Redemption

Redemption

by

Howard Adelman

In the days leading up to the High Holy Days in Judaism, Rabbi Splansky last evening ran a seminar to discuss the Um’taneh Tokef, the central poem in the High Holy Days liturgy that begins, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water…” By way of introduction, Yael began with a short story called, “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” taken from the 1966 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Shai Agnon, from his Days of Awe.

Agnon in “The Tale of Rabbi Amnon” claims to have found a manuscript by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Mainz who in turn claimed to have discovered how Rabbi Amnon of Mainz composed this liturgical poem, a claim as fictional as Agnon’s tale for its core is found in the much earlier Cairo Geniza. Rabbi Amnon is introduced in superlatives — great, rich, of good family, handsome, and, to top it off, “well-formed.” Thus, the loss of his extremities will be even a greater loss. Though the story reads like a horror tale, anyone familiar with the efforts of forced conversion of Jews by Christians in the Middle Ages will find that, in its details, Shai Agnon’s story resonates with actual historical truth.

The Archbishop of Regensburg, along with the lords of the realm, demanded that Rabbi Amnon convert to Christianity. Under constant pressure, Rabbi Amnon finally conceded that he needed three days to reflect on the matter and take the proposal under advisement. Why did he say this? To buy time. And that was his sin, which he quickly recognized. The issue was not his fear of what might happen to him if he failed to take the demand of the Archbishop seriously. His sin, according to the story, was conceding that he had to think about it when, according to his Jewish faith, there was nothing to think about.

For Jews lived in awe of a “living God.” Christians worshipped at the feet of a god who had died and been resurrected as a sacrifice for human sins. Having asked for time to think about the choice was to admit there was possibly a real choice and that, in itself, was not a matter of making room for reason for his faith, but an act undermining his faith altogether.

He stopped eating and drinking. He became dreadfully sick. Like Job, he refused consolation. “‘I shall go down to the grave mourning, because of what I have said.’ And he wept and was sad of heart.” When the archbishop summoned him on the third day, Rabbi Amnon refused to go. The archbishop sent a force that compelled Amnon to appear before him. In answer to the question about an explanation for his non-appearance, Amnon did not begin with the discussion of his failure, but with his punishment. “Let the tongue that spoke and lied to you be cut out.”

However, the archbishop imposed his own punishment, for the sin was not in what Amnon had agreed to, but in Amnon failing to come before him. So instead of lopping off his tongue, Amnon’s feet were severed. And then each finger in turn. Before having each chopped off, Amnon was given a chance to repent. At each point that he refused, another finger was severed. Amnon’s dismembered but still living body was sent home on a shield with his severed members at his side.

As the Days of Awe approached, Rabbi Amnon asked his relatives to carry him exactly in the state that he had been returned to his family and laid beside the reader reciting the High Holy Day prayers. The climax came when the reader came to the Kedushah, the prayer sanctifying God. Amnon sanctified God’s name then and there, sanctified the Day of Awe then and there, by dying and, in dying that way, offering testimony for the truth of God’s sovereignty, for the sake of God’s unity – in contrast to the Christian theology of the Trinity – to honour God as Judge, to honour history as the ultimate arbiter.

And what rose up from the dying rabbi? Not the resurrection of the rabbi’s body, but the ascent of Rabbi’s severed feet and fingers. Why feet and hands? To justify the verdict. To demonstrate that “the seal of every man’s hand” is on the verdict of history. It is in this sense, that his fate was decreed — not foretold — on Rosh Hashanah. That is how Rabbi Amnon expressed “the powerful sanctity of the day.”

How and why does this tale express the meaning of the Um’taneh Tokef, the powerful poem at the centre of the High Holy Days liturgy?

First, it is irrelevant whether this story was historically true and whether a Rabbi Amnon had ever lived and been martyred in this way, or, alternatively, whether the story is apocryphal and a Rabbi Amnon of Mainz never existed. In the latter version, Amnon is an anagram, a rearrangement of the letters of the Hebrew, “Ne’eMaN” meaning faithful. Amnon does not ask on his deathbed why God has forsaken him, but expresses, to the fullest extent possible, his faith in a “living God,” a god that lived in him when he was alive. Why hands? Why feet? Because they had been severed from his body yet he was still alive. He still lived to give testimony to his faith. Even laying on the shield on the bima beside the reader on Rosh Hashanah, he could give testimony to his faith. That faith determined what it meant to lead a Jewish life, what it meant to express the sanctity of the day, what it meant to pass on the memory of an incident, whether historically true or apocryphal. Further, Rabbi Amnon was not alone with that responsibility, for everyone’s hands contributed to seal Rabbi Amnon’s fate. In turn, it was Rabbi Amnon who was atoning, not only for his own error, but for everyone’s, including the hands of the legal and religious authorities who had severed his limbs.

Did Rabbi Amnon live ever after in heaven after he vanished from the earth?  There is no such suggestion in the story. Rather it is the story itself that, re-told, testifies to God’s goodness. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the story. Rabbi Amnon lives on in the tongue the Archbishop decided not to sever.

The fuller meaning of the tale comes forth when it is juxtaposed with the Um’taneh Tokef part of the High Holy Day liturgy chanted when the Torah ark is open in words allegedly composed by Rabbi Amnon himself which I have appended. Note the essence of the tale. Amnon was a handsome and rich “well-formed” man. He enjoyed a tremendous reputation for his good works and his inspiring words. But, in his own light, he sinned. He said he would think about the proposal of the archbishop asking him to consider conversion. The sin was a sin of speech and not deeds. Like Job’s, the punishment seemed totally disproportionate to the presumed sin.

But the story is not about punishment. It is about redemption, that even the life of a good, of a rich, of an honourable and handsome man can culminate in error, however slight, and that error must be corrected even at the cost of one’s own life. The awe and frightening quality of the High Holy Days is not contained in the ghoulish severing of the rabbi’s extremities, but in the slip of even considering the renunciation of the living God in favour of the worship of a god who died and was resurrected. No, not even actually considering. Merely making a statement to buy time signaling that such a consideration might be possible.

How is the redemption manifest? By exalting God as the one true sovereign and, by logical implication, insisting that neither the lords of the realm nor the highest spiritual authority of Christianity in that realm could dint that divine sovereignty even by making one accede even possibly to reconsidering one’s faith in a living God. How is the kindness of God’s sovereign authority exalted? By being firmed up with “kindness,” with deeds that testify to History, of the living God of revelation, not men, as the embodiment of Truth and Goodness. Time will tell. History will judge, attest and give witness. History will set the seal about one’s fate. History will remember what has been forgotten.

In our remembrance of Rabbi Amnon’s story, in our retelling that story, even if apocryphal, we give witness to that which exemplifies Truth and Goodness. Most importantly, each person’s signature, however faint, will, in the end, sign off on the Book of Remembrance so that the thin and still voice of one who went before will still be heard. God is not heard in the mighty winds of nature of Hurricane Irma that split mountains and shattered bricks, nor in the water that both rained down and rose up in the surge that followed that wind, nor in the Mexican earthquake that shattered the lives of so many, and not even in the devastating fires raging in Alberta and British Columbia.  Rather, the angels stand in awe of the “soft thin murmuring voice” amidst all that calamity.

This interpretation turns the polarization and dichotomy between those who are righteous and those who are not into a spectrum. The righteous may be immediately inscribed in the Book of Life, the very wicked relegated to the ashbin of the revelation of the living God, but we all die in the end. Everyone, no matter how unworthy, contributes his or her signature, no matter how faint, to that book.

Why then will angels be seized with fear and trembling? Not because they witness calamities, not because they witness atrocities, not because they watch extremities being cut off, but because these messengers of the unfolding of time remain in awe of humans made of flesh and blood who in their lives can and do contribute or detract from the cumulative truth and goodness that is the expression of the living God of revelation. Even such a great one as Rabbi Amnon will not be guiltless in the eyes of judgement.

