Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cellphones, God and CSI

Though I have had my own moments of frustration with the pace of new high tech equipment, I am coming to the realization that they can perhaps tach us all something beyond their typical usages. Since these are products of God-given intellect maybe these inventions can even improve our relationships both with each other and God.
Let’s look for the positive. Embedded in these advances are some big Jewish lessons that may actually speak to our constant spiritual concerns. Here are six examples of lofty notions reflected in up-to-the-minute designs and advances. Two lessons from computers, three from cell phones and one from CSI!
1. Email Addresses: Have you ever failed to receive or to successfully transmit an email to its destination because you left out a dash, period or digit in the address? This has often been the case for me. When giving or taking down someone's address do you meticulously repeat the address, over and over, for fear that without that tiny tiny miniscule dot your message may be prevented from getting to its target? I know I do. This phenomenon graphically illustrates a very critical nuance of Jewish law; one that I have had a hard time explaining over the years.
In sessions about mezuzot, Torah scrolls or teffillin, people have a hard time with the idea that if one small letter of an entire Torah, mezuzah or teffillin parchment is erased, scratched or not accurate it renders the entire ritual object "tref" or not good. I have heard people criticize our tradition, why are we so picky? Do we Jews all suffer from borderline compulsive disorders? Why can’t Jewish law be more pliable, human and understanding about the lack of perfection. Friends, email addresses has arrived to teach us an important lesson - if the scripting is not precise, the mail does not get delivered. Precision is critical and if one letter is off it renders the entire enterprise is worthless and undeliverable.
2. Hard drive: Over and over we are told in the Torah that God is long of memory. Who can imagine a memory thousands of years long? Who can picture storehouses of recollections? Well, now that we are all familiar with the way hard drives operate I think we can all better grasp the idea that not a single action of ours goes unrecorded. Everything we do is set before the Heavenly Tribunal. Once something is performed on a computer, it is there almost for posterity. Though you think you have hit delete, your document is probably still on the hard drive. The tiny movements you make on the Internet are traceable. Your actions are known and your deeds are stored away for reckoning.
3. Cell phone Sim cards: The morning of our grandson's bris was a bit hectic. In the rush of bathing the baby, packing up the car, getting dressed, I dropped my cell phone into a glass of water. Not the best day for this to happen. However, clever son Eli took the "sim card" from my phone and transferred it to another that one that we had around, not being used.
Poof! My phone was resurrected. Now, I realize I may be out on a limb here, but as I watched him doing this sensitive transplant my one thought was a sim card is the very soul of the phone. Just as the body is the vessel of the soul so to this plastic keypad is the container for the sim card. It so hit home to me. The memory, the phone numbers the voice mail was all on that card held so eloquently in that phone. A very real visual for the soul contained in the body.
4. Cell phone reception. You're driving along and suddenly you cannot hear your friend’s voice. In place of clear words you are hearing a garbled sound reminiscent of the subway announcer in New York train system. You have no reception.
You look at the bars that gage the capability of reception and they have dissipated. You are out of range. Messages are being sent but you are not receiving them. Jewish philosophers have struggled over the years with the idea of prophecy. Who receives prophecy? Where does it come from? What is prophecy? Maimonides explains that God is always emanating prophetic truth but few are able to receive them. One must be in a place that has reception, both physically and spiritually. Sometimes you have reception and sometimes you don’t.
5. Charging those Cell phones. Many of us have a new ritual before going to bed; we charge our phones, plug them into a wall at home, at the airport anywhere because without the new charge the phone will not work. Why do we understand this idea for our phones but not for ourselves? Our phone needs life and we accommodate it. Our phone needs to get all charged up and we figure out a way to get it done. We don’t do it for ourselves but we manage do to it for our phones. We humans need to get connected and recharged also. We need to connect to our source of energy in order to operate well. How do you feel after studying Torah? Well if you are studying with the kind of people that I study with, you feel all charged up; reinvigorated after connecting to the source of life force. Why not be as efficient about charging yourself up with spiritual electricity in the form of prayer, mediation and study as you are efficient about your phone’s nightly charge?
6. DNA: As an avid crime scene investigation TV program viewer, I consider myself an amateur DNA specialist. One single cell form the human body tells you the story about the entire body form which that cell was taken. Each cell contains in it the information about the larger body from which it was acquired. What a powerful metaphor for Torah. Here is what I mean. We have 613 mitzvoth, commandments in the Torah. Some more obscure than others but all I believe carry the “DNA” of the entire Torah. Take any single commandment, in our explanation of it, in our unpacking it , it never stands alone. It is part of entire system of Torah and deeply reflects all of the morals and teachings of the entire body of Torah. Select any seemingly esoteric law. Here’s one; you must build a fence around your flat roof. We care about human life, it is our ultimate value. Prevent loss of life. Plan. Let our deepest values be reflected in the construction of your home. Let that value guide you even in the mundane activity of house design; a simple example, but one of many.
Next time you pick up a cell phone think about its soul, think about a computer’s memory, never forget to get recharged and remember if you are in the right place you never know what you might be able to hear through good reception…

