Thursday, January 26, 2017

Va'era: When God is hard within us


The Maor Eynaim (in his commentary on Brachot) says,
האדם הוא כמו שמראה בעצמו, כך מתראה למעלה: אם בגדלות הוא, מעורר למעלה בגדלות, ואי אפשר להאיר לעולם גשמי כזה
 
“A person is a mirror, just as he reflects himself, so is that reflection made above: if he is full of aggrandizement (gadlut) then so it will be above and it is impossible to bring light into the world this way.”

At the beginning of our torah portion, Moses is hesitant to appear before pharaoh. To reassure him, God tells Moses what will happen when Moses speaks to pharaoh. And God tells him, now, before Pharaoh has done anything, before Moses has even spoken to Pharaoh, before a single plague descends, that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply signs and wonders in Egypt.  

What most of us don’t realize is that God doesn’t actually harden pharaoh’s heart  until after the sixth plague – next week, actually- when the Torah finally says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Many of the commentaries on this Torah portion reflect on the problem of Pharaoh's hardened heart. Some, on the troubling implication that if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, is there such a thing as free will or the possibility of repentance? Others focus on the two main characters who reflect opposite traits: Pharaoh is the arrogant king, full of pride; Moses is the hero, humble and reluctant. But both of these ways of looking at the story take for granted a particular view of the back and forth in the narrative over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: that Pharaoh’s behavior is worse as he goes along.
And while most commentaries do accept this way of looking at the story, I stumbled across a comment by Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), the Hatam Sofer that completely changed the way I saw the story.  He writes that until the sixth plague, all the plagues and warnings had had no effect because Pharaoh was so deeply involved in his own sin of pride… but with the last plagues, we are told that God hardened his heart, and that that was a sign that God was with Pharaoh. 

The Hatam Sofer is paying very close attention to the language at the end of our portion and the beginning of next week’s. He notices that at the very beginning of next week’s Torah portion, God announces to Moses that he has made Pharaoh’s heart heavy (10:1) and that this follows closely the end of this week’s portion, in which Pharaoh admits the possibility that he might not be doing the right thing. Pharoah says (9:27), “This time I have sinned, God is the Righteous One, and I and my people are wicked.” Although after the plague of hail and rain, Pharaoh one more time strengthens himself against God, the crack has appeared, and God is able to enter his heart. 

It is only now that a change occurs. To stress the point:
Pharaoh isn’t getting worse – this is where he gets better. Until the sixth plague, the aggrandizement, the gadlut, in his heart has crowded out all else. But suddenly, God is able to enter, and that is when the possibility of pressuring Pharaoh to change begins to be possible. When the Torah tells us that God hardened pharaoh’s heart, it shows us that God is in pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh can no longer keep God out entirely - Pharaoh’s admission that he is in the wrong has made room for God and for change.
The late medieval midrashic collection, the Yalkut Shimoni suggests that this is the beginning of a radical shift in Pharaoh. It describes what happens to him after his downfall at the crossing of the sea: he is sent to Nineveh, Assyria, to become its ruler. He is still there when Jonah arrives to foretell their doom, and it is for this reason that Nineveh repents immediately, and is saved from destruction[i].

We are all the heroes of our own little stories. Even the very powerful spend their time worrying how they will be perceived. They arm themselves with pride and honor – they make their hearts – as the Torah describes pharaoh – kaved – heavy, which has the same root as kavod, honor. They fill themselves up so nothing else can get in, and that makes it difficult for them to change their path, to do right after doing wrong. Pride and arrogance tell them that they can’t show weakness, and thus cannot change their path.  But until they do, until WE do, nothing new can come in.

The context of the words of the Meor Eynaim is this:  when there is gadlut in heaven, and gadlut on earth, there is no conduit to bring down that which allows the world to continue – the kabbalists called it “shefa,” English speakers might call it “divine grace.” To bring down shefa, we have to have someone who does katnut – makes themselves smaller, like God did tzimtzum (contracted Godself) to make room for the imperfection of creation to exist outside of God. To partake of humility is to allow God’s grace to flow through us.

