24th Ellul – checking how we are living, ensuring we live on.

During Ellul we are expected to make a “Heshbon Nefesh” – literally an accounting of the soul.  It is a time for honest reflection, a time to look at what we have done, what we failed to do, what we have become as a consequence. The language of the Heshbon Nefesh is business-like – there is a sort of book-keeping element to it as we are reminded, in the words of Pirkei  Avot, that “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the payment is much, and the Master of the House is pressing.”

For some, weighing up a mitzvah against a missed opportunity to do a mitzvah, might be a sensible and comfortable way to proceed. But there are other ways to do this in our tradition, and my favourite is framed as Tzava’ah – the writing of an ethical will.

In order to really make a Heshbon Nefesh we need to clarify and explicate what truly is important for us, to think about our soul at the end of its earthly existence standing before the Holy One. The day is short, the work is great – and God waits to see what we make of our lives.

In the book of Genesis there is an interesting deathbed scene.  Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph

אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ כִּי עוֹדְךָ חָי:

Translated usually as “Now I can die, for I have seen your face [and know that] you are indeed alive.”

Yet the Hebrew is not quite as clear as the translation would have us think – Jacob actually says “I can die this time” – as if there are many deaths in life, and this particular event is the latest in a chain of other deaths.

So what is Jacob really saying when he speaks of more than one death? There is a commentary on this verse that reads it as teaching that while everyone dies physically,  one may also die – or not die – spiritually.  How would one not die spiritually? By ensuring that one’s actions in the world help to sustain it, by leaving a legacy of values as well as of mitzvot, by telling stories that fix in the memory, by teaching others what is truly important in life so that they may use the guidance “b’shem omro” –recalling the memory of the person who helped them to understand.

When God speaks of Abraham just before the destruction of Sodom, God reflects on their relationship and says  (Gen 18:19)

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת־בָּנָיו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשֹוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

For I have known him in order that he may instruct his children and his household after him, to keep the ways of the Eternal to do צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט righteousness and justice.

The idea that Abraham must instruct (Tza’va’ah) his descendants with the values God wants them to have is particularly powerful in this context. Right now Abraham has only the promise of Isaac to be born, we are about to see a whole city – with parents and children – destroyed. But in this moment of potential and of uncertainty, comes the idea of passing on values into the future. And from here comes the notion of the ethical will (tzava’ah) ,  a document that would go alongside a will detailing what to do with possessions and physical objects of value, and instead detailing the ethics and values the you want your descendants or students or any reader of the document to know and to absorb them into the way they will live their life.

So what do we want to be remembered for? What do we want to pass on as good ethical guidance to those we love? What is the particular wisdom that means that passing it to the next generations we are ensuring we will die only physically, but not spiritually- for we will continue to exist in the stories, the memories, the values and the love the next generations will absorb from us.

Take some time to reflect not just on what we have or have not done, but what we would like to be remembered for, what legacy of memories and illustrative values we would like our lives to model. Writing an ethical will can be transformative, as it helps remind us of what we would like our lives to embody, and that reminder is the template against which our Heshbon Nefesh will be measured.

18th Elul – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine – and our love can transform the world

18th Elul

The name of this month of Elul can be seen as an acronym for the phrase

אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3)

One would normally expect the month leading up to the Day of Judgment and the Day for Atonement to be less about love and more about Awe – after all these are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.  Indeed the Maharal of Prague  Judah Loewe ben Bezalel (1520 – 1609) wrote of this month “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into their soul and search their deeds, that they may make confession.”

While the awe is appropriate, and a certain fearfulness will facilitate our search of our souls in order to repent, the idea that this is done within the context of love, of the love between God and us, is a powerful one.  The work of Elul is not about punishment, not a negative self-loathing, but is about closeness to the love for God and the love of God. We are actively searching for a positive relationship, which will help us to live better, to be better, and we do this under the compassionate gaze of God.