That History is rewritten each and every year, not just for the year that passed, but for all of history, for the awe-inspiring profundity of creation itself comes up again before a tribunal of judgement and everyone’s fate, NOT his or her final determination in life, but the value of everyone’s contribution to revelation will be weighed and re-assessed and re-inscribed or inscribed for the first time in the Book of Chronicles. The greatest fear is that one’s name will be blotted out for all eternity, some immediately for their loathsome and foul sins will be so heinous. Though we are all born of dust and to dust we must return, we are obliged to drink from the well of goodness.

What is written on Rosh Hashanah is sealed on Yom Kippur for another year, who shall rest and who shall still wander, and who shall be redeemed through repentance, prayer and charity, through rescuing the sheep lost and scattered by calamities either natural or human on days of cloud and gloom. For all, whether the wicked or the righteous, die. That is why each human is “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust and a fleeting dream.” Job’s life was but wind, his days a breath.

לשׁנה טוֹבה תּכּתב (Leshana tovah tikatev); “May you be inscribed for a good year.”

Appendix

Um’taneh Tokef

“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, Who counts and Who calculates. You will remember all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Remembrances — it will read itself — and each person’s signature is there. And the great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin voice will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’ — for even they are not guiltless in Your eyes in judgment.”

“All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep.[24]Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed — how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval [25] and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree.”

“For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

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Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

Parashat Kedoshim – On Homosexuality

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on corrupt history and the misinterpretation of the history of Israel on Sunday. Today is Friday and I return to my practice of commenting on the weekly portion of the Torah. My commentary on a wayward way of reading Israeli history was instigated by my reading of Gregory Baum’s memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway. So is today’s commentary on the Torah. In reading Gregory’s account of his religious journey, I learned he was gay.

I was surprised. I did not know this, even though others evidently did. Further, when Gregory was forced to leave the priesthood because of his theological position, he eventually married an ex-nun whom I knew reasonably well since she was a member of the so-called Catholic group made up of priests and nuns (soon enough, ex-priests and ex-nuns), and I was the only Jew in the group. I had believed that he had left the priesthood, or was forced out, because he could no longer find an archbishop to be his “sponsor”. The last one in Mexico had been contacted by the Vatican, he told me, and had been ordered to end his formal life in the Church. (I capitalize the word “Church” only when referring to the Catholic Church.) I thought the reason arose because of his theological political writings on liberation theology. In reading the memoir, I learned that the reason was his writing on sexual ethics, a reason which he had offered in a Globe and Mail newspaper piece at the time which I had not read.

In chapter 13 of his theological memoir, Gregory wrote about sexual ethics in general. He had always agreed with the Church’s denunciation of sex separated from love, especially the transformation of sexual relations into a commodity. In 1976, he wrote and published a critique of the Catholic position on human sexuality. As a result, Archbishop Philip Peacock felt obliged to withdraw his permission to preach in churches, the beginning of the cascade of withdrawals of support that would lead to his leaving his role as a priest in the Church and a member of a religious order.

Gregory had disagreed with the Church because he did not accept the rigidity of the Church’s position which applied rules universally without taking into account either cultural attitudes or individual circumstances. (See his volume, Religion and Alienation.) He had been influential at the Second Vatican in changing the attitude of the Church towards Jews, but not its objections to birth control and its insistence that sexual intercourse must always be open to conception since that was its purpose. Sexual satisfaction was simply a means to that end, though Pius XII in 1951 had come to accept the “rhythm method” of birth control, married couples having sex only when the female was infertile in her monthly cycle, thereby introducing a fundamental contradiction into Catholic teaching.

Gregory’s contrarian view was based on his conviction that the essence of the Gospel was the teaching that spousal love had to be love between equals based on mutual respect and tenderness, and a rejection of one individual controlling the other versus the traditional teaching that marriage was based on the husband’s right to his wife’s “body” (jus in corpus). Eventually, he added two other criteria – concern for the good of the partner (did the relationship foster self-realization?)  and critical attention to the impact on the soul. In the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of mutual love was raised to an aspiration on the same level as procreation. However, as long as procreation remained the prime goal of both sex and marriage, then homosexual love could receive no endorsement. But neither did the Church accept the majority recommendation of its own broadly-based commission that couples should be free to determine the number of children they wanted and the means to control that goal.

Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI, had accepted that a position based on a conception of “natural law” had to be abandoned because human nature could not be defined metaphysically as a basis for deriving ethical norms. Instead, Gregory had adopted the proposition pioneered by another dissident Catholic that the Church had historically defined sex in negative terms and that the premise had to be acceptance of sexuality as a means of striving for human happiness.

In his 1974 article, in addition to arguing that sexual norms are rooted in culture rather than in any universal understanding of human nature in which homosexual love is branded as “unnatural,” he also argued that the Church treated homosexuals the same way it treated Jews, despising and persecuting them based on a culture of contempt. Instead, homosexuality was no more sinister than being left-handed. Homosexual love is simply a different gift from God. Pope Francis in 2013 embraced that view: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and his good will, who am I to judge that person.”

In this week’s portion in chapter 18 and 20, we read:

ויקרא יח:כב וְאֶת זָכָר לֹא תִשְׁכַּב מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה הִוא. Lev 18:22 Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
ויקרא כ:יג  וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם. Lev 20:13 If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them.

Note, there is no prohibition of lesbian love, only male homosexuality. Only male homosexuality is a toevah, an abhorrence. The passages are not excised. We read them with reverence. Yet the vast majority of Jews, including many ultraorthodox Jews, no longer regard homosexuality as an abhorrence and certainly do not punish gays by killing them. How is the shift justified?

It is not largely done by developing a more comprehensive philosophical ethical framework whereby homosexuality can be embraced and even accepted. The shift is accomplished through hermeneutics, through learning to read the text in a different way. (For two scholarly accounts that undertake this effort, see Rabbi David Frankel, “Male Homosexual Intercourse Is Prohibited – In One Part of the Torah,” and Dr. Shawna Dolansky, “Regarding Azazel and Homosexuals in the same Parasha.”) The principle that Gregory put forth, of cultural relativity, has been an integral part of hermeneutics in the tradition of interpreting Torah. Thus, one method is to read the text as one rooted in a society that had to protect the priority of reproduction, not because of a statement about sexual purposes, but in terms of the survival of the nation in its demographic battles with its enemies.

A second qualification is geographic – the prohibition only applied to those living in the Holy Land lest it be corrupted. This turns out to be a very unsatisfactory reading given that one of the most thriving homosexual communities in the world can be found in Tel Aviv.

A third does so by reading the text in context, in the wider concern still accepted of prohibiting incestual sexual relations. Since lying with a woman who is your sister or your mother is forbidden, so lying with a man who is your brother or your father is forbidden. That is, only those homosexual relations that imitate heterosexual relations that are forbidden are prohibited. It is merely an application of the prohibition against incest. This reading is certainly a stretch, but its importance is that these different methods of reading texts are ways of preserving Torah as a reference point without either surrendering to literalness or, on the other hand, abandoning Torah as a teaching tool.

For example, another way of reading the text in context is not to read it in terms of the circumstances that gave rise to the prohibitions against incest, but in the context of prohibitions against using sex as a vehicle for asserting a power relation, equivalent to Gregory’s insistence on the mutuality that must be inherent in sexual relations. Thus, as Rabbi Steven Greenberg has written, the phrase of a man “lying with a woman” is metaphorical. It means that sexual relations in which one partner is viewed as more powerful than the other and the sex is being used to demonstrate that power, that type of sexual behaviour is prohibited. Thus, homosexual love is only an abomination when it is used to demonstrate the power of one individual over another.

A third variation of reading the text in context that is even a greater stretch is to suggest that the text refers to sex with multiple partners whereby two men are lying with same woman. That is, do not lie with a man when lying with a woman. That is the abomination.

Since the nineteenth century, with the application of the critical reading of the whole Torah in a cultural context that recognized that the text is a compilation of readings developed at different times in the history of the Jewish people, a more critical reading insists that some of the above methods of textual interpretations are abominations in hermeneutics and simply exercises in sophistry. Instead, when it is recognized that biblical text is itself culturally rooted, when it is recognized that different parts of the Torah contradict other parts because they were developed in different historical periods and different contexts, then a search in the rest of the biblical narrative reveals a shocking absence of any other repetitions of this prohibition. Further, if it is accepted that one book, such as Deuteronomy, is more definitive than another, then the Deuteronomic code can be read as setting aside some prohibitions in Leviticus. Unfortunately, within Leviticus there is a similar claim to superiority. (26:46 and 27:34) So how do we adjudicate among competing texts?

