Fuck God!

Fuck God!

by

Howard Adelman

Wow! Neither the crusading atheists, Richard Dawkins nor Christopher Hitchens, wrote that. Hitchens did say to religious believers, “Fuck you” and Fuck off,” but never wrote or verbalized “Fuck God” to the best of my knowledge. That is because he was more interested in writing about his disbelief in God than indicating any relationship to God. For someone who blasphemes God suggests an irritation or anger with God, Otherwise, why say it? Irritation or anger with someone is not denial or banishment to an unspoken world. I wanted the reader to have at least a sliver of understanding about the powerful effect of blaspheming God.

Nevertheless, the expression in the title remains ambiguous. Not in its meaning! It is unequivocally a blasphemous statement. But it is ambiguous in the sense that the reader does not know whether I am asserting what the phrase says or whether I am writing down the phrase as an object for dissection. I could have put the expression in quotation marks, but that would not have helped much. Because I could be quoting myself. Further, I would have lost some of the impact. I want readers to grasp what blasphemy is directly since we are far removed from a world and a time when blasphemy was not merely shocking, but a reason to stone me to death for making such an utterance. If I may cite an eminent authority, Prince Charles declared that we had lost the sense of the sacred in our public life. We no longer recognize that cursing God should arouse revulsion, rage and revenge. When religious identity is at the core of who you are, then cursing God is akin to calling someone a dirty Jew.

Last evening, I saw an excellent Israeli Bedouin film called Sand Storm. At one point in the movie, a first wife not only disobeys her husband, but talks back to him and goes further and even insults him. She is not stoned. But she is “banished” from her husband’s compound and, in disgrace, sent back to the home of her parents and separated from her four daughters. We would not only regard the punishment as unacceptable, but as cruel and unjust. On the other hand, in the rabbinic tradition, capital punishment for blasphemy was avoided by resorting to the lesser penalty of banishment for limited periods, say seven days, though in the most liberal of states, the Netherlands, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated in the middle of the seventeenth century for life for his pantheistic interpretation of God. (The condemnation has never been reversed.)

On my birthday two years ago on 7 January 2015, the newsroom massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place in Paris. The instigation for the attack was alleged blaspheme – and not even of God, but of one of his most important prophets – Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo spent years mocking believers and institutions like the Roman Catholic Church. Its cartoons were trenchant and telling, for the target was the marriage of belief and power and the elevation of some subjects to the sacred. The Catholic Church sued Charlie Hebdo 14 times, each unsuccessfully. The constant object of attack was the hidden and not so hidden racism in French society that hides behind white robes and the so-called civility of society.

This was precisely the subject of debate when two brothers, Said and Chérif Kouachi, with Kalashnikovs and a grenade launcher stormed the offices of the magazine shouting, “Allah Akbar,” God is great! as they fired indiscriminately and insisted that, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” (On the same day, in addition to the journalists, a policeman as well as members of the Jewish community were murdered at other locations.) For Al Qaeda had vowed revenge when Charlie Hebdo first printed the portrait of the prophet on its front cover and then republished the infamous Danish caricature mocking Islamic fanaticism nine years after the cartoon first appeared. In defence of Al Qaeda, does not the Hebrew Torah also condemn cursing Abraham as well as God? (Exodus 22:27)

Canadian law (Criminal Code Section 296) still prohibits blasphemy, a critical issue for many now that Bill M-103 has passed condemning Islamophobia. Blasphemy is the act of showing contempt or failing to display reverence and respect for religious symbols or persons. Though the penalty is not execution or stoning, you can get up to two years in prison.

  1. (1) Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years

(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.

(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in contrast, in 1952 in the case of Joseph Burstyn v. Wilson ruled that “it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.” Under the blasphemy laws until Cromwell intervened, a Sephardic Jew and physician, Jacob Lumbrozo, whose family had once fled the inquisition, was charged in Maryland, a Catholic colony, in 1658 with blasphemy under the ironically named Toleration Act of 1649 that adumbrated the language of the laws of George Orwell’s 1984.

The fight was over freedom of expression. For in our contemporary Western secular civil religion, freedom to say what you want is far more sacred than any reverence for divinity. But not everywhere. Specifically, not in the Middle East. Fanatics were causing mayhem and murder in their war against the new secular civic religion. In defence of the latter, some journalists were willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives. And sacrifice they did. All for insisting that laughter had to be protected in the face of assaults on it in the name of something else regarded as sacred. Charlie Hebdo was not against, was not opposed, to those who would elevate God or Jesus or Muhammad to sacred status. It did fight against those who would deny its right to have its own set of sacred values. Charlie Hebdo was not Islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo was philofreedom.

On the other hand, would Charlie Hebdo defend the right of Islamicists not only to openly advocate suppressing blasphemous speech, but to urge a community to stone or kill by other means anyone who engages in blasphemy? Would Charlie Hebdo not insist on some boundaries to free speech as a central core value, i.e., when free speech is used to advocate attacks on free speech and the murder of its defenders? When or if caveats are used to limit free speech in the name of free speech, especially if the defender of this position is an anarchist and/or pacifist like many of the journalists writing for Charlie Hebdo, is this not hypocrisy? Whatever one’s position, it does make clearer the strong motivation behind laws against blasphemy.

Whatever criticisms I have had of the French secular civil religion of laicité and its own paranoid intolerance of hijabs, that religion does affirm the right to be blasphemous. (See Caroline Fourest (2015) Éloge du blaphsphème, In Praise of Blasphemy, Grasset.) The civic religion of North America does not, and no English edition was published even though the United States is far ahead of Canada on this subject. Further, the current compassionate Pope Francis in some sense defended the murderous response to blasphemy as “normal.”

And it once was. Blasphemous, irreverent or sacrilegious words about God are not only condemned, but acts not strictly in accord with God’s instructions for behaviour in the holy of holies are worthy of capital punishment as well. God killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for making such an error. Profaning God’s name was equivalent to profaning God’s home. Fanatical Islam simply expands the targets to anyone insulting the Prophet of Islam. One of the deep roots for the condemnation of blasphemy is to be found in this week’s portion of Leviticus. And not only in Leviticus. Exodus 22:27 reads:

אֱלֹהִים לֹא תְקַלֵּל וְנָשִׂיא בְעַמְּךָ לֹא תָאֹר. You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.

Insulting the head of state is also considered blasphemy.

The opening chapter of Parashat Emor (verse 6 of chapter 21) reads:

קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וְלֹא יְחַלְּלוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵיהֶם… They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God.

The injunction is repeated in 22:32. “Don’t profane my Holy NAME that I may be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.”

The wording in Leviticus 25:14 sets out the penalty:

ויקרא כד:יד הוֹצֵא אֶת הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְסָמְכוּ כָל הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָה. Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.

Leviticus 24:15 states:

ויקרא כד:טו …אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. כד:טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם יְ-הוָה מוֹת יוּמָת רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ בוֹ כָּל הָעֵדָהכַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח בְּנָקְבוֹ שֵׁם יוּמָת. Anyone who vilifies his God shall bear his guilt. And the one who invokes the name of YHWH shall surely die, all the assembly shall surely stone him; the ger and the citizen alike, he who invokes the name shall die.

The impression seems clear. Blasphemy is verboten and deserving of the harshest punishment. However, is that the lesson of the text? I suggest otherwise. The text offers one case study. (24:11) The son of an Israelite woman who married an Egyptian gets into a fight with an Israelite and says the equivalent of, “Fuck God!” Moses, upon God’s command, orders the community to remove that individual and stone him. Banishment alone was insufficient given the perceived enormity of the crime.

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת דִּבְרִי לְמַטֵּה דָן. The son of the Israelite woman invoked the name, vilifying it, and he was brought to Moses. And the name of his mother was Shelomith, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.

But then why is the description of this event immediately followed by a universal injunction against taking another’s life? Is the passage and the general narrative really about an objection to blasphemy or is it an objection to a norm which justifies murder provoked even by blasphemy? For is not the implication of the initial tale of a fight between an Israelite and a child of a mixed marriage that the fight was about racism? This fight ran contrary to the injunction to welcome the stranger, to welcome the ger. And even within the laws of blasphemy, was not the ger to be treated equally with any Israelite? The key question is whether the incident illustrates how important and sacred are laws protecting the sacred so that those who defile God’s name are to be put to death. Or is the story told to carry the message that racism is wrong and that murder in the name of blasphemy is heinous?

We have two interpretations of the same narrative that are totally at odds. In one, a standard version, the text stresses the enormity of the crime of blasphemy and the consequent severe punishment for engaging in it. For blasphemy was an attack on the central core beliefs of the Israelites in their one and singular God. Reverence for God is absolutely necessary to preserve and strengthen the identity of the Israelites as holy, as God’s chosen people. Profaning the name of God detracts not only from the reverence for God, but turns the utterer away from being holy to being profane. (21:6) God, in turn, may, as a result of such treatment, turn his back on His chosen people and abandon them as unholy. Further, when the sacrilege of blasphemy takes place, it is necessary to unite the people in defence of God’s name.

In the other interpretation, the real issue is racism and the gross mistreatment of someone who curses God. What is the evidence for questioning the standard interpretation? A least, what are the puzzles that give rise to questioning the standard traditional account?

Note the following:

  • The boy (not man) who commits the “crime” of blasphemy is the child of a mixed marriage.
  • There is an implication that the altercation that gave rise to his cursing God was the use of a racial epithet against him.
  • Though the son is not named, the Israelite mother is, Shelomit (a peacenik (though Rashi calls her a strumpet), daughter of Dibri (from dever, destruction) of the tribe of Dan; there is also the suggestion that she was a single mother, possibly the mother of a son that was the result of rape by an Egyptian man in an inversion of the Moses story.
  • Professor Wendy Zierier has pointed out that the phrasing used is both unusual and follows the same formulation as the reference to the matriarch, Rebecca, “who is referred to as רִבְקָה בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם, “Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean, from Paddan-Aram,” a formulation also used to depict the kings of Israel.
  • Why is the parent of a blaspheming son provided with such a lofty designation and what had her preachiness about peace and her heritage from a shit-disturber have to do with the meaning of the story?
  • There is the repeated stress that all children of God, not just Israelites, fall under the injunction not to profane God’s name.
  • Further, Israelites are specifically enjoined not to wrong the ger, the stranger who lives amongst them.
  • However, there is the suggestion that an Egyptian, unlike the stranger, is not to be treated equally because he introduced an “impurity” into the Israeli blood – if this sounds racist, that is the intention; after all, Leviticus insists that it is wrong to wear clothes made of mixed materials or to take one breed of cattle and “mix” it with another.
  • Further, the father of that son was an Egyptian, a ember of a people whose oppression the Israelis fled; the boy is not just of a mixed “race,” but his father was an enemy and not just a stranger living among the Israelites.
  • In the punishment, the boy is first banished from the camp and stoned outside it.

The answer to these puzzles, which I can only sketch, interprets the tale, not as a defence of blasphemy laws, not as a defence of racism, not as a defence of patrilineal descent, but as a stricture against such values. It is precisely because laws of blasphemy can be abused by those in power, as Queen Jezebel used them to punish and take away the vineyard for her husband, King Ahab. Donald Trump has demonstrated that he is made of the same deformed spirit who would punish those not absolutely loyal to and in service of his regime so that what he says is not hate speech, but what the critical media write.

The meaning of the tale is given by the ending – do not murder. Do not kill. Especially, do not kill in the name of protecting God’s name. If that is the case, why does God order Moses to tell the people to stone the boy? I suggest it is a parallel to God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son. Only this time, God does not intervene and save Moses from such a heinous act. Moses carries it out and stains the future of Jewry and of all humankind just as he once, in rage against an Egyptian overseer’s injustice, killed that Egyptian. In the end, Moses never learned to overcome his rage and all humans had to be enjoined not to kill.

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

A Corrupt History of Israel – Beginnings

by

Howard Adelman

Gregory Baum began chapter 20 of his memoir, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: The Story of My Theological Pathway, with the following: “After the Holocaust, Christian churches were prompted by their historical guilt for the contempt they have shown to Jews and Judaism to support the State of Israel and to refrain from criticizing its treatment of Palestinians. After the Second World War, yet a second historical guilt, their approval of the colonial conquests of the European empires, moved the churches to offer moral support to the anti-colonial struggles of peoples in Asia and Africa, eventually including the Palestinian people. The churches then affirmed their twofold solidarity, with the Jewish State and with the Palestinian people.” (149)

Ignoring the historical conflation of decades of history, immediately after WWII, did the churches express guilt over the Holocaust? Did that lead those churches to support the creation of the State of Israel? Did they refrain from criticizing the treatment of Palestinians then because of this guilt? I can only refer to this last question very tangentially. I will have to ignore the question of whether the churches felt guilty about colonialism at that time.

The theology in the declaration could not have bothered them because the declaration is notably devoid of any theological references. The Torah is significantly not cited to support the declaration of independence. Rather, the following foundational elements are cited:

  • The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people
  • That land shaped their spiritual, religious and political identity
  • On that land, Jews first enjoyed statehood
  • On that land, Jews developed their national cultural values
  • From that land, Jews contributed to world civilization both universal values and, more specifically, the Bible
  • When dispersed, Jews never lost faith in the quest for return over two millennia
  • Further, over those years, Jews not only prayed for return but strove in every generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland
  • More recently, tens of, hundreds of thousands did return and the population of Jews had reached 600,000
  • In that return, they made deserts bloom and created a vibrant community
  • In that return, they revived the Hebrew language

The declaration then went on to detail both its practical and ethical aspirations: financial independence, cultural enrichment, peace, justice, self-defence, progress. Did the churches in general, whether driven by guilt over the Holocaust or not, celebrate the revival of statehood for Jews or even one or more of the accomplishments of the revived Yishuv? Did they express their strong opposition to the plans and moves of the Arab armies to invade the nascent state the very next day? Did they acknowledge the legal right to establish a Jewish state by the United Nations that had taken back Mandatory Palestine from the British, who had served as a trustee? Did they support partition and the creation of an independent Jewish state? More specifically, ignoring some of the hyperbole and exaggerations in the Declaration, was there any reference to guilt over the Holocaust, the European catastrophe in which six million Jews were massacred, as motivating any possible support? In the light of this unprecedented event, did the churches by and large support the natural right of the Jewish people “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state” even if many nations did not then enjoy such a right?

It took the Catholic Church twenty years afterwards to even repudiate antisemitism in Nostra Aetate. But even then, the official Churches and even the major dissidents remained silent concerning the right of Jews to have their own state – a silence that was only confronted just before the Cold War ended. In its 1985 Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations distinguished between theological and political considerations. Christians, they advised, should understand the deep religious significance of the land of Israel to Jews and Judaism. Though international law was increasingly used to challenge Israel’s occupation of majoritarian Arab areas after 1967, the principles of international law (later cited as the basis for dealing with the occupation) as distinct from religious attachments, were not used to acknowledge the right of creation of a Jewish state. Certainly, the birth of Judaism in Israel many centuries ago conferred no right. Neither did the development of their ancient nation-state, the continuing attachment of Jews to the land when they were dispersed, or the miracles of their return, revival of the Hebrew language and initial economic development suggested as justifications.

The church had its own political interests and it objected to either a Jewish or a Palestinian monopoly over Jerusalem. Winning this point was a trade off by some Catholic countries that was used to push UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, to recommend that Jerusalem remain an international city independent of both an Arab and a Jewish state with rights established for all three religions. Rather than guilt propelling the Catholic Church to support the nascent Jewish state, the Church was intimately involved in the messy business of politics in a flawed and failed effort to retain a strong political foothold in Jerusalem, a political foothold lost many centuries earlier when the Crusaders were defeated after an occupancy of two centuries.

It also took the Protestant churches decades after the state was declared to recognize both the importance of the land of Israel for Jews as well as the principle that Jews were entitled to self-determination. For the first time in 1980, the Rhineland-Synod stated that, “the continuing existence of the Jewish people, its return to the promised land, and the establishment of the state of Israel are a sign of God’s faithfulness to his people.” Theology, not guilt, seemed to provide both the rationale and the motive.

Did those Zionists who issued that Declaration of Independence even appeal to guilt over the Holocaust as a reason to support Israel? Not at all. The Shoah is mentioned to show why it was urgent to take action concerning the 250,000 refugees left as a residue of that catastrophe and the plan to solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates of Israel wide to Jews needing as well as wanting to immigrate. The problem of the homeless refugees that no country then wanted motivated some Churches to support the State of Israel.

By the end of the century, the Evangelical Church in Germany conceded supporting the State of Israel with “just borders,” but the context suggests that even this belated statement was not heart-felt, but was offered to balance the Church’s concern with Palestinian refugees. However, we are here concerned with the late forties and not the post-1967 period so it might be helpful to look, not at official church doctrine and proclamations, but at Protestant dissident theologians who led the movement of reconciliation between Christianity and the Jewish community. To that end, to end this blog, I will summarily examine the views of Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth.

Whatever the many versions, Martin Niemöller became most famous for the following famous poem that he wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In some versions, incurables and Jehovah Witnesses were included alongside Jews. The general interpretation is that it is incumbent upon us all to defend those whose rights are initially attacked because, eventually, I too will find myself a victim of an oppressive regime. Unwillingness to take risks was not an excuse.

However, there is a more cynical interpretation, not based on Niemöller’s intent but on his behaviour, namely always ensure that the minority group next to you (Jews) is protected because otherwise you will be next. This black humour was suggested by Niemöller’s own history as a dissident in Nazi Germany who spent seven years in a concentration camp under a protective detention order which permitted his access to books and writing material, a period in which he requested release to serve in the German navy.

Niemöller was sent there, not because he defended socialism – he was a supporter of national socialism, voted for Hitler in 1933 and initially enthusiastically supported the Nazis coming to power,– not because he defended trade unionism, because he initially supported the Nazi coup and the destruction of the trade unions for he had always criticized Weimar Germany for its softness on communism, and not even because he opposed the Nazi persecution of the Jews, for he only opposed that persecution when it came to Jews baptised by the Lutheran Church. As he himself wrote in 1933 when he organized the pastors’ emergency federation (Pfarrernotbund), which became the foundation of the Confessional Church that stood in opposition to the official church when in 1934 it endorsed Nazi racist persecution of Jews, the fourth point in the founding charter objected to the Nazi ousting of ministers as ministers when they weere of Jewish lineage (Judenstämmlinge). Antisemitism became objectionable only when it was racial and affected the principle of baptism and conversion. Throughout the thirties, Niemöller continued to insist that Jews were guilty of killing Jesus and, without subjecting themselves to baptism, were deservedly being punished.

When he was released from prison after the war to eventually become president of the Hessen-Nasau Lutheran Church in 1947 and an extremely popular preacher in America, his revised theology was then stated most clearly in the Stuttgart Confession of Guilt (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis) published months after his release. Did he express any guilt about the Shoah? Did he express any support for Zionism as an expression of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination? No. The collective guilt for which he insisted Germans accept collective responsibility was for the destruction in Europe generally and Germany more specifically. His criticisms of Nazi Germany remained restricted to the objections to interference in Church affairs. He insisted that he, and most Germans, were NOT guilty about the Shoah since he along with most Germans were ignorant of the scale of the atrocities and shocked by the event. Because of that ignorance, Germans had no cause to feel guilty about the Shoah.

Niemöller in his speeches around the United States made no reference to the Shoah, made no reference to any support for the creation of the State of Israel that I could find, but rather highlighted the resistance by the Confessing Church, a minority of Lutherans, to the Nazis. That resistance was based on his insistence on the absolute sovereignty of Christ as the backbone of the Confessing Church to which he had given witness. Non-converted Jews could be murdered, but “the Word of God can’t be bound and can’t be murdered.” His emphasis was on Christian brotherhood and not reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism.

These observations are not new. Eleanor Roosevelt made them at the time. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio did so as well. Silver criticized Niemöller because he had not opposed Nazi racism, only Nazi persecution of the church. Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress at the time, noted that Niemöller never once objected to the Shoah let alone felt any remorse or guilt for what had taken place. And Niemöller was a dissident.

Karl Barth, another founder of the Confessing Church, and acknowledged as one of the most significant pioneers in attempting to reconcile Christian theology with Jewish beliefs, is another matter. In Stephen Hayes book, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology (1991) he claimed that, “it is not an exaggeration to say that Barth’s understanding of Israel had had the kind of influence on Protestant theology that Nostra Aetate has had on Catholic thinking about Israel.”

Unlike Niemöller, Barth had always opposed the general antisemitism of the Nazi regime and not only its effects on the autonomy of the church. “He who is a radical enemy of the Jews, were he in every other regard an angel of light, shows himself, as such, to be a radical enemy of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is sin against the Holy Ghost. For anti-Semitism means rejection of the grace of God.” Barth went further. He saw in Israel [note, not the state but the people, Am Israel rather than Eretz Israel] “a new sign of God’s presence in Jewish history.” However, his support for Israel as a people was, for him, a sign of God’s revelation, not out of any guilt for the Shoah. His support for Israel fitted within his pioneering work in reconceiving the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in terms of a “double covenant” and celebration of the Jewishness of Jesus, but this should not detract from the fact that he still believed that Jews had been divinely punished for their rejection of Jesus and he remained critical of rabbinic Judaism.

I need not go into any detail into the theological presumptions behind his views. For Barth, man and God were not involved in a dialectical relationship whereby God as well as humans changed because of the encounter for the preservation of the covenant, Christianity depended on God alone and his embodiment in the person of Jesus as his “eternal mode of being” whereby Jesus takes on the burden of human sinfulness. “It is incontestable that this people as such is the holy people of God: the people with whom God has dealt in His grace and in His wrath; in the midst of whom He has blessed and judged, enlightened and hardened, accepted and rejected; whose cause either way He has made his own, and has not ceased to make His own, and will not cease to make His own.”

This acceptance of Jews as having an independent covenantal relationship with God was extremely enlightened thinking at the time, but in his conception even that relationship remained a matter of grace rather than a legal and ethical contract between two parties. Further, God’s relationship to the Jews was but a precursor and precondition for the realization of God’s historic promise to all humanity. This proposition became a foundation for the subsequent Christian strong support for the State of Israel as a precondition for the Second Coming. But not for Karl Barth himself. In Karl Barth, a respect for differences emerges, but no real understanding of or sympathy for either Torah Judaism or political Judaism in the form of Zionism. This will, in turn, subsequently lead to the position of the World Council of Churches which finds in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank but one more case of Jewish obduracy and its continuing rejection of Jesus as divine. Israel remains the disobedient servant of God responsible not only for the oppression of the Palestinians, but for the continuing schism among humans preventing the Second Coming.

The end of WWII and the revelations of the Shoah did not in general produce in Christian churches guilt for its occurrence or a commandment to support the nascent state of Israel, but rather the recognition of the profundity of radical evil which struck Jews more extensively than any other group, but for which Jews were ultimately responsible because, as elected witnesses to God’s revelation, they still rejected the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus, champions of Christian-Jewish dialogue, of Christian acceptance of Jews having an independent relationship with God, such as Rosemary and Herman Reuther, could, in 1989, publish The Wrath of Jonah which sympathized and supported the State of Israel, but detailed the oppression of Palestinians.

In sum, in the aftermath of WWII there was no demonstrable guilt for the Shoah even among the minority of Christians in continental Europe who opposed Hitler, and no support for Israel based on that guilt. Christian Zionists were the exception; they dated back to a period before the emergence of Jewish political Zionism in the late nineteenth century and continued to support Israel as a state up to, during and after the creation of Israel. But both the mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, and even the reforming dissidents, including some within that group who recognized the Shoah as an expression of radical evil (das Nichtige) in our time, did not express any guilt for the Shoah or any support for Israel based on that guilt or even mention the Shoah, though the Shoah would subsequently have an enormous impact on Christian theology, especially in post-Holocaust theology.

But not when the State of Israel was declared.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

by

Howard Adelman

It is Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen. Tonight, the celebration of Israel’s independence begins. In yesterday’s blog, I referred to three sources of discussion of Israel – one by Emanuel Adler on the drift in Israel towards illiberalism, one on the Torah justification for an independent Jewish polity in Israel and a third, the sermon in my synagogue by the Israeli Consul in Toronto. Today I will concentrate on the most basic one, the justification in the Torah, the one considered irrelevant to most Canadian Jews and most others, except for evangelical Christians. The reference to archeology, history, political realities, what Israel has accomplished in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, need based on security and humanitarianism as justification for the State of Israel and its domination by Am Israel (the Jewish people) awaits another discussion.

Torah study began with Rashi’s well known question of why the Torah, if it is the constitution of the Jewish people, begins with cosmology. Why does the text not start with Genesis 17:1 when God initially forges a covenant with Abram, renames him Abraham and promises that he will be “a father of a multitude of nations,” not just the Israelites or the Jewish people, but many nations. (17:4) Further, in chapter 8, Abraham is promised that, “I will give the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession.”

The answer usually given for starting at Genesis 1 rather than Genesis 17 is that it was necessary to establish that the whole earth was made by and belonged to God and that God was totally free to distribute the land to whomever He chose. Nations are not owners of the land, only trustees. Further, if the Torah is to be followed, there is no prior right to a land by people long settled there before another group of people arrived.

But there is a prior question – why refer to the Bible as a source of authority for establishing a state? Rashi comments on the first Psalm, “But his delight is in the teaching (in Hebrew, the Torah) of the Lord, and, in his teaching, he studies day and night.” Psalm 1 reads:

Psalm 1
1 Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in His law doth he meditate day and night.
3 And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf doth not wither; and in whatsoever he doeth he shall prosper.
4 Not so the wicked; but they are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
5 Therefore, the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
6 For the LORD regardeth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish.

Verse 2 makes it clear that the function of studying Torah is critical to forging an ethical life. Verse 3 declares that an ethical life is sustained by planting oneself in a land where one can be fruitful and creative, implying possibly both a physical land and a land of learning. Whatever else it will be, the land will be one based on the rule of law that must serve the development of an ethical life.

The principle of Judaism, as distinct from the reference points of other nations, including other nations descended from Abraham, is that the Torah, which initially is a possession of (not necessarily written by) God, becomes a possession of Jews when they study Torah. Jews may infer that they have rights to live in the land from their studies, but not (thus far) that they are entitled to a state of their own. Further, there is no suggestion that other nations should not live in accordance with the rule of law for the sake of forging an ethical life and do so in the land of Israel. There is no guarantee that the land of Canaan should be the exclusive territory for Jews or that it is a land on which a Jewish state should be constituted and developed.

Genesis 12:1-7 says:

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. 6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. 7 And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land’; and he built there an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.

In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says: “The Lord said to Abram, “Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, southward, eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.” In Genesis 15:18, the land promised becomes very extensive. “18 In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”

The covenantal promise is repeated in Genesis 17:4-8:

My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. 6 And I will make thee exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. 8 And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

There are many promises in these quotes. First, the land is promised to all the nations that spring from the seed of Abraham and not just Jews. Second, the extent of the land promised varies, sometimes extending well into Iraq and through the Sinai desert right up to the Nile River. Since various tribes of Canaanites lived on both sides of the Jordan River, the promise can even be seen to include Jordan. This is confirmed in Deuteronomy 9:1-4:

“Hear, O Israel: You are to cross over the Jordan today, and go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourself, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the descendants of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you heard it said: ‘Who can stand before the descendants of Anak?’ Therefore, understand today that the LORD your God is He who goes over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and bring them down before you; so you shall drive them out and destroy them quickly, as the LORD has said to you.” (Deuteronomy, 9:1-4)

On the other hand, with respect to specific parts of that territory, there is no promise in the Torah that the seed of Judah will reside in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is not even mentioned once in the Torah though it is referred to approximately 600 times in the rest of the Bible.

There is a more disturbing part of the covenant stated above and repeated elsewhere in the Torah: the settlement of the nations that stem from the seed of Abraham will occupy the land by means of war and not simply ethnic cleansing, but genocide, for the existing nations of Canaan will be expunged from the land: the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy, 7:1-2)

Quite aside from the extent of the land promised and those to whom it is promised, in addition to the land of Canaan, quite aside from the means of acquisition, the land of Israel is promised, not just as a place to live, as a place to thrive, but as a place to study Torah and as a place to raise ethical individuals. Further, Israel is a land where the bones of the seeds of Israel that flow through Isaac and Jacob are to be buried. In Genesis 50:4-14, Joseph keeps the promise made that the bones of his father will be returned to Canaan to be buried next to his first wife, Leah, who bore him his eldest four sons. Even, Joseph, who lived most of his life in Egypt, has his bones disinterred and brought back to the land of Canaan to be buried in Shechem (Hebron). (Exodus 13:15)

In Genesis 50:24-26, just after Joseph had ensured that his father Jacob’s bones would be buried in Israel, Joseph told his brothers and made the sons of Israel swear that, like Jacob, “you shall carry my bones up from here.” This suggests that even more importantly than living an ethical life in accordance with the rule of law on a land promised by God is the promise of burial in that land even if one is raised and achieved success in the diaspora. The fight over burial rights is not exclusive to Israel. In Canada, we recently went through the Oka crisis, a land dispute instigated by Mohawk aboriginal peoples over an allegedly sacred burial site. Near my cottage on Georgian Bay in Ontario, there was a fight over Grave Island claimed by some Ojibway as a sacred burial ground. One reason we fight over land, in addition to the right to live on it, is to die and, more importantly, be buried in that soil.

Israel, therefore, is a land where the “ghosts of the past meet the ghosts of the future,” where one’s deep seated longings are satisfied, where “my father’s store was burned there and he is buried here.” In the “port on the shore of eternity” in “the Venice of God.” (Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem 1967”), there shall I be buried insists the ardent Zionist.

But none of the citations of sacred text justifies a Jewish state in Israel or Jerusalem as its capital or Israel as an exclusive state for the Jewish people. Israel is a place for Jews to live, a place for Jews to die and be buried. What else justifies the independence of Israel in a specific boundaried territory? Whatever it is, the state must be governed by the rule of law and dedicated to raising an ethical people if the Torah is to be a guide.

 

To be continued: Historical and Political Justifications

A Comment on Commentary

A Comment on Commentary

by

Howard Adelman

This past shabat we began again in the annual cycle of re-reading Torah. So we begin at the beginning which is about beginning. But it is an odd beginning because it is a repetition of what happened last year and the year before that and for over two millennia previously. To prove that, we discussed commentators from the last two millennia.

We could have discussed whether God created everything or just every thing, that is gave identity to that which was created, gave order. Genesis is not about the coming-into-being of the universe or even possibly many universes, but bringing order, understanding and even purpose, especially purpose to that material universe. So the issue is not about the material universe, that out of which something is created, but what was the motive or purpose or intent (each with slightly different meanings) of that creative activity. If the explicit question is about purpose, the implicit question is according to what principles or norms? For in articulating a focus on purpose, the emphasis is being placed on the normative rather than descriptive order of the universe, therefore “our” universe”, the universe experienced by man and in accordance with which humans lead their lives. Further, given an interpretation of that purpose and some understanding of those norms and principles, what can be anticipated?

Rabbi Splansky discussed a number of midrashim explicating possible understandings of that creation, in particular, why God suddenly refers to the plural, “Let us create earthlings …” In the Torah study group, the gentleman to rabbi’s right introduced another midrash, namely, that when God said, “Let us create man…” in the first use of the plural, the reference was not to his group of assistants – the angels – nor to a royal we, but to God and Man. God was addressing the being he was bringing into being as a partner in creation. Splansky had opined the evening before that man was the junior partner. So, in this interpretation, the “us” then is man plus the creature created who shall henceforth have some responsibility for creation.

In what sense is man the partner of God in creation? It is clearly a question that exercised most commentators. The answers varied, but no commentator takes seriously the option that creation did not have a purpose. In fact, Berkovits argues that, by definition creation entails purpose. Science is about causality, not creation. Science is about knowing and understanding the laws and causes in terms of which a previous state is transformed into a new state. Creation is, by definition, about purpose. So the disagreements among commentators are about those different purposes.

The Gaon, after dismissing arbitrariness as both contrary to the whole exercise and our understanding of Torah, defines two alternative purposes:

  1. sharing in God’s wisdom and thereby sharing in an appreciation of the mighty acts, the glory and the majesty of God’s kingdom with the consequence of inspiring awe in mortals;
  2. creating an incentive to obey God via an appeal to self-interest that can also serve a higher purpose; the emphasis then is on deeds rather than thoughts, on what humans can and should do versus the implied passivity of standing before God in awe.

This does not mean that if one chooses understanding creation in terms of purpose, the role of standing in awe before the wonders of creation itself is ruled out. It only means that the primary focus of the text is about figuring out the norms in accordance with which we are to govern our conduct and our lives. Moses Chaim Luzzatto, an eighteenth century member of an extended famous family of Italian Talmudists and himself a famous poet and dramatist, and, as well, a student of Kabala, also stressed that the purpose of creation was ethical, but ethics was defined as the search for perfection, very much in the Greek and Christian mould. The root of and the route for gaining perfection is service to God, defined as the only true good. The sole purpose of life is to rejoice in God’s perfection and to derive pleasure from God’s presence. The consequence of this surrender will be serenity in this world and entry into the world to come. But again deeds not just awe are involved, for to stand in awe before God’s perfection entails dedicating oneself to creating mitzvoth. The enemy to that quest for perfection and doing good deeds are desires which we must struggle to overcome. If this sounds akin somewhat to being born again in the blood of Christ, it is no accident.

Kaufmann Kohler, in contrast, is a rationalist and one of the early nineteenth century leaders of Reform Judaism. This is very evident in the selection from his works which begins with man rather than God. The stress is on self-determination and choosing one’s own destiny rather than following in the footsteps of God towards perfection or aligning one’s self interest with God’s purpose à la Gaon. The ideal is not a given, not planted in our nature, but that which must be discovered and defined by our actions. The voice of God is in our implanted conscience. There are no mystical visitations or hearing God directly. God is simply the ideal and we are commanded to walk with God who is righteous and just. But each individual has the responsibility of determining what God expects of him or her and how a self-chosen destiny is to be realized and enhanced.

Obviously as we trace through the positions of the commentators, they are all founded on understanding God’s behaviour as a well intended effort to lead a willing embodied partner on a righteous path. Ibn Gabirol was an eleventh century Spanish commentator and a poet like Luzzatto, but unlike him, he was on the side of rationalists. Rationalist moral thinkers saw the path of success through thinking rather than mystical revelation. For Ibn Gabriol, knowledge continued in the soul even after one died.

So in the ways of popular learning in the twenty-first century, those who wanted to study Torah are offered a smorgasbord of commentators to choose one’s own preference according to one’s taste. There was no effort to distil a set of coherent rules of interpretation of the Torah itself. For example, even though two of the commentators offered as food for thought were poets, there was no effort to uncover the poetic structure of the section. Instead, we are presented with a number of choices, but presented at random rather than in an organized offering. All commentators seemed to agree that creation was about purpose, was about finding meaning in existence. But what was the state of mind that best brought that about – rigorous study of minutiae or opening oneself to inspiration directly from God? Was the wisdom available for the improvement of man or simply to have a servant to give witness to God’s glory, to give God pleasure in the surrender of one’s will and in publicizing God’s role in the world.

Given that this was a Reform congregation and not a Hasidic study group, the latter option was unlikely to be taken up by anyone. In any case, the manner of study was unlikely to induce accepting such a purpose. Rather, like Berkowits, the inclination was likely to stress finding meaning and purpose in an otherwise material world of natural laws and probabilities so that even in defining that purpose, humans are partners of God. Holy Blossomers are hardly likely to surrender their secular faith in absolute self-determination, though quite willing to invert the master-servant relationship and assign God the role of a tour guide in a moral minefield. In that case, meaning itself is not found but intended and willed. As in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, we will ends in accordance with transcendental ethical laws, but ones which we find and create rather than ones that are the universal condition of having any morality whatsoever. The world of meaning is one in which we find meaning in our actions that are about the realization of a lofty goal.

It’s possible. But is that what the first two chapters of Genesis suggest?First, we begin with a paradox. The Hebrew suggests not a point of beginning – “In the beginning, God created…” nor even, as translated by Gunther Plaut, a reference to the moment before creation – “In the beginning as God was about to create…,” but as a progressive effort: “In the beginning of God’s creating.” We enter not at the very beginning point but into an action already in progress. The progress was about creating the world of heaven and the world of earth. And we are first told little about this fundamental dichotomy and the nature of heaven. The earth, we read, was however both empty and lacked any form. There was water but no light. The spirit of God hovered over the waters.

Now one can take this as a literal interpretation of the making of the material universe, as evangelical Christians usually interpret the text, or as about the nature of creativity itself and about the normative rather than the material world. Heaven is not the trillions of solar systems, the billions of galaxies with multiple solar systems, or even about the possibility of multiple universes. The heavens are not about the sun and the stars and the moon, but about that which is above, that to which we aspire, that associated with the basic character of air as opposed to earth and water. The heavens are about spiritual vitality. The first act of creation is allowing light to permeate the darkness over the face of the deep, not as a replacement for darkness, but as an alternate to it. So the first day of understanding creation is to comprehend the difference between day and night, light and darkness. It is to understand that the objective of creation if for humanity to lead an earth-bound life and to be a vehicle for God to live in the lower realm.

Is this a cognitive difference between knowledge and ignorance, between enlightenment and superstition? Or is it a differentiation between the act of discovery when one sees the light, when one breaks through a blindness and a blockage when mindblindness turns into insight? Or it a reference to both. At the very least there is the suggestion that knowledge, even if insufficient, will be a necessary foundation for what follows. Further, this knowledge is given a moral quality. If knowledge is good then ignorance is not bliss but is bad.

On the second day when the water below is divided from the water above, what can the metaphor mean, assuming we are all in agreement to reading the text as a grand metaphor. It is one that is hard for contemporaries to grasp since the image of the sky as a vault is not part of our experience where water seeps from above through the vault to form clouds and rain to fall down on the earth and waters below. But as a statement of meaning rather than as a depiction of a natural phenomenon, what is the meaning of separating the waters above and below? Are the waters from above the source of God’s tears when He will cry and cry out at the waywardness of the humans created? This is suggested in the previous verse which describes God moving over the face of the waters, not simply a movement, but a slight trembling and fluttering (m’rahaphet).  But it also suggests a hovering as a mother does over a newborn when the foetus will be separated out from the waters within and live outside of water in the open air and on solid ground. God hovers in anticipation. The tears shed are then tears of pure joy. Tears of joy pour forth when there is a horizontal separation and humans themselves participate in the act of creation. Tears of despair flood the world from above when humans participate in destructive behaviour. Hasidim celebrate to bring joy to God. That joy may be needed to bring some relief to God’s pain. But on the third day, the horizontal separation occurs when an infant is born and leaves its dark watery habitat to prepare for his life on earth. The waters first break, then there is the pain and then a very different kind of joy. It is the pleasure of fertility, of flowers growing and trees bearing fruit. What about the reference to light, to knowledge? The light is then divided itself into lights that serve to mark the separation of day and night, of knowledge and ignorance, so that even darkness has a light lest we live in the blackness of depression where we cannot glimpse an exit. Those lights mark out sacred days, those days that commemorate momentous steps in our collective coming to self-realization.  On the fifth day, the world of plants and animals is created, the world of instinct and natural propensities. It is on the sixth day that God creates man. And instead of saying, let water teem, let the land produce, let there be lights in the sky, let there be light itself, let there be a vault, we leave the world of letting be and enter the human world: “let us make earthlings in our image…” What is that imitation? It is to take custody and to govern the world that has been made. To keep it, to maintain it, to improve it. God created men and women to assume the responsibility of governing the world. So humans are created with an ethical and political responsibility and not just to “let there be.”  Why “us”? I have already suggested that this was because it was a collective responsibility, one which belonged to both God and humans. What was the division of responsibility? Were humans only responsible as helpmeets of God. Or was God in the position of a guide to the perplexed? Or did God have a greater responsibility in providing leadership. But if God knew the way, in what sense did the followers have any responsibility?

In Rabbi Splansky’s sermon on the previous evening, she had offered a midrash on the debate between Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. Not the one over whether the earth or the heavens were primary in the order of creation. (One answer: heaven is first in the normative world; earth is first in the descriptive or scientific world.) The biggest moral question of all was over whether it was worth it at all to have created humankind. The school of Shammai said that, “It is better for man not to have been created than to have been created.” The school of Hillel said, “It is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.” After first getting over my confusion in thinking the question about how I would vote in the current Canadian election, when I thought about whether I think  it would have been preferable for humans not to have been created as the debaters concluded after two-and-a-half years of debate, I, at first flippantly, decided that asking one to choose between a critical and depressed view of the creation of humans and one with an agreement with God that the creation was not just good, but very good, I wanted initially to side with God and take Shammai to task for conflicting with God on this conclusion and with Hillel for being weak in defending the counter position. Except that I am of the school that finds that God, most of the time, has bad judgement. So I should agree with Shammai.

I don’t and I did not. For I found the question a foolish one. Speculation about possible worlds belongs to fiction, belongs to the imagination. However, in ethics the goal is to use facts and science in combination with norms and guides of responsibility to make specific choices. It is not to pronounce on the character of human creation in general. That is a question we not only cannot answer, but we should not try to answer unless we are writing fiction. God’s basic propensity is revealed in verse 1. He wants to make moral pronouncements first, about the natural world, and then about the world as a whole. But if creativity is a process, if it is about developing a sense of care and responsibility, then premature moral pronouncements are distinctly unhelpful if not actually bad and harmful. In the Netflix series, “The Happy Valley,” the leading character, the policewoman, tells her junior officer: the worst mistake in policing is to make moral judgements before you have collected the clues and analyzed the case. Humans made in the image of God have this propensity, to generalize when generalization is neither demanded nor required, to draw conclusions prematurely, to evaluate and offer opinions that are self-referential, revealing more about oneself than about the matter-at-hand. In reality, it is one of the most basic acts of ignorance and lack of proper discernment. And God is the first to demonstrate it.

All this is but a prolegomena.

Next Comment: Verse 2

Defilement and Blasphemy Parsha Emor: Leviticus 21: 1-24:23. 26.04.13

Defilement and Blasphemy Parsha Emor: Leviticus 21: 1-24:23. 26.04.13
by
Howard Adelman
Emor means speech. Some of the specific laws applying to the Koanim, the priests, are about protecting those priests from defilement. Marrying someone who is not a virgin is defilement for a high priest. Marrying a divorcee is defilement for any priest. But since the punishment simply bans the priest from entering the holy of holies, and since the Temple has been destroyed and there is no holy of holies, one might be led to believe that a Cohen or a Katz suffers no real consequences from such harsh bans if those bans are broken. But what if the rabbis say the laws still do apply to the Koanim and it does not matter if the Temple no longer exists, then the rabbis will simply refuse to marry a Cohen or a Katz if he wants to marry a divorcee.
What about a daughter of a priest? After all, these priests were not celibates. “If a kohen’s daughter becomes desecrated through adultery she desecrates her father; she shall be burned in fire.” (21:9) A little harsh, I would suggest. Further, it is quite inequitable. The old priest just cannot participate in the sacraments. The young teenage girl gets burned to death.
The women are not the only ones who are discriminated against, and quite ruthlessly. So are the defective ones. It is one thing to say the people with puss running out of their wounds or who were in contact with dead bodies and had not washed themselves, should not come near the place of sacrifice, but what about those with deformities, including a broken arm? What about those with long eyebrows (21:20); they are defined as “deformed”.
Squeezed between defilements of Koanim and laws about blasphemy come the list of the Holy Days, including the 49-day counting of the Omer, a period in which we are now in the midst of, which begins on Passover and culminates in the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day. But then comes the laws against not only murder and injury of one’s fellow man (an eye for an eye), or for destruction of property, but for blasphemy. The portion named “speech” bans free speech.“And one who blasphemously pronounces the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death; the entire community shall stone him; convert and resident alike if he pronounces the [Divine] Name, he shall be put to death.”(24:16) The law is carried out. “And Moses told [all this] to the children of Israel. So they took the blasphemer outside the camp and stoned him, and the children of Israel did just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (24:23)
Thomas Aquinas wrote that blasphemy was a worse sin than murder since the action targeted God, but the action was miniscule compared to murder given the consequences of murder, whereas words could not hurt God. Thus, in spite of the unequivocal wording of the text, there is a way out; since no one was hurt, and since blasphemy is a sin only against God, then one can leave the punishment up to God. In the West, anti-blaspheny laws are no longer enforced. However, many individuals and states do not leave enforcement up to God. The vast majority of Islamic countries not only have laws forbidding blasphemy, but they enforce them. As in the case of Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses, an imam can issue a fatwa condemning a person for blasphemy.
So what do we make of a section on speech that inhibits and even prohibits free speech. Last night we watched Jon Stewart and his guest, the Jon Stewart of Egypt, Bassem Youssef. Youssef Has been arrested in Cairo and questioned for hours about insulting both President Morsi and Islam. Subsequently, Egyptian authorities threatened to revoke the license of the station that airs Youssef’s program, though they evidently laughed uproariously when Youssef mocked Mubarak. Stewart subsequently mocked Morsi himself in a hilarious episode that I never saw. There were two subsequent official responses, one from the United States embassy in Egypt. The embassy had tweeted the Stewart monologue and, then deleted the tweet first totally and then restored it but without the Stewart monologue presumably as a result of pressure from the Egyptian government on the American government. “Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s office called the tweet ‘inappropriate’ and unbecoming of a diplomatic mission, while the State Department said the unusual affair was the result of ‘glitches’ in the embassy’s social media policies that are now being corrected.”
If you think the whole affair was not getting funnier by the moment, The American Cairo Embassy “came to the conclusion that the decision to tweet it in the first place didn’t accord with post management of the site. Next, the Egyptian government charged Jon Stewart with defamation and gave him 30 days to surrender to the Egyptian authorities. If he did not surrender, they would try him in absentia and then apply to have him extradited.
.”This conspiracy to defame the Egyptian government violates our laws and will be prosecuted fully. Mr. Stewart may think he’s funny. But in reality he is destroying the moral fiber of Egypt with his numerous references to penises and openly flamboyant homosexuals like Larry Craig, Marcus Bachmann, and Lindsey Graham.” As the Egyptian government stated, there is nothing more important than defending Egypt’s honor against the United States’ most prominent political comedian.
If such religious text portions did not have such drastic consequences for some directly affected, we should all applaud them as excellent sources of humour.

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34.05.05.13

Survival and Slavery: Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1-27:34 05.05.13

by

Howard Adelman

It is Sunday, May 5th. This parsha should have been sent out on Friday, May 3rd. However, Friday was a gorgeous day in Toronto with the sky clear and temperatures in the twenties centigrade. When I failed to complete the blog in the early morning, I was doomed. For after a long winter, there was so much clean up work to do outside. The day was so beautiful, that it was six o’clock and I had not even noticed the time fly. Such are the seductions of sun and sky and warmth, especially after the deprivations of a long and harsh winter. Maybe the experience is relevant to today’s subject matter – giving in to the seductions of slavery to the Ba’al Hadad, the lord or master in heaven who rules over the assembly of all the other natural deities or spirits. Today, Sunday, has been as beautiful a day as Friday and Ba’al no less enticing.

This section of Leviticus that was read yesterday in synagogue is largely about the jubilee year, the second sabbatical year after seven, that is, every 50 years. A number of principles of business ethics are set forth, largely a tribal rather than a universal ethic as when 24:14 advises: “when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another.” It even has a strange formula on the price you should pay for a crop depending on the length of time between jubilee years. “The more [the remaining] years, you shall increase its purchase [price], and the fewer the [remaining] years, you shall decrease its purchase [price], because he is selling you a number of crops.” (24:16) Moral norms and not the invisible hand of the market were major factors in determining prices.

Beyond these admonitions to be fair, never wrong a fellow Jew and consideration for the destitute, what I find most interesting are the commandments concerning slavery in chapter 25. There are four kinds of slaves:
a) Jewish slaves of Jews;
b) Jewish slaves of non-Jews;
c) non-Jewish slaves of Jews;
d) non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews.
There are no prescriptions for the fourth category, reinforcing the principle that these ethical norms are tribal or national rather than universal.

Further, how you handle each of the first three categories reinforces this perspective. Jewish slaves of Jews have to be freed by the Jubilee year – or, according to Deuteronomy, in a sabbatical year. During the period of ownership, Jewish slaves cannot be worked with rigour. (25:46) Thirdly, there is no provision for making the children of Jewish slaves your slaves or bequeathing Jewish slaves as part of your inheritance to your children. In contrast, chapter 25 reads:
44. Your male slave or female slave whom you may have from the nations that are around you, from them you may acquire a male slave or a female slave.
45. And also from the children of the residents that live among you, from them you may acquire [slaves] and from their family that is with you whom they begot in your land, and they shall become your inheritance.
46. You shall hold onto them as an inheritance for your children after you, as acquired property, and may thus have them serve you forever. But as for your brethren, the children of Israel, a man shall not work his brother with rigor.

Jews have a duty to redeem other Jews from slavery to non-Jews. They have no such obligations to non-Jewish slaves of non-Jews. Further, their own non-Jewish slaves are an inheritance for their children. Jewish slaves have to be freed. The children of non-Jewish slaves become your indentured servants. These strictures vary between Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and are quite different than the provisions of the Talmud which offers universal norms governing the treatment of any slave. But this is not a Talmudic but a Torah commentary, and only very incidentally a comparative Torah study.

How do slaves become slaves? They are captured in war. Or they are indigent and enter into slavery so they will not die. Or they enter into slavery to satisfy a debt. Slavery is a product of economic or physical coercion. Bondage to another is slavery. On the other hand, bondage to the Lord and God of the Israelites is chosen by a free person, by someone who stands upright and was freed by the Lord their God from slavery to a human master in Egypt. But is the contrast between the two forms of bondage so clear?

Certainly, if the Israelites obey God, keep shabat, follow His commandments, do not worship idols and make God a centre of their lives, they will be rewarded with prosperous, secure and healthy lives with productive farms and freed from the scourge of their enemies. But, as chapter 26 makes abundantly clear, if the Israelites fail to let God live in their midst and if they break His commandments, then they will suffer from all manner of physical and psychological diseases, from tuberculosis to depression. Their enemies will smite them, wild animals will attack them, their livestock will die and their land will yield no crops. Buildings will collapse around them, the cities laid waste and the Israelites will be scattered among the nations. They will live in paranoid fear frightened even by the shaking of a leaf. If that were not enough, they will become cannibals and devour their own children.

It is a choice without an option. Israelites can either live as free men with secure and prosperous lives in bondage to their Lord or be destroyed as a nation and as healthy individuals. Slavery to another offers no positive inducements except survival. Bondage to the Lord freely undertaken offers enormous benefits. Not making that choice offers consequences far more dire than simply being enslaved by another human being.

It is important to link the bondage to the Lord in contrast to the bondage to other human beings to make clear that they are both forms of bondage, but with radically different outcomes. Further, the connection is important to discard all the Torah apologetics that, in the desire to portray Judaism as enlightened, want to rationalize slavery either as a concession to surrounding society until the ideal of emancipation could be realized while trying to be humane and limiting its injustices, or as a form of witnessing to a higher standard of ethical practice while engaged in slavery. The rationalizations are just so much hogwash. Jewish provisions for slavery may have been doctrinally much more moderate, but in behavioural terms, the treatment offered was just one variation among a wide spectrum of practices without any evidence that they offered the most enlightened form of servitude. Certainly Jews treated non-Jewish slaves somewhat differently for they were partially converted and, if freed by various routes, they could join the Jewish community as full citizens. Further, slaves could marry their masters. Ancient slavery, whether of Jews or non-Jews, was not based on a somatic racist presumption.

There were, nevertheless, other principles and conceptions that undermined the possibility of manumission than a somatic racist conception. Though Plato also did not have a racist view, and though slavery was a side consideration in his concerns, nevertheless, Plato depicted slavery as an intellectual deficiency. Slaves, in Gregory Vlastos’ depiction of Plato’s views, suffered from a deficiency of logos. A slave could comprehend and understand but only had doxa. Therefore, it was useless to reason with a slave. You merely issued orders and did not “spoil” them by admonitions or explanations. They were to be motivated by rewards and punishments, fair ones in each case, but through external pressures rather the any internal intellectual cultivation or intercourse.

This is not the view in Leviticus. Slaves from the surrounding tribes of Canaanites, even though treated differently than Jewish slaves, were regarded as fully human. They were not defined as inferior forms of being. Their situations, not their character as humans, differed. Aristotle, however he differed with Plato, and however more articulate his view of slaves, had a similar doctrine. In Book I, chapters ii-vii of his Politics and in Book VII of Nichomachean Ethics, slaves are depicted as slaves by nature fit only to be ruled and not rule. As men are to animals, so Greeks are towards Barbarians, those fit to rule and those fit to be ruled. Aristotle offered a more encompassing doctrine of slavery than simply a rule of treatment for those found to be slaves. The natural character of slaves determines their condition and not just their treatment. So obtaining a slave through war or economic destitution of the slave is not what provides any entitlement to own a slave. Rather, the relationship of the master to the slave is blamed on the nature of the slave.

In the second century BC, Cato the Elder offered a manual for how Romans should treat their slaves who probably constituted 30% of the population, a ratio akin to that of the upper south, such as the Virginias and the Carolinas, at the time of the American Civil War. They were to be given adequate provisions and clothing and drink to sustain life but not enough to support a family or to facilitate their reproduction, a situation very different from that described in Leviticus. On the other hand, Seneca, the Stoic, offered a perspective more akin to that of the ancient Israelites but even more “enlightened”. He not only considered slaves and free Romans to be equally human, but entitled to equal treatment. For all men, including Romans, were slaves. In Letter 47 to Lucilius, he wrote: “I am glad to learn…that you live on friendly terms with your slaves. This befits a sensible and well-educated man like yourself. ‘They are slaves,’ people declare. Nay, rather they are men. ‘Slaves!’ No, comrades. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are unpretentious friends. ‘Slaves!’ No, they are our fellow-slaves, if one reflects that Fortune has equal rights over slaves and free men alike. (my italics) That is why I smile at those who think it degrading for a man to dine with his slave.”
If we compare the position of Jews as slaves in Egypt to the position of Canaanite slaves in the Jewish community to the treatment by Jews of slaves in different parts of the modern world, we will perhaps understand the laws and ethical norms governing the ancient Israelites in a somewhat clearer light. For example, whereas slavery was very marginal to the economic life of American northerners in the nineteenth century who lived in a very racist society, it was not marginal to the Israelites but an integral part of their society.

In the Torah, 600,000 male heads of households purportedly conquered Canaan. For many, that figure seems implausible given that so many died of the plague before reaching the promised land and also contradicts other data, such as the actual census of first born and the number of men fit to do battle – about 40,000 according to Joshua (4:13). According to some commentators, the figure was only 600,000 if you count souls and not living men and include all the ancestors counting back to Abraham. The number of living returnees, including women and children, was likely about 120,000 rather than several million. On the other hand, if 600,000 represents all the living Israelites at the time of Exodus and, approximately the same number when they enter Canaan, then there were about 75,000 who could fight in battle but still not 600,000.

Whatever the absolute number, the Israelites outnumbered each of the Canaanite tribes including the Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites who, only when allied together, were larger than the numbers of Israelites. (Deuteronomy 7:1) The Israelites were in the same position as the Egyptians at the time of Exodus. Just as the tribes of Israel demographically threatened the Egyptians, the population indigenous to Canaan at the time the Israelites returned to the land threatened the population of Israelites, a situation not too dissimilar to the situation in Israel/Palestine/Jordan today.

If we compare the situation of the ratio of whites to black slaves in the early nineteenth century, the only equivalent to the situation of the Israelites, who can barely hold their own in numbers to the surrounding population, is the situation in the deep southern United States on the eve of the Civil War where the ratio of whites to blacks was about 56% to 44%. In the upper south, Blacks made up about 24% of the population while in the rest of the United States, Blacks were a relatively small minority. In contrast, in most of the Caribbean, Blacks constituted a vast majority. In Brazil, Blacks were a minority and did not threaten the white domination of the country.

Though there was a demographic battle for supremacy after the return of the Israelites to Canaan, akin to the demographic battle in the southern United States, the battle was exacerbated by the strict requirements of what was needed to keep the Israelites versus the southern whites united. In the latter case, it was race and the one drop rule. If you were part Black genetically, you were fully Black socially. The Whites only managed to keep their superior standing by huge efforts of oppression to keep family formation among Blacks very limited. In ancient Israel, the Israelites also cohabited with the local Canaanites and often took Canaanite wives. But the differences were not racial and Canaanites could become Israelites and Israelites intermarried and became Canaanites. Benjamites seemed to be the exception for they were not only the most formidable fighting force among the twelve tribes, but also the most inhospitable and insular tribe wary of intermarriage not only with Canaanites but even with members of the other Hebrew tribes until they were decimated in the civil war against the rest of the Israelites and forced to take non-Israelite wives.

Recall that Judges 3.5-3.7 reads:
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 6 They took the Canaanites’ daughters as wives and gave their daughters to the Canaanites; they worshiped their gods as well. 7 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight. They forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs.

Integration and assimilation are not values held to be worthy. Quite the reverse, they are the dangers. In modern Israel, the danger of intermarriage with the competing population of Palestinians is minimized by ideological politics and religious affiliation rather than by race. Further, the only demographic group that exceeds the rate of reproduction of the Palestinians is that group which is most inhospitable to integration and intermarriage – the ultra-orthodox.

So if you do not decimate the surrounding population and do not engage in ethnic cleansing, and if you do not choose to oppress them in other ways by limiting their ability to procreate, then that surrounding population will pose a demographic danger, especially if your group is the superior and more powerful group but allows extensive intermarriage, then your inherited group faces an existential danger. The standard laws of sociological behaviour will come into play as outward intermarriage by the downwardly mobile will exceed in-migration by the upwardly mobile. More and more members of your group will either adhere to the cultural practices of the competing group or, at the very least, lose the strength of the adherence to their own precepts which provided unity and strength for the dominant group. It is the law of revenge of the bondsmen against their masters. The more you succeed in mastering the norms of the dominant culture, the more you endanger the particularist norms of your sub-culture.

What are the choices? You can try to remain insular and ill-disposed to even co-habiting with those less rigid in their methods of group survival. You can focus on both reproduction and physical strength, which is what the orthodox in Israel have done and what the Haredim are about to do now that they will be forced to serve in both the army and the economic work force. They will surrender to the force of numbers but through numbers and strict enforcement of group norms, will seek to turn the tables on their in-group masters.

Why will the secular and modern lose out? After all, with their military prowess and with the amazing reputation as the start-up nation par excellence, Israel is now an economic and technological as well as military powerhouse, even further ahead in the new knowledge economy because of the high proportion of investment in human capital. As a result of the Israeli success combined with the success of those in the diaspora, even Greek socialists now regard Israel as a model according to Anna Diamentopolou, the Greek Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs.

Nevertheless, these successful secular Israelis and the majority of Jews in the diaspora will lose out, not as individuals, but as a culture and society. Their minority sub-culture will become a minor variation is a spectrum of the modern world. Jews and Israelis will have become a nation like every other nation. When Israel finally makes peace with all their neighbours and are freed of any crushing physical danger, the threat from without will become even stronger because of the attractions of the enlightenment values of the dominant imperial culture and the gradual surrender of the norms that provide their insularity as a group. If they choose to treat those with whom they intermarry in an “enlightened” way, by inviting them in to join the group instead of strict prohibitions against, then, simply statistically, the norms ensuring group coherence and, thereby, survival will grow weaker.

The diaspora has already lost the linguistic mode of group survival with the loss of Yiddish or Ladino and without replacing it with Hebrew as the group’s subculture’s language. Israelis in the next generation will continue to keep Hebrew as the language of their sub-culture and as an in-group language as they increasingly use English as the language of the dominant culture and of the global economy, especially as they pursue success in that dominant culture. Of course, Israel will be led by the educated elites, but also by the street through the message of music which can even penetrate the Satmar sect as the Israeli movie, God’s Neighbours illustrates. Just as the dominant economic market place has an invisible hand, the cunning of reason will operate as a pincer movement from both above and below to threaten group survival and instil a bifurcation of values in both the educated elites and in the street culture of even those who take pride in their survival skills as a tribe.

What are the real choices? If the majority of the elite, first in the diaspora and then in Israel, choose success as the cost of spiritual self-exile and gradual absorption into the dominant imperial high culture, then the sub-culture dies even if it retains a patina of difference. If those groups with the highest rate of reproduction are forced into a world that esteems physical prowess as its culture is subverted through the music of the streets, then the sub-culture will survive but will eventually go to war with the dominant indigenous imperial culture and that civil war will make the war with the Palestinians seem like a piece of cake. For Civil Wars are the most cruel and ruthless.

This jeremiad as humankind is in the process of making its next greatest advance that inherently must entail the rejection of tradition and particularism, and that especially threatens the Jews as a sub-culture who sustained their identity by becoming a community of memory while also mastering the dominant culture, need not take place. But until the Jews in the diaspora and Israelis learn to become one at the same time as they develop a new form of dualism, a schizophrenia that allows them to be both moderns and a community of memory at one and the same time, neither Jews not Israelis will survive as a sub-culture. But whatever the fearsome prognostications facing Israelis, they will survive longer as a substantive sub-culture than the enlightened Jews of the diaspora.

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33)

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33) 12.04.13

by

Howard Adelman

I have been dreading writing about this week’s parashat. The length is intimidating. The discussion of pus and menstrual blood, bodily emissions and scaly skin, boils and rashes, swellings and hair follicles, skin discoloration and bleaching, is far from aesthetic. My kids when they were young would say, "How gross!" After a year in Mount Sinai Hospital, I left medical school and cannot count the number of lives I saved by not practicing medicine. Why return to read what I was so inept at – differential diagnosis? Besides, I truly did faint a number of times at the sight of blood. My wife has also been nagging me to go see a doctor about the raised white small eruption on my temple half way between my eyelid and my hair line. Leviticus 13:4 reads: "if the spot is white in the skin of his body and appears no deeper than the skin, and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days." I do not want to be shut up for seven days.

The section deals with purity, such as purification after childbirth because of the evident impurity of the parturient woman. But today’s National Post has a story about taking the parturient after a mother gives birth, making it into pills and giving those pills back to the mother for her physical and mental health. It makes this Torah section seem entirely sane! The Torah section also deals with identifying and treating leprosy (or perhaps some other skin disease caused by God), cleaning or, in the last resort, tearing down houses with mould, isolating persons afflicted with certain types of bodily discharges, particularly from their sexual orifices.

Perhaps the passages on bodily purity and impurity are really metaphorical. The section may really be about spiritual impurity that expresses itself in a physical form. In the midrash, מְּצֹרָע, metzora(leprous) is read as a contraction for motzi shem ra, gossiping about and slandering another. And exiling someone from the community can be interpreted as a blessing, as forcing someone to get a rest and go on a retreat. After all, sometimes people suffering a spiritual breakdown need to get away.

Or perhaps the parasha is about being a social outcast and the role of re-integrating the alienated back into the community. In the current issue of The New Yorker, the feminist writer, Susan Faludi, wrote an essay in memoriam about the modern radical feminist Shulamith Firestone called "Death of a Revolutionary", a pioneer in the second wave of feminism who kept being kicked out of every radical feminist organization she initiated. She was the second child and oldest daughter of a brood of six in a mixed family of an Orthodox mother, from a long line of rabbis, who was a Holocaust survivor, and an assimilated Brooklyn father who eventually became orthodox and adopted the zealotry of the converted. Shulie’s father, Sol, eventually banished Shulie from the family home when she was seventeen. Then the theme becomes how to welcome an outcast back into a community, any community, but especially the community of feminists. It never worked. Somehow the radical feminists as well as the Orthodox reborn Jew never grasped the process of reintegration. Shulie ended up living as a recluse and died alone. Perhaps the spiritual disease discussed in Leviticus was a mental one like schizophrenia for which established rituals of inclusion are critical to forestalling the advance of the disease.

Or the passages could even provide a kind of structuralist moral ordering à la Claude Lévi-Strauss and offer a portal into the core of the moral code of the ancient Hebrews. What other rationale could there be for writing that a woman who gives birth to a male child is unclean for seven days, but a mother of a newborn female child is unclean for fourteen days; in the case of a male child, the mother must remain "in the blood of her purity" for thirty-three days, but sixty-six for a female child.

Jacob Neusner in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism: The Haskell Lectures 1972-73 offers a reply to Mary Douglas’ (1968) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo using the same approach. For Douglas, every culture naturalises a certain view of the human body to make it carry social meanings. Neusner agreed that purification rites are really about separating one cult from another, only Neusner is much more sympathetic to the Pharisaic cult of purity than Douglas. He writes, "purity and impurity are cultic matters; second, they may serve as metaphors for moral and religious behaviour, primarily in regard to matters of sex, idolatry, and unethical action. Purity furthermore closely relates to holiness. The land is holy, therefore must be kept clean. It may be profaned by becoming unclean. The sources of uncleanliness are varied and hardly cultic: certain animals, the woman after childbirth, skin ailments, mildew in a house, bodily discharges, especially the menses and seminal flux, sexual misdeeds, and the corpse…things which evidently seemed loathsome." For Neusner, purity "serves as an important mode of differentiation and definition for the sects known to us in the first century B.C. and A.D., and, second, provides for Philo and the later rabbis an important set of laws for allegorical interpretation and a set of ethical homilies." (Ch. 4, 108)

However, when I read the text itself on tzarat, translated or mistranslated as leprosy depending on your interpretive bent, that can attack our bodies, infect our clothes or even get into the walls of our homes like a poisonous mould and we are told to burn those clothes and even tear down those walls, and when after our body is physically cleaned, we must be subjected to a ritual involving two birds, spring water in an earthen vessel, a piece of cedar wood, a scarlet thread and a bundle of hyssop, I am convinced the Koanim were witch doctors or shamans. If so, what is to be learned from reading rules about superstitious ancient medical practices? It would be no different than reading about putting leeches on someone’s body for treatment of a number of afflictions?

Certainly Jesus seemed to challenge these instructions about isolating the leper. Jesus bent down and kissed their feet. (I fully support the humane treatment of lepers and not making them outcasts, but you will not catch me kissing a leper’s feet. I am not humble enough to be a Christian.) Jesus purportedly made sinners holy and the sick whole and challenged the policies of exile. But I no more believe in faith healing than in using rituals to deal with physical infirmities.

But then treating the passages as being about physical diseases does not make sense since there were a myriad of varied physical infirmities that afflicted people in the ancient world. Why pick out this particular small sub-set? Surely the section must be metaphorical and really offer a lesson in ethics rather than good ancient medical practice. Further, why would someone who is totally covered with tzarat be pronounced clean unless the passage were really about mixing what should be unmixable. It is a lesson about mixing and impurity.

By why should mixing be an impurity? Yesterday I wrote about the 1937 Peel Commission Report. It adopted the Nansen belief that the alleged greatest source of violence was the mixing of populations. The world community in the first half of the twentieth century gave its blessing to internationally endorsed and enforced ethnic cleansing – the unmixing of populations – as in the forced exchange of Greek and Turkish minorities after WWI. Surely, at least in some cases, the obsession with purity is the real problem, not mixing.

Then again, when we read the passages about seminal discharges from the penis that are clearly neither urine nor semen from a wet dream, but a cloudy white discharge, one suspects the Torah is discussing gonorrhoea. The man infected is a zav. The zav is in a state of ritual impurity as long as the discharge continues plus seven days after it has stopped. Since we now know that it takes five days without a discharge to be sure that an individual is cured of gonorrhoea, surely this section is about a specific sexually transmitted disease. But then why are some other clear and obvious symptoms not mentioned – dysuria (a burning sensation when pissing), nocturia (excessive need to urinate at night), rashes in the groin or on the genitals, and swollen lymph glands in the area? And why is anything touched by a zav’s bodily fluids unclean or tameh? Is that simply because the ancient Hebrews were ignorant about how gonorrhoea is transmitted? And why is a menstruant woman, a niddah, or a zavah, a woman who has a discharge of blood other than her menstrual period,connected with gonorrhoea?

Or does this all have something to do with the mystical tradition whereby Adam and Eve when they were pure and innocent and naked were clothed only in light, ‘or‘ spelled with an aleph, while after they got to know one another in the biblical sense, they were clothed in bare skin, ‘or‘ spelled with an ayin and knew they were naked? Is purity just spiritual, a state of being clothed in light, ‘or‘ spelled with an aleph.

My own conviction is that this section was originally about physical conditions regarded as unclean or diseases – skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at). A person affected by skin disease is referred to as a metzora (ְמְּצֹרָעְ). The haftorah seems to be clearly about lepers. Miriam became "leprous" (מְצֹרַעַת, m’tzora’at) in Numbers 12:1 for being critical of Moses because he married a Cushite, though Philo said it was a result of depravity. Moses regarded tzara’at as a special disease, an affliction brought on by failure to obey God (Deuteronomy 24:8-9). As society evolved and many of these conditions were no longer perceived to be diseases or abnormal states, the medical explanations were put away to be replaced by metaphorical or mystical ones and the rituals raised up, transformed and saved at a higher plane as conditions connected with impurity. The rituals for its treatment were the same as making the priests sacred by putting blood of a ram on the lobe of the right ear, the right thumb and big toe (Exodus 29:20 and Leviticus 8:23-24) as in cleansing a person of this disease (Leviticus 14:14; 14:17; 14:25; 14:28).

If the passages are about physical diseases, why keep the rituals when the medicine develops and such designations are irrelevant? One argument is that the issue is not the disease, but the sin that brings it on. For example, in the case of Miriam, the issue was not her criticism let alone her depravity, but her engaging in gossip that amounted to slander. It was left to the Talmud, the Gemara and various Midrashim to clarify which types of sins brought these forms of physical retribution by God. The rabbis competed to establish a comprehensive list. For example, Rabbi Judah the Levite, son of Rabbi Shalom, using textual sources, argued that that the skin disease arose from the following sins: 1) cursing God; 2) immorality; 3) murder; 4) slander; 5) haughtiness (for others this is specified as assuming a false identity as in the movie Catch Me If You Can); 6) encroaching on another’s property (for others this was just stealing or misusing public property for your own purposes); 7) profanation; 8) idolatry; 9) slander and/or an evil eye; and added three other sins not included in many other lists – 10) habitually lying; 11) theft; and 12) swearing falsely. The issue of slander is a most interesting one for it suggests that the cleanliness that must come out of your mouth is as important as whether the food you ingest is kosher.

So I am left baffled. And I have nothing of interpretive value to add. Perhaps that is the real lesson – be humble when you try to interpret, especially if you know as little as I do.

Tazria.Metzora.Leviticus.12.1.15.33.12.04.13.doc