This reminds me of the words of the American Christian theologian Anne Lamott, who spoke about a time when she broke down in grief long overdue, and how that grief helped her realize that it’s okay not to be whole in and by yourself. She said, “The thing about light is that it isn’t really yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”

Pharaoh, too, had to be broken open so that he could allow something in besides himself. But it isn’t only rulers who often can’t see beyond themselves. We, too, each of us, often get “filled up” with our own worries and preoccupations, and it prevents us from seeing the world and its needs. It is only when we allow into ourselves a crack of something that is not-us that we begin to walk the road to redemption.


[i] ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת שמות רמז קעו

דבר אחר בו בלשון שחטא בו בלשון עשה תשובה, הוא אמר מי ה' מי כמוכה נאדר בקדש והצילו הקב"ה מבין המתים והעמידו לספר כח גבורתו שנאמר ואולם בעבור זאת העמדתיך והלך ומלך בנינוה וכששלח הקב"ה יונה לנינוה להנבא עליה להחריבה שמע פרעה ועמד מעל כסאו וקרע את בגדיו ולבש שק ואפר ולאחר מ' יום שבו למעשיהם הרעים ונבלעו כמתים בשאול תחתית שנאמר מעיר מתים ינאקו, לא ידעתי את ה'

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

9 Adar Day of Constructive Conflict

On March 3, 2015 I participated in a livestreamed Torah discussion with two colleagues, organized as part of 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Constructive Conflict
The 9 Adar project seeks to strengthen the Jewish culture of constructive conflict and healthy disagreements. In our ancient texts, it is called machloket l’shem shemayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). It means arguing the issues while respecting and maintaining good relationships with the other side, making sure that your personal motivation is to come to the best solution and not just to win, admitting when you are wrong, and acknowledging that both sides might be right. Approximately 2,000 years ago on the 9th of Adar, two major ideological schools of thought, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, allowed their disagreements to degrade into terrible conflict. Today, we are using the day to promote the original culture of healthy and constructive conflict.

The conversation was between me,  my fellow Rabbi Without Borders Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi fame, and Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski (profiled as The Chareidi Rabbi from Virginia, but he's no longer there; rather,he's now the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Sinai in Kauneonga Lake, NY and Crescent Hill Synagogue in Rock Hill, NY), moderated by Lex Rofes and Caroline Morganti of Open Hillel. The question we were given was:
The figure of Korach has fascinated readers of the Torah for millennia. To what extent do you sympathize with his mindset, and with his challenge to authority? To what extent, alternatively, do you feel that his behavior was ill-advised, or even malicious? Most importantly, what lessons can we learn about this story as we explore our relationships to conflict and authority today?
Here's what we said:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why go?

This article kind of pisses me off.

It's astonishingly backward: first of all the attitude - that moving is in itself a positive good, and that people should pick up and move "just because" is positive, and staying near one's family and friends is negative... is so amazingly bizarre, I have trouble even parsing it.

Really? building a community and remaining in it is bad? Helping to rebuild rather than abandoning everyone else is a sign of laziness? really?

 Second, the assertion here is that people are staying put because they're somehow lazy, rather than that staying someplace where you have a support network in hard times is a smart strategy.

That's pretty bass-ackwards. Remember all that worry we had a decade ago about how people were too busy rushing off and no one was making ties to their communities?

Also, the cultural assumptions are not well-examined. Could some of the stick-it-outness have something to do with our newer immigrant cultures? Families that stick together to help themselves move up the economic ladder together?

IMO, if this is true (and let's really see if it is), it could well be something to celebrate - people building stronger communities, stronger relationships with their parents, closer ties with their friends. I'm getting kind of sick of hearing how this generation is lazy, blah, blah, blah.

Maybe those who had the good fortune to have been born in a time when getting a job was easy and family ties were less valued could think to themselves for a while that maybe, just maybe, the way they did things didn't work out so well for everyone, and perhaps it's time to do things a different way.

 For example, a family who stays close to their sibs and parents, not to mention friends, well, maybe raising a family in that environment will be less difficult for women, with more people to share the child-care. Hmm, never thought of that? Since men still aren't exactly doing half.