One way is to accept what is common to them all – such as prohibitions on sexual congress with animals. Further, when there seems to be an implicit endorsement of homosexual love between, say David and Jonathan (Samuel 1:26), this would seem to acknowledge Gregory’s stress on the positive nature of a homosexual relationship when and only if it is based on mutual love and respect and a striving for self-realization. Any attempt to reconcile such irreconcilable positions, as when the Catholic Church tried to insist that “natural law” was the universal basis for determination, any effort to force the Torah text into a single coherent teaching in conduct, ends up in self-contradiction and stains textual reading rather than enhances it.

If we return to Gregory’s position that such prohibitions must be read as an expression of a culture at a specific time, why would this not lead to relativism and selective reading of Torah text in terms of our dominant culture in the present? On the other hand, why don’t we just say that the teaching in Leviticus is stupid? Both responses demonstrate a disrespect for the past. Instead, the contradictions must be read respectfully and with empathy without avoiding our responsibility to adjudicate among differences and make responsible choices. This is not “anything goes.” Further, text is elevated when it must be studied to ascertain its meaning and relevance and without producing a totally novel framework equivalent to the magic of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

An Ottawa scholar, Shawna Dolansky, makes that effort by using two texts on different but related matters rather than on the same issue. She reads the texts on scapegoating and prohibitions of homosexuality side-by-side to adjudicate between change and continuity and the conviction that any text is rooted in a specific culture. Thus, the ritual of scapegoating, referred to also in this week’s portion, was used by the Catholic Church for nefarious purposes to degrade Jews. The irony was the very text which used displacement as a healthy method of dealing with problems was used inversely to portray Jews in the imagery of a goat sucking the life out of Christianity.  It is one thing for a community to voluntarily and ritually assume responsibility for the transgressions of an individual. It is a very different matter for one community to transfer responsibility and blame to degrade another group.

The most famous example of this is the antisemitic pig (much more lowly than a goat in biblical terms) on the wall of the very same church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door, an action widely accepted as instigating the Protestant Reformation. The reproduction can be seen on: https://stevehickey.wordpress.com/2009/07/24/the-anti-semitic-pig-in-wittenberg/) The relief shows a rabbi looking into the ass of a pig and Jewish children sucking on the pig’s teats. Antisemitism, especially as expressed by Martin Luther, depicted Jews as engaged in an abomination with a pig.

If one reads the prohibitions against bestiality or the positive ritual using two goats as a purification offering alongside those against homosexuality, both negative and positive portrayals presume that sin is like the spot in Act 5, Scene I of Macbeth when Lady Macbeth hysterically tries to wash her hands and insist, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Sins either adhere to the sinner mercilessly or are only displaced by being shifted to a scapegoat; sins can never be exorcised. This was and, in part remains, a very deep-seated cultural belief.

This form of purgation (kippur) was excised from Jewish ritual, not the need to engage in purgation and the transfer of impurities, but the specific method. In the new theology, the issue became not simply the removal of contamination from the sanctuary, but the demonstration of remorse through contrition and self-denial, confession and abstinence from food.

If the prohibition of sexual congress between males is both understood in context, then one reading as described above is the injunction against a male treating another male as a female. The injunction opposed treating a superior or an equal as inferior, to “feminizing” another male. Therefore, as Gregory read the commandment, the problem was not sex but power, not mutual respect between two males engaged in sex, but the use of sex by one man to degrade another. In that sense, sexual congress with an inferior male was permitted in that culture, but no homosexual act should be prohibited in our egalitarian culture except when such acts entail exploiting another. Leviticus made the prohibition universal because there was no conception of equality of status between males. All male relationships were then hierarchical.

When relationships change, when, more importantly, the conception of relationship changes, so must the practices, both those encouraged and those that abhorred. The importance is not the discarding of prohibitions against sexual homosexual intercourse – an action I consider obvious – but the differences between the methods used to discard such prohibitions. Gregory proposed doing so by developing a “higher” moral code and conception of human relations rooted in the Gospel of love and revising prohibitions in terms of that, while Jewish commentators do it through hermeneutics, through different methods of reading text out of which new moral codes and practices are developed and reified.

Thus, Christians and Jews can reach the same place, but by following very different paths.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Purity and Circumcision

Purity – Parashat Tazria & Metzora (פרשת תזריע־מצרע)

by

Howard Adelman

When I explored the interpretations of Aaron’s response – silence – to the death of his two oldest sons at the hands of God because they had contaminated the holy of holies by not observing the precise instructions to be followed in performing a sacrifice, I did not explore the objective circumstances which ostensibly gave rise to those two deaths and the issue of ritual purity that dominates not only the Aaron story, but this whole section of Leviticus and, in particular, the parshah for this week. Those dictates governing purity entail not only the issue of sacrifice in the holy of holies, but also, for example, the ritual of purification when a woman immerses in a mikvah and when a male Jewish infant is circumcised on the eighth day of his life.

Purity is, and always has been, a health issue. This is clear in the discussions of tzaraat, usually translated, and for many, mistranslated, as leprosy, but which might be black mold, psoriasis, a terrible rash or Hansen’s disease. Purification using spring water, two birds (!), a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop is involved so that a contemporary reader may suspect that he or she is reading about voodoo medicine. However, I want to concentrate on brit milah, ritual circumcision of male infants, rather than treatment of tzaraat or immersion in a mikvah following a woman’s period of menstruation or as integral to a process of conversion.

In the mikvah ritual, purification is said to be necessary because the discharge of female blood into and through the vagina is viewed as impure. In the brit milah of an infant male, blood is spilled to bring about purification. Or is the process for the purpose of purification? After all, there is no suggestion that the foreskin is impure, only the possibility in modern science that retention of the foreskin may create a greater propensity for accumulating impurities.

Let me expand on this latter issue, if only to get it out of the way. (An article by Aaron E. Carroll in The New Health Care, 9 May 2016, explores these issues more deeply.) The judgement of the net benefits of circumcision to health has seesawed back and forth between an estimate that health benefits of circumcision are not significant enough to inflict pain on the infant to the 2012 conclusion of the American Academy of Pediatrics restoring an older determination that the health benefits outweighed any risks involved in the procedure, especially if the procedure follows strict purity rules. The implication was not that every male child should undergo circumcision, but that circumcision should be available to every male infant and be covered by health insurance for significant savings in health costs over the long run.

Why? Circumcised penises have lower levels of yeast and bacteria. Higher levels of the latter are correlated with greater risk for developing urinary tract infections. Thus, the chance of a boy contracting a urinary tract infection is ten times greater for a male with an uncircumcised penis than for a male with a circumcised penis. But the benefits are too small to make male circumcision mandatory since the incidence of urinary tract infection is so low that perhaps only 1 additional male in 100 would be prevented from contracting a urinary tract infection if the practice of male circumcision was made universal. This is particularly true because correlation does not entail causation; other factors may be more significant as causes –parents of circumcised male infants may culturally wash penises more regularly, as may adult males. No one knows.

However, other risks of disease are reduced – penile cancer (again, relatively rare), H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea, syphilis or herpes. The only statistical benefit that emerges as very significant is the chance on contracting H.I.V. – a 1-2% reduction in the rate of the disease when males are circumcised. Male circumcision can be considered preventive, akin to getting a vaccination.

What is the downside? Medical complications from the procedure. Arguably, reduced sexual satisfaction, but little evidence to support such a belief. But the only issue of any significance is the pain inflicted on the male infant. Many would argue that the pain is minimal when local anaesthetics ae used and very short lived – in contrast when the procedure is performed on an adult male.

There is also the issue of social benefits to health and not just individual benefits. Perhaps an argument can be made in terms of society benefit resulting from lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases, especially H.I.V., which is why vaccines are almost mandatory. Again, the economic benefits to society as a whole are small compared to the claim that the rights of the child are infringed upon by the commission of intentional harm without significant benefit.  The pinprick of a vaccination needle does not change the body. Male circumcision does.

