Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Eternal Jew's Tale, Part 2, current

This excerpt from very recent work on The Mith ov the Atternen Jew is a little ramble on prophetic hearing, and what we can really know of the divine worlds, of the higher dimensions and infinities of what might be termed “Godthought”.

Mith ov the Atternen Jew

But doent immajjen we heeren kleer

An repeeten perfek wut moest a hewmenz
Kant heer at awl. Kant even immajjen.
Thats the kiend a hoggellee tok
That kno-nuttenz say, az if a manz
(Or even a woumen) kan kno an konvay
The divvine leengz. Konsidder this:
The hole a Torrah iz a seengel werden!
Taeks a thowzen yeer and a thowzen eer
In evree lan, awl them aenjel
Interpretten down tu the wiggelz ov the letterz
And even the meenz ov emptee spasen
Tu try tu expressen a seengel God thot.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Questions on this week's Torah reading

This is the week of Torah reading Shemini, Viyekra/Leviticus chapters 9 thru 11. Here are 4 questions for the astute reader:
1.What have we directly inherited from the Temple sacrificial system?

2. What is the embedded narrative going on from the previous sidrah into this one? I use “embedded” here to mean: it’s clearly part of the text, but not so obvious.

3. What sacrifice will still be needed in (utopian times)(messianic times)?

4. What is the most important olah offering that has shaped post-Talmud-era Judaism?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Drash on Viyeekra

Viyekra Drash

The following is a drash, an explication and interpretation of the sections of the Torah and Prophets that will be read this week in most synagogues around the world. Actually, I wrote it in the year 2000, and it happened to be a special Shabbat (Sabbath), with a different reading from Prophets than will be done this coming Shabbat, 3/12/2011 (6 Adar II, 5771 in the Jewish calendar). The Torah is broken down into portions, which are read sequentially throughout the year, so that once a year every Jewish congregation will have read the whole Torah from beginning to end. This coming week's portion is Viyikra, as it is known in Hebrew. It consists of the first five chapters of the book Leviticus.

This drash is not particularly daring, but I believe it nicely unpacks a difficult text, and contextualizes it in changing historical world-views. It’s rather long. I hope it holds your interest.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Viyekra. Viyekra, which means "And there called". An odd beginning, literally, "And there called to Moshe and there said, God, to him..." Already you know you're in deep water. So, let's step back, put on our life jackets, get our goggles, and start by sticking our toes in the surf.

We are beginning a new book of Torah this week. The book is also known as Viyekra. It is more familiarly known in English as Leviticus. The Rabbis often refer to it as Torot HaKohanim, "teachings to the Priests" (from God) and equally validly, "teachings by the Priests" (to the people). This is a book of instructions for managing the portable Mishkan, and later, the Temple. Literally an instruction manual, and it reads like one. Probably, there's very few of us who enjoy reading a lease, or a software user's guide. We read them not for the pleasure of the narrative, but for the knowledge, the skills, the power they give us.

The same is true here, in large measure. There is almost no narrative in this book, and in fact, the Torah is largely done with narrative. We came to Sinai, and almost everything up to that point was narrative, fascinating, completely pleasurable to read, full of wonders and poignant stories. At Sinai, the whole nature of the Torah changed, just as the whole nature of the Jewish people changed. Immediately after Sinai we get instructions to build a portable, but nonetheless spectacular Mishkan, a temple, a tent of meeting. Now the Mishkan's built, and we get detailed instructions for how we are to use it to worship, and use it to become a holy people.

This is really much like the pattern of most of our lives. When we're young our lives are defined by our adventures, what we do and what we fantasize. As we come to the point of taking responsibility for ourselves, we find a partner – the Sinai experience is often seen as a marriage ritual between us and God – and then we make a house for ourselves, as the people made the Mishkan. And then we get down to the details of establishing ourselves, building a knowledge base and and functional skills. And the parallels continue; this isn't a coincidence. If we desire, and we're fortunate, we have children. The book of Numbers is the counting of the generations, numbering our children, trying to pass on our mission to them, sending them off into their own new land. And Deuteronomy, Devarim in Hebrew, is a summing up and looking back. What have we accomplished, and what have we not accomplished.

