Shofetim: authority cannot be taken it must be given, so stop the bullies and stand up for diversity in the Jewish world and beyond

“This parashah, more than any other in Deuteronomy, is concerned with what we would call authority: rightful action in a world full of wrongdoing; power that is right and not merely effective; rule by those who have a right to rule. A parade of authorities is delineated, starting with the word that opens the parashah and gives it its name—magistrates—and followed by officials, judges, priests, prophets, elders, kings, and, of course, the immediate and ultimate authors of the book who are the sources of its authority: Moses and God. We need authority desperately, the Torah teaches, because our very lives depend upon doing what is right—and that is difficult for us.” (Professor Arnold Eisen, chancellor, JTS. 2011)

I have been thinking about the whole idea of authority recently. Defined in dictionaries as being the ability to make decisions, to have power and control politically or administratively, to give orders and to enforce obedience, authority has a different meaning in Judaism – or at least it used to have.

Authority was always multifaceted – there were different groups who could wield only one part of the whole – the monarchy, the priesthood and the prophets all held authority, and in biblical times they kept each other in check.   The most dangerous of these was generally held to be the monarchy, God had not wanted the Jewish people to have a monarch at all, but acceded to the request in the book of Samuel after Samuel had warned the Israelites of how a king would exploit them if they insisted on having one but “Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No, but we will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles’. (I Sam. 8:11-21).. and so began the unhappy monarchy of King Saul.

In Judges 9:7-21 we have the mashal of Jotam, a story that is sometimes told on Tu B’Shevat and reads a bit like a fairy story, but is in reality a biting allegory against monarchy:
Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon is the only one left alive after his older brother Abimelech has murdered all the other brothers and anointed himself as king. He escapes to Mount Gerizim, near Shechem and recounts the story of “the trees who went forth to anoint a king over them.”

The trees first ask the olive tree to be their king, but it refuses. “Should I give up my oil which honours God and people, in order to have power over trees?” The trees then ask the fig, and then the vine, both of which turn down the offer of sovereignty over the trees because they are already producing good fruits which honour God and people and each tree repeats the idea that they cannot do the good work they already do in producing fruits/oils/wines which benefit society at the same time as holding the monarchy.

Finally the trees ask the Atad – a bramble or thorn bush – to be their monarch  and this plant which produces nothing and has nothing to offer society except some shade, agrees to reign – and at the same time it issues a threat: ‘If you really want to anoint me sovereign over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the Atad and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ (Judges 9:15).

The Atad is a thorny tree, its shade is patchy, it has a wide ranging root system which drains the water and nourishment from the soil around it. It produces no fruits and has no benefits whatsoever to anyone else, though it is well adapted to survival in difficult terrain.

The allegory is clear in its context – the good people either do not want to be sovereign because they are already contributing greatly to society and this would suffer, or they see no point in acquiring a pointless status. The thorny unpleasant and selfish person/plant not only accepts the power with alacrity, but begins its reign with bullying and threats in order to keep the power.  Abimelech is the thorn in the context of the parable, but we see so many who take over power undeservedly or with bullying in our own world.

Leaving aside the current world political situation where leaders who are Atadim are grabbing power and manipulating and bullying others, I was thinking of our own Jewish world, where the mansplaining, the power grabbing over women’s bodies and voices, the conferences on women’s health or activities which are led by men, the advertising or even news stories where pictures of women have been edited out or the women completely disappeared – these are the Atadim grabbing power they should not have, and certainly there needs to be other power bases who can challenge and contain them, as in the biblical model of the three separate strands of authority.

Who will challenge them? There is “Flatbush Girl” who photoshops pictures from the frum community, there is the hashtag #frumwomenhavefaces ; there are Women of the Wall at the Kotel and there is attorney Batya Kahana-Dror—who petitioned the high court and is currently vying for the position of Rabbinical Courts director, and these all do good work. But where are the voices from the rest of the Jewish world? Where are the people challenging the Israeli Government demanding equality for all the citizens, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, as the declaration of Independence proclaims. Where are those people who can promote and defend a halachic system that is multifaceted and diverse?

The problem is with the word “authority” which has come to mean a singular, all powerful monopoly that cannot be challenged and that does not need to explain itself.

This is a modern phenomenon. Heck, even I am older than it, I can still remember the norm of rabbis being independent thinkers, of different regions having different and equally valid customs and practises, of vibrancy and creativity and innovation in the responsa literature. Now I meet people whose only approach is that that someone else told them the line they are taking and it cannot possibly be challenged.

Authority ultimately is seen as coming from God. We have in Talmud a series of blessings upon seeing leaders – In Berachot 58a we read :

The Rabbis taught: ‘On seeing sages of Israel one should say: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  wisdom to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] sages of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given wisdom to flesh and blood.”

‘On seeing kings of Israel, one says: “Blessed be the one who has imparted  glory to them that have awe of God.”

