Friday, May 25, 2012

Two-minute Torah: In The Wilderness

This Shabbat we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. The English name of this book is Numbers but in Hebrew it is known as B'midbar, "In The Wilderness." It covers almost 38 years of the 40 year period from the departure from Egypt to the entrance into the promised land.

In his seminal book "Exodus and Revolution," the great American Jewish philosopher Michael Walzer draws a contrast between messianism and what he calls "Exodus Politics." In some ways for us Jews it is a subtle distinction, because obviously Passover is connected in Jewish thought with the messianic idea. For example, we symbolically welcome Elijah (the harbinger of the Messiah) at the Passover Seder, and most of the many references to the Exodus in Jewish liturgy make it clear that it is viewed as a synechdoche for the ultimate redemption of the entire world.

Yet, Walzer points out that messianism and "Exodus politics" are in tension if not actually opposites. Messianism is supernatural, for one thing; it depends on divine action. It is total and immediate and does not take realpolitik into account. Exodus politics is gradualistic -- we don't go from slavery to Promised Land overnight, it takes 40 years. And exodus politics is melioristic -- it strives not for perfection but for improvement. As long as today is better than yesterday, we are moving towards the Promised Land.

The message of the Wilderness is not one we like to hear. We live in a society of microwaves, instant messaging and sound bites. The American Jewish community is looking for the magic bullet that will cure all of our problems. For a while it was day schools, then it was Birthright, then it was Jewish camping, then "indie minyanim," and now it's Tribefest and Moishe House. All of these are good things, by the way, but no one magic bullet is going to guarantee the survival of American Jewry. And no one magic bullet is going to solve the problems of any particular synagogue. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience.

As Walzer says, there are three lessons of Exodus politics:
1.) wherever you are now, it is probably Egypt;
2.) the Promised Land is real;
3.) the only way to get there is to march through the wilderness -- there are no shortcuts.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Strangers and Sojourners

Both English and Hebrew have pleonasms, phrases which express in more than one word something that could just as easily be expressed with only one word. We often speak of "tuna fish" when "tuna" would convey exactly the same thing. My late Uncle Max used to say that something has "all the vitamins and minerals" and lawyers often speak of "rules and regulations." Yes, technically a vitamin is not a mineral and a rule is not a regulation, but we recognize both of these usages as simply figures of speech.

In the Hebrew Bible we find the terms "ger v'toshav," "stranger and sojourner." When he seeks to buy a burial place for his wife Sarah, Abraham describes himself to the native Hittites as a "ger v'toshav." And in this week's parasha, in Lev. 25:23, we are told that the land cannot be sold in perpetuity, because we are "gerim v'toshavim" with God, which the new JPS translation renders as "for you are but strangers resident with Me."

We accept "ger v'toshav" as a pleonasm meaning something like "resident alien."  But I recently came across a teaching from my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, the Dubner Maggid, where he says that they are actually opposite. 

"Ger carries the connotation of temporariness while toshav carries the connotation of permanence. God said to Israel: “The relationship between you and Me is always that of ‘strangers and settlers.’ If you live in the world like strangers, remembering that you are only here temporarily, then I will be a settler in your midst, in that My Presence will dwell with you permanently. But if you will regard yourselves as settlers, as permanent owners of the land on which you live, forgetting that the land is actually not yours but Mine, My Presence will be a stranger in that it will not dwell in your midst.“

“In any case, you (Israel) and I (God) cannot be strangers and settlers at the same time. If you act like a stranger, then I will be the settler, and if you act the settler, I must be the stranger.”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Conflict of Laws

What does one do if two different authorities give you conflicting orders? For example, during Prohibition the manufacture and sale of wine was prohibited. But according to some understandings of Jewish law, wine (as opposed to grape juice) MUST be used for Friday night Kiddush and the four cups during the Passover Seder. What to do?

As it happens, the Prohibition legislation allowed for a "sacramental exemption" and both synagogues and Catholic churches were able to obtain wine under it. But what if such an exemption had not been allowed?

This week's Torah reading contains a curious line. Lev. 19:3 says "Everyone shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall observe My sabbaths, I am the LORD." Why are the two combined in this one verse?

It should be noted, of course, that both observing the Sabbath and honoring our parents had already been commanded in the Ten Commandments. So we already know that we are supposed to do these things. What new knowledge does this particular verse impart to us?

Rashi says that the verse is specifically addressing a situation where one's parent tells him or her to violate Shabbat. Yes, in general we are supposed to obey our parents, but in this particular case, the verse is clarifying that at least as far as Shabbat goes, our obligation to God outweighs our obligation to our parents. In other words, the letter "vav" in the verse really means "nevertheless", not simply "and."

I don't know whether this was a common issue in Rashi's day but it is not uncommon today. In sociology, "Hansen's Law" tells us that in immigrant societies, the third generation often seeks to reclaim what the second generation discarded. And thus it is not uncommon for American Jews who are grandchildren of immigrants (as I am) to be more observant than their parents. And with the growth in the number of Jews by Choice, it is also not uncommon for observant Jews to have non-Jewish parents. And so our parents may schedule a family reunion on Shabbat, or expect us to attend some other type of event on Shabbat. We feel a tension because we know we are supposed to honor our parents, but we also have Shabbat norms that we should not violate.

This verse gives us guidance. If it is possible to honor our parents' wishes without violating Shabbat (or eating non-kosher food), we should do so. Hopefully, our non-Jewish or non-observant parents will meet us halfway and seek to accommodate our needs. But if it is impossible to do both, Shabbat takes precedence. And it stands to reason -- we are obligated to honor our parents, but both us and our parents are obligated to honor God.