No, You Can’t Have My Earrings!

One of my favorite midrashim is rooted in the story of the Golden Calf:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”  And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32: 1-6

Of course, we know how the story ends: building the calf was a huge mistake. The tablets that Moses brought down the mountain specify that the people are not to make any images of their God. Moses is angry, and God is angry, and Aaron and the people are in big, big trouble.

However, midrash offers an interesting wrinkle on the story: according to a story that appears both in Numbers Rabbah and in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. Not everyone contributed to make the calf. When the men approach their wives and daughters, they refuse to participate. Rashi tells us in a comment on Megillah 22b that their reward for this is the women’s holiday of Rosh Chodesh, the first of every month, when women are exempt from work.

Some writers, including the redactor of Numbers Rabbah, have suggested that this is evidence of women’s moral superiority. Sometimes when I tell this story, people have said that it was because the women were vain, and they just loved their jewelry and didn’t want to give it up – in other words, that women are morally inferior to men!

But this is not a story about gender superiority or inferiority. It’s yet another story about Jews disagreeing as to the best way to worship. Often our tradition has given men greater authority on such things. The ancient midrash points to the fact that gender doesn’t magically confer the right answers.

One of the things I love about studying rabbinic texts is that just when I decide that the rabbis were all patriarchal old so-and-so’s, they surprise me. These texts are greater than any of us, then or now.

 

Esther, Upended

The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.
The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.

I recently read an article by Ayalon Eliach in Ha’aretz that offers a new and unique understanding of the Book of Esther.

Hang around the Jewish world long enough, and you will eventually meet someone who tells you that there’s a “commandment” in the Gemara to drink yourself silly on Purim, specifically to drink until you don’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, two characters in the Esther story.

Said Rava: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” – Megillah 7b

The context doesn’t help: no reason is given that one should drink until one cannot tell the “good guy” from the “bad guy” in the story. Given all the pronouncements against drunkenness elsewhere in the Talmud and indeed in the Torah, it is extremely odd.

Eliach went looking for the reason Rava might have said such a thing. He looked into other statements by Rava, and learned that this one sage took a very dim view of Mordechai, reading the Esther story in a completely different way than is usual. In Rava’s reading, Mordechai does anything and everything for access to power, prostituting his niece in order to have a secret advantage at court. Mordechai’s lust for power came from arrogance, not piety, in this reading: he wouldn’t bow to Haman because he wasn’t going to bow to anyone. And by that act of arrogance, he endangers the entire community, bringing a pogrom down upon the heads of the Jews of Persia. According to Rava, Mordechai cloaks his ambition and arrogance in piety. Then Eliach draws his conclusion: perhaps the real message of Esther is to watch out for the Mordechais of this world, who claim to be pious but for whom piety is just a means to their real goal, power.

In summary, what Eliach found was that for Rava there was no difference between Mordechai and Haman. Both of them are bad guys: Haman for all the usual reasons, but Mordechai because he gambled with the safety of the Jewish people and with his niece.

There’s more in the original article (if you are intrigued, read it!) but I bring it up here for two reasons:

  1. It’s the most inventive reading of Esther I’ve seen in a while, and
  2. It illustrates beautifully that there is no single “correct” reading of the Bible.

One of the joys of study as a Jew is that we value an innovative interpretation such as Mr. Eliach has made. He makes a good rabbinical argument, looking at an anomaly in the tradition and then bird-dogging it through the texts to uncover a new understanding. That new understanding doesn’t necessarily supercede the old one, it just adds to it. The fact that in this case it produces a moral of the tale 180° from the more familiar moral just makes it more interesting. It’s also quite appropriate to Purim, the holiday when everything is hafuch (upside-down.)

The Torah and the Tanakh are given to us, to the Jewish People. We wrestle with them, and in every generation, some among us find new and wonderful ideas in there. We use both traditional tools and modern tools: Eliach makes his radical reading of Esther with the most traditional tools imaginable, the words of a 4th century rabbi. Another reader may dig at the text with a modern tool like structural criticism and find something wonderful, perhaps with a more traditional feel to it – Jewish text study is not without its ironies!

The point is, these texts are ours: Our to learn, ours to cherish, ours to poke and prod for new insight. Enjoy!