Or maybe, staying put rather than moving is because there might be two people, both of whose careers need to be considered, rather than just one, and everyone follows him whenever he feels like picking up and moving. Oh, yeah, that.

It seems to me that  this article is just a way of expressing certain prejudices of a certain slice of the community - and  doesn't really tell us anything about either the reasons that people are staying put (if they really are). There's lots of economic things to report on out there, can't you NYT writer types find something to do with yourselves?

MIssed me?

I'm back again!

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Forgiveness: Notes for Shabat Shuva

This is what happens when you don't write it all out of ahead of time.
My friends, who requested a copy of this dvar torah, here are my notes, but it's not, I'm afraid, exactly the dvar you got. I hope this will do for you:


Recently, I spent some time on a caravan driving around the country with Clergy Beyond Borders’ on our Reconciliation tour. I spent a ridiculous amount of time in a very small van, driving around from synagogue to mosque to church – by some oddity, the section of the trip I was on was the “mostly mosques” part of the tour- with a Franciscan brother, an evangelical minister, another rabbi, and a Muslim imam. The purpose of the tour was to talk abut how we, as Americans, can heal our country, bring it together in unity and love. We spent a lot of our driving time talking – well, at least when we weren’t all playing with our phones and netbooks, anyhow. But all that driving left us with hours and hours of discussion about our respective religions’ views on all kinds of things. The time I spent talking with my fellow clergy often circled around to the process of forgiving, and so I found myself thinking a great deal about it over the last week.

For all the time we spend this time of year talking about forgiveness, we spend a remarkably little amount of time talking about the process of forgiving, as opposed to the process of requesting it.

On the face of it, it would seem as though asking forgiveness would be a lot more difficult. After all, it is an act of humility to go before someone and ask their forgiveness. It can be difficult to bend oneself to ask for forgiveness. But offering it, can also be difficult.

Imam Yahya Hendi was one of my companions on the trip, and in hearing his personal story, I have to say that I was moved and made hopeful about the possibility of humans forgiving one another – I don’t want to discuss politics too much – that’s not really the point, but Imam Hendi was born in Nablus, and experienced things that would have made a lesser man hate. But Imam Hendi spends his life working to make Muslims, Christians and Jews tolerant and loving of one another – more than that – (this is the “Beyond Borders” part) not just recognizing that we have differences, but that we should celebrate them, because we have different perspectives and we can learn from one another. This is a message he brings to Muslims as well as Christians and Jews; I have heard it. He quotes the Koran, a passage that if God had wanted all people to be the same , God could have arranged it, but rather we were made to be different, so that we could learn to know one another.

Although we don’t hear as much about it, there are in fact directives from Jewish law about how we are to forgive others.

The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os, ch. 6), who is good at this sort of thing, outlines the procedure for the mitzvah of forgiving others. He teaches that you should not hate a person in your heart, but you should privately ask him or her outright, “Why did you do such and such to me?”

Elsewhere he also notes, "It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel." (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 2:10)

[One who sincerely apologizes three times for a wrong committed against another has fulfilled his or her obligation to seek forgiveness. Shulchan Aruch OC 606:1]. The corollary is, of course, that if one doesn't forgive a sincere person who asks forgiveness three times, the wrong now rests on the person who refuses to forgive.

But, notice something that’s quite different here than the process of asking forgiveness: unlike repenting, offering forgiveness requires governing one’s own heart. For repenting, much of the process – after one realizes one has done wrong- is action. Admit your wrong and confess to God, confess and apologize to the victim, make restitution, and then refrain from doing it again. But for forgiving… how does one make oneself sincere and open? What if the offense was a serious betrayal?

How can an abused child forgive the parent who abused them – even if they no longer are abusing them, and even if they have begged forgiveness? Must they? What about someone whose husband or wife has cheated on them? Or the child of a murder victim; can they forgive the murderer?

How can one genuinely turn one’s heart with sincerity towards such a person and say, “I forgive you for the wrongs you have committed against me?”