On balance, the case for male circumcision becoming a community wide standard practice is more positive than negative, but, unlike fluoridation of water, which also results in somatic changes – strengthening teeth and the resistance to dental caries – the health benefits of male circumcision are relatively marginal.

In other words, the issue of male circumcision of an infant at eight days of age is ultimately much more an issue of religious ritual purity rather than physical purity or health.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that, “Circumcision is the physical expression of the faith that lives in love.” Sanctification transforms the connection between sex and violence to a connection between sex and love. His argument boils down to infant circumcision defining the relationship of a man to his wife, turning biology into spirituality, converting the male propensity to want to reproduce to perpetuate his genes to a partnership of man and wife, a partnership of mutual affirmation. Sacks is clearly a feminist. Power is sacrificed in favour of love and relationship, not only between a male and his female partner, but between man and God, between God and the people of Israel, God’s wife. Purity entails staying monogamous; promiscuity is a betrayal of both God and one’s wife. Baal must be transformed by circumcising male power and transforming sex in the process from an act of biological drive to a choice of love, to a covenantal rather than a power relationship.

As much as I sympathize with the goal, I do not buy into this romanticizing of the ritual of circumcision. For it is a ritual between a father and son, between God and a male Jew. In actuality, the mother usually stays in another room because she is so fearful and appalled by the pain being inflicted upon her newborn infant. Since the event – barring exceptions because of the health of the newborn – takes place on the eighth day, and the world was created symbolically in seven days, Rabbi Sacks may be on the right track in suggesting that the brit is a first stage in transforming the laws of nature into cultural practices on route to creating a civilization. But what precisely is unnatural about the act of circumcision?

It may also have to do with the Jewish conception that practice precedes faith. Do it and you may come to understand. Hence, not only must the procedure shunt aside any “rights of the child,” but it cannot be left until the male is older or even an adult when it is much more painful as well as a greater risk. Further, it is an exercise in branding, in implanting in the flesh a spiritual message. But it is not like a tattoo on the arm. It is the foreskin of the penis that is cut, not because it is a lowly organ as some Jewish puritans contend, but because it is central to propagation – both to physical propagation and to Jewish continuity. The transformation of male/female relations could qualify, except that there is little indication that the circumcision has anything to do with sex.

What could it be about? The bris physically symbolizes the relationship between God and the Jewish people as indicated when Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine, circumcised himself as a brand upon his flesh signifying the covenant that he had made with God. There is no mention that God empathized with that pain and experienced suffering because of it. But Abraham not only suffered pain when he circumcised himself, but suffered a much greater pain when he was commanded to sacrifice his son. (Genesis 21:4) The circumcision commemorates Abraham’s pain much more than that of an infant eight-day-old male.

When a father, even if only through a surrogate, cuts the foreskin of his own son, the pain is direct and not just in the imagination as it is for the mother. When a father marks his son with a permanent alteration in his son’s flesh, in one of if not the most significant organs of the male as a male, then the issue is at its core about the willingness, against all one’s personal sympathies for the child, to inflict pain on one’s own son.

God does it to man. (Women suffer naturally in childbirth.) A father does it to his son. The ritual is akin to the one the priest performs when incense is brought daily before God. The latter must be done with exact precision. So too must the circumcision of the infant child be. Further, it must be an act carried out in great sobriety and with proper preparation. But with help from the community – the mohel who serves as the surrogate, the sandek who holds the child’s legs apart, the kvatters, the messengers who carry the infant on behalf of the grief-stricken mother. Though the brit milah is a celebration, that takes place afterwards. The ritual up to that point is about sacrifice and pain. The infant brought forth to have his foreskin sacrificed and to be made part o those blessed.

Why blessed? Cutting a penis and calling it a blessing, inflicting pain on an infant and calling it highly significant, that is the real dilemma of the ritual. The actual pain may be slight and the health benefits may be real even if not huge, but the ritual is clearly what the ceremony is about. It is an irreversible act entailing the sacrifice of a symbolic token of flesh taken from an organ of male reproduction to point to the need, not to just reproduce children, but to reproduce male children with a mark cut into them, a mark indicating a covenant.

That is the crunch point. What is the covenant about? Some take it to be about strict obedience to God’s commands. But the Jewish people continually challenged God. The relationship was not a pacific one. There were thrusts and parries. But at all times, in your heart – God could even kill your two oldest sons – even if God’s act was disproportionate and wrong, it was not perceived to result from malice, but for one’s own good.

So too the action of the father. However a father fails his son, it is not out of malice. A father must not only teach his son that he loves him, but that the son must never absolutely trust his father. Even one’s own father can give one pain, and do it when one is most vulnerable. Rather than teaching absolute obedience and absolute perfection of a father-figure, even a father you love can betray your trust, can betray your faith.

A Jewish circumcised male is given a permanent reminder both that he cannot trust his penis, which seems to have a “mind” of its own, but cannot even absolutely trust his father. Distrust, not absolute faith, must be an integral part of the relationship between man and God, between a son and his father, and between humans and their relationship to authority figures.

Leviticus 10:10 reads, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” Circumcision is the first step in making a Jewish male infant into a holy being, not holy because he surrenders himself in total faith to another, but because he is branded in his flesh to always distrust another no matter how much he loves and respects that other. To be clean is not to be immaculate. Pure faith is restricted to the holy of holies. However, it is the wholly holy which is unclean in the analogy. To be clean is to engage in the right balance between trust and distrust, between total trust in one’s father and also guarded that even a loving father can betray you. Purity must be applied to the ordinary, to the common, to make sure the flesh is not contaminated. But purity of the spirit does not belong in the common, in the flesh, for in this world we need both trust and distrust.

To quote a blog I wrote a year ago: “If a father who so loves his long longed-for son, no one more so than Abraham, is capable of cutting his eight-day-old son, and cutting him in his sexual organ, inflicting pain, however minimal, where the son will carry the badge of a Jew, in his flesh and in his psyche, for his entire life, then the message tattooed in the flesh is that no one can be completely trusted – including God in Judaism in contrast to Christianity.”

Rituals of Preservation and Elimination

Rituals of Preservation and Elimination: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1-5:26

by

Howard Adelman

There is almost an overwhelming consensus that the Book of Leviticus is the volume most remote from modern sensibilities. After all, it is about sacrifices, priestly garments and rites, ancient medical practices dealing with conditions such as leprosy, all apparently alien experiences. Leviticus seems so “primitive.” The volume focuses on all the distinctions among the tribes rather than the unity of Judaism. Some have dubbed it a spiritual challenge while others have been more forthright and called the Book of Leviticus a spiritual wasteland.

For Reform Jews, this section of the Torah is particularly formidable since Reform Judaism from the start repudiated a dynastic priesthood and the practice of sacrifice. Of special relevance is Reform Judaism’s explicit rejection of attempting to rebuild and restore the Temple. Calling Holy Blossom a temple instead of a synagogue was an overt and blatant exemplification of that rejection.

Rejection went along with substitution – the people, all the people, were priestly. Their mission was not to rebuild the Temple, but to be a light unto the world as they spread through the diaspora. Whether this meant upholding monotheism and the God of the Hebrews as the one true God or simply standing up for lofty ethical values of justice and peace were still matters that needed resolution, though the Reform movement has developed in the latter much more than the former direction. Sanctification was moral, not cultic. Sincerity of devotion replaced ritualistic practices as the highest ideal.

What do we do with one of the five books that is almost completely devoted to cultic practices? Do were merely focus on a few sections of the text that deal with mitzvot and the covenantal relationship to God requiring following God’s ethical and spiritual commandments? Does the purported spiritual bliss that should follow have nothing to do with the cultic practices? What do rituals, especially ones that seem both foreign and alien, have to do with spiritual enrichment? If alien, how can the passages in Vayikra be used to guide life and increase holiness in the world?

What happened to the sense of “purity”? What happened to the stress on a specific diet? What happened to the emphasis, not simply on being well-dressed, but on dressing in a special costume? Is Leviticus to be relegated to the dustbin of history, a relic of the past no longer relevant to our contemporary life? Is Leviticus a dated fossil of a species or religion that has become extinct? Alternatively, are the passages to be treated as metaphors upon which can be erected transformed practices with very different ideals wherein a burnt sacrifice becomes merely a literary tool to explore a deeper form of spiritual being?

