Sunday, March 23, 2008

Shemini: Strange tale of strange fire

The third parashah in Leviticus includes the strange story of Nadav and Avihu and their “alien fire.” This episode follows a detailed description of the procedures used to consecrate the tabernacle, ending with the appearance of “the Presence of the Lord” to all the people (Lev. 9:22) and the spontaneous combustion of the offerings of the preceding parashah.

At the beginning of chapter 10, these two sons of Aaron take their fire pans, with fire and incense, and attempt to offer “alien fire, which [God] had not enjoined upon them” (10:1). Fire immediately shoots out and kills them.

This story has, understandably, troubled generations of readers. There is debate about what, if anything, Nadav and Avihu did wrong; about what exactly happened to them; and about what it should mean to later readers.

A conventional rabbinic explanation turns the story into nothing more than a cautionary tale against innovation. In short, it become a proof text for the claim that “everything new is forbidden by Torah.”

A reading influenced by other parts of the Bible might suggest that what was “alien” or “strange” about the fire was that Nadav and Avihu did not intend it for the God of Israel. This reading has little standing in Jewish tradition: the idea that two of Aaron’s sons might have sacrificed to another god is too disturbing.

An ordinary reading, one not particularly influenced by Jewish tradition, might conclude that their procedure was somehow faulty, that they had not mastered the technique. Such a reading makes it sound like the commonplace travail of lighting a barbecue grill.

Some midrashic interpretations take up the theme of “playing with fire”—in other words, that Nadav and Avihu’s intentions were basically good, but that they underestimated the seriousness of the enterprise. One contemporary treatment compares them to young people who take foolish risks in order to impress their friends.

Another line of interpretation, however, focuses on the juxtaposition of this episode with the injunction, in 10:8–11, against the priests’ drinking wine or any other intoxicant when they are officiating, “for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.”

Rabbi Bamberger points out, in his introduction to this section in the UAHC Torah Commentary, that a real connection between the two passages is unlikely. He also observes that the prohibition applied only when the priests were on duty; at other times they were free to enjoy wine, as were other Israelites.

Furthermore, he adds that, except in the special case of a nazirite, who has taken a vow that includes abstaining from wine (really from all grape products), Jewish tradition gives little support to abstaining from alcohol on principle. We make routine use of wine in ceremonies such as kiddush and havdallah.

Although there is some reason to believe that Jews who regularly practice these ceremonies with wine at home are less likely than the general population to drink to excess, it is no longer the case that alcoholism is very rare among Jews. In this respect we largely resemble the population in general, and it is likely that the rate of alcoholism (and other substance abuse) is the same for us as for Americans as a whole. To a great extent, the Jewish community remains in denial about this.

Jews who participate in 12-step programs, however, encounter a special problem. Many 12-step meetings are held in churches, and many of them have a distinctly Christian character that makes it hard for Jews to participate. Only in large cities are there likely to be 12-step programs in which Jews feel comfortable. Even if there is no reason to connect the injunction against intoxicants with the “strange fire” of Nadav and Avihu, this parashah should serve to sensitize us to a growing concern in our communities.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Seven days of Purim

We all celebrate Hanukkah for eight days, and Sukkot and Pesach for seven or eight days each. But somehow I seem to have been celebrating Purim for seven days, too.

Now, it is possible to celebrate Purim for two days, because it is celebrated one day later, as Shushan Purim, in cities that were walled in Biblical times. A friend in Israel told me that he planned to celebrate Purim today in Tel Aviv and then travel to Tzfat to celebrate Purim tomorrow.

But we don't live in a walled city. We ended up with seven days of Purim this year because of oddities of the secular, not the Jewish, calendar. One congregation here has a tradition of holding a dinner on the Shabbat evening nearest Purim, followed by a mixed-up Shabbat service, and our school always holds its Purim carnival on a Sunday morning.

