Romantic Comedy – in Genesis?

November 21, 2014

CamelsOne of my favorite stories in the Bible is the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac.

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. – Gen 24: 63

The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that Isaac was out saying his evening prayers. He finishes them, and looks up. Note what he sees: he sees camels.

And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she alighted from the camel. – Gen 24: 64

There is a parallel structure and a little comedy here: Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees camels. Rebekah lifts up her eyes and sees Isaac. Then, despite the translator’s attempt at decorum, the comedy broadens to slapstick. Rebecca sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. This translator says “alighted” but the simplest translation of the verb  וַתִּפֹּל, מֵעַל הַגָּמָל is “and she fell from [her seat] upon the camel.” Rebecca sees Isaac, and she loses it: she quite literally falls for him.

And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her veil, and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. –Gen 24: 65-66

Rebecca, now sitting in a heap on the ground, asks the servant, “Who’s that?” And the servant gives her the answer she hopes for, and she realizes she’s a disheveled heap on the ground. She takes her veil and covers herself. She’s embarrassed: this handsome fellow has seen her and she’s come across as a klutz who can’t even stay on a camel!

The servant, though, is oblivious: his business is with Isaac. Interesting, isn’t it, that he now reports to Isaac, not Abraham?

Our story (or at least this chapter) has a happy ending, with a twist:

And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother. –Gen 24:67

He brought her into his mother’s tent, which isn’t as weird as it sounds to a modern ear. Earlier in the chapter, Abraham insists that Isaac not go to find a wife, but that the servant must bring her back with him. Modern commentators suggest that this is because the tribes at the time were matrilocal: men went to live with their wives’ relatives, not the other way around. Abraham was concerned that Isaac stay in Canaan, where he believed the future of his descendants lay. So by taking Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, Isaac is telling Rebekah that she is the new matriarch of this tribe.

There’s no elaborate wedding; the betrothal [kiddushin] happened back at Rebekah’s childhood home, with the gifts of gold, and sex [nisuin] seals the deal. Somewhere along the line, Isaac also falls for Rebekah: the text says that he loves her.

Then we get the line about comfort, and post-Freud, it all seems a bit much. Keep in mind that the Biblical author never heard of the Oedipus complex. Rebekah is the new matriarch, and she fills the shoes of Sarah.

Do you have a favorite love story in the Bible?


Sarah’s Choices

November 8, 2014
Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Imanu Sarah: Sarah, Our Mother. Sarah was the wife of Abraham, and yet she is a mystery. The Book of Genesis has many passages that mention her:

She was the half-sister and wife of a chieftain. (Genesis 20: 11-12)

We know that she was beautiful, so beautiful that the Pharaoh of Egypt wanted her for his harem.  (Genesis 12:11)

She was sometimes cruel in her dealings with her servants. (Genesis 16)

She had a sense of humor, but laughed at the wrong moments. (Genesis 18:12)

At 90, she was still so beautiful that the king of Gerar wanted her for his harem. Twice in her life her husband handed her over as a concubine to men that he feared. (Genesis 20)

Later that year, she conceived a child by Abraham and gave birth – at age 90. (Genesis 21: 1-8)

She was fiercely protective of her son Isaac, and demanded that his half-brother Isaac and his mother, her servant, be sent out into the desert to die. (Genesis 21: 9-21) The text is unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing to Isaac, but certainly he was an older male with a claim on Abraham’s estate, and Sarah was ruthless in getting rid of him and his mother.

At some later date, Abraham believed he had been told by God to take Isaac and sacrifice him. God intervened, and Isaac lived.

We do not know what happened between Abraham and Sarah after that. In Genesis 23, the text says that Sarah died at Hebron, where she was apparently living apart from Abraham, since he had to “come” [vayavo] to mourn for her and bury her. We know from the previous chapter that he had taken other wives or concubines, and had children by them.

We know nothing about Sarah’s feelings, except for the times that she was jealous of Hagar. We know about the time she laughed at Abraham, although God covered for her and said she was laughing about herself. (Genesis 18: 12-13) We don’t know how she felt about being passed off as a “sister,” handed to two different kings as a concubine.