There is a myth that Judaism is not a religion of love – that the “God of the Old Testament” is all about war and vengeance. That is simply not true, but a polemic designed to misinform and miscast the Hebrew bible in order for other traditions to look somehow nicer.

“The God of the Old Testament” – the God of the Hebrew Bible – is all about love. We are commanded in the Hebrew bible to love God, to love other people –whoever they might be and however distant from our own group – and indeed to love ourselves.  This is not a thoughtless and sentimental love, but love as action, love that shows itself in how we behave, love that changes us and changes the world.

The month of Elul, which might be misunderstood to be a month of fear and trembling for what is to come, is connected in Midrash not just with love, but the love from Song of Songs – the total immersive and uncritical feelings of two lovers wrapped up in each other.  That one of the lovers is us, and the other is God, tells us a great deal of how confident rabbinic Judaism is in the compassionate and supportive care God is offering us. We only need to make that first step.

17th Elul: everything is waiting to be hallowed by you

17 Elul

“Love your neighbour as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbour you will find Me; not in their love for you but in your love for them.  The one who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love, and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber 1952

The one who loves brings God and the world together. What is this love? It is not sentimentality nor is it romantic attachment. Love is an action rather than a feeling – we are commanded to Love God in Deuteronomy 6:5 with all our heart (intellect), all our nefesh (soul/ being) and all our power /strength (me’od).

Love is an action – when we work at love, by caring for the needs of others, by looking outside our own needs and wants and instead thinking about the community in which we live, the humanity of the other – then we bring God and the world together.

Martin Buber’s world view, that everything is waiting to be hallowed by our actions, and it was for this that the world was created, must surely  inform our practice in Elul, as we reflect on what we have done and not done, and the work that is waiting only for us to see it and do it.

As Rabbi Tarfon says (Pirkei Avot 2:20) “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.”

He also said It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it (2:16)

More than half way through Elul, it is time to do the work of active love.

 

Vayishlach – Dina,objectified and silent, a pawn in the game of male power

The only daughter of Jacob who is recorded in bible is Dina, the daughter of Leah. Born after her mother has given birth to six sons, she is named by her mother as her brothers were, but unlike their naming no meaning is ascribed to the name so given. (Gen 30:21)

We know nothing of her until her father Jacob had taken his family and wealth and left Haran, had had his name changed to Israel at the ford of Jabok,  had encountered and made his peace with Esau his brother, and then settled down, first in Succot and then in the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan, buying land in which to spread his tent and erecting an altar he called “El-elohei-yisrael” (Gen 33:17-20)

And then her presence is made known to us, with a narrative that seems quite separate from all that has happened before.  The story is a difficult one. It begins with the sentence that Dina, daughter of Leah whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָֽלְדָ֖ה לְיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ:

And it ends with the voices of her brothers Shimon and Levi asking “should one treat our sister as a prostitute?”    הַֽכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ:

But what happens between these two sentences?  And is this a story about Dina, or is it really a story about the men in the family?

Dina goes out to meet the local women.  We can only guess why she does this and what is in her mind, for she does not ever speak to us in the text nor does the narrative give us an explanation or any insight into her thinking. Her father has settled in the land, he has done business with the local chieftain Hamor, father of Shechem.  They are at peace. So why would a girl with twelve brothers and no sisters that we know of not want to go out to meet the local girls, and why should anyone think she should not have done so, or that she  should even have been prevented from doing so?  Yet after that moment, the story is all about the status of the men.

Shechem, the pampered prince of the area sees her and so the story really begins. For instead of her “seeing” the local girls she herself is seen. He takes her and he lies with her and “va’y’anei’ha”. And his soul cleaves to Dina daughter of Jacob and he loves the girl and he speaks to her heart.

וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ:  וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּת־יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב וַֽיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּֽעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּֽעֲרָֽ:

Dina is now not described as Leah’s daughter but as Jacob’s. The verbs are to do with sexual intercourse, but there is nothing in the text to say that this is not consensual sex. The problem is really in the process or rather the lack of process. The young prince’s soul cleaves to her, he loves her, he speaks to her heart – but he has had sex with her without first dealing with her family, and this is the meaning of the verb “va’y’anei’ha” here. Ayin Nun Hei  is a root with a number of meanings – to answer, to afflict, to humble, to test, to answer. In this sentence we are clear that by his act he has lowered her status in the eyes of those who prize virginity.  Her bride price will be affected; she is worth less on the marriage market than she was earlier that morning.

It is worth looking at who else is the object of this verb in biblical narrative. Hagar is treated by Sarah in this way, treated in a way that made her feel worthless, and she runs away. (Genesis 16:6)

God treats Israel with this verb (Deut 8:2) keeping them forty years in the wilderness in order to test them, to ensure that they would follow God’s commandments.

In Leviticus we are told to do this to our souls on Yom Kippur – often described as afflicting our souls from which the rabbinic tradition infers that we should fast on that day – it is a day of self-humbling, of recognising that our power and our status are fleeting and that we are dependent on God’s will for our lives.

Tamar uses the word before her brother Ammon rapes her (2Sam 13) but a close reading shows that she is referring  to the shame she will endure, and not to the act which is denoted with the verb h.z.k ‘to seize or overpower’ and which is not used in the narrative around Dina.

The fact that Shechem loves her, speaks kindly to her, wants to marry her – all of this militates against their encounter being a forcible rape. But we don’t know what Dina really thinks – her voice is not recorded nor any action either – she is the object of a story that speaks not about her and her wishes but about the status of the family of Jacob.

The response of her brothers and the anger they show do not bespeak either love or concern for their sister. They are concerned only that she has been made lesser in some way, presumably in terms of her social status and her financial worth. And this will reflect upon them. We only have to think about the wrongly named ‘honour killings’ reported too frequently in our newspapers, which are never about the honour of the woman and only ever about the perceived status of the family to which the woman belonged.

Jacob is silent in the face of all of this, but his sons are not. When the family of Shechem come to organise a marriage they first come to Jacob while the sons are in the fields. He speaks of no anger, he simply waits for the boys to come home. But they are furious – the sexual act between Shechem and Dina is unacceptable to them  “v’chein lo ya’a’seh” This should not be done.

Hamor doesn’t seem to realise how angry the men are, how transgressive the act has been in their eyes. Instead he speaks again of Shechem’s feelings for Dina, asks for her hand in marriage, suggests that the two groups become allies and intermarry their children.  He offers a peaceful future, trading possibilities, living together in the land.  Then Shechem himself speaks – was he there all along? – and he proclaims that whatever they ask as a bride price he is willing to pay. He wants to build a good relationship with them, he wants to marry Dina.

The sons of Jacob answer Hamor and Shechem with slyness – in their eyes their sister has been defiled (t’mei), and the defiler is Shechem. They tell Hamor and Shechem that they cannot marry their sister to an uncircumcised man, so the condition is that every man should be circumcised, and if that is not acceptable they will go away from the land, and take Dina with them. But should they agree, then indeed they will intermarry  and become one people with the family of Shechem.

Shechem and Hamor go back and relay the information to their people. They speak of the peaceable nature of the children of Israel; they say the land is large enough for both groups to be there, they speak of the trade that will ensue between them, and of the marriages that will take place between the two groups.