This year the Friday nearest Purim is today, the actual day of Purim, so it would have seemed logical to hold the Purim-Shabbat dinner tonight. But for Christians today is Good Friday. A dinner tonight might have posed difficulties for intermarried families, and because all the public schools are closed today and some will also be closed on Monday and Tuesday, this is a weekend when families can travel.

Similarly, our Purim carnival might have been held on Sunday, when some families will be away for the weekend or spending the day with non-Jewish parts of their families. Accordingly, the Purim-Shabbat dinner was last Friday, and the Purim carnival was last Sunday.

The other congregation had its megillah reading last night, with a pizza dinner following. It was the best megillah reading in my recent experience, with enough silliness and participation by children to make it fun for everyone, but with megillat Esther read (mostly in English) in its entirety.

It is possible to criticize either moving part of the Purim celebration to Shabbat or deliberately avoiding overlap with Christian holidays, but I think that such a criticism would be misguided.

Although I disagree with the now largely abandoned practice of shifting the observance of so-called minor holidays to Shabbat or the weekend, we do our selves no favor by being so rigidly purist as to ignore either school vacations or non-Jewish holidays when we schedule celebrations that are not obligatory parts of the observance. So I am happy that one congregation held its megillah reading on erev Purim and read the megillah in full, but I don't object at all to holding a dinner or carnival on other days.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tzav: even MORE about sacrifices

This week’s parashah, Tzav, and its predecessor, Vayikra, deal largely with sacrifices. As a result, they do not immediately grab our interest.

It is possible, of course, to imagine teaching them in careful, loving detail. Students would learn about the four different types of sacrifices that are defined here, studying all the rules for each of them. Despite the difficulty of relating the details of the sacrificial cult to modern life, it would be an easy unit to teach, and at the end we could give a test on the definitions, rules, and procedures and know what students had learned.

In fact, a child’s study in a traditional cheder began, usually when the child reached the age of five, with Leviticus, not with Genesis. There was some pedagogical merit in this, because many children approach the study of Torah with a literalism that delights in detail and does not require contemporary relevance. And many children could take pleasure in reciting the various kinds of offerings—olah, minchah, chatat, asham, zevach, shelamim—and repeating their definitions without becoming overly concerned with the underlying meaning.

All of these sacrifices ended, of course, with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. While traditional Jews pray for the reinstatement of animal sacrifices, Reform Jews do not. Conservative siddurim include the prayer but it is not a mainstay of Conservative belief.

Rabbi Judith Abrams suggests that, in order to deal with these parts of the Torah, we must first understand why sacrifices would have been instituted, and especially why our ancestors, following the destruction of the Temple, would have prayed for their reinstatement.

The Torah itself is largely silent about basic reasons for sacrifices. Although it defines specific occasions for sacrifices and gives instructions for each kind of sacrifice, the institution of sacrifice itself is taken for granted. In general, whenever a sacrifice is mentioned, whether it is the Pesach sacrifice that is described in Exodus or the one of the sacrifices defined in Leviticus, there seems to be an assumption that everyone already knows all about the sacrifice and its purpose.

From the descriptions in Leviticus, we can deduce that the purpose of sacrifices was to maintain or restore Israel’s relationship with God. That suggests a modern approach to teaching about them: we might contrast the ways that our ancestors expressed their relationship with God with the ways that we would choose today.

But we must still confront the institution itself. If we, in agreement with Maimonides, see animal sacrifices as merely one station in Judaism’s spiritual progress—that is, as spiritual “training wheels” that promoted a transition from idolatrous religions that practiced human sacrifices to a completely monotheistic religion with no sacrifices at all—why should we pray for sacrifices to be reinstated?

Rabbi Abrams suggests this analogy: if hospitals could no longer perform surgery, but all other aspects of modern medicine continued to exist, and if some of us had conditions that could only be treated with surgery, wouldn’t we long for surgery to be reinstated? Wouldn’t we try to perform it somewhere else? (After the destruction of the Temple, there were attempts to carry out sacrifices at other places.) Even after we had given up realistic hope for surgery to take place again, might we not still pray for it?