We know that her son mourned her for a long time. (Genesis 24:67)

All that we know, we know through a narrator who was much more interested in other people and things. But even that narrator cannot deny that Sarah’s decisions had consequences: her choices to twice play along with the fiction that she was single, to give Hagar to her husband, to banish Hagar and Ishmael, to protect Isaac. Even though she was not much more than property in the world she inhabited, Sarah’s choices had world-changing consequences.

When ever I feel that no one is listening, that I am too small to matter, I remind myself of Sarah. Every choice we make has powerful potential.

Choices have consequences, sometimes long-ranging ones. May we all make good choices this week, for we never know when it may turn out to be important.


Creation: Monkeys or Mudpies?

October 17, 2014

When God was creating the heavens and the earth…. – Genesis 1:1

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

Depiction of Genesis 1:2 by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)

I’m from Tennessee, home of The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, the infamous “Monkey Trial” in which Clarence Darrow faced off with William Jennings Bryan in the tiny court house in Dayton, TN. I learned as a child about Creationism and its variants: Young Earth Creationism, Gap Creationism, Progressive Creationism, Intelligent Design, etc. And no, I am not providing links: google them if you want. As far as I’m concerned, they are all nonsense.

Lately I’ve heard from the New Atheists (ok, I’ll give them a link) that “all religion” teaches such nonsense, and therefore religion is bunk. None of these folks appear to have been near a synagogue lately, because I don’t know of a branch of Judaism that espouses a literal understanding of the Creation stories in Genesis. I’m sure that there are Jewish fundamentalists somewhere who believe it, but if you ask a panel of rabbis, from Modern Orthodoxy to Reform, we’ll all say politely that the Creation stories are meant to be understood as metaphor. Then we’ll disagree about how to interpret it, and that’s where it will begin to be interesting.

Anyone who gets all hot and bothered over six days of Creation and monkeys and whatnot is missing the point of the Creation stories. (Yes, stories plural, because there are two of them in Genesis, and they contradict one another in more than details. Read Genesis 1 and 2, if this is news.)

Among other things, these narratives point to a notion of the world as a place that teeters between order and chaos. At the beginning of Genesis 1, all is tohu-va-vohu: a sort of murky chaos where “darkness was over the surface of the deep.” God makes order of the chaos, separating light from darkness. Then this same God makes new things with words: light, sky, dry land, sea, plants and animals. Every step of the way, God is separating, organizing, making order out of that original, chaotic tohu-va-vohu. 

And then, with words and clay and breath, God makes human beings. We are different from plants and animals; it took more than words to make us. We make choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes good choices. In that, we are like the Creator. As the story says, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

Which brings us back to the Monkey Trial: the distress of the Creationists was twofold: first, that the scientists seemed to be saying that the Bible was not true. Certainly scientists say that Genesis is not literally true. Science does not comment on whether Genesis may convey some other kind of truth, because all it can speak to is scientific knowledge.

The second thing that bothered the Creationists was the idea that somewhere back in the past, grandpa might have been a monkey, or a monkey-like being. This idea was profoundly repulsive to them, because they saw in the Biblical story and they felt in their guts that human beings are different from animals in an important way.

I agree that they are seeing an important Biblical truth: humans are different from animals. We have responsibility for our behavior in a way that animals do not. Where the Creationists and I differ is that they think it is important that human beings were never anything but human. I would argue that in the Bible it already says that we were something else: in the Bible it says we were clay. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether grandpa was a monkey or a mudpie.

And what about God? What if we were to see “God” not in some cartoon image, but as a Factor that moves the world from tohu-va-vohu, from entropy, towards something organized and meaningful, separating light from darkness, sea from dry land?

The real problem with Creationism and its ilk is that it wants answers, not questions. Good science asks questions, and when it gets an answer, looks for more questions. Judaism does the same: it seeks questions, and more questions. The more often we read the Creation stories, the more questions we will ask.

 


It Was Very Good: Judaism and Disability Rights

February 23, 2014
Two activists, two rabbis: all "very good."

Two activists, two rabbis: all “very good.”

 .וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

These words from Genesis 1 are simple and eloquent:

God saw ALL that God made, and behold, it was VERY GOOD.

This little line is key to many areas of Jewish thought, but none more so than in the arena of human rights. Human beings are all equal, whatever our race, whatever our gender, whatever our abilities, whatever our sexual orientation, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and we are part of creation, which is tov me’od, very good.