So, the Torah is really a template for each of our individual lives, as well as our life together as a community, here in Victoria, and here in the world, spanning the millennia as Jews, as a holy people.

From this perspective, the minute details in Leviticus, Torot HaKohanim, Viyekra, have a value that may not be apparent on first blush. What is this instruction manual about? As I said, it's about managing the Temple, which is a template for managing our own spiritual lives. It is about proper worship of God, and about how to be holy. It's about preparing ourselves to deal with our incompleteness, our imperfections, our errors, and still have a working relationship with God, with our Divine Foundation.

"All the earth is Mine, but you shall be My kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." We are being taught to be the Priesthood to the world. This is a very serious instruction manual. And that's why this book is known as Torot HaKohanim, teaching to and by the Priests.

Still, this is a very difficult book to read. I have read it many times, and yet it always remained a mishmash to me. One thing blended into another, and I'd always walk away not really holding on to anything. So let me summarize the whole book, because this is what we're going to be dealing with for many weeks, and then I'll focus in.

The book is divided into two main portions. The first half deals with the many kinds of sacrifices, and the details of preparing and presenting them. It then goes on to address the issues of purity in the pursuit of holiness. That's part 1, thru chapter 16. Chapters 17-27 have been called the "Holiness Code." It builds from the commandments and laws given at Sinai, setting them in a framework of correct ritual and holiness. From another angle, the first half of the book is God's teachings TO the Kohanim. The second half is the Kohanim's teachings to the people.

Today's portion discusses the basic modes and classes of offerings, of sacrifices. It discusses what may be offered, and how it is to be offered. It discusses what the priest must do, and if and when the donor plays a part. And since the sacrificial system also had an important economic role, since it supplied the basic income and food for the priesthood, we learn here what parts would be burned, what parts the priests could keep, and what parts they had to share with the donor.

A particularly interesting detail has to do with the donor's passing a sacrificial animal to the priest. He/she had to lean into it, pressing with both hands. "Laying on of hands" is how it's often translated. The Hebrew, which you can see beginning the 4th verse of Chapter 1, is "samach" and elsewhere, "semikhah". Does that ring a bell to anyone? "Semikhah" is what we call rabbinic ordination. I believe the first example of this usage in Torah is when Moshe lays his hands on Yehoshua, Joshua, conferring leadership on him. We can understand this in a linear manner: a transference of spiritual responsibility, to the student no less than to the sacrificial animal, BUT we can also see this as an amazing linguistic and conceptual inversion. We go from sending an animal to its death, to conferring life and spiritual continuity on the next generation. And so, already in the Torah we see a movement from physical ritual to spiritual teaching. We pursue that line a little later.

I'd like to discuss the kinds of sacrifices because it's confusing and I've been reading these chapters for years and never could make much sense of it, but there so many other juicy things, that I think I'll talk instead about the transition from a sacrifice-based religion to a prayer-based religion, and how they are related, continuous, and intertwined.

But we need at least this bit of background. The term "sacrifice" in Hebrew has a general name: "Korbon". Chapter 1 describes the first kind of korbon, the Olah, often translated Holocaust, because, excepting the skin, the whole animal was completely burned; none was eaten. It is a KIND of sacrifice; it had more than one purpose, but it was never used to remove sin or guilt. "Olah" means "ascent" so it's a supplication. "Remember us. Be kind to us."

Oddly, both the terms Korbon and Holocaust came to be used to describe the destruction of European Jewry in our era. While Korbon quickly went out of use, Holocaust has become the most widely used and known term, but many object to it, because it has its origins in a sacred ritual, which seems entirely inappropriate. That is why many people, including myself, prefer the term Shoah, which means "destruction" and has no sacred or ritual antecedents in its usage.

So now we can look at our Haftorah portion. Actually, the normal Haftorah for today is Isaiah 43 and 44, an awesome portion, describing how the people have fallen away from holiness, and into idolatry, with extended images describing corrupted sacrificial rites. It begins like this: "You have not called on Me oh Ya'akov... nor did you honor Me with your sacrifices... And YET I will not remember your sins! Put Me in remembrance. Let us plead together. State your case that you may be vindicated!" Wow. Even more amazing perhaps is how Elie Wiesel and others turned this around, requiring God make vindication for the Shoah, for the Holocaust.

