Why I Do — and Do Not — Fast on Asarah B’Tevet

Today is Asarah B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, the first of three fasts in the Jewish calendar cycle related to the destruction of the Temple(s) in Jerusalem.  2,596 years ago and again 1940 years ago, the Temple in Jerusalem, the religious center of Jewish ritual, was destroyed.  Asarah B’Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II.

Ironically, given effect of the flattening of history by the Jewish calendar, the 10th of Tevet is commemorated a mere 7 or 8 days following Hanukkah, the celebration of the rededication and purification of the Temple.

Why I fast on Asarah B’Tevet:

  • Part of me longs for the restoration of the Temple rituals.  I eat meat, and have always wondered what it would be like to be part of a Temple ritual at which I present the life of the animal to God and watch it be slaughtered, or witness the raw power of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual.  For the vegetarian imagination, how powerful would it be like to present the first fruits from the pear tree in my backyard?
  • Mourning for the loss of the Temple represents the longing for a messianic world in which God’s presence is universally felt, and acts of war and intentional evil and hatred no longer exist.

Why I do not fast on Asarah B’Tevet:

  • There is something absurd about mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem as if 1948 and 1967 never happened, as if Jerusalem was not a beautiful and vibrant city over 700,000 people.
  • In 1981 and 1985-6, my first trip to Israel and my year studying in Israel, going to the Kotel, the western wall of the Temple, was a spiritual experience.  I felt connected to God through the thousands of years of Jewish history, suffering and triumph, focused on the Temple as mythic center of the world.  Since then, however, the Kotel has become an increasingly politicized tool for the imposition of a narrow set of Hareidi values on the rest of the Jewish world.  The Kotel is no longer a gathering place for the Israeli public for the celebration of national events.  My sense of mourning for the lack of a Temple is overwhelmed by my sense of fear that were such a place to exist, it would be a tool of oppression rather than a means for bringing people together.

In the end, I do fast, for at least part of the day, less in mourning over Jerusalem and the Temple, and more in mourning for a world of pluralism and understanding, in which our sacred places do not belong to one denomination or stream,  but rather are shared within Judaism as well as outside.

The dire consequences of turning away potential converts – a Talmudic Midrash

In a piece of Midrash I was studying last week from Sifre D’varim, I came across a fascinating midrash in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 99b.  Here’s the original, followed by an translation/explanation.

מיהת אחות לוטן תמנע מאי היא? תמנע בת מלכים הואי, דכתיב (בראשית ל”ו) אלוף לוטן אלוף תמנע. וכל אלוף מלכותא בלא תאגא היא. בעיא לאיגיורי, באתה אצל אברהם יצחק ויעקב ולא קבלוה, הלכה והיתה פילגש לאליפז בן עשו. אמרה: מוטב תהא שפחה לאומה זו, ולא תהא גבירה לאומה אחרת. נפק מינה עמלק, דצערינהו לישראל. מאי טעמא דלא איבעי להו לרחקה.  סנהדרין דף צט ע”ב

The issue behind the Midrash is prompted by a verse in Genesis “The sons of Lotan were Hori and Hemam; and Lotan’s sister was Timna.”  (Genesis 36.22 JPS)

It is very unusual for women to be mentioned in a genealogy.  In this case, Timna is mentioned because of something we learned 10 verses earlier:  “Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz”  (Genesis 36.12 JPS)

The impetus for the Midrash, however, is an inference we can draw from the fact that Timna and Lotan were siblings.  We know a little about Lotan from verse 20, “These were the sons of Seir the Horite, who were settled in the land: Lotan” (Genesis 36.20 JPS).  Lotan would have been the prince of a tribe of Seir, and therefore Timna would have been a princess.

Here’s where the imagination of the Midrashist takes over — Why would Princess Timna become a concubine to Esau’s son Eliphaz, rather than marry a tribal chieftain?   Perhaps she went to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and told them that she wanted to become part of their family, to convert.  For some reason, they did not accept her as a candidate for conversion.  Her response?  “I would be better off as a concubine to this people than the wife and queen of another nation.”  She wants to be a part of the family so badly that she refuses to marry outside of the family of Abraham and Isaac, even if it means becoming a kind of servant.

Every midrash has a purpose and a message — Here’s the punch line of this one:  She married Esau’s son and gave birth to Amalek, the arch-enemy who afflicted Israel. Why? — Because they should not have turned her away.