For me --and I am ashamed to admit it-- I think it’s far more difficult to forgive, than it is to ask forgiveness. I don’t mean trivial things: people cutting me off in traffic, or mild irritations or offenses. But there are offenses that I’ve felt in my life that I’ve had a terrible time letting go of. There is a certain level of pride that one has to let go of to forgive, as well as to be forgiven. I struggle with it, all the time.

There’s an international charity that is known for their work in British prisons, called The Forgiveness Project. There are several videos that their participants have made as part of their learning process. I was struck by this quote in a video made by one of the participants Declan Kavannagh – he doesn’t say, but from clues in the video, I would guess that he was an IRA member:


“Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”


Forgiveness of a serious wrong is difficult because it requires us to admit two things – first that we have no control over much of what happens in the world; it is the same humility that shabbat’s prohibitions are supposed to inculcate within us – that ultimately, we are creatures in the world, whose fortunes are not in our own hands. If we refuse to forgive, we can hold onto the myth that we are in control, that we can protect ourselves. Being angry can give us the illusion that we are in control, even if we aren't Letting go of that... is very difficult.

But in love, there is no protection. Love requires us to be open and to risk hurt. Intimacy can only happen when we are willing to stand unmasked and truthful before another.

Forgiveness requires us to admit the risk that comes with love. When we are betrayed – as eventually we all will be, one way or another, by the imperfections of other humans-- we have to risk being hurt again. The only other choice is to stop being in relationship – with anyone. There is no choice, other than this – to risk other people whom you love hurting you, or hurting you again, or not being in relationship with other people. Only God will never betray us – humans will – if only because in the end, we die and leave our loved ones alone.

Even when the person does tshuva, we cannot know if their tshuva is sincere, or if it will ever be complete – that if they are in the same position again, they won’t repeat their action.

Forgiving another person means we must recognize that the person we thought we knew, might become someone else, might, in fact, already be someone else. But forgiveness also frees the other person to walk down a fresh path if they choose it. If we don’t forgive them, they are held in one moment of their lives forever, unable to leave it. Only when we stop holding them in that one moment of wrong are the free to choose another path and walk down it.

Perhaps that is why the Talmud tells us that one who forgives, is himself forgiven.

Raba said: He who forgoes his right [to exact punishment] is forgiven all his iniquities, as it says, Forgiving iniquity and passing by transgression. Who is forgiven iniquity? One who passes by transgression [against himself]. (BT. Rosh Hashana 17a)

If we don’t free the one who wronged us, by forgiving them, it becomes our sin, as well – because we prevented them from becoming a new person, and held them back, in a sense making more sinners in the world. In psalm 121 (:5) it says, יי צלך על יד ימינך God is your shadow (tzel) at your right hand. The Baal Shem Tov understands this to mean that if we are compassionate, God will be compassionate, as well. The Maor eynaim (commentary on Brachot) says,



האדם הוא כמו שמראה בעצמו כך מתראה למעלה אם בגדלות הוא מעורר למעלה בגדלות, ואי אפשר להאיר לעולם גשמי כזה



“a person is a mirror, just as he reflects himself, so is that reflection made above: if he is full of greatness (gadlut) then so it will be above and it is impossible to bring light into the world this way.

The context of this is that when there is gadlut in heaven, and gadlut on earth in the tzaddik, there is no conduit to bring down that which allows the world to continue – the kabbalists called it “shefa,” English speakers might call it “divine grace.” To bring down shefa, we have to have someone who does katnut – makes themselves smaller, like God did tzimtzum to make room for the imperfection of creation to exist outside of God. To partake of humility is to allow God’s grace to flow through us.

But I also like the simple, out-of-context reading, which reminds me of something the Christian writer Anne Lamott wrote:

In writing about acceptance of grief – which is perhaps similar to acceptance of the possibility of hurt—she said this, “The thing about light is that it isn’t really yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”


I think it is hard, hard to accept our lack of control over the world. Forgiving others means admitting that we can’t make ourselves safe in this world. And it’s true, we can’t. But we can help make others safe, by forgiving them, and letting them be free to make new choices, instead of holding them in their old ones.