Consider this idea -- Chanukah Ushpizin!

Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for guest. The custom of Ushpizn is practiced on each night of Succot. We invite guests in to our Succhah. Traditionally they are Biblical figures. We tell their story, we discuss their life and some of us even craft our menu around them; red lentil soup for Jacob, lamb for Isaac, you get the idea. What if we were to create Chanukah Ushpizin? Let us identify eight people from different moments in Jewish history that each embodies the ideals and heroism of Chanukah. Then we "invite" them into our homes.
After lighting the candles take a few minutes to announce the arrival of the evening’s guest. The guests appear in chronological order highlighting challenging times in our history.
In preparation you might do a little research of your own but if time is limited simply read the short paragraph below. Then encourage your family and friends to discuss the person and their story. In what way does their life inform our celebration of Chanukah?
If you are feeling particularly ritualistic like you might begin by an official declaration, otherwise simply launch a conversation around the evening’s personality.
Here is my list, feel free to create your own. Start with this opening declaration if you like and follow with a list of guests and a few short details about their life.
Welcome venerable guest! Welcome to our celebration of Chanukah. On this Night of Chanukah we celebrate your story of heroism and commitment our people and our beliefs.
First Night
Mattiyahu. How could we not start with this preeminent figure of the Chanukah story? Known in English as Matthias, he is father of the Maccabees. When Greek officers arrive in Modi'in with the intention of forcibly implementing the king's ordinances regarding sacrifices to idols, Mattityahu refuses. Together with his sons and other believers he launches the battle against the Greco-Syrians.
Second Night
Judith is one of our most courageous female heroines. The legend goes that she was coerced by the Greco-Syrians to spend the night with the foreign general before her own wedding. Once alone with the inebriated man she was able to cut off his head, present it to the Maccabbees who proceeded to win the battle against the leaderless army.
Third Night
Yochannan ben Zakkai is the first century sage who faced with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the virtual obliteration of his community succeeds in extricating a promise from Vespasian the conquering general to preserve and save the Torah scholars of Yavneh thereby guaranteeing the continuity of our people.
Fourth Night
Don Isaac Abravanel who lived in the 15th century in Spain was a great Torah scholar. Though he was a prominent member of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella he opted to be exiled together with the Jewish community in 1492. He heroically led them in the march out of Spain.
Fifth Night
Sara Bat Tovim lived in the 1700’s in the Ukraine which was still reeling from the Chmelnitzki uprisings. There she began to write prayers specifically for women with uniquely female themes. The prayers were in Yiddish and used by women. Her heroism is the heroism of a less dramatic nature, but deeply significant.
Sixth Night
In the 1920’s Sara Schenier living in Krakow Poland began to realize that young Jewish women were receiving no formal Jewish education. She heroically launched the Bais Yaacov movement still alive and well till today. She started with one school and one small group of young women. By the time World War II started there were over 20,000 women studying in her schools, most of her students perished in the Holocaust.
Seventh Night
We invite two young women, Ala Gertner was one, who on October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners relegated to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after realizing that they were going to be killed that evening. During the revolt, they were able to blow up one of the gas chambers. The prisoners had used explosives smuggled into the camp by these two young Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were caught and publicly hanged.
Eighth Night
Natan Scharansky looms large in the minds of those of us who were alive during the refusnik period. After spending almost ten years in Soviet prisons for trumped up espionage charges he was released with great celebration. Afterwards, when he was asked about his ordeal andhow he had survived, he spoke about a book of David's Psalms, which his wife had given to him. In particular Psalm chapter 23 which said, "fear noevil" which would later become the title of his autobiography.
I hope this helps bring the Chanukah story alive. It is a story with reverberations throughout history and a tale that begins with the Maccabees but continues through the great people of all generations who display every day courage as well as spectacular acts and who are ready to lay their life on the line in more ways than one, for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Katzav, Rape & the Torah

The very public and lengthy morass surrounding the accusations against President Katsav presents us with an opportunity to explore the subject of rape as it is treated in Jewish sources. The occurrence of rape in society and its handling is attributed among other variables to a culture’s deep beliefs and values regarding women. Some suggest that societies which are prone to rape are ones where women’s public voice is not heard and where women are not part of public decision making. Germane to our discussion it is critical to note that Israel ranks 74th in the world for female representation in parliament with 17 out of 120 possible Knesset seats held by women; that is a low 14.2% of leadership.
Back to the sources, in the Tanach, the twenty four books of the Hebrew Scripture, there are three major incidents that inform our collective Jewish consciousness and sculpt our understandings of rape. It is important to not take for granted that our canon contains these powerful stories. That they are a part of our tradition speaks volumes. The texts invite us to delve into the phenomenon of rape, to draw lessons from the particulars and to be reflective on the horrors described - they challenge us to scrutinize the past and consider our own experiences. The three stories are found in three different books; Genesis, Judges and Samuel II; each are representative of dramatically different rape scenarios still prevalent today.
The first and perhaps most well known is story of Dinah the daughter of Leah and of Jacob who in Genesis 30 sets out to meet the daughters of the land of Shechem, is kidnapped, raped and tortured by a stranger. Afterwards, in a not an untypical ancient kind of way the perpetrator meets with Jacob and offers to marry his victim and establish familial ties. Repulsed with the notion, brothers Simeon and Levi, dupe the offender and his entire town into an agreement to be circumcised before any nuptials can take place. The brothers then fall upon the newly circumcised as they are recovering, a bloody massacre ensues which is later condemned severely by Jacob.
The episode in Samuel II also involves brothers, murder and mayhem with the additional element of incest to compound the dreadfulness. Here it is Amnon son of David who sickeningly plots to take his half sister, Tamar, sister of Absalom, against her will during a modern-like date rape situation. He even purports to be in love with her. She movingly pleads with him to back off, but to no avail. She is heartlessly raped and then discarded by Amnon who after the deed despises her. Absalom, Tamar’s brother conspires shrewdly to execute a murderous vengeance upon his half-brother Amnon. David, though angry about the rape now faces the death of one son and the alienation from the other.
A number of parallels between the two stories emerge. Both narratives involve violent, passionate, action-taking vengeful bothers, reticent fathers and victimized daughters. In one, Dinah is voiceless, in the other Tamar in cunning desperation attempts to extract herself from the attack. Both stories illustrate the brutal reality of men who force, the resulting primal, visceral reaction to the act of rape and the dreadful consequences for women; what happens next to Dinah and to Tamar we are never told.
The third story from the Book of Judges chapter 19 is one of a gang rape perpetrated upon the concubine of a traveling Levite who finds himself in the territory of the Benjaminites with no where to stay the night. The lone hospitable person is an elderly man who provides them with shelter. In the course of the evening as the news spreads that a stranger is in town the natives fall upon the house, demand that the stranger appear and give himself over to them. In a not unlike Sodom scenario the concubine is offered instead, raped through the night and left for dead on the doorstep at daybreak. The Levite lets all of Israel know about the violent, ghastly brutality through an especially horrific gory medium; a punishing war ensues between the other tribes and the Benjaminites; leaving 18,000 Benjamintes dead. This gang rape scene has haunting modern echoes.
Again, rape leads to passions flaring and violence. Should these extreme reactions be attributed to an admirable intolerance towards the rape of women or are we looking at the reactions of males threatened by their loss of power and possession? Which ever the case the reality is we need some tempering of the tempers.
To counterbalance these tales, the Torah provides the balance, restraint and control of law, halacha. Deuteronomy 22 outlines some of legalities of rape. Here we learn that when a woman is raped the rapist is expected to pay damages and to marry his victim. He is never permitted to divorce her. Though this seems like a ridiculous cruel porspect, the economic reality of the Ancient Near East rendered a non-marriageable woman destitute and futureless. Here at least he must take responsibility for his actions. Though, if the victim chooses she may elect to not marry her attacker. The Mishnah later elaborates on the subject of damages and makes clear that "damages" could include compensation for indignity, blemish, injury and pain; a considerable reparation package.
The situations that present in the three tales of rape in the Bible are each situations where there does not seem to be an appropriate legal framework that can kick-in with reason and resolve. The Genesis story, albeit pre-Torah law involves a non-marriageable Canaanite man raping the daughter of Jacob, the rape of Tamar was an act of incest precluding possibilities of marriage and the gang rape of the concubine is an unwieldy unsolvable situation given the legal parameters of Deuteronomy 22. These are not simple circumstances; these rapes do not fit into easy categories, hence violence becomes the problem solving medium. But these stories also serve as dramatic ancient object lessons.
One would hope that a people raised on the mothers milk of Dinah, Tamar and the Concubine of Giveah would be a people who abhor violence and abuse towards women. One would wish that those who are schooled in the Torah of kindness would have ensconced in their very being the unpardonable, reprehensible nature of rape. Unfortunately, our ongoing chronic power abuses indicate immunity to ancient lessons. In lieu of hopes and wishes regarding the past let us watch as justice resolves with reason the situation of President Katsav and let it too join our national stories as an object lesson for the next generation.

Judith the Obscure

Sadly, the female experience has become invisible through the ages sometimes even when their role is remarkably critical. To see a significant and meaningful place for women in the Chanukah celebration, one needs to do a little digging -- but not too much. Let's look at the vast body of rich Jewish legal literature, sometimes it may reveal that which you least expect.
Let us begin by opening the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century. In section 970 we find the first law concerning Chanukah. He starts with the simple; Chanukah is for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. These are days when eulogies and fasting are prohibited, but work is permitted - except for women who have the custom to abstain from doing any form of labor while the candles are burning. Further on, he writes that women are obligated in lighting Chanukah candles and may light on behalf of the entire household.
Two interesting points jump out. First, though the laws of Chanukah go on for pages, it is women's custom that immediately takes center stage. The only labor prohibited on the festival is by women - during the burning of the Chanukah candles. The second significant halachic twist is that in spite of the principal that women are exempt from positive time bound commandments - when it comes to the lighting of the Chanukah candles their obligation is equal to that of men.
Questions; why do women have the custom to refrain from work while the Chanukah candles burn? Why do they seem to have a higher level of commitment or perhaps reverence for the Chanukah lights? And finally, why are they obligated in lighting Chanukah candles?
Now we will zoom back in time to search the pages of the Talmud for Rabbi Karo’s source. Opening to page 23a of Tractate Shabbat we find that “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, for they too were involved in the miracle." They too were involved in the miracle? Rabbi Shlomo Yischaki, Rashi, tenth century scholar, suggests two possible interpretations to the puzzling phrase. First, they too were involved in the miracle - they too were subjugated to the Greeks, but in a terribly tragic way particular to women only. Each Jewish virgin was forced to be with a Greek officer before marrying. Second possibility; it was through a woman that the miracle occurred. This provocative comment is echoed and enlarged upon by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, he adds, that the Chanukah miracle was done through the hands of Yehudit, Judith.

Ah, Judith the Obscure! To uncover her mystery, we must do some pasting together of Apocrypha, midrash and poetry. The reconstruction of this episode may never be completely satisfying, but what does emerge is a tale of heroism and sacrifice. It is unclear whether it is Judith the widow who goes forth willingly or Judith the bride who is taken by force, but, once alone with the Greek general she feeds him wine and cheese. She waits for the soporific meal to take its effect, cuts off his head, places it in her basket and ever so nonchalantly she returns to the Judean camp. Officers, troops and soldiers of the Greek camp are left in leaderless disarray and a breach enabling the smaller Judean army to triumph. And thus the miracle was truly executed by a woman.

Now what do we see? Is this what we might call a usable past? I think so. The legend together with halachic practice has bequeathed to women a powerful symbol. Yes, we were victims; but we were also heroes. We are part of the miracle. We were oppressed, but we joined together with our brothers to fight back. Yehudit, Judith is enshrined forever in sculpture, art work, librettos, and novels. Her memory is recalled on the Shabbat of Chanukah when traditionally we recite a lengthy twelfth century piyyut, poem, describing the pathos of her wedding and youthful fears of what awaited her.

Let each and every woman light a Chanukah menorah, refrain from work, watch flames and remember. Let us see in those flames both the pain of our ancestors and the courage of their actions - both male and female alike.

Vayeshev: And so the story starts...

It begins with a brutal primal fratricide and ends with a stirring brotherly reconciliation. It starts with a story of silent distant parents and ends with the bestowal of impeccably sculpted patriarchal blessings; a scene awash with dutiful and doting filial homage. When taken in measured weekly doses, the Book of Bereshit provides us with a steady array of compelling and often unsettling family situations. When taken as a whole the book begs the question of progression and sequence. We cannot help but notice the stark contrast between the opening of the book and its conclusion. What moves the story from a place of dysfunction to a place of healing? How are the episodes along the way related to this development?
Not a single word of dialogue between Adam and Eve and their children Cain and Abel is provided by the Torah. Did they exchange words? I am sure that they did. That not one sentence and not one word is recorded speaks volumes. That no conversations are recorded tells us that there was no record-worthy interchange between parent and children. No record-worthy conversation in the Torah between parent and child reflects a deep and striking absence of relationship. Not a few readers note that Adam and Eve have no parental models; created directly from the earth, not birthed from womb, they understandably lack parenting skills. As such, they are far from being perfect parents. In a scene absent of parental supervision, one son's offering is accepted, one is rejected. The hurt is too painful to bear, the burning jealously is inextinguishable and the one son murders the other. The chain of sibling rivalry episodes is launched.
It is in Parshat Vayeshev that the sibling rivalry episodes reach their most complex and detailed level of narrative as the Joseph story unfolds. Preceded by Ishmael's banishment and Esau's disinheritance, the Joseph stories provide us with a full-bodied and intensely cathartic tale of favoritism and jealously, loss and reinstatement. That it is preceded by the Isaac and Ishmael experience and by the Jacob and Esau episode is indispensable and essential to the unraveling of the story's nuances. As this is final instalment in the sibling strife series launched with Cain and Abel, it builds upon those that came before and most satisfyingly concludes with hope. Brothers can make peace. The Joseph parshiyot in their length and depth are a profoundly fulfilling conclusion to a Bereshit launched with a Cain and an Abel.
As Joseph is thrown into the pit, precious coat violently ripped off of him, we pause in frustrated scorn; again a brother is victim to brotherly hatred? The selling of Joseph comes on the heals of a birthright sold under duress and the banishment of a son that does not belong. It is the final instalment that needs to be considered in context.
First the banishment. Ishmael is born from a liaison fraught with self-interest and conflict, bereft of love and commitment. No wonder then that he will become a wild-ass of a man his hand in everything. He does not belong and as he plays with the rightful heir, the chosen son Isaac, a danger is sensed by Sarah; Ishmael must be banished. Isaac grows up in a home from which the ill-fitting son has been cast away. Wonder that when faced as a parent with an ill-fitting son, Yischak chooses the opposite technique. Esau is embraced and held close while Jacob must scheme to receive the blessing he deserves. Isaac's affection for Esau is puzzling and to some even disturbing. Perhaps his hope was to bring close rather than to banish, to embrace rather than to alienate; the loss of a brother ever fresh.
Jacob's inelegant exchange of lentil soup for birthright is followed by the deceptively acquired blessing. For these deeds Jacob is rewarded with years of pain. His beloved Rachel is switched on the wedding night for Leah, she is the eldest daughter destined to marry the eldest brother. Jacob now the eldest by virtue of a purchased birthright and a blessing taken under suspicious pretence is married to the eldest. As was Isaac blinded and unknowing, so too was Jacob fooled. Children are born of wives competing for the love of one man; jealously ensues. We arrive at the saga of Joseph.
Wearing the privileged coat of colours he becomes a talebearer bringing reports on his brothers back to Father. He has dreams of night that reflect daytime thoughts of grandeur. This lording over his brothers lands him stripped of the coat, in a pit waiting to be sold down to Egypt. They have had enough of him. Textual confusion notwithstanding, years later he identifies himself: I am Joseph your brother; you sold me down to Egypt. Trading of humans; father purchases birthright; son is sold into slavery.
Jacob's preferential treatment of Joseph leads to no good; yet times changes Jacob. As he prepares for the end of life, blessings are bestowed upon each of the brothers. No silent parent here. Jacob unlike Adam speaks to each son and with carefully measured words each receives a fitting eternal message.
The book - that began with the arrogant theft of life, grabbed by Cain as he brutally denies Abel his right to live; he knows not that God in His divinity is the sole author of life - concludes with the powerful humble pronouncement of Joseph: do I stand in the place of God? Lessons are learned. Generations teach generations; repair is made. Perhaps Joseph's peace with his brothers begins the healing for the murder of Abel. It all must start somewhere; the end is in sight as Parshat Vayeshev begins and Joseph the Tzadik struts across the stage, we must grimace as the story starts, but comfort yourself we know its end as well.