Amalek is the Biblical ancestor of Hamen, the spiritual ancestor of every Hitler-like evil man or woman who attempted to eradicate Jews or Judaism.  This Talmudic midrash is suggesting that there are dire consequences for turning away prospective converts.

This piece of Talmud suggests that the actions of the modern day Israeli rabbinic establishment, including retroactively invalidating conversions, refusing burial in a Jewish cemetery to individuals whose conversion they question, and throwing up tremendous barriers to immigrants to Israel who want to become Jewish, are endangering the physical safety of the state, which depends of a strong and loyal Jewish population for growth and protection.

Isn’t this something to think about?  1700 years ago, at the point of Jewish history when the early Christian church was beginning to pressure Jews into giving up their historic openness to accepting converts, an anonymous rabbi preached a sermon or taught a lesson reminding his fellow Jews not to turn away those who want to convert to Judaism.

Worshipping God — in Silence or with Words and Music?

I’ve been on Sabbatical for the past couple of months.  One of my projects has been to study the art of preaching.  I’ve been meeting with various pastors, and spending an unusual amount of time visiting church services to hear the sermon.  This post, however, is not about the sermons, but rather about the prayer experience surrounding the sermon.

This past Sunday I visited Ridge Point Community Church in the Holland area (not affiliated with any particular denomination); the week before I had visited Plymouth Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids.

The Pastor of Plymouth UCC, Doug Van Doren, used a great deal of silence during the service.  At the end of each of his prayers, at the end of his sermon, at various points and at the end of the service, he would pause and without words, invite silent reflection.

The service at Ridge Point was carefully choreographed to last exactly one hour.  The first 1/2 hour was non-stop music.  One song led directly into another, backed up by a full and rather loud band.  The volume might not have been rock concert, but the atmosphere was.  The pastor, Jim Liske, even said at one point that he felt like he should be in the back row holding up a lighter!  The music led directly and without pause to the teaching in the second 1/2 hour.  There was not a moment of silence.

Objectively, there are no criteria to prefer one experience over the other.  A service that leaves room in between the words and songs allows the worshipper to explore his or her own thoughts, feelings, reactions, motivations, needs, and desires — and share all of this with God in the form of personal prayer.  A service composed of a series of carefully chosen songs focused on a particular theme followed by a well-taught message sends people away from the worship experience  holding onto a message, which potentially will transform the way they live their lives.

Ultimately, we choose a Synagogue or Temple or minyan or denomination or other place of worship based on how we best find meaning and connection with the Divine.  Personally, I find silence critically important within a service.  I hate congregational readings, responsive or otherwise.  I like the self-directedness of a traditional Jewish service.  Too many words and too much music crowd out my own thoughts and prayers.  Occasionally, though, I visit congregations which have more structured liturgy and use more music and less silence and I have learned how to find the beauty and the Divine Presence.  It’s always nice, though, to go back home to my own congregation!

Doing the right thing – Parashat Miketz

This week’s Parasha, Miketz, begins with the story of Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and grain:

“After two years’ time, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. But presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the cows on the bank of the Nile; and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows. And Pharaoh awoke. He fell asleep and dreamed a second time: Seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, grew on a single stalk. But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears. Then Pharaoh awoke: it was a dream!”  (Genesis 41.1–7 JPS)

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efrayim of Sudylkov, known as the “Degel Mahaneh Ephraim,” taught that this passage can be understood symbolically – the fat cows and the healthy grain represent our intention to do good things; and the gaunt cows and the thin ears of grain represent the all too often times that our yetzer hara, our inclination to be selfish or lazy, overcomes our yetzer hatov, our intention to do good.

How often do we have every intention of exercising, going to minyan, cleaning our desk, or doing some other worthy chore – only to find that the lure of going back to sleep, turning on the television, checking our facebook page or surfing the ‘net eats up our time.  As Pharaoh says later on about the cows when recounting his dream to Joseph, “but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before.”  (Genesis 41.21 JPS)  No matter how good our intentions, if we let ourselves become sidetracked into doing other things, the thing that we intended to do vanishes into thin air.

As in meditation, an attempt to banish distracting thoughts from our mind is futile.  No matter how hard we try to suppress the thoughts, distractions, and desires produced by our yetzer hara, they will keep coming back, like a child’s Jack-in-the-Box.  The solution is to recognize that we are beings made up of the two competing sets of desire.  Both parts of ourselves need appropriate attention.  We need time to sleep, and let our minds check out and relax.  If we set our minds to accomplish a particular task and our yetzer hara attempts to lure is towards down another path, we can acknowledge the value of the distracting thought, honor it as something worthy of our time and energy, but gently steer our mind and intention back to the task that we promised to accomplish first.