In doing so, it doesn’t make us any safer, but it does connect us to God, both in modeling God’s compassion for the world, but also in being a conduit for that shefa, that flow of the divine that allows the world to continue to exist. When we forgive, we can channel a little of it into that person, even if only for a bit, and perhaps that will make all the difference.

This doesn’t much help us in figuring out the “how,” though, so I want to suggest two things. First, When you’re getting ready to follow Rambam’s directive and go ask the person, “Why did you do this?” or when you’re getting ready to meet with someone who has wronged you, and you know they want to make things right, have a plan in mind – figure out for yourself what kind of resolution or restitution would satisfy you. Be realistic, of course, But ask yourself, “what can I accept?” What would make this specific wrong, right?

Second, It is customary to say, each night before going to bed, a repetition of the shema. There is a prayer that many people join to it:

“Master of the universe I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me or sinned against me either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other; may no one be punished on my account. May it be your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors that I shall sin no more, nor repeat my sins, neither shall I again anger you more do what is wrong in Your eyes, The sins that I have committed, erase in Your abounding mercies but not through suffering or severe illnesses. May the words of my mouth be acceptable before You, Lord my Strength and my Redeemer.”

Much of this comes straight from the Talmud – (BT Yoma 86ff). It is, I think, a way to practice being forgiving. Most of the time, there will be little or nothing to forgive. But when some time comes, perhaps being in the habit of saying the words, will help each of us feel a way through the hurt towards releasing our control over the harms of the world towards us, and releasing a little reflection of light, instead.

The Talmud comments on a verse that comes from this week’s haftarah, “Great is penitence, for it brings healing to the world, as is said, “I will heal their affliction, generously will I take them back in love.” (Hos. 14:5) (BT Yoma 86a)

We live in a broken world. The sparks of creation are still scattered, and it is up to us to find and restore them. In the act of forgiveness, perhaps we are able to lift up a little of the spark of holiness in both ourselves and the one who wronged us, as they join together for a moment, and shine.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why are these dolls so creepy?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of creepy dolls of all kinds. But something about this ongoing controversy about the Spanish breastfeeding baby doll just won't leave me alone. Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams opines that the worst part about it is the price, and portrays Fox commentator Dr. Keith Ablow's comment that the doll is "another way of turning little girls into adults," and "Contributes to the sexualization of children and it makes them targets of assailants." as crazy (Although she doesn't actually explain why. Well, okay, it is kind of crazy.


But the problem isn't the scream-downs between breastfeeding advocates saying that breast-feeding is the only alternative for a mother who loves her child and thus a doll that promotes breast feeding over bottle feeding is GOOD! and those who think that breasts are for men to ogle.

The problem is one that no one likes to talk about which is twofold: 1. The whole baby doll thing is problematic. Do we really need to be giving little girls baby dolls to play mommy? How many boy dolls (yes, boys play with dolls, we just call them "action figures") teach boys to stay home and parent children? As the parent of a young (male) child, I have noticed since he was born that children's toys remain disgustingly gender segregated. Even lego, which really used to be such a great toy, now is separated by sex, with girls having pink homebuilding kits with ponies, and boys have war and exploration games. These boy legos are clearly not for girls, since the figures which used to be yellow and only vaguely humanoid are now Caucasian and mostly male - occasionally one will throw in a side character that is female, but she's clearly side-kick at best. The lego website is chock full of boys, and hardly a female to be seen. Et tu, lego? Toy stores, too, - at least the chains - yes, Toys R us, I'm talkin' to you- are separated by aisles of pink and blue, with all the role modelling of interesting careers happening in the boys aisles.

But that's almost a minor quibble. After all, no one really objects to girls playing with babydolls, at least, as long as dolls are encouraged for boys too, and there are non-doll alternatives for girls in which they see themselves portrayed (by the way, my son, when small, used to take cars and all kinds of other non-animate toys and set them up into families and play house with them, with the little boy car or whatever, inviting Ima home to make salad for her. But he wouldn't play with things that had faces in this way).