I want to suggest that the dismissal of Leviticus may have been a mistake and that Leviticus has more to teach us that we need to recognize. This is because the prophetic voice is not the only source of authenticity. We need judges and lawyers, administrators and accountants, doctors and dentists as well as all the tradesmen, skilled artisans, labourers and suppliers of materials who helped build the mishkan in the last chapters of Exodus. We need practitioners of rituals and not just shit-disturbers who challenge those in power. I write as someone who has always revered the prophetic voice. However, we need people to do what is right and not just preachers calling for righteousness. Leviticus is a text for the practices of a spiritual community rather than about its goals, though the latter are not entirely neglected.

The mishkan was described in great detail in Exodus. It was where the holy tablets were kept, where God, when in residence as a cloud, filled the place. A tent of meeting preceded the construction of the mishkan. It was a portable place where Moses met with God. A tent of meeting is not a place for a political rally or a town hall, but a place where humans encounter God in his dwelling place. Vayikrah does not open with God occupying the holy of holies within the mishkan. Vayikrah does not open with God speaking through the priesthood. Vayikrah begins with God calling Moses, not Aaron, out of the tent of meeting. (I:1) God offers detailed instructions about the purity of the animals to be sacrificed by the people. If a burnt offering, it had to be brought before the tent of meeting as a request for atonement, as a request for expiation. Leviticus is primarily about the politics and administration of the Jewish religion to remove a blood-stain from the body politic, to clean the air of pollution.

In Christianity, Jesus personally replaced the sacrifice of animals. The blood of Jesus was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humans. Jesus body was the “more perfect tent of meeting,” for it was through the body of Christ that humans could meet with God. Jesus as the Lamb of God would forgive sins, not just specific ones, but all sins. And do so for eternal redemption. Thus, Christianity preserved, transformed and raised to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story.

Hebrews 9:11 literally depicts Jesus as personally the replacement for the high priest, himself the more perfect and greater tent offering, his own body as a sacrifice so that the God of wrath would be transformed completely into the God of love forever. Instead of a pure animal without physical blemish being sacrificed on the altar, the pure blood of Christ without a spiritual blemish would be sacrificed on a cross, not so humans could atone for specific sins, but as an atonement for all sin. Through ingesting the body of Christ into one’s own body, through surrendering oneself totally to the spirit of Christ, the Lamb of God would cleanse everyone of their sins, provided, of course, that one accepted Jesus as one’s saviour and redeemer.

However, Judaism is not about personal redemption as the ultimate goal. Individuals do have to atone for their personal sins through a guilt-offering and atonement through compensation. And the form of atonement depends on their station in the religious hierarchy – high priest, tribal chief or an ordinary individual. However, atonement is also needed to preserve the community; atonement for sins of the whole community is a distinct act itself. Judaism is about the eternal nation, עַם הַנֶּצַח (ahm hah-NEH-tsahkh). Eternal is not about that which remains unchanged forever, that which is above and beyond change.

Judaism is about a nation that will not and cannot be allowed to die and must change in order to live. The Jewish nation is timeless, is immortal, is everlasting – not in the sense of having a transcendent existence, but as being an everlasting and perpetual cause. Israel, Judaism, is the eternal nation, the body politic that must be preserved in perpetuity. Israel is about creating נִצְחִי (neets-KHEE) that nation. The study of Torah is the means to reconcile the God of history with the current historical moment. The ritual of Torah has to do with discriminating between that which must be expiated and eliminated or wiped and hidden away, on the one hand, and that which must be preserved, raised up and put on high on the other hand.

God is referred to as עוֹלָם (olam), as existing always and forever, permanently and perpetually. God is everlasting and lives continually for and in all time. God is not transcendent, living beyond time. God is a creative spirit who lives in time, in history, and even occupies space, though God is not embodied. The Jewish people as a collectivity have the responsibility for embodying the spirit of God.

Adam and Eve could not eat of the Tree of Life, could not live for eternity, lest they live forever וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם. (Genesis 3:22). Contrary to Christianity, God and man would not be together in spirit forever, וּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:3) God has a reputation, has renown, that lasts forever. And the goal of the Jewish people was to become a mighty nation with a reputation and renown that would live forever. רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:4) The message is not about one’s soul living forever outside of time and space in some transcendent heaven, but about humans living in this world as embodied creatures trying to earn renown for the people as a whole. Any nation can be a holy nation. Israel must be a holy nation.

That is why the Torah is a tale that runs from generation to generation (Genesis 9:12) so that we may pass on such ideals from parents to children and convey the mission of themselves as individuals to serve one’s people and thereby to serve God. Eternity is about succession and not about transcendence. That is why Jews are bound by an everlasting covenant and why Canaan for committed Jews must be an everlasting possession.

That does not mean that other people cannot live in Canaan. That does not mean that Canaan cannot be a national home for another people. In fact, if Canaan is to be an everlasting home for Jews, it must become a home not only for the Jewish nation, but can be a home for the Palestinian nation. Not their exclusive home. And not the exclusive home of Jews. But a home where Jews can dedicate themselves to a body politic that will glorify God’s name forever.  (Genesis 48:4) Jews must not only be embodied, but their national being must also have a body. But a body dedicated to the service of God’s name, for God is forever. God’s name is forever. God’s name is לְעֹלָ֔ם. (Exodus 3:15)

Jews are commanded to celebrate God’s name as a permanent ordinance, as a permanent covenant between God and his chosen people. Not His superior people, but a people chosen to carry the burden of the covenant. It is that which must be remembered. It is that which must be celebrated. And Leviticus is about that celebration. That celebration involves statutes that are passed on from generation to generation. That celebration is about a nation that lives under the rule of law and for the sake of justice. And that is why the nation requires the equivalent of a priesthood as a group dedicated to the perpetuity of the covenant, of the statute, of the law (כְּהֻנָּ֖ה לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם וּמִלֵּאתָ֥ יַֽד־ Exodus 29:28) in addition to the responsibility of individuals to perform mitzvot.

Leviticus is about putting that obligation into practice. It is about administrative justice. Why start off with a sacrifice on the altar in front of the tent of meeting? Why only a male animal for a blood sacrifice, and one without blemish?  Because sacrifice must be about our works – about the best of our flocks and the best of our agriculture. It is not about the sacrifice of humans, any human, and not about the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of a male animal without blemish means that the best of what we can make or do must be in service of perpetuating God’s name.

Why a male? Why not an ewe? After all, female goats without blemish can be sacrificed for a guilt offering, for a sin committed by an individual against another. (Leviticus 4:27) However, males in general need to be reminded that though they, like women, are created in the image of God and must serve God in the activity of creation, they are embodied. Adam was a geek who thought he was there simply to be a scientist, to offer at its most basic a taxonomy for the world. He had to learn that he was an embodied creature with sex drives and an obligation to reproduce and raise children and to raise them to serve God. That is why one sacrifices a male animal’s body without blemish as a burnt offering to atone for being oblivious of what a male’s obligation is and remains. Eve knew it in her body. Adam did not. Lest we forget, sacrifice of a male animal without blemish is intended to atone for forgetting.

However, preservation, putting away and raising up are not the only functions. Sins must also be expiated, eliminated or removed. They must be wiped away (Akkadian kuppuru) and covered (Arabic kafara) rather than raised up. In Macbeth, as much as the Lady cries out, “Out, out damn spot,” the blood stain remains unless there is expiation.

Man in the form of Jesus is not a substitute for an animal sacrifice. Rather, an animal sacrifice is a substitute for human sacrifice which reminds man what he must give his life for – an embodied existence, a life that commemorates the renown of God and raises up the nation of Israel as a memorial to God. We give of our blood and sweat to make a better world and do not rely on the blood of a God-man to escape this world for eternal salvation. For what must be saved is the here and now, the moment that must serve all time. There is NO eternal redemption, only the task of continual, of perpetual redemption.

There is eternal damnation, not by being sent to purgatory, but by being put to “death,” destroyed spiritually as a Jew, by being cut off from one’s people. Execution means exile from the community, most generally, self-inflicted.  Why is idolatry the greatest sin? Because idolatry is the worship of a material artifact as divine rather than the human collectivity in a divine relationship. What is a sin offering (hattat)? In Yitz Greenberg’s words, it is “a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society.” (my italics) Moral impiety becomes a sin and not just a state of guilt because society is polluted. The public is therefore ultimately responsible for moral pollution. Humanity, handed the gift of freedom by God, has the responsibility of tilting the balance of creative versus destructive forces in favour of creativity.

As individualism was stressed more and more, Jews became even more removed from cultic practices precisely at a time when rituals were more important than ever for preserving the cohesion of the community. Reform Jews have emphasized and extolled non-cultic piety at the expense of ritual piety, stressing the importance of the individual Jew rather than the preservation of the community. Reform rabbis argued that this was the way Jews survived the destruction of the Temple. However, one could argue that the reverse was true, that the preservation, transformation and raising up of cultic piety and the practices of expiation as removal, as wiping away rather than covering up sin, preserved the people; the over-emphasis on the individual simply leads to the creation of ethical humanistic Judaism and the gradual erosion of Jews as a people. This argument suggests that performing other-oriented mitzvot is insufficient for preserving cohesion among the people.

Like Christianity, Judaism must preserve, transform and raise to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story, but in a very opposite way to the Christian path, through service to God via service to God’s people, to God’s nation, to making that nation an exemplification of the preservation of the covenant. We have not discarded the Kohanim on the dustbin of history. These patrilineal descendants of the Aaronite priesthood are given special privileges and duties in the rituals of worship in a synagogue. Reform in rejecting the priesthood took away those privileges. They should be restored for that is how memory is preserved from generation to generation, by preserving, by raising up and putting a traditional political practice onto a bima of ritual. That is a function of ritual – to preserve, to transform and to raise up on a more formal plane what was once a core embodiment of the nation’s spiritual richness and to remove and wipe away the blood stains of its historical sins.

Should a blood inheritance be the instrument of such preservation? Or should the inheritance of the spirit of special dedication allow anyone to become spiritually a Koan? Or can we do both? Should each synagogue collectively recognize a dedicated group who are assigned the responsibility of maintaining the schedule of synagogue service on a rotating basis? We already do so without designating the group as priests. Volunteers come forth and serve that function. They should be esteemed and given recognition in what they wear and in the deeds they perform in the service.

We could consider resurrecting the Davidic practice of giving over to six families the responsibilities for two of the fifty-two weeks of the services, with one family performing those roles for each day of the week that their collectivity carries that responsibility. That means 26 x 6 = 136 families assuming very systemic and recognized roles in the life of synagogue worship.

The ritualistic practices of old can be preserved, can be transformed and, in being transformed, raised up so that the Jewish people can perpetuate itself as a people in a covenantal relationship to God.  At the same time, this restoration also requires elimination, rituals of wiping out and covering up sins by unveiling them, by eviscerating the body politic and exposing the blood stains that pollute and make impure our political life.

Revolutionary Judaism

Parshat Acharei Leviticus 16-18: Revolutionary Judaism

by

Howard Adelman

This week’s portion of the Torah gives rise to one very major question: how can you continue to be an adherent to a religion in which the sacred text and commands as described in this week’s portion depict a sect in which forgiveness of sins and redemption are obtained through rites that read, with all the sacrificed animals on the altar and all the blood splattered around, like a Haitian voodoo religion? Further, how can one belong to a religion in this day and age when a verse in chapter 18 of Leviticus commands:

22You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination. כב וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּֽוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא:

I choose that among a series of different abominations lest one be defiled – sleeping with your neighbour’s wife, your mother or father, your father’s sister (your aunt) or his wife (your step-mother), your sister or your step-sister or your sister-in-law, your granddaughter or your adopted daughter. That prohibition against homosexuality has finally been almost totally undermined in our contemporary society in the West, and in Judaism in particular, though there is still a strong residue in some ultra-orthodox circles. A religion which makes homosexuality a matter of disgust and something deserving of hatred, which connotes disgrace and horror, and which provokes outrage and detestation, aversion and loathing, is unworthy of attachment.

So we have a choice, seemingly – accept the commandment and degrade both the person and the act, or dismiss the demand as irrelevant and recognize that homosexuals deserve recognition, respect and dignified treatment. If I dismiss the command – and I certainly do – what happens to an adherence to the religion? Let me begin to answer that question by first dealing with the first question I raised. How can I adhere to a religion which demands participation in a voodoo-like priestly cult?

Part of the answer comes from understanding the transition from a temple-centred religion to the rabbinic Judaism of the last two millennia. As Josephus wrote, in classical Judaism there was one temple for one God. When the temple was destroyed, how could the centre hold? The simple answer – it did not. Temple-centred Judaism died, but the physical destruction of the temple was merely the final blow. By the time the temple was destroyed by the Romans, the priests were widely viewed by then as a self-centred greedy group, a corrupt, hypocritical and impious lot. In the revolution against the priestly religion of the temple, both rabbinic Judaism and its kissing cousin, eventually called Christianity, emerged. However, whereas Christianity over its first four centuries remained as a chaos of clashing cults until a dominant creed emerged, Judaism consolidated itself around a set of specific rituals (some rejected by Christianity – circumcision, kosher laws of food preparation) and others assimilated into Christianity, such as keeping shabat.
In that development, the rabbinic Judaism redefined itself, amassed a unique new literature, a new culture and a new way of thinking. Judaism had undergone a successful revolution. The final consolidation took longer than Christianity because it was less necessary, but by the 6th century, the codification in the Talmud had emerged to control and police Torah interpretation while not only permitting but encouraging a wide spectrum of interpretation. But the revolution was premised on a radical transition of Judaism from a temple-centred cult into a universalist rather than a tribal religion whereby the God worshipped by Jews was not a tribal god but the God for all humanity, a revolution that may have taken place as early as the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the first temple. Practices might be particular to the Jewish people, but the fundamentals were not. Jews in the Persian exile merged the dialectical tension between their two faces of God to differentiate the Jewish religion from Zoroastrianism.

Between the destruction of the first temple and that of the second, the foundations for the birth of the new Jewish religion out of the literal ashes of the old following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, had been put in place, but the cost was enormous – the loss of homeland, the end of the Hasmonean royal dynasty and the Sanhedrin as the supreme legislative body and Supreme Court combined. Add to those losses the rejection of Hellenic rationality but replaced by the construction of a unique Judaic historically-rooted hermeneutics veering between the predominant egalitarian, pragmatic school of Hillel and the much stricter aristocratic, elitist and absolutist school of Shammai. The latter retained the commanding authoritative tone of the destroyed ancient regime. The House of Hillel preserved the old order, held it reverentially aloft, but put it away as an impotent artefact. Idols could be preserved but not worshipped.

From the civil war among the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots and the Essenes, a version of Pharisaic Judaism emerged supreme, in part by preserving, raising up and putting away the role of the Sadducees into an impotent place of nostalgia in the Judaic legacy, in part by relegating the mystic stream to the margins, and, most importantly, by totally suppressing the militaristic platform of the Zealots. Revolutions only succeed when the militancy that gave rise to those revolutions is eventually squelched and by reading back into the Torah text their own characterization of Judaism. So the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were left simply to debate whether the revolutionaries were to be honoured by lighting one candle on the first night, two on the second night and eight on the final night of Hanukkah or to reverse the order, lighting eight on the first night and only one on the last.

All this is merely a roundabout way of saying that some parts of text have to be relegated to the background, given a formal but empty status and effectively ignored in practice. This is what happened to voodoo Judaism. And this is what is finally taking place with one of the final bastions of prohibition versus obligatory practices – the ban on homosexuality. Today is not the time and place to write about the great significance of the castration of that ban.

My teacher, Emil Fackenheim, tried to inscribe into the Jewish historical canon a new 614th commandment – Never Forget! So each year I, as many others do, reflect on the memory and significance of the Holocaust. My recent blog was my effort this year. But the Holocaust and the re-birth of a Jewish homeland together have revolutionized Judaism as much as the loss of the temple in 70 CE. The meaning of this twentieth century revolution is still cloudy and I have yet to bring my full attention to offering an attempt at clarification. But I do know that the revolution includes the full acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual practice and the establishment and preservation of Israel as a central task. The debate is now over how and no longer over whether that latter task is to be achieved.

What is the connection between these momentous steps? That intellectual task remains. In the interim, I am re-working my thoughts about revolution that I began with my superficial probe into the Irish Revolution in my review of Revolution and its emphasis with connecting that revolution to feminism. In the next blog I will write about the Iranian revolution following the excellent lecture I heard yesterday by U. of T. Professor Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a Professor of History and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations on, “The Iran Deal and the End of the Iranian Revolutionary Radicalism,” assuming I can recall the lecture in three days time since I did not take notes. I will follow that with a piece on our Visual Revolution by reviewing an excellent documentary that I saw late yesterday evening on the previously unknown artist, Vivian Maier, appropriately entitled, Finding Vivian Maier. I then intend to get back my explorations of the analogy between the historical upheavals of the last century or two and plate tectonics as a theoretical probe.
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Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity

Shame and Humiliation

Part V of V: Shame and Humiliation in Judaism versus Christianity

by

Howard Adelman

In the first part of this series, I referred to Tamar in relationship to her father-in-law as well as to Joseph and his brothers in the Torah and their rejection of shame and humiliation, especially shaming another. Instead, Judaism generally stressed guilt, remorse for what you specifically did, and not for who you are. This guilt element in Jewish cultural history emphasizes the rule of law and due process. It stressed respect for the Other and oneself. However, ancient Hebrew culture also has a deep understanding for a shame culture, for it is that which is rejected, that which represents falling into a bottomless pit. After all, the obverse of trying to abide by rules and experiencing guilt when one fails is not experiencing deep shame. It is summed up in Proverbs 13:18. If you do not follow a disciplined path, you will end up impoverished and in disgrace, totally ashamed of yourself, but if you learn from your mistakes and listen to criticism, you will be honoured. “Poverty and disgrace befall him who spurns discipline, but he who keeps reproof will be honoured.” רֵישׁ וְקָלוֹן פּוֹרֵעַ מוּסָר וְשׁוֹמֵר תּוֹכַחַת

Shame is the hell Israel will be forced into if the nation fails to follow God’s laws. “They will put on sackcloth and be clothed with terror. Every face will be covered with shame, and every head will be shaved.” (Ezekiel 7:18) But if the Israelites can throw off shame, if the dry bones of those who live without hope can be infused with self-respect and discard shame, then “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” will come to life with flesh and spirit. (Ezekiel 37)

Further, those who try to humiliate and shame me for my beliefs and my practices will, in the end, be shamed and feel shame deep in their souls and disgraced in their very bones. “Then my enemies will see that the LORD is on my side. They will be ashamed that they taunted me, saying, ‘So where is the LORD–that God of yours?’ With my own eyes I will see their downfall; they will be trampled like mud in the streets.” (Micah 7:10) Shame revisits the shamer. To be mired in shame is to be an eternal wanderer without direction, without hope and destined to live in the deepest darkness.

The opposite is escape from shame, escape from humiliation. If one escapes shame, escapes humiliation, if one is to grow flesh on one’s dried up and dead life, out of that dry ground one must grow into a tiny plant rising from the cracked and parched earth seeking self-respect and light, seeking to respect others. When I was a young man, I wrote a play that was produced called “Root Out of Dry Ground” (Isaiah 53:2) about that struggle. I was denounced from the pulpit of Canada’s largest synagogue for being a self-hating Jew. Especially some sects experts at shaming even though shaming is antithetical to the core of their religion.

Though one be humiliated, though one can be shamed, though one can be “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” and though others turn away, despise the shamed one and refuse to come face to face with him (Isaiah 53:3), though we hide our faces from him; “he was despised, and we esteemed him not,” that is not the path, the light and the way. “Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed. Neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and the reproach of thy widowhood shalt thou remember no more.”

אַל-תִּירְאִי כִּי-לֹא תֵבוֹשִׁי, וְאַל-תִּכָּלְמִי כִּי לֹא תַחְפִּירִי:  כִּי בֹשֶׁת עֲלוּמַיִךְ תִּשְׁכָּחִי, וְחֶרְפַּת אַלְמְנוּתַיִךְ לֹא תִזְכְּרִי-עוֹד.

Before we get to the story of Cain and Abel that we referred to earlier, it is important to properly understand the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. In the standard misinterpretation, Adam and Eve disobey God’s command, eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, experience deep shame and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. They experienced deep shame for their disobedience. They experienced deep shame for having sex with one another.

I have written many times on the phenomenology of this experience, and so I will try to be very brief. Adam is placed in the garden. He aspires to be like God, to say and there is. After all, he is given responsibility for naming things. Enamoured with his vocation, he is ignorant of his own body, its desires and its needs. He does not even recognize he is lonely. He does not even acknowledge his body as his own. He may have been a brilliant naturalist, but he was also one dumb dude totally ashamed of who he was as an embodied being.

God knew he was alone. Adam himself never recognized his needs or his loneliness. And, as I have written, loneliness is at the core of suffering from shame. Adam is ashamed and he does not even know it well before he eats of the Tree of Knowledge of good and Evil where eating thereof allowed him for the first time to know, to acknowledge that he was ashamed. Though God had created Eve in the same way as Adam, in Adam’s dream, in his fantasy world, Eve is merely a projection of his own flesh without a mind of her own, without a centre of self-determination. He does not recognize her. He does not respect her. He does not even respect his own body. So when his erect penis in the form of an othered Being, viewed only as a devious snake, seduces Eve, that penis is not his. It is a trickster who beguiles Eve. It is not Adam who had sex. He was taken off guard. He was led down the garden path. Adam takes no responsibility for his acts. He was too enamoured with being a disembodied mind to appreciate he was an embodied creature with feelings and attachments.

But his body, not his mind, saves him. It introduces, but only introduces him, to determining what is good and what is evil, to the world of ethics and not just the knowledge of external nature, to the world of prescriptions and imperatives and not just descriptions. It began with recognizing that he felt ashamed, ashamed that he was an embodied creature and not a disembodied divine Being. With this knowledge, he could no longer live in the illusory purely mental world of the Garden of Eden. He automatically was thrust into the real world.

The shame experienced is not because of disobedience of God’s instructions, for God had simply warned that IF you eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you will no longer be able to live in a cut off disembodied world of the mind. You shall surely die and be reborn as a flesh and blood creature. Thou shalt not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is not a categorical imperative. It is not even an imperative at all. A conditional anticipation is not an imperative. But because Adam had not yet eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he could not recognize the difference between a categorical and a conditional. He could not recognize the difference between an imperative and a descriptive generalization, especially one that referred to what could be rather than what is.

Nor were Adam and Eve punished for eating of the tree. The consequence followed as described, but the shame arose from the lie, from the cover-up, from the displacement of responsibility. Where they should have felt guilt about this projection, about the failure to respect who he was as an embodied mind and not a disembodied God, for who Eve was as an independent self-respecting human being, they covered up their flesh. They felt ashamed. This was the Fall, not eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having sex is not a sin. Denying who we are, blaming others are sins. And Adam was deeply immersed in shame long before he and Eve had sex.

The history of man in throwing off a metaphysics of shame and accepting a metaphysics of guilt defined by rules and discipline became an effort of thousands of years. The start, however was ominous. The children of Adam and Eve demonstrate this. If Cain and Abel no longer could see themselves as demi-gods, each could at least try to define themselves and be respected as the one chosen to be closest to God. This was the new fantasy that replaced the older one. How do you achieve that recognition? They follow the reverse path of the Greeks where humans are helped by the gods – in this case by second order gods. But for the Hebrews, men still aspired to be next to God and to be recognized as God’s second-in-command.

How to get there? Show your indifference to the best products of your physical labour. Sacrifice the best that you have made and produced with the labour of your body to God to gain that desired recognition. The farmer sacrifices the best of his grain and Cain asks for recognition for his labour and service to God. Abel, the hunter, the cattleman, the rancher, sacrifices the best of his herd. God gives the recognition to Abel. Cain, instead of understanding that recognition is a step backwards, a step backwards to dependency on nature, a step back towards the image of man as a disembodied being, goes into a jealous rage and feels totally shamed. He lashes out and kills Abel.

God punished Cain by ejecting him from society and not just the Garden of Eden. The pain experienced and acknowledged there had been a piece of cake. He becomes the wanderer, the individual without a settled home who will have to roam through the wilderness of dry bones and shame, but will eventually redeem himself on a higher plane as the founder of cities, of civilization.

I recognize that this is not the Genesis tale you were taught as children. But, I suggest, you were educated in a culture that esteemed shame as a tool of progress, of redemption, as a spur to salvation. Instead of a state that had to be abandoned and left behind totally. In Christianity, it will be left behind, but by and only through grace. As it is written in Timothy 1:12, “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” Suffering is redemptive. And one is freed from shame only be being accepted as one with Christ, a far more ambitious goal than that of either Cain or Abel, who wanted simply recognition from God. If Jesus is God and a person can be one with Jesus, then one can be one with God. And that is the only route to escape shame and sin because man is by nature a sinner. As Christianity teaches, a true Christian stands unashamedly only when he finds the cross and lives as one with the spirit of Jesus.

Instead of positing guilt and shame as belonging to opposite worlds, guilt is absorbed into shame and the Hebrews are characterized as inherently wallowing in shame, suffering from faithlessness because they rejected Christ as their saviour and as a reborn God.  However, if one is a Christian, one accepts Christ as one’s saviour and the route out of sin and shame; one rejects the Jewish belief that the rejection of shame requires you and only you to have respect for who you are and not depend on another for recognition. Accepting Jesus is not only not the route to salvation but the route to reinforcing a shame culture. So Christianity was built, not on Judaism as a brother religion, or Judaism as the source religion of Christianity, but as something which has to be buried and upon which the cornerstone of the Church of Christ has to be built. As Peter put it, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (2:6) Jews became shameful, but if you trust in Christ, you will never suffer shame.

The choice for Christians was either everlasting life in Christ or shame, everlasting shame. One escaped shame not through respecting oneself and who we are, not by respecting Others for who they are, but by accepting that Jesus is the one and only way to escape your life as a sinner. Sin was shameful and man was inherently a sinner and cannot escape sin without the grace of God through the assistance and mediation of Jesus. One had to confess one’s natural sinfulness. Instead of an expansion of spirit, one had to experience contrition. Unless one accepted that path of salvation, one was condemned to everlasting shame and contempt. So guilt, instead of being a regret for one’s own responsibility in offending a social norm, becomes a synonym for shame instead of its opposite. Guilt says you are unworthy and not that you are guilty for the specific act you did.

Thus, when David cries out to God not to be cast aside in shame and thrown into the pit with the wicked, this is interpreted as a request for grace when it is no such thing. It is a request that as a person I stand up on my own two feet, accept who I am and what I must do to be better, but reject, not accept, that one is inherently shameful; to reject not accept that one needs a mediator to accomplish this task, to accept that shame cannot be a tool of redemption, but must be cast off and left in the desert of dry bones unable to rise up with flesh on those bones and a smile on your face.

In a guilt culture, one is inculcated with norms. When one disobeys those implanted norms by digressions in one’s behaviour, one feels guilty, not for who you are but for what you did. In a guilt culture, one confronts another in private so as not to humiliate the other for her or his failure to follow those norms. And when those norms shift, then there are cultural clashes within ourselves and between us and others. But this requirement for discourse is not a cause for shame, but for rejoicing. For it creates the foundation for a dialogical society. This does not entail that guilt cultures insist on total conformity, but rather they insist on a second order set of rules for altering primary norms governing behaviour, in secular parlance, a constitution. The problems really occur when these second order rules themselves are in disarray or have lost their respect.

Now some would class shame cultures as those which esteem self-pride and honour, superficial appearances and upholding of those appearances. But that is just one instance of a shame culture and a pretty debased one at that. Deep shame cultures do not attribute shame merely to how we appear but to who we fundamentally are. We are born sinners. And it is only when we accept that, when we accept that we are totally dependent on a divine hand to escape from wallowing in sin and shame, that we can escape its quicksand effects.

But doesn’t Christianity require confession of specific misdeeds? Doesn’t Christianity require restitution? Yes, but only as a step towards being reborn only when one accepts that one is by nature a sinner. In contrast, guilt without shame is the feeling that arises within when we violate the ethical norms planted within, when we violate our conscience. An individual may suffer guilt even if no one else knows of that error of your ways. The feeling of guilt can only be eased by taking responsibility for what you did as when Judah confessed his previous failure to take responsibility for his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and when he made restitution. Guilt cultures rely on the internalization of external norms which become the enforcers of behaviour. Purely shame cultures rely on external sanctioning, external shaming, external humiliation. In a guilt culture, one has to learn to accept punishment for your misdeeds, but, at the same time, learn to respect yourself. Accepting responsibility for what you did is a first step. When you accept that  responsibility, when you make up for the error of your ways, when you make restitution, you can forgive yourself, and forgiving oneself precedes anyone else offering forgiveness. And to do that, you cannot and should not be humiliated in the process, you cannot accept self-denial, you cannot and must not be humbled.

If Christianity is such a shame culture, how come there are so many beautiful Christians? I went to St. Michael’s College after I left medical school to complete my bachelor’s degree. One of my best friends was Vince Kelly. I only learned several years after we graduated that this beautiful smiling soul had hidden his homosexuality from me. And when he owned up to it, he recognized that at the time he would and could not realize his dream of becoming Prime Minister of Canada. If he had only lived to see Premier Kathleen Wynne, a lesbian, become the leader of our government in the Province of Ontario. If only he had lived to see the Supreme Court in the United States recognize gay marriage. He would have been a great Prime Minister. He was an extraordinary terrific president of the student council at the University of Toronto, leader of the young Liberals and campaigner to be one of the youngest Members of Parliament when he ran in Smith Falls, his home town.

When I was in medical school, when I was still in pre-meds, in fact, in my first year, Father Gregory Baum picked me up at the corner of Lawrence and Bathurst in his little Volkswagen beetle as he was coming down from the Catholic retreat where he lived. He gave me a lift to the University of Toronto. By the time we reached the university, we had become friends. Though we would much later have a falling out over Israel, I never ceased to view him as a beautiful soul. His mother had been Jewish and his father a secular Protestant. He had been recommended by a fellow internee, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, in the Canadian prisoner-of-war camps for German Jewish nationals, to explore attending St. Michael’s College because of his enchantment with the mediaeval world, though he would first earn his bachelor and master’s degrees in mathematics. St. Mikes then hosted the leading centre of mediaeval studies in the world. Gregory converted to Catholicism and, not long after I first met him, rose to be a very prominent theologian and advisor to Vatican II as a peritus or theological advisor. It was he who led the Catholic Church to recognize that the effort to convert the Jews, especially after the Shoah, was an effort in religious genocide and had to be abandoned.

When much more recently for twelve years I produced and hosted a television show called Israel Today, that show was financed by evangelical Christians, not because, as many wary Jews suspected, they believed that the path to salvation required the resurrection of Israel, but because many of them had learned not only to love Jews but to love the Jewishness of their own faith. When one watches President Obama at the service commemorating those killed in Charlotte North Carolina and leading the 5,000 collected there to celebrate the lives of those destroyed by a deranged racist, and Obama leads the multitude in singing Amazing Grace, one cannot help but admire and appreciate the positive and powerful spirit of that religion.

But it is not what it once was. And that is to the good. By and large and to a significant extent, it has left a theology of shaming and public humiliation behind. It has reconciled itself with its Jewish roots. In America with that country’s deeply religious faith in the American constitution and the rule of law, it has emerged there as a religion that stresses guilt for one’s specific misdeeds and the need to and possibility of recovering from error, including Whites recovering from their heritage of offences against Blacks, of heterosexuals for their offences against gays, from the White Man’s offences against the natives of North America.

But the genie of shame and humiliation has not gone far. It has become secular. It has been resurrected in our public life and on the internet in a much more virulent form.

We are all obligated to combat it wherever and however it appears.