremony, but only offers the choice.

In any case, tradition has understood it to mean not only that it is a covenant for all time, but also that the collective assent of our ancestors binds each of us to it as individuals. Although it is God’s covenant with the entire nation of Israel, each of us participates in it individually and directly.

Parashat Nitzavim, because it is read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, risks a degree of neglect. The Reform movement, however, has found it such a touchstone of belief and practice that we have chosen selections from it as the Torah reading for the morning of Yom Kippur (not the afternoon as the Plaut commentary states—the Reform reading for Yom Kippur afternoon is Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code).

The message that especially speaks to Reform philosophy is not just that God’s covenant is with each of us as individuals, but that the Torah is not reserved for an elite. Even in Biblical times it was a distinctive feature of Israelite religion that all the people participated in religious rituals, albeit in different roles. In other societies of the ancient Near East, ritual life was often reserved to priests and kings; in Israel, every family was enjoined to bring sacrifices and farmers has a distinctive ritual obligation, the offering of their first fruits.

This statement in Deuteronomy goes a step farther, and may reflect a change in sensibility from that of, for example, Leviticus, which emphasizes the functions of priests. It tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens” (lo bashamayim hi), that it is within our reach and not too baffling for us (30:11–12).

Reform Judaism has begun to make the study of Torah a central form of our self-identification as Jews. That is to say, when we study Torah, it isn’t just for the sake of information. Rather, the act of study itself is a key Jewish act.

As teachers, then, we should try both to exemplify this for our students, and to develop the awareness of and love for Torah that this parashah invites every one of us to pursue.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...