Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What does G-d demand of us?

This d’var Torah on parshat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) was delivered by Phyllis Nutkis at Kol Sasson Congregation, Skokie, Illinois, on August 9, 2014. Thank you, Phyllis, for giving me a copy and letting me post it.

When I started preparing for this d’var Torah, I really did not want to talk about the current situation in Israel and Gaza. But I haven’t been able to think about anything else. So I’m going to jump right in here and to share my thoughts with you, with the hope of starting a conversation.

The more I hear and the more I read about what’s going on, the more troubled I feel. I’ve read columns and articles from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Al Jazeera; from Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post; listened to NPR and Fox News; read lots of comments and opinions from Facebook; and more, as I’m sure many of you have. Even if we ignore the obviously anti-Semitic rants, and disregard comments that are obviously ignorant or uninformed, we’ve heard and read everything from “Israel should give up all the land” to “We should just kill all the Arabs.” But it doesn’t seem as though there are any clear answers. So it seemed natural, as I sat down to write this d’var Torah, to see if there was anything in the parsha that could shed any light on this subject, or perhaps clarify or broaden my understanding. So let’s start with a question from the parsha:

What does G‑d demand of us?

Deuteronomy 7:12: “And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, The L‑rd your G‑d will with lovingkindness maintain the covenant with you that He made on oath with your ancestors.”

The parsha begins with Moshe describing the specific ways in which G‑d will sustain the covenant, to bring us into the land He has promised us, IF we follow His commandments: the land he will bring us to will be fertile; crops will thrive; there will be just the right amount of rain, at just the right times; we will bear children, and they will survive; our cattle will reproduce; we will be healthy... G‑d will reward us with this land, because the land embodies (and in fact is critical to) everything that matters for our survival.

? But it’s conditional: “And IF you do obey these rules and observe them carefully.” But we have a terrible track record in obeying G‑d’s rules. We have been “stiff-necked,” stubborn, and defiant. So why didn’t He just destroy us and “blot out our name from under the heaven”?

It’s clear from this parsha, and from many other places in the Humash, that G‑d hasn’t drawn a line in the sand. He is willing to be persuaded that we shouldn’t be destroyed; that we should be given another chance. He repeatedly invites human moral critique. He invites us to argue with him; to make our case. He considered wiping us out, and he said so out loud because he wanted Moshe to argue with Him, to defend us. So this is one thing that G‑d demands from us: He wants us to be His partner in a moral debate.

But in this midst of all of this—the descriptions of the land AND of our failures to keep the commandments—, there are a couple of verses that seem out of place.

In 10:18-19: “[G‑d] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.” “V’ahavtem et ha-ger ki gerim hayitem b’eretz Mitzrayim. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“Ger” is usually translated, literally, as “stranger.” Hazal took the biblical notion of “ger” to mean a “convert.” But in the Humash, a “ger” is more accurately described as “resident alien.” The state of being an “alien” is a result of belonging to a different culture than ours; it’s a result of that person’s “strangeness” to us. In other words, what makes a person a stranger—a ger—is our alienation from his or her difference. So if we are to “love the stranger,” we need to change the way we regard him. If I understand another’s culture, he is no longer alien to me. It’s very important to make clear, though, that does NOT mean that we should adopt the alien’s culture; in fact we are warned against this. But the other extreme is also not desirable: when we know nothing about the culture of the resident aliens who live among us, we need to familiarize ourselves, so that the “alien” is no longer a “stranger.” And as Jews, the prototypical “aliens” in a now-connected global world, we should appreciate that need.

The Talmud mentions that “Ahavat haGer,” the instruction to love, and not oppress, the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah; in fact, it’s mentioned more times than any other mandate in the Torah. Nechama Leibowitz says that empathy for the stranger is an outgrowth of experience. "We are bidden to put ourselves in the position of the stranger by remembering how it felt when we were strangers in another land."

Emmanuel Levinas defines the stranger as the “Other.” “The Other is what I am not. The Other is this, not because of his own character or psychology but because of his very…‘otherness.’ The Other is, for example, the weak, the poor, ‘the orphan and widow,’ whereas I am the rich or the powerful.”

Why are these verses here? How do these two things—the land, and befriending the “other”—fit together?

Nechama Leibowitz says: “We are accustomed to reading [this] as the classic description of the fertility and other wonderful qualities of the holy land. But we must not ignore its other implication. The Torah sings the praises of the land to emphasize too the moral dangers and pitfalls that such gifts might bring with them.”

