Special Effects in Scripture?

June 7, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zJonathan Lace wrote an excellent question in reply to Please God, Please Heal Her:” 

My wife and I were discussing this topic just the other day. We both recognize that there is a tradition of the miraculous healing in both Jewish and Christian tradition. But we live in a post-scientific age. So either (1) God does not intervene and miracles in the Bible are just misunderstood natural events, (2) God does intervene, with miracles, some of which could be described in the Bible. But doesn’t the knowledge that science gives us relativize what we can say about whether or not miracles have occurred? 

I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green speak about conflict between science and religion. He said that the forces of religion fought two great battles in the twentieth century, one against evolution and the other against Biblical criticism. Religion lost both battles. He went on to say that if both science and religion are a search for truth, then perhaps it is more useful to consider that they are concerned with different aspects of human experience, and therefore with different truths.  (If you are curious about Rabbi Green’s views, I recommend his book, Radical Judaism.)

Anyone who attempts to use the Torah as a physics or biology text will have to choose between disappointment and delusion. Even when we read the text literally, it hints that it is not talking about the kind of truth one can establish with scientific method. The fact that houses and clothing can “catch” a “disease” in Leviticus 14 points towards the possibility that tzara’at is not a physical disease, for example.

Similarly, all the interesting theories attempting to establish natural causation for the plagues in Exodus are beside the point. It may be that volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean gave rise to experiences for which we have traces in the descriptions of the plagues. But the narrative is about a battle between two powers, Pharaoh and the strangely named god of Israel. Pharaoh rules the kingdom Mitzrayim (Egypt, but it translates nicely as “narrow place” in Hebrew). He keeps slaves and he hates foreigners. And since he is Pharaoh, a god on earth, no one dares argue with him about it. The god of Israel has a name that is four vowels; the deity’s name is a breath, and it is a form of the verb “to be.” The god of Israel wants the people to be free of Mitzrayim, free of Pharaoh. The newcomer god doesn’t keep slaves. This god is a life-affirming deity, insistent that the people called B’nai Israel [the children of Israel] will go out into the midbar, the wilderness, which is the exact opposite of a narrow place. Wonders happen. Things get broken. In the end, people die. The champion of freedom wins in the end, and the people go out into the wilderness, which scares the dickens out of them.

[If I have upset some readers by lower-casing the word "god" understand that I've done so to make a point, that in the Exodus narrative as written, Pharaoh is one of the gods of Egypt. A newcomer god fights with him over a bunch of slaves. I'm talking narrative here, not contemporary theology.]

If you read this story as a description of the ultimate values of the Jews, as what theologian Rabbi Michael Goldberg has called their “master narrative,” then the details of the plague are interesting only in the way that the details of special effects are interesting in a 21st century movie blockbuster. If the movie is any good, the special effects are not the point of the film. The plagues are not the point of the Exodus story. The point of the story is that the Jewish People understand themselves to be a people united with a deity who has taken them as partners in a project to heal the world. The values undergirding this project are freedom, loving-kindness, wisdom, goodness, truth, and more.

Yes, it is a chutzpadik [outrageous] idea. Notice, though, that under this master narrative, no one is obligated to buy into the Hebrew/God-of-Israel worldview. No one is blasted for failing to leave Egypt. At Sinai, where the deal is sealed (in another scene with great special effects) everyone enters the covenant freely. There are some midrashim that say otherwise, but notice that they are in effect minority opinions, not in the Torah itself. And in later centuries, while there’s no applause for a Jew who assimilates and simply leaves the project, no one is saying she will “go to hell,” either. She’s free to go, even as it pains us to see her go, because freedom is a key value. (Yes, some families will refuse to have anything to do with an apostate Jew. And others will still love them and have them to dinner.) As any rabbi tells people who inquire about conversion, they don’t have to become Jewish to be acceptable to God in the Jewish narrative.