NO, we do mostly feel a little queasy about this breast-feeding doll. Why? Well, not because little girls are trying on adult roles. No, all kids do that. But because the adult-ness of little girls reflects a real, underlying problem with the way we view women and girls, which is that we still primarily believe -and reinforce in many ways- the idea that women are primarily sexual beings here for the pleasure of others. It's because Ablow isn't a pedophile that this doll gives him the raging squicks. Somewhere within, we are unnerved by the idea of girls breastfeeding because we do, underneath it all, think that breasts are for sex, and sex is what girls are for, and when that comes face to face with little girls playing at having breasts, it's like pulling aside the curtain of Jon-Benet Ramsey and the pageant culture of sexualizing girl-children, the completely inappropriate clothing that is sold for little girls to wear that sexualizes girl-children's bodies, the younger and younger ages at which we find girls dieting and wearing make-up, talking about boyfriends; not to mention the standards of beauty for women that emphasize child-like-ness- blonde straight hair, hairless bodies and so on.

I'm not opposed at all to breast-feeding; I did it for my child, and would have continued longer had he not made his own wishes clear as a year old that he wasn't interested. And let's be real, there is a measure of physical pleasure and closeness about breast-feeding. But this doll isn't really making us worried because of breast-feeding; rather, it's because underneath it all, we do believe that women's bodies are for others, and not themselves, and we are just starting to be aware enough of this that it troubles us - as it should.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Not bringing sexy back...please


Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage's proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today's JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c'mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.

So what to get to first? I'm impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong's complaint. I'm not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex - from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Right. Just where does she think those babies come from... what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick - she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages? I'm- thankfully- nowhere near old enough to remember those times, but I have mentors who were, and their stories would make anyone seeking love and intimacy feel faint: men who wanted open marriage... for themselves only; men who wanted someone to raise the children... while they went out seeking younger, newer sexual partners... for whom they eventually left their wives; relationships in which one partner (of various genders) said okay to the other one's having sex with other people...because they loved them so much that they couldn't bear to stand up for themselves because their partner might leave them or feared being left impoverished with children) - even though the idea of sharing their partner sexual left them heartbroken day after day; relationships where there's no rest and no real intimacy, but ongoing competition, forever, because one or both partners aren't really committed to the relationship, but are settling for what there is... until they can find something better. Anyone who thinks the message of an open marriage to the partner is anything other than, "you're a commodity, and you're replaceable" is fooling themselves.

Polygamy makes perfect sense in a world where women are chattel and their purpose is serving their husband. In any world where women matter as anything other than breeding stock, it's vile. Open marriage and non-monogamous relationships only makes sense in a world where not just women but everyone is commodified (Although lets be honest: it affects women differentially - women are still the primary caregivers, they still bear the brunt of the effects of childbearing and rearing on their careers, they still earn less money for the same work, meaning that when Mr. open marriage ups and leaves for his next partner, the children and women's level of survival will drop. Ms. Open marriage leaving for her next conquest won't affect his actual health and life so much, just his heart). That's vile too.

Human beings are not commodities. As a rabbi, I am disgusted with these "trends." Admittedly, they are the logical outcome of several other trends in our society - the trends of treating everything as a fee for service exchange and the idea that all we are responsible for is our own individual self, and that our own pleasure in this moment is the only good worth valuing.

Although the Torah permits polygamy, it's pretty clear that it never has a good outcome. As we assume that nothing else in the Torah is accidental, I must insist that the comparison of the three families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also not accidental. God does not approve of open marriage, nor of polygamy. It is, at best, to be suffered. the failures of King David and King Solomon are traceable to the same failings that multiplied their wives.

Our tradition teaches that we are to increase the light: we move towards greater goodness, towards more equality, towards better understanding of God's desire for us. God models the behavior for us: God and Israel in one marriage together as expressed beautifully in the second chapter of Hosea: Israel runs after other gods, thinking that they will give her pleasure, but ultimately Israel will remember the love of her youth, and return, and on that day (with the verses that an adult Jew says daily as he or she puts on her tefillin in the morning) God and Israel are betrothed with tzedek, mishpat, chesed and rachamim -righteousness(and charitability), justice, gentle-lovingness and mercy; with faithfulness, "and you shall know the Lord." -And this is followed by a universal covenant with all creation - and to God, the Torah tells us, Israel will no longer say "Ba'ali" -my master, but "Ishi" - my partner.

that "And you shall know the Lord,: uses the language of da'at - knowing another being. Knowledge is the language of intimacy -sexuality is implied when it is used about humans. Intimacy comes from perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness. Sexuality is a stripping bare of the self. To treat it like just another fun activity is sad. Sex should be pleasurable, but that's not all it is. It is the recognition of the divine in your other self - the half of adam that was stripped away at creation in order to create within us a longing for conjunction.