There is only one jarring note in the text, when Hamor says “Shall not their cattle and their substance and all their beasts be ours?  ”This does not fit with the rest of the narrative which speaks of co-existence and of peacefulness.  There doesn’t seem to be a need for Hamor to increase his wealth by taking on that of the Israelites so what is the sentence doing in the text? It points up that marriage between tribes is always about property and money, they are alliances rather than being about romantic love. And it reads almost as an attempt to justify the actions that will happen shortly – that on the third day after the mass circumcision when the men were in pain, that Shimon and Levi came and slaughtered all of them, including Hamor and Shechem, and took Dina out of their house and, rather poignantly, the text says “va’yetzei’u”, echoing Dina’s original action of ‘tetzei’

They despoiled the city, took captives and all the wealth and the animals belonging to the people, and their father’s only response is to tell them that their actions have made Jacob’s continued position in the land dangerous. Their response ends the story – “should one treat our sister like a prostitute?”

This is a story not about a woman but about male power and identity expressed through their genitalia and the act of sex. It begins just after Jacob has been injured in the groin area by the angel, then comes the sexual act by Shechem who ‘takes’ Dina, then comes the mass circumcision ordered by Jacob’s sons, when the power of the people of Hamor and Shechem is at its lowest, this is followed by the death of Rachel in childbirth, and ends with the story of Reuven sleeping with his father’s concubine Bilha.

The story is sandwiched between the two accounts of Jacob changing his name to Israel – there seems to be some transitional process in which the maleness of the protagonists is both used and also tamed.  The centrality of the male organ can’t be ignored. Milah, the act of circumcision is used both for the male organ, for fruit bearing trees, and for the heart/mind. In bible the act of milah is often followed by increased fertility or life – Abraham only has Isaac after his circumcision for example – an uncircumcised heart does not cleave to God;  and it also curtails unbridled power.

The story of Dina seems to be a pretext on which to hang an ancient and powerful belief that has nothing to do with a young woman and everything to do with establishing and embedding a patriarchy.  Sadly this direction has been continued in midrashic rabbinic teachings – which say everything from blaming her for leaving the house at all, to suggesting she liked to be looked at, had dressed provocatively, had brought the whole thing upon herself. From this quickly comes a whole raft of halachic responsa curtailing the activities and the physicality of women. It seems to be one of the biggest ironies that a sidra dealing with both the fear of male power as symbolised in the male organ and the need to tame and curtail such power has in the midrash and general understanding of the story become one in which the woman is blamed and victimised. Poor Dina. We never find out what happened to her after this, though Midrash marries her to Job, and also suggests that a child born of her encounter with Shechem later marries Joseph in Egypt. The concern once again of the different stories in midrashic imaginings is to rehabilitate her of her ‘sin’ and to bring her descendants back into the chain of tradition. Poor Dina, judged and punished and brought back into the family without ever once having her own voice heard.

 

image Gerard Hoet Shimon and Levy slaying the men of Shechem

Parashat Pinchas:Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side

The actions of Pinchas son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron have been a real problem to commentators on bible from earliest times. The Israelites were sinning, committing idolatry and cavorting with the Midianite women and God had ordered the leaders of these people to be killed. But Pinchas, apparently roused to zealous fury by the sight of an Israelite man with a Midianite woman who were shamelessly transgressing in full view of Moses and the weeping frightened people waiting by the door of the Tent of Meeting, thrust a spear through the misbehaving couple.

It was summary justice, conducted without any of the due process of warning, without trial where both sides of the story could be told, without witnesses speaking, without the judicial process that would protect the accused and offer mitigating outcomes. Pinchas’ action was simply outrageous, contravening all the rules set up to protect society.  Put simply he murdered two human beings because he was ‘zealous for God’. He is the icon of proponents of violence in the name of religion.

But while God may seemingly reward Pinchas (and also the people as the plague is suddenly stopped), the ambiguity of the text and many responses of tradition make clear that violence in the name of God is unacceptable. The third century sage Rav condemned him, saying that the judgement on the two people he had killed was only to be made by God, and while the action might be within the parameters of law given on Sinai, “God who gave the advice should execute the advice”.  In the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) we read that “Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men”, and of the comment by  Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi who says that Pinchas was about to be excommunicated for his action and that this was only averted when God intervened to save him.  God’s declaration that this zealousness and its murderous outcome was done without any personal motivation whatsoever, done only for the honour of God, was what saved Pinchas from the legal process about to take place, but even then it is understood that only such absolute purity of motive is acceptable, and only God can know the full motives of any heart.

Zealousness or vengeance on behalf of God – it is a problem that has never left religion.  God says that Pinchas was “vengeful/zealous/carrying out My vengeance  for My sake (be-kano et kinati     בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם).

קַנָּא is an attribute of God, albeit one that moderns find problematic. We know, because bible tells us, that the plague on the people was an aspect of divine קַנָּא, also that God introduces Godself to the people at Mt. Sinai as “El Kana” (Exodus 20:4). And whatever the difficulty we might have with knowing that God is not only love, not only sweetness and light, but that God is complex and contains within divinity the full spectrum of possibility, it seems to me that in the way this text is written, as well as the majority of rabbinic responses to it, we are made to understand that this attribute is one that should properly be left to God. For who among us is so pure of heart that we can know that there is no other motive, no selfish desire or egoistic drive mixed in with our religious zeal?

Violence and vengeance is part of the human psyche.  The book of Genesis tells us that Cain (whose name  קַיִן echoes the sound קַנָּא, although it comes from the root meaning acquisition rather than vengefulness) murdered his own brother in anger when his own hopes were frustrated. He too was given something by God – the mark of Cain placed on him to protect him from those who would hurt him. Within ten generations of Cain the earth is filled with wickedness and violence, so much that God was sorry that s/he had ever created human beings (Genesis 6:5ff) and wanted to blot them off the surface of the earth, saving only one family, that of Noach, who was relatively less wicked than others. God told Noach “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen 6:13)

From the beginning of bible, it is clear that when God made human beings in the divine image, this included the shadow side of that image. It becomes the job of religion not to excise that which cannot be eliminated, but to recognise it and to find ways to constrain it, limiting the driver of zealousness to the point of making it impotent, making it impossible for people to act from this belief/feeling.  Hence the Talmudic narrative which clarifies that Pinchas is defended by God because uniquely he has entirely pure motives for his act, with no personal impetus whatsoever.

Talmud also contains the idea that “the [torah] scroll and the sword came down from heaven tied together” – a teaching by the 3rd century Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’in. It derives from the Rabbinic idea that Torah was a complete and perfect work even before it was given to the Israelite people at Mt Sinai, and ties it together with the idea that violence/vengeance was also one of the earliest actions demonstrated in humanity. It is often quoted to suggest that both are necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, but in fact the statement of Rabbi Eleazar goes on:- “God said to Israel, ‘If you observe the Torah that is written in the one, you will be saved from the other. If you do not, then you will be destroyed/injured by it”

The teaching is clear however: Both violence and religion are intertwined and archetypal in people, but the work of religious tradition is to try to separate them, not to allow the violence which is endemic within us to overpower us, but instead to follow the will of God in order to subdue this first and primal response.

When God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace, he is not rewarding him for an achievement, he is constraining him from further violence, just as the mark of Cain is constraining others from further violence.

The problem we face today is how to constrain those who feel zealousness for God, of whatever tradition and whatever religion, so that they understand that, in the words of the final song of Moses, Ha’azinu, God says  לִ֤י נָקָם֙ וְשִׁלֵּ֔ם “Vengeance and Recompense is Mine”.

It is not our work to punish or avenge in the name of God, we leave that to God. But it is our work to educate ourselves and each other that acts of violence in the name of religion or in the name of protecting the honour of God are unacceptable, beyond any parameter in this world, and will not make the perpetrators religious martyrs or otherwise glorified. Religion is designed to protect us from our shadow side, from acting on our anger and from narrowing our perspective so we no longer see the humanity of each other. If it is not doing this, then it is religion that needs to evolve in order to fulfil this function.  And that is a job for people – not God – to do: And if not now, when?