A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Torah Portion: Korach - Past and Present, No Future.

I have to get off of this cycle of writing about last week's parshah. But not yet. I put an enormous amount of time into reading up on the parshah and various interpretations of its meaning. By the time I finish with that, I've no time to write. I'll find a new way, but in the mean time, some brief thoughts on Parshat Korach.

This torah portion raises some troubling issues for us democracy-loving, everyone-has-a-right-to-their-opinion softies. Here's the Parshah in short form:

Korach: We're all holy - why do you, Moses and Aaron, have special status?
God: I'm going to destroy that guy.
[destroys Korach and his followers]
Israelites: Oh. My. God.

Rabbinic Judaism was very pluralistic. It is a truism to observe that the very fabric of the Talmud is multiplicity of opinions and disagreements which are often left unresolved. Yet, there was a high degree of uniformity and pressure to conform around the margins. That is, if you accepted the basic tenets of the rabbinic game you were entitled to be part of the diversity of opinions within the game.

I reject the notion that other rabbinic authorities' interpretations of law must guide my Jewish life in particular cases. Yes, that makes me a Reform Jew, but there is a vast multitude of Jews from across the denominational lines (so, an erev rav for those into rabbi jokes) that lives precisely the way I do - whether or not people will publicly acknowledge it.

So, what do I do with a Torah portion that clearly demonizes this Korach who challenges Moses' power and Aaron's authority? Interestingly, the Torah goes out of its way to put a credible argument in Korach's mouth. Korach tells Moses
The entire community, all of them are holy [yes, the grammatical mismatch is in the original], and God is among them - why do you hold yourselves over the community of God? (Numbers 16:3) [*see note at bottom of essay]
Anyway, Korach seems to have a good point. As Ibn Ezra points out, they were all at Sinai - aren't they holy? Why do they need an intercessor?

The tradition brings two different verses to compare to Korach's claim that all of them are holy. One is Exodus 19:6, in which God refers to Israel as A kingdom of priests and a holy [kadosh] nation. The Katav Sofer notes that in this appelation the word holy is singular - because it refers to the unity that is achieved in true holiness; Korach, on the other hand says that all of them are holy [kedoshim], using the plural, suggesting that the holiness of each individual is a solitary - and selfish - pursuit.

The second verse is actually a command. In Leviticus 19 God commands You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy. Holiness, God reminds us here, is not a birthright, but an orientation toward the future. You must commit yourself to becoming holy. Korach, however, claims that everyone is already holy - that is, they have no work to do. Korach deems the present moment, the status quo, as 'good enough.'

Seen in this light, Korach is not a reformer at all, but a reactionary who does not want to support the extant power structure because it is headed somewhere. He thinks things are just fine, and that holiness is not found by striving spiritually, a movement physically represented by the journey through the desert to Eretz Yisrael but is instead right here. It is available now, without any work. Even worse, actually, he and his followers think that the real goal is to move backwards, to when life was easy. They said to Moses,

Is it insignificant that you have brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert! And you rule over us? You have not brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.... (Numbers 16:13-14)

Their moral laziness has turned the moral universe on its head. For them, Egypt is the land flowing with milk and honey. Their goal is to return to a past of spiritual death and physical servitude. Read in this way, Korach is not a revolutionary trying to overturn the status quo. Quite the opposite - he is a self-interested reactionary seeking to halt the moral and spiritual progress of his people.

There are many such reactionaries today - inside and outside of the Jewish world. For such reactionaries, the status quo is sanctified by virtue of its existence. All of them are holy. Such people think that God has blessed the material arrangements of society as they are, and requires no change.

Alternatively, they may seek to restore what they see as the lost moral order of the past. The mythical past that they construct may overlook the cruelty and brutality of the old order, but they will paint it as a paradise - a land flowing with milk and honey.

The alternative is to see holiness as something that is in front of us. That we can do better, we can create a moral order out of the failings of the present.

[*In terms of the discussion about rabbinic authority, it's interesting that Onkelos, the translator of the Torah into Aramaic, translates hold yourselves over as mit-rav-r'vin, the root of which is rav meaning great, but also meaning master or teacher - that is, rabbi.]

Monday, June 16, 2008

Torah Portion B'Ha'alotcha - Watch Out!

Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago was likely a signal of things to come – both Senators Obama and McCain will need to have themselves baptized in the unholy waters of the American Electorate’s stamp of religious approval in order to be able to sit in the Oval Office. McCain will genuflect before religious conservatives (i.e. evangelicals) to show that he is holy enough for their vote, and no doubt Obama’s speech today was one of several to come reminding us that, in spite of his middle name, he is part of Christendom.

Some have argued that we are witnessing the waning of power of the “religious” right in American public life. If this is so, it is far more convincing proof of the existence of God than is the banana (see the video below if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

One of the consequences of the (now loosened) evangelical choke hold on the throat of democracy has been the electoral ritual of otherwise dignified public servants abjectly demonstrating the strength of their faith before delighted fundamentalist king-makers. Forgive them, Father, they [knew] not what they [did]. Oops, wrong religious tradition.

Perhaps in response to this sorry situation, a counter trend has emerged over the last generation as Americans been turning inward for religious meaning. Inside and outside of established religious movements, seekers have looked to traditional and untraditional rituals and belief systems fundamentally rooted in the private sphere: the individual, closed-off, personal world of spirituality. Here, meaning is not determined or even mediated by a community or tradition. Just the seeker, seeking alone, free to pursue the pleasures of the search.

