Friday, October 26, 2007

There's more

There are some parashot about which students are likely to say, “Nothing happens.”
This isn’t one of them. In a class that studies the Bible as a series of episodes, we might easily spend a month on this parashah. Among major episodes, it includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the announcement of the birth of Isaac, the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, and the akedah. It also contains the second of three incidents in Genesis in which a wife is passed off as a sister.

In a class that follows the model of weekly Torah study, we’d have to choose one episode.

Both the birth of Isaac and the dismissal of Hagar and Ishamel, and the akedah, are fresh in our minds because of the Rosh Hashanah readings. Aspects of these episodes are troubling and difficult to teach to children, so we might want to choose another episode.

But which? I distinctly remember learning about Sodom and Gomorrah as a child, and I remember being puzzled. What did they do that was so wrong?

This is a question that rabbis and sages have grappled with, to mixed conclusions. Although the Torah text itself gives indications of sexual deviance, Jewish tradition, following the Prophets, has tended to emphasize “inhospitality to strangers” as an indicator of pervasive moral blindness.

Even if we elect to advance a reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we should have second thoughts about emphasizing this episode. If our goal is to instill love of God, how prominent do we want to make an episode that results in such drastic punishment, especially if we are deliberately unclear about the offense?

Both this story and the story of the Flood have the potential for undesirable psychological consequences. We do, of course, teach the story of Noah’s ark, but the Noah story has two important differences. First, Noah is seen as righteous, even if only with respect to his own time. Second, the story ends with God’s promise not to destroy the world.

It would actually be more in line with Jewish tradition to emphasize the announcement of the birth of Isaac, but for a reason we might not think of today. Tradition cites Abraham’s reception of the three messengers as an example of perfect hospitality (with which Lot’s reception in Sodom contrasts).

It draws further lessons of derekh eretz from the messengers’ care to ask about Sarah and, later, from God’s behavior. Sarah attributes her laughter (the source of the name Yitzchak) to the idea that Abraham is too old to father a child, but in relaying this to Abraham, God says that Sarah thought that she herself was too old, in order not to hurt Abraham’s feelings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Maybe the first monotheist

Lech Lecha should be an easy parashah to teach. Its opening subject, the Call of Abraham, suggests a variety of ways to engage students. Depending on the composition of the class, it might be a springboard for discussing the upheaval of moving from another region or country, or the challenges of living among neighbors whose religion is different from ours.

But the Call of Abraham is not the entirety of Lech Lecha. The greater part of this portion is the life story of Abram and Sarai. It includes one of the episodes in which Abram passes Sarai off as his sister; the peculiar story of the war of four kings against five; a dramatic covenant; Abram’s fathering a child with Hagar, at Sarai’s insistence; the prophecy of the birth of Isaac; the changing of Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah; and the introduction of the covenant of circumcision.

Some of these episodes are rather discreditable, and yet, with the possible exception of the story of the four vs. the five kings, they demand to be taught. Omitting the birth of Ishmael or the covenant of circumcision is almost unthinkable, the change of names certainly needs to be noted, and the episode in which Abram and Sarai flee to Egypt during a famine is important because it prefigures Israel’s longer sojourn in Egypt that is described in the book of Exodus.

Furthermore, we often teach elements of the story that an ordinary reading of the Torah doesn’t reveal. Almost every child knows that Terah, Abram’s father, was an idol merchant, and how Abram smashed the idols and blamed it on the largest of them. But this story comes from midrash, and while midrash is typically an expansion on a hint in the Biblical text, the connection is faint.

In fact, although some school textbooks present Abraham as the first monotheist, it is hard to attribute exclusive monotheism to Abraham. The Torah provides essentially no evidence on this point. While his relationship to YHVH appears to be exclusive, nothing more can be said except that Abraham, unlike the major Hebrew prophets of a later age, does not inveigh against the worship of any other gods.

A detail at the end of the often-overlooked episode of the War of the Four Against the Five is suggestive. During the fighting, Abram’s nephew, Lot, is taken captive, and Abram rescues him and the other captives. On their return, they are greeted by “Melchizedek, king of Salem” [Salem is Jerusalem, then a Canaanite city]:
And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, Who has delivered your foes into your hand. And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything. (14:18–20)

This tithe indicates that Abram accepts Melchizedek’s priesthood. It is not clear whether “God Most High” (El Elyon) refers to the very God (YHVH) of Abram’s covenant, or whether Abram recognizes the validity of another god.
If it is the former, it is hard to claim that Abram “invented” or “discovered” monotheism.