This is especially important in the realm of disability rights. Most of us are familiar with the concepts of racism or sexism, and there’s general agreement that those are wrong. But then we look at a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a hearing loss, or a person with developmental, mental, or emotional disabilities, and we forget that they, too, are “very good” just as they are. This is “ableism” and it is pernicious.

Ableism whispers that the women in the wheelchair whose speech is slurred has nothing important to say. Ableism suggests that the developmentally disabled man who makes us uncomfortable should not be visible in our congregation. Ableism suggests that when accommodating a person is “too expensive” or “too much trouble” or “too uncomfortable” we can write it off with a shrug. Ableism suggests that some people’s feelings are less important, that their lives are less important, and that it is OK to write off certain human beings because gee, they are a lot of trouble.

Ableism is wrong from a Jewish point of view because it flies directly in the face of our core belief that all human beings are equal, and all creation is very good.

Jewish tradition has a rocky history around issues of disability rights. While in Leviticus 19:14 we are commanded “not to curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind,” two chapters later we read  Leviticus 21: 16-21, which outlines physical requirements for the priests who will lead public worship. The priests who lift their hands in worship and participate in the sacrifices must be physically perfect. Maimonides explains this rule by writing “most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple should be held in the highest regard” (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45.)  In other words, people are ableist, and this requirement is in place because of our shortcomings, not because there’s anything wrong with the person with a disability.

Ableism is as bad as racism, as bad as sexism, as bad as homophobia, as bad as ageism, as bad as any other “-ism.” We can learn better. Just as we can fight racism and other prejudices in our hearts and in our behavior, we can fight ableism. We can change. We can demand change in our institutions and in our communities.

God saw what God had made, and behold it was very good. Isn’t it time we took God’s word for it?


Two Creation Stories

November 7, 2013
English: Advertising postcard, picture side, f...

Advertising postcard, picture side, for the “Happy Day” washing machine, sold by the National Sewing Machine Co. of Belvidere, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Tale of Two Delivery Men

A rabbi was setting up her home, to make it more suitable for feeding people and welcoming them. She went on the internet and ordered a table and chairs for the patio. Then she called the local appliance company and talked to them about a washing machine. There had been a washing machine in this house before, and everything seemed all set up for a standard size machine. Then she waited.

The first delivery man arrived, with the table and chairs. He got them off his truck, and dumped them on the front walk. The rabbi began to open the boxes to check for damage. He made a comment about suspicious women. Then he stuck his clipboard at her and said, “Sign here.” The rabbi felt a little nervous about this guy, who seemed angry about something, so she didn’t ask if he could help her get the boxes inside.

The rabbi wondered how she was going to get the furniture into the house. She figured she would call friends. She felt annoyed, but shook it off.

The second delivery man arrived, with the washing machine. He came into the house and looked where we would put the machine, and he frowned. “I think there may be a little problem,” he said, “Machines are bigger than they used to be.” He fished out his tape measure and sure enough, the machine he had delivered was not going to fit.

“Oh no!” said the rabbi. “I am so sorry you made this trip for nothing!”

“We will measure to make sure the next one fits,” he said, very kindly, and so he did. Then he said, “I need to take photos, so that my bosses will know that I really measured.”

The rabbi felt badly that his bosses did not trust his word, but she was very happy. The delivery man could have left her feeling stupid or angry, but instead he taught her the secret of allowing 4 inches for the hose, which she had not known. She called the appliance company to order a smaller machine, and to tell them that Mr. Diego was a great delivery man.

I have no idea what was going on with the gentlemen who delivered things to my house this week. I just know that one of them left me feeling nervous and annoyed, and the other left me feeling good, even though he was the one who delivered a disappointment.

They reminded me of the power we all have in even the most trivial encounters. We create worlds with our words, just as in the Creation story of Genesis 1. The first delivery man created a world that seemed dangerous and unfriendly. I have no idea what was going on with him, but I knew I didn’t want to ask for any favors, and I definitely didn’t want to invite him into my home. The second guy had totally the opposite effect: he came to bring a washer, but ultimately had to deliver bad news, but he did it with such kind words that I was glad our paths had crossed. The “world” he created with his words was a world in which he had the power to treat me well, and so I responded by calling his company to tell them he’s a great guy. This was a world in which people have the power to do the right thing.

What worlds have you created today?

 

 


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