A Modern-Day Sodom?

Image: The Sonoran Desert in Arizona (by icondigital / Pixabay)

The Washington Post recently printed a first-person account by a geographer named Scott Warren. He has been charged with a felony for giving water and food to refugees in the Sonoran desert. For saving lives, Warren faces up to 20 years in prison.

The policy of routing refugees through the deadliest parts of the desert goes back to the Clinton Administration, by the way. The Trump Administration has added the enforcement of rules against offering any assistance, even water, to those trekking through that desert.

Scott Warren’s story reminded me immediately of a midrash taught by our sages. They told a story they told about their notion of the people most displeasing to God, so displeasing that they merited being burned alive along with their entire region. It is the story of the people of Sodom.

The first mention of the story is in Genesis 13:

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.
So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other;
Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom.
Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the LORD.

Genesis 13:10-13

Next we get the well-known story in Genesis 18-19, in which sends two “men” (angels) to investigate an “outcry” from Sodom. It begins:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Genesis 18: 20-22

Abraham then famously bargained for the lives of Sodom, getting God to agree to spare the city if 10 good people could be found there.

The angels who “went on” to Sodom were greeted by Lot, who was anxious to get them out of the public square and to conceal them in his house. He does that because Sodom is hateful to strangers, and he knows something terrible will happen to them if they are not quickly out of sight. Sure enough, a crowd forms at Lot’s door, clamoring to rape the men. Lot refuses to release them to the crowd. Later, God rains fire down on the city, and it is completely destroyed because 10 good men could not be found. (Genesis 19)

The sages told more stories about Sodom, fleshing out the tale in the Torah. What had the people done to merit death by fire? Here are some of the stories:

R. Levi said: [God said]: ‘Even if I wished to keep silent, justice for a certain maiden (ribah) does not permit Me to keep silent.’
For it once happened that two girls went down to draw water from a well.
One [young woman] said to the other, ‘Why are you so pale?’
‘My family has no more food left and we are ready to die,’ she replied.
What did she [the first young woman] do? She filled her pitcher with flour and they exchanged [their pitchers], each taking the other’s.
When they [the Sodomites] discovered this, they took and burnt her.
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Even if I desired to be silent, justice for that young girl does not permit Me to keep silent.

Genesis Rabbah 49:6

and another, about the cruelty to poor men:

If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar (coin,) upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each [resident] came and took back his [dinar]. 

Sanhedrin 109b

There is another story about a young woman who tried to give help to a hungry man:

A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry ( זעקת ) of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great: whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab’s name: On account of the maiden [ribah]

Sanhedrin 109b

And a later midrash tells us about a variety of cruel practices:

Rabbi Zeira said: “The people of Sdom were the wealthiest people in the world since they were from the fattest and best of the land and all of their early needs could be derived from it, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust” (Job 28:6) When a person wanted to go out and get for himself vegetables, he would say to his servant, take for me an issar worth of greens. He would go and take for him greens and find in its place gold, as it says: “its dust contains gold dust.” And silver would come out of it, as it is written: “There is a mine for silver.” (Job 28:1) Precious stones and jewels would come out of it: “Its rocks are a source of sapphire.” (verse 6); bread would be brought forth from it: “earth out of which food grows” (verse 5); and they did not trust in the shadow of their Creator but rather in their wealth; for their wealth pushed aside their fear of Heaven: “men who trust in their riches” (Psalms 49:7)

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: They were not sufficiently concerned with the honor of their Creator to provide food for guests and strangers but rather they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens: “No bird of prey knows the path of it.” (Job 28:7)

Rabbi Netanel said: They set up as their judges false judges who ruled with regard to any guest or stranger who entered Sodom, that they should defraud them in their crooked judgment and set them out naked, as it is written: “And the stranger they cheated without justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29) And satisfied with the harvest of the land – they lived in security and peace and quiet without fear of war from their surroundings satiated with all good things and not strengthening the hand of either the poor or the impoverished with food: “Behold this was the son of Sodom your sister.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

– Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 25

For these crimes, God blasted the city Sodom, leaving nothing but a salty mineral desert and a deadly sea beside it. To this day, if you visit the Dead Sea, you will see nothing alive there.

I fear for our souls.