That, she concludes, is how our ancestors felt about sacrifices. Although the prayers of the worship service, in a form that we would still recognize, came to replace them, Jews longed for the certainty the sacrifices had provided that they were in the proper relationship with God.

Even if we do not pray for the reinstatement of sacrifices, we should pray for the close and enduring relationship with God that the sacrificial system promised. We should also be mindful of the prophets’ criticisms of it: that it provided a false sense of security, and that a true relationship with God could be based only on genuinely righteous living.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hebrew: some principles

I’ve been writing a Hebrew curriculum for our school—a project that feels like it may never end. Recently I outlined some principles for Hebrew instruction, and I thought I would post them here:

(a) Hebrew is Hebrew. Although ivrit b’ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew) is an unrealistic approach for teaching in a supplementary school, Hebrew cannot be presented as if it were a secret code based on English syntax or the Latin alphabet. In particular, teachers should not teach any Hebrew letter as the equivalent of an English letter.

(b) Hebrew decoding is phonetic. Even native speakers of Hebrew learn to read by phonetic methods. Particularly in the absence of cultural and linguistic context, approaches that rely on whole-word recognition fail in Hebrew. The methodology used in supplementary schools builds on the students’ secular-school language arts and requires that they have developed transferable skill in phonetic reading in English before attempting to decode Hebrew.

(c) Language precedes reading. While courses such as “French for Reading Knowledge” exist and are often effective for adults, children through the age at which supplementary schools traditionally taught Hebrew decoding retain substantial capacity for natural language acquisition. Students learn to read their native languages through the reading of simple words that they already understand and use in speech. Thus, the creation of a Hebrew vocabulary context should precede formal decoding instruction, so that as students begin to read, they encounter words that they have already learned orally.

(d) “Direct instruction” is more effective than explanation. With children, Hebrew vocabulary should be taught by showing an object (or a picture, if the object cannot be brought into the classroom) or demonstrating an action, and saying its name. As much as possible, the teacher should avoid using the English word in teaching the Hebrew word. For example, it is better to use a stuffed toy dog to teach kelev than to say, Kelev means dog.”

(e) Mnemonics are more trouble than they’re worth. In general, children can learn Hebrew letters and words on their own terms: the letter tav has the sound that it has because it’s tav, not because it has a toe sticking out, and teaching an unnecessary mnemonic tends to impede rather than facilitate mastery. Even worse, when a teacher intones, “Mi is who, hu is he, and hi is she,” students are likely to hear it as “Me is hu, who is hi, and he is shi” (swapping the Hebrew and English words), or just mix them all together and conclude that there is no hope of learning it.

Vayikra: it's inoperative

This week’s reading begins the book of Leviticus; the name of its first portion, Vayikra, is also the Hebrew name for the entire book. The name Leviticus suggests that it has to do with Levites, but most of its text deals with the duties of the priests, the kohanim (all priests are Levites but not all Levites are priests).

Teaching texts from Leviticus presents a number of challenges. The first is that students, especially younger students, find some of the texts intrinsically repellent—especially those, like this parashah and the next, that deal with animal sacrifice.

Adults also object to some of the texts, but not always the same ones. For example, many adults are disgusted by the dual parashot Tazria and Metzora, while children occasionally find the description of skin disease “cool” and have little trouble drawing a persuasive moral lesson from it.

Another challenge is that much of Leviticus seems to have no application to modern life. It is possible to draw a contemporary drash from each parashah, but the details of the parashah, mostly pertaining to the operation of the mishkan and the duties of priests, are currently, in the language of the Watergate era, “inoperative.”

Nevertheless, one approach to teaching emphasizes mastery of these very details. For example, a lesson on Vayikra or Tzav might deal with the various kinds of sacrifices, the specifics of what may be brought as an offering for each kind and how the priest is to carry out the sacrifice, and so forth. In a sense this is an easy lesson to teach: it deals with facts that are indisputable. Furthermore, some students are intrigued by the wealth and complexity of detail and would be delighted to be tested on it.

Most of the time, however, we will want to find another approach, and that brings us up against a third challenge. It’s not unusual, even as some students are becoming enthusiastic about all the details of these passages, for other students to respond, “Who cares?”

It’s not just because the sacrificial system and other functions of the priests are now “inoperative.” There’s a deeper problem: individualism.

The most fundamental problem in studying or teaching Leviticus is that its orientation is collective rather than individual. Thus, while the opening parashot describe sacrifices that an individual might bring, their emphasis is on the system of daily sacrifices that had to be offered regardless of individual desires.

Similarly, the pervasive focus on purity and holiness isn’t primarily concerned with the needs of individuals, even though the Holiness Code in chapter 19 is a powerful moral lesson for individuals. Instead, the emphasis is on national purity and holiness, as exemplified by the mishkan.

This is most clear in chapter 16, which describes the preparation of the tabernacle for Yom Kippur. The underlying theory is that individual sins, including those resulting from mere error, have a cumulative effect that must be undone by purifying the altar with the “ritual detergent” of animal blood.

In other words, the sins of individuals also impair the relationship of the entire nation to God. The idea is that people relate to God both as individuals and as members of a group, and Leviticus deals mostly with features of the entire group’s relationship, which is mediated by the priests.

Thus, the greatest difficult in teaching Leviticus isn’t that the absence of a Temple with a functioning priesthood makes Leviticus “inoperative.” It’s that we no longer consider our group (ethnic, religious, or national) identity to be the predominant feature of our relationship with God. In ancient societies, the relationship with a deity was through a king or, as in Judaism, through priests. The idea that every person maintains an individual relationship with God is modern, and making sense of Leviticus demands that we suspend our modern belief.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Pekudei: It's done!

The parashot of Vayakhel and Pekudei are often combined.

The central theme of
Vayakhel is the generosity of the Israelites in contributing to the building of the mishkan. In fact, they are so generous that Bezalel and the other artisans protest that the people are giving too much, and Moses proclaims that no further gifts are to be brought. Although these contributions for the mishkan may have been the prototype for all Jewish fund drives since then, the model of ending the giving early has rarely been followed.

In terms of narrative structure,
Vayakhel complements the preceding parashah, Ki Tissa. There, the Israelites brought improper gifts to make the molten calf; here, they give properly to build the mishkan.

Pekudei begins with a catalogue of the materials used in the mishkan. This section can also be read as a model for Jewish fund-raising, in that it offers a full accounting of how the gifts were used, a practice that not all Jewish charities follow today.

Later in this rather brief
parashah is a proof-text for the right of the descendants of Aaron to serve as priests in perpetuity:

You shall bring Aaron and his sons forward to the entrance of the Ten of Meeting and wash them with the water. Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, an anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. This their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages. (40:12–15).

Visitors to our congregations are sometimes surprised to learn that rabbis do not fulfill priestly functions and that most rabbis are not of priestly descent. (In fact, it is something of a disability for a rabbi to be a
kohen.)

The dominant theme of
Pekudei, most apparent when the last 20 or so verses are read, is the completion of the mishkan—specifically, that each step was carried out “[just] as the Lord had commanded Moses,” a phrase that is repeated seven times (to the great distress of Torah readers).

The reiteration of this seems strange at first, but it makes sense as a final response to the molten calf. Most modern scholars agree that the calf was not actually intended as an object of worship. Rather, they believe that it was to be a pedestal, a “footstool,” for God’s presence.

This does not make the molten calf any less improper, because it is the
mishkan itself in which the Divine presence is to dwell. But it explains the Torah’s insistence that every detail of erecting the mishkan was carried out correctly: to guarantee its effectiveness.

And, according to the last verses of Exodus, it is effective:

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (40:33–35).

The attitude seems to be, “If you build it, God will come.”