OK, back to miraculous healings: I prefer to look at all supernatural goings-on in the text as special effects in the narrative. Maybe they are based in an experience someone couldn’t describe in other terms, or maybe they are there to make a particular point via metaphor. But the truth in the text requires me to work. I have to study the text, ask questions about it, dig around in it to find the values that lie underneath. I’m still free to argue with some aspects of those stories, such as the passages that seem to set women as unequal to men. For instance, I find it easier to read the Daughters of Zelophechad narrative than from the Lot’s Daughters narrative. But notice that in the rabbinic literature and since then, Lot’s daughters have come in for more nuanced readings. Many scholars have taken the trouble to look for underlying values in their story, difficult as it is. When I’m struggling with a text, I look to see what others have found in it.

It’s a truism that Judaism is more about doing than about belief.  Science is good at describing and explaining our world in such a way that we are able to manipulate it. I can’t and won’t speak for all religions. Judaism is about making choices about our actions, including those actions made possible by science. Judaism often uses narrative and metaphor to talk about those choices, thus our texts require study.

But really, are the texts of science any different? If you don’t bother to learn, a smartphone is a miracle, is it not?


“Please God, Please Heal Her!”

June 6, 2014
Pleading Rocks by Patrick Tanguay

Pleading Rocks by Patrick Tanguay

In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-alot’kha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16) we have a very famous story. The Israelites are camped at a place called Hazeroth. Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister of Moses, are talking to one another about Moses. First a little gossip: “He married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman!” and then, “God has spoken through each of us, too!” – with the implication that they resent Moses’ high position as leader of the Israelites. The irony of this is that Aaron and Miriam are quite famous in their own right. Aaron is the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Miriam is beloved by the Israelites; from other stories in the Torah, we know that the Israelites loved her. A miraculous spring rose wherever she pitched her tent, providing the whole community with water. And yet the two of them are kvetching that Moses gets too much attention! God hears them, and summons the three siblings to the door of the Tent of Meeting. God says to Aaron and Miriam, in front of Moses, “Lookit, you two: I talk to prophets like you in visions, but when I talk with Moses, it’s mouth to mouth! How dare you speak against Moses!” Then God departs in a huff, the cloud rising from above the Tent. When the cloud goes, the three of them are horrified: Miriam’s skin has turned sickly white, and she is covered with flakes. It is the terrible condition tzara’at, which is sometimes (mis)translated as “leprosy.” It is not the same as the illness Hansen’s Disease, also called leprosy. The laws for tzara’at are commanded in Leviticus 13-14, and the essence of them is that a person with the disease cannot stay in the camp. Consider for a moment what that means: Miriam has to leave the Israelite camp. She has to pitch her tent outside the camp, without the protection of the warriors. Wild animals and marauders could get her. Her miraculous spring will not be available to the thirsty Israelites, either. This is a disaster. Aaron, whose skin is unaffected, goes into a frenzy of guilt. “Moses! Don’t hold our sin against us! Please pray for her to be healed!” By asking Moses to pray, he demonstrates that he heard and understood what God said: Moses is closer to God than he. Aaron admits that he can’t do anything for Miriam, but that Moses might be able to help. And Moses does indeed pray for his sister. His prayer is short and direct: “Please, God, please heal her!”  And God relents, saying that she will have to suffer seven days of exile outside the camp, and then her skin will clear and she can return inside the camp. The whole camp waits for her, and then they move on. This is an interesting story on many levels. On one of the simplest, it is an illustration of how seriously our tradition takes the sin of talking about another person, even if what is said is true. Aaron and Miriam were envious of their brother – but notice, the sin isn’t their envy, it’s the talk that gets them in trouble. Emotions are natural parts of the human experience. It’s what we do with and about them that matters. Another thing that always strikes me about this story is that even though Moses talks with God “mouth to mouth” (what a curious phrase!) Moses’ prayer gets a rather reluctant response from God. He says, “Please, God, please heal her!” but the illness will still have to run its course. We learn from this that it is OK to pray for sick people, but that it is unrealistic to expect miracles.  One thing that people sometimes take away from this story is that illness is a punishment for sin. It’s important to realize that tzara’at is not leprosy, and is in fact not an illness as we understand illness today. If you read Leviticus 13-14 carefully, you can see that it doesn’t behave like a sickness. It is more an outward manifestation of the condition of the soul; only a priest can diagnose it, for one thing. For another, houses and clothing can get it. I read the passages about houses and clothing in Leviticus as a warning to us NOT to mistake it for leprosy or any other regular human illness. Have you ever prayed for someone else to be healed? What is “healing”?