In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, when God says that it is not good for the adam to be alone, our midrash tells us that the adam (the word the Hebrew uses is "HaAdam," with a definite article) was not in fact a man, but a two-sexed creature which God split into male and female. The adam was imperfect, and to become a fit partner for God, needed -unlike animals- to have a sense of longing for another. When we find our partner, we find the other part of ourselves, and then we are fit partners for God, as well.

When we seek sexual pleasure as its own end, with no "knowing God," we cheat ourselves and our partners. Of course one-to-one partnership isn't always going to be easy: nothing worthwhile ever is. Having children isn't always easy, a career isn't always easy, doing the right thing isn't always easy: should we abandon children, careers, honesty and integrity?

I'm sure that between "Big Love" (feh), continued patriarchy and homosexism/heteronormativity and our American belief that the individual is more important than another human unit, there won't be an end to this "trend" any time soon, but Erica Jong is wrong about her daughter's generation. it seems to me that - at least as she explains it- they understand that sex is not only intimate, but private, and that far from being bloodless, human urges that are given boundaries are holier and more powerful. All human urges are boundaried by ritual - whether it's religious ritual, or secular ritual, it is part of being human to seek meaning. Getting rid of meaning doesn't make us free, it makes us amoeba.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

In the Summer Issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Rabbis Aaron Alexander and Daniel Greyber wrote a commentary on two incidents that had happened over the past year and a half in which Jews praying on planes with tefillin aroused suspicion and worry, causing in one case, for the plane to be diverted and in the second, for the plane to be met at LAX by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel, and police.

Greyber and Alexander express this as the outcome of the blessing and tension of "unparalleled freedom of religious expression," and ask how, given that tension, Jews (and other people of faith) can navigate the responsibilities that come with that freedom. They review the halacha - that it is not necessary to pray on the plane with tefillin, but can put off the wearing of tefillin until later in the day, and that if one cannot avoid praying on the plane, that one is permitted to pray while seated. Their conclusion?

We believe it is best to pray quietly before the flight or, if necessary, when you are seated, where you can focus and not disturb others. If you can arrange with airline staff and fellow travelers to pray undisturbed – and without disturbing others – great. Until then, best to put on tefillin later, not in flight.

While I agree that it might be best to pray in one's seat so as not to inconvenience the flight crew (although I can't see why one couldn't just as well stand at one's seat to stay out of the aisles), Greyber and Alexander are missing something in their take on thee two incidents: these two incidents have probably done more to publicize the Jewish practice of tefillin than any campaign that any organization has ever had - and not just to non-Jews, but to Jews as well.

What if, instead of scaring the flight attendants, before getting on the plane, the Jew who planned to put on tefillin and pray went to the check-in desk, introduced themselves, told the flight attendant what they were going to do, and asked them to let the other flight attendants know. What if they gave a little flyer to them explaining what was in the tefillin? There are all kinds of possible ways to handle the situation with scaring or inconveniencing people - and which have the added benefit of letting the people around us know a little bit about Jewish customs.

The idea I disagree with in Alexander/Greyber's post is that we should hide ourselves so as not to scare people, but that's not going to be successful. If it isn't tefillin on a plane, it will be shofarot in customs (as actually happened to me some years ago). It's better for people to understand what they're looking at - they may even come to see the beauty in it that we do, instead of being frightened. Granted one doesn't want to make a nuisance out of oneself in the aisles, but I think that their middle ground, isn't actually in the middle - it's simply at a different "end," one which reminds me of our ghetto days - but we don't live there anymore. There's nothing for us to fear - or for anyone else to fear, either.