This was Joseph’s instruction to Pharoah – “let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom.” (Genesis 41.33 JPS)  Reading symbolically, reach into the part of yourself that is wise and discerning, and decide at this moment which of the two competing desires is most important.  Take care of the critical job first, and afterwards there will be time to engage in the less important, but perhaps more pleasant, distraction!

Understanding Disability in Leviticus 21

Download a .pdf file of this post here:  Understanding Disability in Leviticus 21

“The LORD spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the LORD’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the LORD have sanctified them.”  (Leviticus 21.16–23 JPS)

What can we do with these verses, which seem to support the notion that those with brokenness in their bodies are somehow less qualified to take leadership positions or participate in religious life?

One approach, perhaps the simplest and most honest approach, would be to excise the verses from Torah.  Cross them out … remove them from the text … in big, bold letters, explain that this section speaks about an outdated system that is no longer active or relevant. However, for those who believe that the Torah is and remains sacred literature, for whom every part of Torah continues to have some relevance, and who continue to read all of Torah over the course of 1-3 years, the more difficult challenge is to find a way to read these verses.

Is there an honest way to read these verses that still affirms the value of people with disabilities to participate at any level in religious life; and even better, which supports the notion that people with disabilities are in fact not to be pitied, but to be valued as contributing members of a community?

A number of readings have been proposed by commentaries, classical and modern.  We might say that kohanim with these kind of physical disabilities would not be able to do the heavy work that was performed in the Temple, and were therefore exempt.  This might explain the exclusion of those who have severe disabilities, but does not explain why one who has a scar is also excluded.  Further, note that a physically non-disabled young man of small stature also might not be able to handle a heavy animal easily.  Had the Torah been concerned that the kohen needed to have a certain amount of strength to do the job, the description of disqualified kohanim would have been different.  The Torah does not include or exclude people based on physical strength.

Perhaps we might explain that Kohanim with physical imperfections would be a distraction to the worshippers. Rather than focusing on the glory of God, the congregation might be gawking at the physical abnormality of the kohen.  However, would not Brad Pitt (or Angelina Jolie) or other exceptionally beautiful men and women also be a distraction to the worshippers?  Would not the presence of ugly men and woman not serving as priests but rather simply bringing offerings to the priests also be a distraction?  This too, does not seem an adequate explanation for the exclusions listed in Leviticus 21.

Rabbi Jack Riemer, in a sermon on the subject of disability summarizes several explanations of others on Leviticus 21, and adds an explanation of his own  – all of which are lacking. 1

One might explain that kohanim with imperfections are excluded is a reminder to us that in fact every human is imperfect, because only God is perfect.  If that is the sense of the verse, then humans with obvious imperfections are no more imperfect than the rest of us — and we should either all be excluded or all be included.  In addition, from a disability rights perspective, to say that every human being is imperfect, while true, does not acknowledge that people with disabilities are living with bodies that are likely to be seen as more imperfect than people without disabilities. 2

Rabbi Judith Abrams writes that the Temple was a place of liminality, where heaven and earth, mortality and immortality, purity and imperfection, met.  Liminal places are dangerous, and therefore the kohen had to be healthy and strong and pure in order to serve.  This might be a true, historically and contextually accurate reading of the passage, but does not lessen the negative impact of this passage on a community of abled and disabled people.

Rabbi Jack Riemer writes that we have to understand the backdrop against which the Torah was originally read.  The most prominent voices in the Greco-Roman world advocated infanticide and euthanasia for infants and people with disabilities.  Compared to this, the restrictions of the Torah are mild.  Moreover, the Rabbinic tradition, built on this Biblical platform, is strongly inclusive of dignity of people with disabilities.  Basically, his answer is “It could be worse.”  This is a reasonable historical explanation, but does nothing to help us find meaning for ourselves in this passage of Torah.

To understand the reading I am proposing, we need to consider the nature of what it means to be perfect or imperfect; then we need to consider the essential meaning of sacrifice; then we will understand what the Torah understands the role of a priest to be.

Let us start with the proposition that all human beings are created in the image of God.  This means that human beings with disabilities and differences, physical, emotional, and mental, are as much the image of the Divine as human beings without obvious disabilities.