‘[On seeing] kings of other nations, one says: “Blessed be the one who has given glory to flesh and blood.”‘

It is clear from this that the wisdom and the glory that leaders have are divinely given, and in the context of Jewish leadership there is a relationship of awe and perspective between the human beings and God.   It is also clear that leadership exists in a number of different contexts and that different populations have different and valid leaderships. And it is abundantly clear that each leader must make of their leadership what they can, from their own skills, creativity and perceptions and that each is only a Jewish leader if they are not out for themselves but out to increase God in the world.

Sadly we seem increasingly in the orthodox world to have leaders who are more thorn bush than cedars, whose fruits are only about increasing their power and control over others and not about honouring God and people or about developing a thriving society where everyone can take part. Whether it be newspapers editing women’s faces (or whole selves) out of photographs, so that even Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton have disappeared from recorded images, or adverts where apparently men only households eat the cereal or whatever is being advertised, or women being refused access to work positions, or women not being allowed to sing…… this is getting more and more ridiculous and the parable of Jotam increasingly relevant. We don’t need a centralised leadership in Judaism and up till now we have never had one. We don’t need the people who want to be powerful to take power over us – indeed we want them NOT to have access to the levers of power. And if we are stuck in a position like Yotam where it is happening anyway, then we must protest, we must raise our voices and say “not in my name” and most of all we must mistrust anyone who claims to have this authority and be clear that we are not about to cede it to them.

Authority ultimately must be consensus driven and agreed or it is bullying and oppression. And any threats from the Atad claiming their power or else there will be trouble must be faced and faced down.  We have history and authenticity on our side, let’s take our own authority too

#frumwomenhave faces #allwomenhavefaces #maleandfemalecreatedequal #halachahisdiverse

 

 

 

Balaam: Carried away and lost by his own words

 My teacher Jonathan Magonet used to ask – “If you were a donkey, how would you read the bible?” The answer of course is that you would notice the stories about donkeys. They are not hard to find, Abraham, Moses and Samuel had famous donkeys, though it might be disappointing to a donkey reader to find the donkeys always described in relation to their human companion. And of course there is Balaam’s amazing donkey we read about today, which was clearly more perceptive than the prophet who rode her.

The point he was making is that when we read a text we bring to it an enormous number of presuppositions related to our experience, knowledge, personal situation, tradition etc. We are none of us objective readers of the text; we are all shaped by our life experience. We bring ourselves to the texts; we read into it as well as read out from it, we notice what we notice and not what has no meaning to us or resonance in our own minds.

The same is true of prophecy in the Hebrew bible. Biblical prophecy is as shaped by the prophet’s own understanding as it is formed by the will of God. And it is affected by those who hear it and act. Jews read biblical text as part of a dialogue and dialectic seeking truth through debate and discussion; We bring ourselves into relationship with the words of Torah. To simply read the p’shat, the literal and surface meaning of the text, is to miss out on the richness that is brought to it through human understanding. We have to reflect on and process what we read, examine it and turn it again and again, for the word of God is renewed through our engagement with it.

Curiously, the story of Balaam, this professional prophet of God, whose donkey is also sensitive to the divine in the world, seems to lack this capacity. And the tradition seems to try to tell us something in the way the story is written – not only the text but the physical appearance of the words.

If you look in a Torah scroll, you will see that while the columns are carefully designed to begin and end at the end of each line (what we might call ‘line justified’ in today’s parlance, there are also breaks in the text, some at the end of a line (p’tuhah) and some in the middle of a line (s’tumah). There is a long tradition preserving these spaces, and scribes follow this tradition carefully. But Balaam’s prophecy contains no such spaces.

The Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) asks why there are no breaks in this parashah as it is written in the Torah scroll. From Balak’s initial alarm and commissioning of Balaam to curse Israel to the very end of Balaam’s prophecy (Numbers 22:2-24:25), there is only solid text. True, Balaam was a prophet, and his prophecy was inspired from above: “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38) But why should this section look so different from others in the Torah?

The Chafetz Chayim answers his own question, based on several midrashic sources, in the following way: The various breaks in Moses’ prophecy (i.e., the rest of the Torah) are indications that God gives Moses (and other Israelite prophets) breathing room to process what they are receiving. They are not to act simply as mouthpieces, as empty vessels through which divine speech flows. Rather, the prophet must understand the prophecy and be changed by it.

Moses and the other prophets of Israel participate in prophecy: Their words of God are refracted through their human thought and experience. Moses at times even argues with God, following the precedent set by Abraham and establishing a pattern that will be followed by the later prophets and by others. We can view breaks in the text as opportunities for reflection-both theirs and ours. But Balaam is allowed no breaks for reflection, nor is he changed by his words. He is only the conduit through which the text is passed, no different than a book or a tape or a digital recording. His prophecy is shallow and limited, his personality not engaged in the activity at all, his lack of understanding and commitment to participation means he fails as a prophet.

Yet Balaam’s words are remembered and, in the case of the phrase ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” they are used prominently in Jewish liturgy.

So while Balaam neither reflected on his words nor sought a deeper meaning, we still are able to take these words and refract them into something both challenging of our world and supporting of what we see. This liturgical twist is an elegant example of the interaction of people and text, when we take the words that were intended for curse and transform them into words that acknowledge and reframe our reality to turn it into blessing.