Good for the Jews?

I’ve been doing some reading that brushes up against this which-way-did-he-go-boss back and forth. In Midrash Rabbah on this week's portion, God is compared to the white part of the eye – which does not see - and we are compared to the black – which does. The analogy works on the simple level because God is compared to fire, which burns brightly (white), and we, being material and inclined to all kinds of hijinx, are impure and so cannot achieve this pure whiteness. Beyond this, though, the analogy suggests that God is blind without humanity – God has no capacity, according to this midrashic analogy, to see into the material world without us, to see what needs to be done, perhaps, and to manipulate that world with our good deeds and create some kind of tikkun (correction).

This is not the Third Eye of some traditions – a perception of higher consciousness, an intuitive capacity to perceive a world of inner meaning. This is an outward looking, real, actual eye – the kind that we cut into little pieces in high school. An eye that sees, enabling the perceiver to react to and make judgments about the environment within which he or she moves. Here’s the fancy part of the midrash. The perceiver is not us – we are the iris. The perceiver is the Perceiver, who relies on the pupil of humanity to see.

In fact, though, the Perceiver – this is getting weird – relies on humanity as a Pupil, i.e. a student. The iris, which appears black, is not actually black. It appears so because the light that it lets in is absorbed by the inner part of the eye. Our darkness, it turns out, is directly related to our capacity to correctly transmit visual information. That is, our placement in the material world, and therefore our imperfection, is fundamental to our capacity to serve as part of the divine mechanism to bring goodness into the world. Without our imperfections, we would not be placed here, in this world, and God would be left blind.

All of this is to say that our role is fundamentally social. While we look inward for self-understanding and are of course encouraged to contemplate the meaning of our private reality, our essential task is to look outward, into the world. Our role is one of responsibility, which implies an engagement with the social world.

How do we avoid becoming arrogant Theocrats? That’s our challenge, and mine to write about….later.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Incontrovertible Proof that the Theory of Evolution is False

As a person who does not take the Torah literally, I was crushed with shame and was forced to concede to the unfairly criticized "fundamentalist" argument for creation after watching this video. Not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hope I Die Before I Get Old

I just came across an article about the possibility that we may, within this century, develop technology that will enable human beings to live more than one thousand years. That sounds miserable to me, but it would lead to an annual one year, instead of two weeks, of vacation for working Americans. Can that be? Someone check my math. Bathroom breaks of over an hour would be considered appropriate. The mind boggles.

The Torah repeatedly promises that our days will be lengthened if we hold up our end of the brit, the covenant. A random example is Proverbs 3:1-2:

My child, do not forget my Torah, and guard My commandments with your heart. For they will give you length of days, years of life and peace.

There are plenty of other examples. It is clear from the context of this and other passages offering material benefits in exchange for adherence to the divine covenant that these benefits are not to be pursued as ends in themselves. One should not think to oneself, “I want to live to see Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 2050 – I’d better start keeping kosher.” Instead, our adherence to God’s law is a good in and of itself – the promises of material benefit, whether bountiful crops or long life, come to us as a happy by-product of our maintenance of the proper relationship with God. It also is an affirmation of God’s reality in the world – the rightness of the covenant is so absolute that the created world affirms it. Finally these rewards are a statement about the essential unity of the Divine and physical worlds. God’s creation is imbued with a sense of the covenantal reality that must be competed by human beings. Our relationship with God, in other words, is not intended to hinge on its separation from the limited, physical world – it is expressed through it.

All well and good, but the text clearly says that if we follow God’s Torah, we will be physically rewarded. Not True in my experience, and also morally unacceptable to me because of the punishment implied by the inverse: if we disobey we are punished.

Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, also known as the Aish Kodesh, offers a new understanding of this – he promises us a different kind of immortality, that can be achieved through tikkun, repair of self. He writes the following in his Tzav v’Ziruz, a diary of reflections on seeking moral perfection:

If it is your will to serve God and to lift yourself up do not remain in your seventieth year of your life like you were on the day of your bar mitzvah. Every year set a goal for yourself, fashion yourself. If your name if Reuben for example, which Reuben will you be in the year to come? What will be his accomplishments, his service, his attributes? And this imaginary Reuben will be for you as a measure by which to measure yourself by, how much you still lack compared to this imaginary Reuben. If your service and the correction of your deeds is [tended to] each and every day, it will be enough to acquire the Reuben of the year to come. And if the coming year arrives and your measure yourself and you have not arrived at even a bit [lit: the ankles] of the Reuben of the new year, it will be in your eyes, God forbid, that your days will not be lengthened1. For [in this case] only that Reuben from last year or from ten years ago lives – and not the Reuben from this year; Avraham zakein ba byamim [lit: Abraham became old, he arrived in his days] – Abraham of today. He was of today not yesterday.

So, if we remain the person we were last year, we do not have a long life, so to speak, because who we are is consumed by the passage of time. But if we create a new person in our mind and strive toward that, we are constantly being “reborn” in this new possibility. Maybe not immortality, but a state of ongoing renewal and rejuvenation.

Immortality? Consider that Shapira’s wrote that during the Shoah, the unfolding of the holocaust as his community was being immolated. Now, sixty five years after his death he instructs us how to live fully, to become more than what we are – to move ourselves beyond the constraints of time through spiritual transcendence. The investment of the limited, physical world, with eternal meaning through words of hope penned during days of chaos and death a generation ago: that is immortality.