 

 

Remembering Leonard Nimoy z”l

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP – @TheRealNimoy

That was the final tweet from Leonard Nimoy, who used Twitter like the artist he was in so many other media. Like most people, I first encountered him playing Spock, the misfit officer on the Starship Enterprise. Like any good actor, he used pieces of himself to give life to that role. Two years in the US Army as a Jew must have been great preparation to play the only Vulcan on the Enterprise.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Nimoy but I know several people who did meet him in various settings. What strikes me now is that I’ve never heard anything bad about the man: he was kind and polite in his dealings with fans and he was a pillar of his synagogue. I gather from his artwork that he was a good Reform Jew, asking questions of the tradition at every turn. If you doubt that, check out The Shekhina Project (NSFW.)  He had a true artist’s eye, seeing beauty where others refused to see it: check out The Full Body Project (also NSFW.) He and his wife Susan gave generously to their communities via the Bay-Nimoy Early Childhood Center and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles – and those are just the gifts of which I am aware. Everything I’ve heard suggests that there were many small generosities that will never be public.

All of this is to say that the man was a mensch. He played a role that became a big deal in pop culture, but it was only one of many roles he played in his life. Some had more artistic merit, perhaps, and one was the role we all should play, that of Human Being.

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch! – Hillel, in Pirkei Avot 2:

If those of us who never met the man are sad to see him go, I ache to think of the grief his family and friends are feeling. May they be comforted among all the mourners of Israel and Jerusalem.

Perfect moments and good people are with us only for a moment. We can preserve them only in memory. Thank you for all you taught us, Leonard Nimoy.

 

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

 

The Blog’s New Clothes

We’re reading Parashat Tetzaveh this week, known to a friend of mine as the “Fashion Parashah.” In it we learn all about the priestly vestments that Aaron and his sons will wear.

My blog has been wearing the same outfit since 2010, through 618 posts. I woke up today and decided it was time for a new look. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but it is clean and readable and I think it will be friendlier for folks reading via tablet and smartphone. If anything about it is acutely uncomfortable for you, let me know. WordPress is a powerful platform, and I have options.

 

 

Don’t Forget this Purim Mitzvah!

will_work_for_food3gPurim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.

In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:

MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.

Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)

However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:

  • Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
  • Persuade others to give to your local food bank.

This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance.  Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.

The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.

The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)

Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!

 

 

No Stupid Questions!

One of the routine challenges I face as an educator is that people are afraid to look stupid. They don’t ask questions, or if they manage to get the courage together to ask questions, they apologize for asking. I don’t think anyone should be afraid to ask an honest question, ever, as long as they are doing it to become informed. The fact is that the best questions, the questions that must be asked, are the questions that come out of ignorance. 

Asking a pure question, an explain-this-to-me question, is in Jewish tradition the foundation of study. Look at our sacred texts: the Talmud is full of questions: “Why is this?” “What is that?” The great commentator Rashi anticipates our questions and answers them generously. A good question requires humility and courage, because it admits ignorance.

Asking a pure question, an I-don’t-know-please-fill-me-in question is also the foundation of education. Asking questions is how we learn.

image from the msnbc.com website
image from the msnbc.com website

I’ve been thinking about questions ever since seeing a piece on the The Rachel Maddow Show on Feb. 23. Ms. Maddow, whom I usually admire, is setting up a story about another matter entirely. She plays video of Idaho State Rep Vito Barbieri asking a question about human anatomy. I can’t get a link to the video to work, but here’s the quote from the msnbc.com website:

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.
The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.
Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

Yep, I get it. The man doesn’t know basic female anatomy and he’s a state legislator, about to vote on a bill that affects women’s agency over their own bodies. That’s not good. What troubles me is that the man asked a question and then Ms. Maddow and now a large number of my fellow liberal Americans laugh at him for it. Social media were immediately awash with people making fun of him; #VitoBarbieri became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

I wish more conservative lawmakers had the humility to ask questions of scientists and listen to their answers. We’ve got people making laws who don’t know basic anatomy: that’s terrifying. The immediate fix is for them to ask questions and learn. Come the next election, I hope the voters will do a better job of electing someone qualified. But to shame the man, to make him and his wife and his mother the butt of jokes is dead wrong.

I am not going to repeat any of it, but if you search Twitter for #VitoBarbieri you’ll see it. If I were on the receiving end of that, it would be a long time before I asked another curious question when someone might catch me doing it.

Rep Barbieri’s question seems to have come from genuine curiosity. That is profoundly different than the sort of pompous, ignorant pronouncement that often comes from politicians about scientific matters. Too often our lawmakers make up their minds on the basis of what they think will get them elected next time and then spout ignorant statements about women’s anatomy. They don’t ask – they just presume and vote. Rep. Barbieri asked.

Rep. Barbieri and I disagree about most things, as far as I can tell. But I applaud him for the curiosity and humility to ask a question. I am sorry and sad that people are laughing at him, because asking questions is a noble thing to do.

 

For more about Jewish tradition and shaming: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass.