Thursday, April 28, 2011

It's Not a Circumcision - It's a Brit Milah!

It's not a circumcision - it's a Brit Milah
Rivy Poupko Kletenik

I quote my mother of Blessed Memory often; perhaps too often. I seem to be unable to avoid generously peppering conversations with her wit and wisdom. Her comments about Brit Milah echo through my mind each time I am lucky enough to attend one.
She often remarked that a bris was her favorite simcha. Her observations were many. First, by virtue of time constraints a Brit Milah does not allow for elaborate planning; always a plus. Second, the ritual is elegantly succinct, demanding but a small investment of time from participant, this too is good. Finally, there is little room for family conflicts, because, most significantly, all come wholeheartedly, unified with a spirit of piety.
A Brit Milah is a pure expression of devotion to God. No ulterior motives here. Purity and sacrifice rule the day. Bringing a new Jewish soul into the covenant of Abraham is devoid of any but spiritual motives. The Brit Milah stands austerely among our rites of passage. The excesses which regularly visit us at Bar Mitsvahs, Bat Mitsvahs and weddings are strangers here.
Instead, an aura of mystery and otherworldliness pervade at the Brit Milah. A feeling of the numinous fills the room as the memories of Pinchas ben Elazar Hacohen, of Eliyahu Hanavi, and of course Abraham are evoked. Their “presence” tells us that something far from usual is to occu - that, what we see is not what it seems. As Jacob Neusner explains, a surgical procedure is not under way, but in fact through the power of words, the act is transformed into something wholly different (The Enchantments of Judaism p.3). This, is not the medical operation performed on millions in sterile hospitals, this is something of another magnitude.
The article, “Dr. Ronald Goldman On Circumcision" had some old thoughts and new thoughts in it. The arguments for and against have been vocalized profoundly from both sides in many different arenas. They do not appear to be fading away. They are voiced every now and then in newspapers and books. His article calls to mind other recent treatments of the subject.
Goldman mentions that women are generally more sensitive to the issue. So let's begin with shall we say, one of the more interesting observations offered by Miriam Pollock in her article, Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective. She says, "How many thousands of Jewish boys and how many thousands of Jewish men have been lost throughout the ages because they were unable to “pass” when their lives depended on it? All the oppressor had to do was pull down their pants." Setting aside the graphic ugliness and cruelty of her statement, let us focus on the content.
What is Pollock telling us? By cleverly turning the victim into his own victimizer she faults the Jew for his own persecution. His Brit Milah was the problem. She has achieved new heights in the exercise of Jewish self-hatred. It is tiresome. Here once again we are being told, not to be, too Jewish. In this case it may get you killed.
In this most recent attack against Brit Milah, Goldman maintains that a Brit Milah is a violation of the maternal-child bond. He recalls that “the infant cried strenuously for an extended period of time.” I can't recall a similar experience with our two sons. I do recall their many piercing cries in doctors' offices after being inoculated, cultured or examined. I recall with pain, my own tears at their tears. But knowing that the shots were critical to my child’s health I steeled myself and did what had to be done. I held their hands, wiped their tears, and told them that it would be all right. And so on through our children's lives. Yes, our tough love often visits pain upon our kids. But, most pain leads to growth. Maternal bonds are not shattered by these experiences. To the contrary, it is from mother’s breast that baby suckles and is comforted after the Bris. And every clever mother times her baby's feeding for immediately after the Bris. Pain and comfort the stuff of which life is made.
Back to my mother, I remember vividly attending a certain Brit Milah together. The nervous young mother was beside herself, quivering with anxiety over the approaching ceremony. Standing nearby I was tempted to deliver a lecture. Brit Milah 101. Don't you know? Your child is about to initiated into the Covenant of Abraham. He is to be permanently marked with a sign on his organ of generation. A symbol of our commitment to God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply. A symbol of our confidence in God's promise to Abraham that we Jews will be as great as the stars in the sky. A symbol of our commitment to the future and that our future begins with sacrifice. But, I remained quiet.
Instead, I let my Mother respond. She put an arm around the young woman and turned to her with typical frankness, "Look around the room. Every man here had a bris - and they're all doing just fine. Relax."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Who is Wicked Son?

The segment of the four sons is assuredly a core piece of the Seder. It fits in neatly with the “four theme” - four cups of wine, four questions, four sons. Nonetheless, the wicked son is disconcerting to be sure – who would want to picture a child as evil? To best begin to grapple with the “four sons” we must sketch out the basics about this theme of different children and then attempt to deal wisely with the wicked sibling. Hopefully, by the end it will seem even simple, perhaps we will be left with no questions.
The idea of the four sons is drawn from four sets of passages in the Torah that discuss the notion of children asking or being told about the Exodus. Here are the four sets of verses. For the sake of brevity I quote them not in full and urge you to check them out inside the text itself.
We begin with a verse in Deuteronomy 6:20,
When, in time to come, your children ask you, What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?
Then these three separate verses from Exodus; in 12:26:
And when your children ask you, What do you mean by this rite?
And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, What does this mean? You shall say to him, It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.”
And finally in 13:8, we find,
And you shall explain to your son on that day, It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.
Consider the verses carefully. Are there any discernible subtle nuances that would lead you to label the voice of the child in any way? Are you able to detect any tones that imply a gradation of sorts in relation to the character of the child doing the asking?
Though we may not be able to distinguish the shades of wisdom or wickedness, wholesomeness or lack of wonderment, the Mechilta, a very early midrash on the Book of Exodus, identifies the four different verses and the children there mentioned, as the Four Sons that you and I know of from the Hagaddah; the wise, wicked, simple, together with the child who knows not how to ask. Above, the verses appear in the order of the Hagaddah, so go back and consider the designations. What about the passages indicates the son assigned to it?
The first verse has detailed questions about laws – the wise son. The second passage seems to have a negative tone – what do you mean by these laws! – the wicked son. The third passage is simply, simple, what is this? – the simple son. Finally, in the last passage the child does not ask and therefore is identified as the one who knows not how to ask.
This is the source then of the notion of the wicked son. We can surmise that the Midrash notices the four verses and wonders about the redundancy of a child asking four times; it must be there to teach us something specific. That something is the idea that there are different types of children and they each demand a different approach. Each child asks their own question and each child needs their own answer – even the child who cannot ask.
Before discussing the categorization or the qualification of each child let’s pause to appreciate the two educational principles that our tradition is suggesting here. Both sound educational practices; firstly, we do not pound out one lesson for all students but rather we know that each child must be taught in a way that makes sense for them. So, though we have a classroom full with many children we try to differentiate our teaching to work for each child. A second wonderful teaching idea is the recognition that good learning emerges from the curiosity of children and from the questions that they articulate. Here we have two educational notions put forth in ancient sources that continue to deeply resonate with our current sensibilities; that is certainly worthy of appreciation.
Now, let’s consider the questions of the children. What are they truly asking? Though they are focusing on the practices of the evening, remember that on Seder night when we reflect on our history we use symbols and rituals to trigger our memory and nudge us on in the telling of our story. When we ask in the Mah Nishtanah, about the eating matzo and of maror – what we really are asking is the classic question of theodicy; why does evil occur if there is an omniscient omnipotent God? Why were the Jews enslaved for hundreds of years? Why were our lives bitter? Why were we compelled to eat the bread affliction?
Now, consider the particular verses assigned to each child; in what way do they address this reformulation of the question; How is this night different from all other nights? The wise child, according to Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, knows that there is no adequate answer for humans in regards to the issue of theodicy, the Rav, in his seminal article, “Kol Dodi Dofek –My Beloved is Knocking” addresses the issue of the Holocaust, and there he suggests that the wise son confronted with evil in the world, asks not; why? but rather, what can I do about it? How am I supposed to react to tragedy? What is our response to suffering? He therefore talks about action; what are the practices? The lesson we learn from the wise child is to take steps to address the pain in the world, rather than to ask about God’s role.
Taking a closer look at the responses to the children we notice that each receives an appropriate answer to this line of questioning. We then cannot help but appreciate that the response to the wicked son addresses his stance. By taking the “wicked” approach, he has excluded himself from the destiny of the Jewish people. When grappling with the uncomfortable phenomenon of a “wicked child” perhaps it would help to think of him as an archetype instead; one who challenges to the point of exclusion.
Finally, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s brother, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik offers this appealing approach to the four sons. They are not four different children but rather four stages we each go through, through our lives; we begin as one who cannot ask, progress to the wonderful school age stage as simple kids, then most assuredly move into the adolescent stage…hmmm wicked? Finally, we all reach the coveted wise stage as adults.
This approach of seeing the sons not as absolutes, leads us to realize that for some it may be distinct stages while for others it may be the normal fluctuations that we all go through in life. Each of us is at times depending on the situation, the wise, the wicked, the wondering or the without-question child.
Social constructivists would echo this approach and add that indeed an individual’s personality is drawn out by those with whom they spend time – I suppose that throws the onus back on to each of us --- are we bringing out the wise, the wicked ,the wondering or the without questioning from those around us or from our children? Well given that, here’s an idea - let us hope that at this year’s Seder we will bring out the wise in everyone!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Enjoy the Rush: Here Comes Pesach!