Goodbye/Hello, Dream Job

Image: My first Intro class, Fall, 2009.

I’m sitting in the classroom at Congregation Beth El, and the clock says 15 minutes to 7. There are 45 minutes before class begins.

This isn’t an ordinary class. It’s the last class of the year, and we’ll talk about Jews and Food: kashrut, favorite foods, strange foods, swap recipes, and then we’ll say goodbye.

This one is a big goodbye for me, because it is my last Wednesday night Intro class. I’ve taught this class for years, and this past year I’ve realized that it is beyond my physical abilities to teach. Even with my assistant, Jessica, to help, I wind up spending the next day in bed.

I’ll still teach online, and in fact I hope to ramp up my online teaching. That process begins with Tikkun Leil Shavuot Online in just a couple of weeks. There will be more interactive text study, done in shorter series or even one-time events. I’m not done teaching, I’m just moving on to something new. Watch this space!

But this is the last night of something I have enjoyed as my dream job. My wife started pointing out to me two years ago that it was taking a lot out of me; this year I finally had to agree. We age, things change. That’s OK.

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:

A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;

A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up;

A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;

A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;

A time for seeking and a time for losing, A time for keeping and a time for discarding;

A time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking;

A time for loving and a time for hating; A time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

So, it’s time. In a few minutes there will be about 30 people pouring into this room, and we’ll talk about food. Then we’ll talk about ways to continue learning, and I will hand them off to their rabbis and their communities. And it will be good.

Parashat Behar: Take that, Tacitus!

Image: Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 66-120 CE. (Wikimedia)

One of the oldest criticisms of Judaism and Jews is that we are a lazy people. In the ancient world, everyone lived on a 24/7 work schedule. There were no weekends, only a few major religious holidays, depending on the religion. That applied to everyone, from the Pharaoh to the lowliest serf: everyone had a job to do, and they worked at it without ceasing. Anyone who didn’t work that way must be lazy.

“Jews hold sacred what everyone else calls profane, and permit what everyone else thinks immoral. They sacrifice rams and bulls as an insult to the gods of the Egyptians. They are lazy and rest one day of the week, and one year out of seven.”

– Tacitus, 1st c. CE

Tacitus would have been horrified by the commandments in Parashat Behar, because this week we receive the message that we are supposed to observe not only the Sabbath, but keep every 7th year as a Sabbatical YEAR, and worse yet, every 50th year a Jubilee year! In Sabbatical years, the land must rest: no crops would be cultivated. Instead we would live on stored produce, and in the Jubilee year, all debts would be forgiven.

Tacitus would probably have said, not only are these people lazy, they’re crazy, too.

In truth, we are not certain how strictly Sabbatical years and Jubilee years were kept. We do know that the release of borrowed funds was a problem. The wealthy were unwilling to lend when there was a “get out of debt free” card on its way, and both the poor and the entrepreneur needed to be able to borrow. Economies cannot grow without some form of debt.

In the first century BCE, Hillel devised a solution for the debt problem, which he called the Prosbul. Debts ran through the rabbinical court, so that no one person held debt against another. That way, the rich felt they could lend and the poor could find capital. We can infer that before that time, people were serious enough about Sabbatical and Jubilee years that it created a problem that had to be solved by the rabbis.

Such is the wonderful flexibility built into the systems of halakhah, Jewish law. As Orthodox thinker Blu Greenberg writes, “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” Torah is not intended to be a straightjacket. The job of rabbis is to help the Jewish people live lives of Torah, and sometimes that means looking at an old rule, and either finding a way around it, or changing it altogether. We don’t do that lightly – I’m sure that the Prosbul was a scandal in its day! – but no society beyond the most simple can grow without a way to grow the money supply.

So, Tacitus, we aren’t lazy. Just the reverse: we are an enterprising people, who have learned how to get our work done in six days, and devised ways to live according to Torah and still have time to rest and to be, time to praise and to love!

Milk, the Metaphor

Image: An assortment of dairy products. (Photo: philippoto/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

For as pressing milk produces curds,
    and pressing the nose produces blood,
    so pressing anger produces strife.

Proverbs 30:33

I’ve been playing with the metaphor of milk.

When we are born, we are all like new milk. We are raw: undisturbed by life. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are born good, but that we have the yetzer harah: a selfish inclination that we can learn to balance as we age.

Very few people remain like milk. People who do remain completely innocent, and completely simple. Most of us have experiences that change us from the pure milk into something different and more complicated. We also learn and grow, acquiring a yetzer tov, a good inclination.

If we acquire learning, we might become yogurt or kefir: a cultured milk that is both nourishing and digestible.

If we have painful experiences, we might become like cottage cheese. Cottage cheese is made by putting acidic bacteria into the milk, so that curds form, and the whey is drained away.

Cheddar cheese is made differently. The acidic culture is added, which causes the curds, then those curds are put under pressure. After a while, they are made into slabs, and slammed together so that even more whey is squeezed out, and finally they are pressed into molds to age. It takes some hard knocks to make cheddar cheese.

Some cheeses (not kosher ones) are made with rennet, the curdled milk from the inside of a calf’s stomach. They are, in a way, mixed with cruelty, then they are aged, and they become brie, or camembert.

Some cheeses, like blue cheese and Stilton, have rennet and the acidic bacterial culture, and penicillium mold added before they are allowed to age. Those cheeses become stinky and moldy looking, but some people really love them.

Then there is ice cream. It is the sweetest, richest cream, mixed with sugar and perhaps eggs, and churned while it is cold. However, if a dish of ice cream sits in the sun for even a short time, it melts.

And lastly, there is the milk that simply goes bad. It sits unused and uncared-for. It gets infected with bacteria that make it poisonous and smelly. That is spoiled milk, and it will make people sick if they drink it.

All of us are born simple and pure. Our experiences and our choices turn us into the people we become as adults. When I am dealing with a difficult person, I sometimes think: what kind of dairy product have they become? Has life been hard, and beaten them into cheddar? Are they ice cream? Or yogurt? Are they dangerous, or stinky and moldy but still nutritious?

What about you?

How Can an Ordinary Person be Holy?

Image: The flames of many votive candles, out of focus. (Image: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay)

A sermon for Parashat Kedoshim

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy, because I, the Eternal your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19: 1-2)

What does the Torah mean, when it says “be holy?”  The definition of kadosh (holy) is “separate.” And yet most of the 79 commandments in both Achrei Mot and Kedoshim have to do with how we conduct our relationships with other people! These portions do not say, “Separate yourself from humanity and go live on a mountaintop.” Rather, they command us to engage with other human beings in specific ways, not only with specific boundaries but also with honesty, with kindness towards the disabled, and with responsibility towards enemies and towards the environment.  We are commanded to pay workers on time, to treat both the rich and the poor fairly, to do business properly and to love strangers!

Reading the portions can be exhausting – how can any ordinary person keep all those commandments?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, (18th-19th c) asked that exact question: how can one person do it all? How can an ordinary Joe be holy? He answered that these verses are addressed to the entire congregation of Israel, so the individual can best seek holiness by being part of the congregation.  In other words, individuals are not meant to “do it all” – we are meant to be part of a Jewish community that together will perform these many mitzvot.

No matter how hard I try, individually I will never be able to feed all the hungry, comfort all the mourners, honor all the elderly, love all the strangers. It is only when I am part of a larger group of people, a kehilah kedushah, a holy congregation, that my individual efforts can be combined with others, and thus magnified, to do the work of tikkun olam, of healing the world. Judaism is not and cannot be a private matter because no individual human being, no matter how strong, how wealthy, or how famous can do all that needs to be done.

In the morning Amidah, the part of the service we say standing, we rise together on our toes as we say, Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh (“holy, holy, holy.”) Individually we rise only a little distance, perhaps an inch or two, by standing on our tiptoes. Individually, our efforts to heal the world may not seem like much. But when we rise together, when we combine our efforts, not only our prayers but our deeds will rise towards heaven.

Oft Quoted, Oft Misunderstood

Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.

Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.

Leviticus 18:22

This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.

So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?

V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down

mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife

to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.

Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)

Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:

האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים

A wife is acquired in three ways…

BT Kiddushin 2a

I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.

I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.

One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.

We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.

We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.

What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?

Meet the Velveteen Rabbi

If you do not already know her through social media, I recommend you read some of my colleague Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s work. Her writing is well worth your time and attention.

Here’s a taste, a “d’varling” on Parashat Mishpatim: