Friday, April 2, 2010

God's back? Shabbat chol hamoed Pesach

The pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot and Pesach interrupt the cycle of weekly readings. In addition to a special Torah reading for each day of the festival, there is an assigned reading for the Shabbat that falls during the festival that replaces the weekly parashah. In contrast, the Shabbat in Hanukkah has no special Torah reading, although it has a special Haftarah, the famous “not by might and not by power” selection from Zechariah.

The readings for the first two days of Pesach come from Exodus 12 and 13. They describe the Pesach sacrifice, commandments about the festival, “as an institution for all time, for you and your descendants” (Ex. 12:24), the slaughter of the first-born Egyptians, and the flight from Egypt itself, ending with additional instructions about the festival.

The reading for the Shabbat during Pesach, however, is a problematic passage in which Moses asks to know more about God, even to see the Divine Presence. It’s from parashat Ki Tisa, which was the weekly reading only a month ago. It follows the episode of the golden calf and ends with a second Covenant.

Moses’s instance on learning more about God and seeing God’s presence should remind us of his resistance to being chosen to liberate the Israelites from Egypt earlier in Exodus. There, he argues at length, until God’s anger flares up; here, even though he seems still to need outward signs of God’s favor toward him and Israel, his request is granted. God replies, “I will also do this thing that you have asked: for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name” (Ex. 33:17).

But Moses will not be allowed to see God’s face, “for man may not see Me and live” (33:20). Instead, it is God’s back that he will see.

God’s back? On the surface, this implies a physical existence for God that Jewish theology rejects. Taken too literally, it may even seem somewhat indelicate. Rabbi J.H. Hertz suggests that God’s presence would be seen in the form of a fire, too intense to look at directly, so Moses will see only an “afterglow.” In contrast, Rabbi Plaut, in the UAHC Torah Commentary, interprets God’s “back” as representing the deeds and actions that reveal God’s nature to us.

This appearance, whatever we take it to be, is accompanied by a text that we repeat as part of the High Holiday liturgy: “The Lord! the Lord! 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 the children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (34:6–8).

It is not altogether clear who is speaking, God or Moses, but an ordinary reading of the Hebrew text suggests that it is God, and that is how the JPS version renders it.

Jewish tradition understands these verses as stating thirteen attributes of God—and, unusually, stating them in a positive rather than negative formulation. From the liturgy we are also familiar with other statements of the attributes of God, particularly Yigdal, based on the interpretation of these thirteen attributes by Maimonides.

The Haftarah for this Shabbat, from Ezekiel, is also a famous one: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” In addition to it, some communities also read selections from the Song of Songs (I recommend the translation by Marcia Falk).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Two Secrets

There are two open secrets about becoming a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The first is that one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah automatically upon reaching the requisite age, whether there is a special ceremony or not. Although it’s our custom to recognize the coming of religious majority by having the young person participate in the worship service, every Jewish adult has exactly the same religious privileges and obligations.

The second open secret is that one is still Jewish on the morning after the mitzvah event. Students in religious school sometimes ask, “Do I have to learn this for my bar/bat mitzvah?” as if there were no reason to learn anything not required for the ceremony. Students at this age are pragmatic learners: they’re ready to learn everything that seems useful, but not always receptive to knowledge and skills of uncertain utility.

The problem is that – obviously – a young student has no personal experience of any later stage of life, no frame of reference for determining what may eventually be useful. It’s also true in secular education: in math, for example, students learn to calculate percentages before there is any practical need to use percentages.

What this tell us is that education focusing solely on preparation for a bar/bat mitzvah service is insufficient for Jewish life. Our choices about religious-school curricula embody not only immediate utility, but also predictions about the knowledge and skills that students will need throughout life.

For example, an acquaintance with the worship practices of other streams of Judaism is valuable whenever you attend services away from home—whether as a guest at the bar/bat mitzvah celebration of a friend, in college, or later in life. This is an area in which a community school has an intrinsic advantage, because congregations’ schools rarely teach any practices except their own.

Jewish history is helpful in understanding our place in the world. It helps to know that Jews have lived in America since 1654, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and that one 18th-century Jew, Haym Salomon, helped to finance George Washington’s army. And with Israel in the news almost every day, we all need to know the history of modern Israel.

Ethics? It may be true that all that is really necessary is to try to be a good person… but how do you learn how to be a good person? Learning how to think about ethical issues is an essential part of growing up, and it’s important to have a framework of values that transcend popular culture.

Most important, perhaps, is that each student develops a capacity for lifelong Jewish learning. It’s not only that school time is too limited to include everything that would be worth learning, but also that we are ready to learn different things as we mature. Thus, we want each student to learn more than the minimum to get through a bar/bat mitzvah service, because breadth of learning in school sets the stage for learning throughout life.