Dear Rivy –

I love Pesach – once I am sitting at the Seder that is; till that point the rush and the panic are so difficult to handle. Is it just me? Why does our tradition have such stressful ritual as part of its modus operandi?
You are not alone, but you know that. You surely have chatted with family and friends and know intellectually that we are all in the same demanding dash towards the holiday that ironically marks our freedom from slavery.

I deeply believe that there are no accidents in Jewish practice; that even the most seemingly commonplace convention holds within it a transcendent loftiness and a message of meaning. That is the profound nature of our tradition. There must be something more to this rush than meets the eye. We all are experiencing haste before this holiday like no other haste. Though all of the holidays present their own unique panic quotient this one has its own particular deeply felt ontological rush.

What is the genesis of this rush? Let me take you back to the very first Pesach often referred to as “Pesach Mitzrayim, the Egyptian Passover. Moshe sets forth meticulous instructions for the evening’s rituals. Every detail is connected to this haste, this existential alacrity if you will.

And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; its head with its legs and with the inwards thereof. And you shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. And so shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is the LORD'S passover.

This is nothing if not the description of the original “fast food” menu. The matzo is the bread that will necessitate no time to rise. We ate matzo on the night of Passover in anticipation of the dash of deliverance that is yet to come. There is not putting up of bread to rise for this meal. The plans for the evening call for unleavened flatbread – we’ve got a freedom train to catch. The main course? Meat for which there will be no long cooking time – no slow braising here, no meat that falls of the bone with the patience of the slow simmer.

The setting is no elegant restaurant with white table cloths delivering the leisurely meal of courses and hours. Here the attire is utilitarian inelegant travel wear. The sign might stipulate, “No Staff in Hand – No Service. No doggy bags, no leftovers – we will not be around for it and we surely cannot take it with us. The original eat and run. The consumption is in “haste” – the hurriedness of the evening is clear. But we are not the only ones in a rush. The Holy One is swiftly swooping in on the Egyptian firstborns, passing over.

What’s the rush? Two ancient rabbinic views;
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says, What is meant by haste? The haste of the Egyptians.
While Rabbi Akiva says: It is the haste of Israel.

The argument; who is the author of this great acceleration of the redemption? Does it emanate from our enemy, “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste” or is this a self-constructed quickness to extricate ourselves from the bonds of slavery? Our sages’ argument is a weighty dispute. Do the people Israel determine their destiny or are we forever at the mercy of the persecutor du jour? Rabbi Akiva staunchly contends that we own our liberation – though the Egyptians pressured us to exit immediately - we will not leave until the morning. We own this rush.

Maimonides introduces a preliminary statement about the acceleration of our forefathers into his Haggadah. This is to be recited even before the opening paragraph, “Ha Lacham Anya, this is the bread of our affliction.” He inserts this short phrase for us to proclaim, “With a sudden haste we left Egypt.” This is a dramatic innovation for the otherwise scripted traditional text of the Hagadah.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik asks why this aspect of haste, chipazon, is so important to Maimonides? Why did it become the focal point of the evening? Chipazon he explains means “time consciousness”, the excitement of hurrying, of trying to catch up, of making sure that one is in a position to act when the opportunity next presents itself. Chipazon is the attempt to cover distance, to move forward quickly. This is the manifestation of the concept of living time. For the Israelite slaves this newly acquired control of time was the essence of their freedom. For it was then that they regained the concept of time, and that they as a people became free; free to be in a rush.

For the newly freed slave, time is everything. For this reason Judaism is very much centered on holiness in time. Time matters. We were freed in the nick of time. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his celebrated work, “The Sabbath”, writes poetically that we Jews “build cathedrals in time.” Our time is precious here on earth and once free, we have no time to waste in our serving of the Lord.

This fresh liaison between the People Israel and their God is characterized by this rush of love – an elopement if you will. Rabbi Berlin writes that this chipazon, this hurriedness is eminent Presence of God, metaphorically alluded to in the Song of Songs, “The voice of my Beloved! Here He comes! Leaping over the mountains, skipping over the hills…” Dr. Avivah Zornberg conceptualizes it this way, “God acts in a mode of passionate syncopation, disregarding the conventions, overlooking the normal rhythms of history. Some acceleration of events… must happen if they are to be redeemed.”

This is a deep and ancient hurry that we are sensing. So, if you are rushing to get ready for Pesach – that’s a good thing. It’s all about feeling as if it was we ourselves were redeemed- we share in the existential rush of our People. We lean luxuriously on Seder night and try so hard to imagine slavery. While our ancestors sat impatiently with staff in hand, loins girded, rushed and ready, dreaming of freedom.