Here are two potential pitfalls.

1. We are warned against worshipping other gods, so when we attempt to understand and familiarize ourselves with the “strangers” among us, we have to be careful to select and appreciate the aspects of this foreign culture that enlighten and enlarge us (everything from Galileo, Roman architecture, and seventeenth-century European music to yoga, acupuncture, and pizza), and yet reject the aspects that will undermine us and corrupt our moral standing.

2. We are warned against hubris; to be careful that “when you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the L‑rd your G‑d.”

Receiving G‑d’s gifts, and enjoying the riches of the land, may lead us to say (8:17), “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” But Moshe tells the people, “Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that the L‑rd your G‑d is giving you this good land to possess; for you are a stiff-necked people.” Believing that we have the power to manipulate the world can lead to our downfall. Hubris, by definition, undermines our relationship with G‑d. Arrogance and smugness are based on dismissiveness and disregard for the “Other.” When we act with hubris, we are rejecting our relationship with G‑d. Who are we to be dismissive of another human being?

So all along, we’ve been hearing about the wonderful land to which G‑d will bring us. But, of course, there’s a big problem. This isn’t just empty, uninhabited land—it’s full of people. Other human beings. They may be idol worshippers, even child sacrificers, and they’re hostile; but they’re people, and they’re there. And to make things more complicated, almost immediately after we hear about the land, we hear this:

7:16: “You shall destroy all the peoples that the L‑rd your G‑d delivers to you, showing them no pity.” 7:24: “You shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.” This seems to be in direct opposition to what we’ve just been told—“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I am not sure what to make of these statements; I find them very troubling, but that will be a subject for another d’var Torah. In the meantime, I think this is another warning: history shows that those who have been oppressed frequently become worse oppressors when they acquire power; we are thus cautioned against becoming oppressors when we have power of another.

We were strangers, or “others”—resident aliens—in Egypt, and suffered under our oppressors. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that, when we are in a position of power, we should beware of making human rights conditional on anything but “the simple humanity which every human being bears. With any limitation of these human rights, the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings.”

I think these concepts can help us answer the question we started with: What does G‑d demand of us?

We are made in G‑d’s image, and therefore we are to emulate G‑d, who (10:18) “upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger…” Ibn Ezra says: If one person “afflicts” a widow or orphan and the community doesn’t intervene to protect him/her, all will be punished; we all bear responsibility. Anyone who sees a person oppressing society’s most vulnerable and does not come to his/her aid, will also be considered an oppressor.

But exactly how we are to do this isn’t spelled out; in the current situation, there are certainly no easy answers, or even any answers at all. But we know that G‑d invites, and expects, moral and ethical debate; so perhaps we are meant not to find a definitive answer, but to continually reexamine the question. We will never all agree; but the debate shouldn’t be about what is the “most accurate” or originalist interpretation of the text—instead, it should be about what is the most moral and ethical interpretation. What is the best for the Jews, and for all of humanity? This is also what G‑d demands of us.

Among all of the things I’ve read the past month, there are some very disturbing things; and a lot of, I think, useless things that we use to avoid the really difficult questions. For example, there are lists all of our achievements—the Nobel prizes, the amazing Israeli technology, the polio vaccine. But as the parsha makes clear, we should not hide behind our accomplishments and use them as justification for our supposed “superiority” over the “other”; we aren’t getting the land because we’re so good; our victory is not proof of our virtue. 9:5, 9:6: “It is not because of your righteousness.”

Often, when we are confronted with seemingly impossible situations, we tend to rely on stereotypes to reinforce what we think we know and what we want to believe in order to “justify” our beliefs. We’ve all seen dozens of examples of these stereotypes lately, but here’s one I saw the other day: there’s a picture that’s being circulated on FB of an ugly, toothless old woman, with the caption that she is one of the seventy-two virgins promised to Muslim martyrs. I find this no less offensive than the stereotypical images used by the Nazis of Jews with hooked noses, grabbing fistfuls of money. How does this help? What does this accomplish? I think it’s worse than useless, because it diverts us from examining the real issues; looking at the actual human beings before us, and looking at ourselves honestly.

But doing this is incredibly hard, because we know that there are many serious and perhaps irreconcilable differences. But to say that’s it, end of conversation—that’s not helpful. Especially when it seems futile, we have to continue searching, talking, not closing our hearts and minds to those of the “other,” to continue to broaden our understanding of him and be mindful of our own power.