Later traditions considered Melchizedek a monotheist—in Jewish tradition, a righteous gentile, but in Christian tradition a precursor of Jesus. Regardless of these traditions, it suggests the existence of a cult in Canaan that was already centered on the God of Abraham’s call from Haran.

If it is the latter, Abram is not yet a monotheist. He is not even quite a monolatrist (a person who believes in the existence of multiple gods but serves only one). Some modern scholars believe that the exclusive worship of one God did not figure in Israelite religion earlier than Moses, and that the worship of false gods in Israel against which the prophets spoke reflected not foreign influence but rather the persistence of pre-monotheistic beliefs.

In any case, other gods play no role here. Abraham isn’t called to oppose other gods, nor does the Torah state anything about his prior belief. It’s his relationship with what Judaism came to recognize as the one God that matters here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Does God grade on the curve?

The commentators fall into disagreement at the very first verse of parashat Noach. The source of the disagreement is the statement, “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age” (Gen. 6:9).

One school of thought about this is that Noah was only relatively righteous. That is, that he may have been blameless by the standards of his own time, but in another age he might not have been considered righteous at all.

The other school of thought is that, living in a particularly depraved time, Noah must have been especially righteous. Where the first interpretation holds that Noah is only considered righteous in comparison with those around him, the second holds that he was particularly heroic to have been righteous in such unrighteous surroundings.
For those who are keeping score, the first interpretation is that of Rabbi Jochanan, and the second is that of Resh Lakish.

To put this in the terms most familiar to educators, the question that is being asked is: Does God grade on the curve?

According to the first way of thinking, the answer must be yes, because Noah is judged righteous through being, apparently, the most righteous person of his time, even if he would not have ranked high on an absolute scale of righteousness. Furthermore, the Torah says (at the end of parashat Bereshit) that Noah found favor with God, and (in this parashah) that Noah walked with God.

In religious school, the question of grading on the curve doesn’t arise, because grading as such is rarely an issue. How often does anyone fail Sunday school?

What does arise, however, is an issue that is implicit in a more extensive criticism of Noah: that although he is obedient to God, he fails the test of genuine righteousness because he accepts the judgment and does not plead or argue on behalf of all those who will die in the flood. In other words, he is criticized for not being as righteous as Abraham, who pleaded for the people of Sodom. It implies that being Noah isn't good enough; he should have tried to be Abraham.

That line of criticism should speak to us. Although our school has a formal curriculum, we can’t, as a secular school might, take for granted that a student who fails to master the curriculum is merely a mediocre student. We’re not in the business of teaching children to be mediocre Jews.

The text tells us that Noah walked with God, and from that we may conclude that, regardless of whether Noah was genuinely righteous or only relatively righteous, God must have walked with Noah.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sukkot: Midterm Exam

Imagine that this is the midterm exam. There is only one question: What are the Torah readings for Sukkot?

It’s not hard to think of the readings for Simchat Torah: V’zot ha-B’rakhah and B’reishit. But what is the reading for the first day of Sukkot? Or for any day of Sukkot?

There are specified readings for each day of Sukkot. They come from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and what they have in common is that each of them refers in some way to the festival. Variously, they state the commandments to celebrate Sukkot for seven days, to hold an assembly on the eighth day, to dwell in booths, to use the four species that constitute the lulav and etrog, and so forth.
There are various possible reasons for reading these passages. Superficially it is appropriate to read a passage that refers to a particular holiday on that holiday, but that doesn’t seem to be the reason for all of the yom tov readings.

One reason that is not so plausible is that it is to inform us of the proper observance. What makes this implausible is that we would receive the reminder too late, after the holiday had begun, instead of when there was still time to make appropriate preparations. In other words, this is not a parallel to the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, which speaks to us about repentance on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, nor is it like the traditional sermon for Shabbat ha-Gadol, explicating all the details of Pesach preparation and observance.

One apparent function of the readings, however, is a parallel to the original function of the worship service itself: to substitute for practices that could no longer be carried out when there was no longer a Temple in Jerusalem. The schedule of daily worship derives from the schedule of sacrifices, as does the Musaf service. Although it was, and is, still possible to build a sukkah and shake the lulav, it was no longer possible to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and some of the readings appear to substitute for this.

One of the readings, from Deuteronomy 31, suggests another way of looking at the question:

Moses wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests, sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel.

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place which He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to occupy. (9–13)

Although the specific reference is to the “year of remission,” the sabbatical year, the passage serves to remind us that elements of Sukkot observance, like those of Pesach, are naturally appealing and memorable to children.

Thus, if religious school is in session at all during Sukkot, it makes sense to serve snacks in the sukkah and have every child shake the lulav and sniff the etrog. It’s not merely for the sake of their observing these mitzvot; it’s also because children like and remember it.