Image: “Pleading Rocks” by Patrick Tanguay, Some Rights Reserved.


What’s a D’var Torah?

June 6, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zA reader asked: What’s the difference between a “drash” and a “d’var Torah?”

First of all, let’s talk definitions:

DRASH is an interpretation of something in scripture.

e.g. Rabbi Akiva gave a drash that explained the crowns on the letters of the Torah scroll.   OR

e.g.: “That’s an interesting drash,” the teacher said, after Abe speculated that perhaps the burning bush was a door into another dimension.

D’VAR TORAH (duh-VAHR toh-RAH) (literally, a “word of Torah”) is a short teaching linked to a passage of Torah. (Please do not refer to it as a “d’var.” That means “a word of,” which is annoying; a word of what?)

e.g. Will you give a d’var Torah to open next week’s meeting?

While we’re at it, let’s look at some related D (for Dalet) words:

DRASHAH (drah-SHAH) is the same as drash, but usually refers to something more formal, like a sermon or lesson.

e.g. On the High Holy Days, Rabbi Cohen’s drashah might be as long as 45 minutes.

A DARSHAN (dar-SHAHN) is a man who gives a drash. When a woman does it, we call her a DARSHANIT.

e.g. I asked Rivka to be the darshanit for next week’s service, but if she can’t do it, ask Robert to be the darshan.

MIDRASH (mi-DRASH or MID-drash) – See What is Midrash? 

e.g. The story about Abraham’s father the idol maker is a midrash.

——

So the answer to the original question is “not much!”


Learn About Judaism Online

June 4, 2014

I said in an earlier post that I was going to share some online study resources.  Here are some favorites (not an exhaustive list). I have included only free sites, although several of them accept donations. If you use one of them a lot, consider contributing to them.

Hebcal.com – This is an online Jewish calendar, easy to use and easy to personalize. If I could have access to only one Jewish website, this would be it. It will tell you what day it is today and what Torah readings are assigned to the day (both for Israel and for the Diaspora, which sometimes differ.) You can go there and use the “date converter” to find out what day in the Hebrew calendar you were born. It will give you links from each weekly Torah reading to the reading itself, to an online tikkun (reading with and without vowel markings), and to assorted divre Torah (short sermons and studies) on the portion. You can even export parts of the Jewish calendar to your Google or Outlook calendar.  Hebcal.com ROCKS.

MyJewishLearning.com – This is a searchable, hyperlinked, massive Jewish learning site. The articles are written simply and clearly by reputable scholars who know their subjects. It has recipes, definitions, holiday information, news, and a couple of online magazines. There are blogs addressing every imaginable aspect of modern Jewish life. Best of all, it’s a very inclusive site, respectful of all branches and flavors of Judaism.

JewishVirtualLibrary.org – This is another massive Jewish site full of great information. Again, the articles are from scholars of repute. It is a bit more challenging reading than MyJewishLearning.com, which may be a plus or a minus, depending on your interest and background.

JTA.org - The Jewish Telegraphic Agency calls itself “the Global Jewish News Source.” When there is news in the Jewish world and you want information, this is an excellent place to look. You can also sign up for their daily newsletter.

JewishEncyclopedia.com – The Jewish Encyclopedia was published from 1901-1906, and its full text is available online at this site. While it does not have information about topics after 1906, for everything before that it is quite good.

YouTube.com - YouTube is great for “how-to” demonstrations. Want to see exactly how to light Chanukah candles? Search “Chanukah” on YouTube. Want to learn some fun Purim songs? Search YouTube. Want to make a virtual visit to many sites in the Jewish world without buying a plane ticket? Often you can find a video on YouTube that will give you a distinct “You Are There” experience.

ReformJudaism.org – A good central source of information on Reform Judaism online, with links to all the major Reform organizations.

OrthodoxUnion.org – A good central source of information on Modern Orthodoxy.

USCJ.org – The central address for Conservative Judaism on the web.

Jewish Reconstructionist Communities – The central address for Reconstructionist Judaism online.

ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal – The central address for Jewish Renewal online.

 

Some cautions:

Wikipedia on Judaism is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are many articles there on Jewish subjects, from the weekly Torah portions to holidays to history. On the other hand, you don’t have any way of knowing how reliable a source the authors are using, or what the background of a particular writer. If you are a beginner, you don’t have much way to know the reliable sources from the unreliable ones.

Beware of any site that trashes other Jews. There are plenty of good websites that don’t do that, so why hang out on those that do? Any site that speaks scornfully of “liberal Jews” or “the Orthodox” is not worth your time.

Beware of allegedly educational sites that are not produced by Jews. Other people sometimes have very peculiar ideas about us, to put it politely. If you read something on a website that is troubling, talk to a rabbi about it or leave a message on a reputable site that has an “ask the Rabbi” feature.

Finally, keep in mind that while the Internet and your computer are powerful tools, there’s no substitute for learning with real live people. Find yourself a rabbi. Find yourself a study partner. There is a richness available in in-person Jewish study that even the best website cannot match.

Happy Learning!


What’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

June 3, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is one of the ways to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. It is an all-nighter Torah study session on Erev Shavuot.

In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the people to prepare themselves for something that will happen on the third day. They are to wash their clothes and purify themselves, and to abstain from sex. The third day, God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai with terrifying lightning and thunder.

There is a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:57) that the Israelites went to bed early on the second night, in order to be well rested for the giving of the Torah. They were so tired (from all the bathing?) that they overslept and Moses was nearly late going up the mountain to receive the commandments. Tikkun Leil Shavuot  “repair of the night of Shavuot” is a way of expressing our hunger for Torah, that unlike our ancestors, not only will we not oversleep, we will stay up all night, studying Torah in order to be ready to receive it.

The first Tikkun Leil Shavuot took place in Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire (now in Greece) in the 16th Century. It was hosted by Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the Shulkhan Arukh and a great Sephardic mystic.)  Today, in many Jewish communities, Jews gather to stay up late or even all night, to study together.

It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but I have some wonderful memories from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which I’ve written about in another post, Why I Love Shavuot.

Whatever you do this Shavuot, I hope that you do something to celebrate this least-famous Jewish holiday. If your community has a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, go for a while (not everyone stays all night.) If you don’t have one available, invite a friend over to read from the Torah and ponder it together. If you don’t have a friend, get out a commentary or look at some of the great learning resources online. Or if nothing else, have some cheesecake!

Soon I’ll post more about online resources. Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!


Which Passage Speaks to You?

June 1, 2014

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Over on Wrestling With G-d, shocheradam asked for suggestions for blog post topics. On a whim, I asked him which passage of Torah is speaking to him lately, and he wrote a fascinating take on a passage from Numbers.

This leads me to ask readers: what about you? Is there a passage of Torah talking to you at the moment? Or perhaps one that speaks to you over the long term, a passage to which you feel kinship?

When I was getting ready to go to rabbinical school, my friend Barbara asked me if there was a passage to which I felt a special connection. At the time, selling all my goods and getting ready to move across the world to go to school, I felt drawn to Genesis 12:1:

And the Eternal said to Abram, “Take yourself from your land, and from the land of your birth, and from your father’s house, and [go] to the land which I will show you.”

So Abram loaded up the family and his herds, and hit the road without knowing exactly what was ahead.

I felt a lot of kinship to Abram, as I sold my furniture and broke up 25 years of housekeeping, reducing my belongings to four giant duffle bags before I moved to Israel. Unlike Abram, I didn’t take my family along: my children were adults, one in college and the other already in the work world. It was scary, but this passage made me feel less alone.

Six years later, when my class was getting ready for ordination, again it was time to list a passage of Torah that spoke to me. This time it was the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, from Numbers 27: 1-11. They were five educated women who pointed out to Moses that a part of the Torah law, as given, was grossly unfair. Their father died without a son, and the daughters were to be left without a share in their tribe’s land as a result. Moses wasn’t sure what to do, so he took it to the Tent of Meeting and asked God what to do. God said they were quite right, and altered the law of inheritance. The story spins out further in Numbers 36 and Joshua 17, but the daughters’ challenge to the law was successful.