This is not, however, true for non-human living beings and objects.  When we go to the store to buy fruit, we might quite rightly pick through the apples to choose the most aesthetically beautiful apples.  We are not discriminating against apples by choosing not to buy the imperfect and bruised ones.  We are not being racist or speciesist by favoring the salmon with the deepest red color, or the chicken that looks the freshest.  There is no theological problem created by the Westminster Kennel club competition in which breeds of dogs are evaluated against an arbitrary set of physical characteristics; or the blue ribbons awarded to horses, pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens at 4-H competitions at County or State fairs.

What’s the difference?  Fruit, vegetables, and animals are not created in the image of God; human beings are.  Unlike human beings, animals, plant matter, and objects are commodities.  It’s OK to discriminate among them.

When making a sacrifice, it is desirable to give both the first (as in first born, first fruits) and the best to God.  It would be unseemly and ungrateful to pick out the bruised apples and the wormy grapes to bring as an offering, while keeping the tastiest and most beautiful fruit for one’s own use.  Animals offered in the Temple had to be perfect, unblemished.

Focusing in on the animal offerings, most particularly the purification offerings, the most ancient purpose of an offering to God was as a substitute for one’s own life.  The Hebrew Bible is clear on its abhorrence of human sacrifice.  Instead, the human beings offer an animal to God in his or her place.  In doing so, however, one is making a troubling equivalence.  How do you substitute a commodity for a human being?  The human being is of infinite worth, while the commodity has a variable price, set by the marketplace, depending on its quality.  It is precisely because the human being is of infinite worth that the Torah actually sets an arbitrary fixed price on men, women, and children should someone make a vow to give their own value to the Temple. 3  Note that while men are consider more valuable than women, and women more valuable than children, there is no distinction between men, women, or children with disabilities or without disabilities.

The act of making a sacrifice, substituting a commodity with a fixed value for a human being of infinite value, devalues and degrades the human being.  Therefore, the Kohen, rather than serving in the highest and most honored spiritual role in the community, is actually serving as a symbol of the commoditization of human beings.  In addition, on the grossest level, the kohen’s job is to butcher animals and collect some of their blood.  From the beginning of Genesis, it is clear that the consumption of meat is a concession to human appetites, but the ideal diet, that of the garden of Eden, is vegetarian, possibly even vegan.  The essential role of the kohen, rather than being highly elevated and spiritually close God, is antithetical to the ideal human messianic vision.

As an aside, note that in the Torah Levi and in particular the two of the children and one of the grandchildren of Aaron, the first kohen, are violent, impulsive people (see the incident of Shimon and Levi in Genesis 34, the incident with Nadav and Avihu in Leviticus 10, and the zealotry of Pinhas in Numbers 25).  The Priesthood, with its central task of killing animals, was a perfect place to stash a tribe of people who have a propensity for killing.  By “elevating” them to a position that requires a high degree of purity (e.g., not coming in contact with human corpses), God is channeling their violent, zealous nature into an acceptable arena.

Therefore, as the Torah describes the characteristics of the kohen, it treats the kohen not as a human being created in the image of God, but rather as an animal, a commodity.  Rather than looking at the service of the Kohen as an ideal to which each Israelite should aspire, the Torah presents the Kohen as an agent of the lowest level of service to God.  Therefore, the Kohen, in his service to God, is restricted to the same characteristics and the same physical perfection as the animals which he offers.  Note that every Kohen, regardless of physical appearance, is permitted to enjoy the food of the offerings when not serving in his role.  Even in the restrictions, the Torah is very careful to focus only on those characteristics that connect the Kohen to the animal world.  When we step away from the mechanics of making offerings and focus instead of what it means to be a human being serving God through the consumption of offerings, we no longer recognize physical differences as important.

This reading of Leviticus 21 is consistent with the “Holiness code” of Leviticus 19, whose message is to see each other as whole sacred human beings.  It is consistent with the notion that people with disabilities are not viewed by the Torah as broken or imperfect creatures, but rather as beings charged with living their lives with holiness.  May our communities be accessible and inclusive of all people, with and without disabilities; and welcoming of all religious seekers searching for the meaning in Torah.

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1. “One of the Most Embarrassing Passages In the Whole Torah – Parashat Emor”, www.uscj.org/One_of_the_Most_Emba7549.html

2. This explanation is shared in the name of Rabbi Brad Artson.  However, in a commencement address entitled “If I am There, All is There,” Rabbi Artson clearly rejects this answer as inadequate.

3. Leviticus 27

Download a .pdf file of this post here:  Understanding Disability in Leviticus 21