We were strangers in Egypt, and thus we have a responsibility toward the strangers among us, regardless of their behavior. Even though we haven’t entirely succeeded in keeping the rules of behavior G‑d has laid out for us, he indicates that he isn’t giving up on us now or in the future. Our task is to keep trying; we aren’t to give up either. We should continually and continuously aspire to be a people that truly deserves this land and all it represents. The giving of the land should induce a perpetual attitude of gratitude and humility. It’s a gift we didn’t earn. The parsha makes clear this gratitude is best expressed by treating the most vulnerable in society well, especially when we have wealth and power.

There are no clear answers, but we should engage in serious and sophisticated thought and discussion about how to relate to the “strangers” who are in the land, and who will always be in the land; there will always be “others.” Yes, many of them, but not all, are hostile. But what do we really know about the “other” who threatens us? Without knowing, we can’t decrease his “strangeness.” We need to take responsibility for familiarizing ourselves, and to have empathy; then the “alien” is no longer a “stranger.”

This is what G‑d demands of us: to engage in a moral debate with Him, to consider and argue and devote our strongest energies to our relationship with the “stranger” among us, especially when we are in a position of power. This is HOW we fulfill the commandment to love and obey G‑d.

We don’t just look for easy answers; and we don’t just walk away in disgust or despair when we don’t find the answer. We don’t resort to slogans or shallow simplifications. We live with the tensions, with the uncertainty, with the dissatisfaction of not having found a solution—yet. We keep trying to reach different and ultimately more helpful understandings of our responsibility towards the “strangers” who live among us, adopting the best of their wisdom and values, without compromising our own, keeping in mind that Judaism has survived and flourished exactly by such adaptation and adoption.

As I said at the beginning, I want this to be a conversation. I hope we can keep talking about it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Shoveling snow on the Sabbath (ver. 2013)

Snowy sidewalks are no big deal in themselves, but they become sidewalks with packed ice after they've been walked on for a while, and those things are dangerous and, depending on the weather, can last for weeks.

When it's necessary to shovel on the Sabbath, I always do so, wearing socks on my hands as a shinnuy. I haven't asked a rabbi about this, and this is out of respect for the rabbinate--I want to save them the embarrassment of possibly giving the wrong answer.

As a side note, I once told a friend, former and (I hope) future hevruta, and ethical adviser about this. He (who lives in an apartment where the landlord is responsible for shoveling, so it's not his problem) said he thought this a fine idea. Since it's just me, he said, I should do it without any distinctive Jewish accessories visible. If, however, I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, av beit din of the Rabbinical Council of America and rosh beit din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who lives nearby, he'd advise me to do it looking like I was R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz so everyone would know it's OK. I take his point, although if I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, I wouldn't need his advice.

One Sabbath morning in 2009, there was a thick layer of slush on the sidewalk. I ignored it, since it was the Sabbath, and what would the people coming to lunch think? By the time the Sabbath was over, the slush had turned into solid ice with footprints.

So let's imagine that someone had injured themselves on the ice that I piously left there, and let's further imagine that I'd passed away and had to face the Heavenly Tribunal.
Members of the Tribunal (M"T): Well, what about that nice Mr. McNotzreigh who broke his whatsits on your ice?
Me: Sorry about that, but only a little, since I was observing Shabbat.
M"T: Very nice.
(I assume the M"T are Orthodox Jews, among whom "very nice" means "yeah, right, whatever.")

Right. Well, very nice. But from now on, I'm going to do what needs to be done and forgo the after-the-fact teshuvah.

In the morning service, we ask God to rescue us from a bad neighbor (unless we're praying in a congregation that skips that paragraph). Reading between the lines, I am guessing that the liturgist also doesn't want us to be the bad neighbor.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A dance for Hebrew pronunciation geeqs

At the ballroom at the hottal / Let's drink a lotta slop / Shout alefs at full throttal / And do the Glottal Stop.

Seasonal controversy

This all started with a post--actually it was a status update--that I put on Facebook.
Early skirmish in the war against Christmas. (By the way, I like the word "skirmish." It sounds like something they would have made up at Mad Mag.) Anyhow, early skirmish (gleeful chortle about saying it again) in the war against Christmas: the drugstore at Dempster and Crawford (as they quaintly call Pulaski out in Skokie) is already selling Chanukka/Chanukkah/Hanukka/Hanukkah stuff (I list them alphabetically). 
And to give the opening shot in another seasonal war, I don't care whether you spell it with a "Ch" or an "H"! I don't care whether you spell it with an "h" at the end! The important thing is you use one "n" and two "k"s. And also, you shouldn't accent the "a," since it isn't a real syllable.
A Facebook friend (and why doesn't Facebook have interlocutors as well as friends? I mean, this guy actually is a friend, but he was also an interlocutor in this case) asked why I "insisted" ("insisted"? jeesh) on one en and two kays. This is my answer.