I felt a connection to this story because I had just spent six years studying to become a rabbi. I knew that not everyone in the Jewish world would be willing to see me as a rabbi, but I took comfort in this passage. The daughters of Zelophehad were role models for me, examining the law and even challenging it. They challenged me to continue studying and building my rabbinical skills to meet their high standard, an argument that could stand up before God.  Since then, I’ve also come to admire them for their willingness to speak up for themselves; the more I study them, the more I want to be like them.

So, readers, is there a passage that speaks to you? A character in Torah or Tanach (the Jewish Bible) or in rabbinical literature with whom you strongly identify? If there is, I invite you to tell us about it in the comments, or to do so in some other venue (your blog? on facebook?) and leave us a link here.

I look forward to seeing Torah through your eyes.

Photo: “Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue Torah” by Steve Garfield. Some Rights Reserved.


A Blessing for Driving?

May 31, 2014
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Bicyclist in Traffic

Pikuach nefesh (pee-KOO-ahch NEH-fesh) is a Jew’s obligation to save a life in jeopardy. This commandment is taken so seriously in the tradition that it overrides many other considerations. To preserve a life, it is permissible to remove organs from a dead body (otherwise, Jews are forbidden to disturb a body except to wash it, clothe it decently, and bury it.) To preserve a life, one may travel or otherwise violate the Sabbath.

The obligation is based in the Torah: “Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This mitzvah was honed and expanded through many discussions in the Talmud, and it is carefully spelled out in the codes of halakhah (Jewish law.)

Often when we speak of it, we think of desperate heroic situations: the weeping widow signs off on organ donation after her husband’s death, a sick child is rushed to a hospital on Shabbat, or a teen uses CPR skills to keep someone alive until the EMT’s arrive.

Today I was reminded that it also applies to a situation so mundane we rarely pause to notice it. A friend posted to his facebook timeline:

“Most people don’t get into their cars thinking, ‘I hope nobody hits and kills me today.’ I cannot get on my bike without having that thought.”

It’s not an unreasonable fear. I heard it from my son, too, back when he was commuting on a motorcycle. And what city dweller has not had a close call as a pedestrian? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians are what traffic experts call “vulnerable road users” (VRU’s) and recently they have accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities a year on US roads. The average new car weighed 4,000 lbs in 2010. When two tons of steel encounter a fragile human body, there’s no question who is going to get hurt.

Then, of course, there are the other people in cars: despite the tons of steel surrounding passengers, riding in a car is pretty dangerous too. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2010. Using the other figure for VRU’s, that leaves 22,999 people in cars who were killed in 2010.

Automobile safety is a pikuach nefesh issue. When we sit behind the wheel of a car, we take lives into our hands. Every glance away from the road is a few seconds in which something terrible can happen. Each item of distraction is a potential desecration of life. I’m not talking about drunk driving, or texting, or other flagrant violations of law. I’m talking about the things we all do that seem “normal” at the time: fiddling with the radio, letting ourselves get impatient with an irritating driver, paying too much attention to anything besides the road ahead of and around us. At any moment of distraction, someone could die. It’s as simple as that.

I wrote about this once before, back in August of 2012, after I had an accident. When I wrote The Freeway Blessing, I was shaken by the fact that I came too close to being a statistic. When it happened I was being very careful: the radio was off and I was wary because the traffic was both heavy and moving rapidly on I-880. Even with all my faculties engaged, I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid a serious accident.

Today, after the reminder from my friend, I’m renewing my commitment to taking driving as seriously as it deserves. Here’s what I am going to do:

  1. I commit to giving my full attention to the process of driving.
  2. I commit to allowing time for careful driving: leaving a bit earlier than absolutely necessary, so that I won’t feel an urge to hurry.
  3. I commit to getting that eye exam that I think probably isn’t necessary, but it’s time, so I’ll get it.
  4. Finally, I commit to reminding myself that driving is a sacred activity, because I hold lives in my hands when I do it. I’ll do that by saying a blessing before I drive:

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, hanoteyn l’chol cha-im.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.

I invite you to join me in making a new commitment to pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.

Image by Elvert Barnes, some rights reserved.


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