The real answer is that I just wanted to stir the pot a little by starting a seasonal spelling fight while not engaging in the "Ch/H" controversy. But I'll also give Hebraiqally geeqy answer to the question of why you "should" use one en and two kays, and also explain that it isn't really relevant.

Most Hebrew consonants can accommodate a dot (dagesh) in the middle. With almost all such consonants (including nun) it means the consonant should be doubled. The nun in חֲנֻכׇּה has no dot, therefore it's not doubled. That was the easy part.

So now we come to the "almost all such consonants" part. When a hei or an alef has a dot, the dot is called a mappiq. With the hei, the dot means the hei should be pronounced (like when a person saying Kaddish goes "shemeihhhh rabba"). You don't find many alefs with mappiqs, and when you do it means you should make sure to do the glottal stop.

But anyhow, there are six consonants--bet, gimmel, dalet, kaf, peh, and tav, the bgdkft letters--where the dagesh can mean one of two things. It can either mean that you pronounce the letter as a stop instead of a fricative, or it can mean that you both double it and pronounce it as a stop instead of a fricative. (I've heard that Yemenite Hebrew makes the stop/fricative distinction with all six bgdkft letters. Most of us reading this don't.) So which is it with the kaf in חֲנֻכׇּה? Obviously it's a "k" instead of a "chhhhhh," but that's true with both options. But is the "k" doubled?

Two things suggest that it's doubled. First, the diagonal row of dots (a qubbutz) is a short vowel, which suggests that the syllable is closed, which would mean that it's a doubling dot (don't ask). Second, we can look at nouns with the same pattern of vowels as חֲנֻכׇּה but with a non-bgdkft letter in the same position as the kaf. If those letters have a dagesh, they must be doubling dageshim. And if we look at such words, like גֽדֻלָּה and קְדֻשׇּׁה, we find that the non-bgdkft letters in that position do have dageshim. This also makes it very likely that the kaf in חֲנֻכׇּה is doubled.

But wait a minute there!, you may be exclaiming. In those two supposedly vowelly similar words, the vowel with the first letter is the two vertical dots, and in חֲנֻכׇּה it's a horizontal line with the two dots to the left of it. What the heck? Good question. The two piled dots (a sheva, whence the English "shewa") are sometimes silent and sometimes pronounced like a shewa. Under the first letter of a word, it's always pronounced. Even when it's pronounced, a sheva isn't considered a full-fledged vowel, and it doesn't form a real syllable. But anyhow, the chhhet and/or heth, the first letter in חֲנֻכׇּה, can't take a pronounced sheva (neither can alef, hei, or ayin). So what to do? You use what looks like a combination of a real vowel and a sheva--a semivowel. And like a sheva, a semivowel isn't a complete vowel and doesn't form a syllable. And can't be accented. Which is why I said you shouldn't accent the first "a" in Hanukkah (or whatever).

But this is just pretending that the "Hanukkah" (or however you spell it) that we say in English is Hebrew. It isn't, although it obviously comes from Hebrew. It's English. And it's--I don't know, sociolinguists probably have a name for it--let's call it Anglophone Jewish Intracommunal Patois (AJIP--I was hoping it would end up having a cool abbrev, but it didn't) (although to paraphrase Paul Robeson, "When Israel was in AJIP land, Let my people go"). Anyhow, AJIP words don't come directly from Hebrew--they come from Yiddish, where it's just fine to accent "Hanukkah" on the first syllable.

The entire staff of Consider the Source wish our entire readership a happy holiday.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The worst prayer in Judaism

Eloqai Netsor was put into the Jewish liturgical canon to fulfill our need for noncanonical nontextual spontaneous personal prayer from the heart.

(I'll let that stand as a paragraph by itself so you can let it sink in and go "Wha?" [I mean so you, not the paragraph, can go "Wha?"!]!)

The prayer begins, "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all."

The Hebrew for "keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile," except for the possessives, comes directly from Psalm 34:14: "Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile." The difference is important. In Judaism, we have free will--we are responsible for our own ethical behavior. We may ask God for strength, but we do not ask God to prevent us from doing wrong things; we need to prevent ourselves from doing them. "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" is a complete distortion of Jewish ethics.

"May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all." This may sound like a prayer to be a forgiving person, but it isn't. Dust can't forgive. Even if it could forgive, it has no reason to, since it can't be offended. Dust isn't human. We are. Forgiveness is an activity, and this is a prayer for passivity.

The language of Eloqai Netsor reminds us of Genesis 2:7: God formed man from dust [ʿafar] and breathed life into him, and man became a living soul [nefesh]. In the verse, God forms us from ʿafar and we become a living nefesh; in the prayer, we ask that our nefesh be like ʿafar. For those who take the verse seriously--and note that I didn't say "literally"--this prayer should seem both ungrateful and dehumanizing.

Just to clear up any ambiguity, I'll point out that I dislike Eloqai Netsor.

I no longer say Eloqai Netsor; if you know anybody whose first name is "Rabbi," please don't tell them about it. Note that I'm not saying others shouldn't say it. If I were compiling a siddur, it would include Eloqai Netsor in its proper places, since it would be an Orthodox siddur. But there would also be a note saying that some have the practice of replacing it with Hareini Moḥel. The note would be true, since I make that replacement.

Hareini Moḥel is an "I forgive" statement that precedes the bedtime Shema (also known as the hypnagogic "Hark!"!)! It appears in many siddurim at the beginning of the bedtime Shema song and dance. The various Korens and ArtScrolls include it, but Birnbaum does not. Some versions are longer than others, some are more annoying than others. I use a brief rendition, which includes nonannoying material found in all the versions:

I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, and all who have sinned against me, whether against my body, my possessions, my honor, or anything that is mine; whether under compulsion or willingly; whether mistakenly or maliciously; whether by passing thought, by planning, by word, or by deed. Let no human being be punished on my account.
Hareini Moḥel divides those whom you're forgiving into two categories--those who have angered or annoyed you, and those who have sinned against you. Note that people in the first category didn't necessarily do anything to you--it's about your reaction to them, not about what they've done to you. This shows a realistic understanding of anger. Maybe they annoy you just by existing; maybe they just grate on your nerves. You're forgiving them not necessarily because of anything they've done, but because you need to let go and mensh out. Can someone belong to both categories of people you're forgiving? Of course. (Silly and annoying question; I forgive you for asking, for existing, and for frowning [don't deny it! I saw it!] at my spelling of mensh.)

In Eloqai Netsor one whines: someone cursed me!, I'm going to suffer in silence, and I want my soul to be like dust (maybe it's unfair to call it whining--writing this post is putting me on an anti-Eloqai-Netsor roll). In Hareini Moḥel, we act like adults. We acknowledge that some of our anger may not be rational, we forgive everyone, and we take responsibility.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Minor shande

Likutei Peshatim is a weekly bulletin distributed in Ortho institutions in the Chicago area, containing divrei Torah (vey'z mir) and paid announcements. In the May 5 issue was
JONAH, Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, is a non-profit international organization offering wide range of resources, services, and educational programs to the world-wide Jewish community, including helping those with unwanted addictions and habits. JONAH works directly with those who struggle and with their families and friends. For more information go to or call 201-433-3444.
If you go to the website, as I did, you'll find that JONAH is "dedicated to educating the world-wide Jewish community about the social, cultural and emotional factors which lead to same-sex attractions." That seems to be JONAH's entire program. It does not seem to deal at all with chemical addictions. The notice in Likutei is very misleading, and it appears to be intentionally so.

As shandes go, this is minor stuff. The notice doesn't rape children or throw acid in anyone's face. JONAH doesn't seem to verbally abuse homosexuals. Nevertheless, the notice probably gave a moment of false hope to the reader who was looking for an Ortho org that deals with chemical addictions. Whoever placed the notice should be more careful, ashamed of themselves, or both.

Friday, April 27, 2012

On "On"

One of the nice things about working near an enormous library where you have borrowing privileges is that you can impulsively check out stuff that you see footnoted in other stuff you impulsively checked out. So after work today (I leave early on Fridays, and since we're on standard time now, I'll have lots of time), I'll be checking out Joshua Blau, On Pseudo-Corrections in Some Semitic Languages (1970).

I think the most intimidating part about it is that initial On in the title. This guy was serious. Some is also impressive.