But we didn't read that portion today. Because it is Shabbat Zachor, the second of the special Shabbatot leading up to Pesach, we read an equally electrifying Haftorah, Shmuel 15. Shmuel is sent by God to tell Saul to destroy Amelek; to kill not only every single person, including elderly and children, but every living creature, all their cattle, to destroy their homes and everything in them. What does Saul do? He and the troops spare some of the choice animals, and take Agag the king, captive. The text says Saul had pity on Agag and on the best of the cattle and the finest objects. Is it pity, greed, or pride of interpretation: "I will decide what God intends." God informs Shmuel that Saul didn't follow the letter of the commandment. Shmuel goes to find Saul, and soon as Saul sees him says, "I have fulfilled the word of the Lord." And Shmuel responds, "What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears?" Is he referring to the sheep or Saul's jabber? Shmuel goes on, "Even if you are small in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel!" The responsibility of leadership. The responsibility of being a priesthood people. And then we hear something even more amazing from Shmuel: 15:22, the first major revision in prophetic literature of the course of our spiritual destiny: "Has the Lord as much desire in burnt-offerings and peace offerings, as in obeying the Voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than a peace offering, to listen intently for God's word is better than the fat of rams!" And the reading ends with Shmuel hacking Agag to pieces, not unlike some sacrificial slaughtering run amok. Yoy.

And thus we have been set on our spiritual journey. We have some problems here. We have a text with an extremely detailed accounting of sacrificial rituals, coupled with a legal code of incomparable justice and democracy. We have later parts of the text demanding slaughter, and genocide, juxtaposed against the most profoundly insightful and moral teachings. And here we are 3000 years later confronting this primitive ritual, sacrifice, that has become offensive to most of us. How do we cope with it? The problem is, we can't just read the text and say, "Nah, this is no good. This is wrong. I don't like this. This is politically incorrect. Let's throw it out."

This text is holy whether we say it came directly from God or indirectly through inspired prophets, or just that it's just a brilliant human thing. We have devoted ourselves to it for 3000 years. 150 generations devoted themselves to it, memorized it, interpreted it, died for it. It is at the foundation of our identity. And because it is so essential to us, we are obligated to do 2 things, at least: carry it forward intact, and make it relevant, even add new literature to it today.

I remember when I was in college it was the time of the Vietnam war. I remember seeing a veteran wearing a tee shirt that said: "Kill 'em all and let God sort it out." It was at once horrifying and completely understandable. And really, when you think about it, that is exactly what Saul was commanded to do. Are we still in that same place today? Some might say yes, but I don't think so. I think our history has created a new mandate for us.

From Shmuel on, the Prophets contrasted the demands of ethical behavior with sacrifice, insisting on the primacy of morality, not ritual. No prophet called for the end of sacrifice, at least not until the early 19th century, but Amos, Jeremiah, Shmuel, Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah all made strong arguments, demoting sacrifice to a place well below moral behavior. But it was not until the Roman destruction of the Temple that sacrifice ended. At that time the transition from a priesthood class to a priesthood religion was completed.

It's an interesting historical development. I don't have time for it here, but let me tell one story, a parable by Rabbi Levi, found in Leviticus Rabbah. "The son of a King became mentally confused and fell into the habit of eating carrion. Thus, the King ordered the servants to serve kosher meat at his table prepared from the same kinds of animals, so that the son might regain the habit of eating proper food. Similarly, Rabbi Levi continues, Israel became addicted to idolatry in Egypt, and in the desert they still brought offerings to goat demons. God said, 'Let them bring regular sacrifices to Me, and they will be protected from the tendency to idolatry.'" What's the point here? This 5th century rabbi is already saying sacrifice is a temporary means to wean us from idolatry. Once weaned, it could be dispensed with. Revolutionary ideas in those days, and it took another 1200 years before the Reform movement, followed 100 years later by the Convervative and Reconstructionist movements, to comprehensively renounce the idea that sacrifice might be re-instituted, should a 3rd Temple be built. I should mention, that many in the Orthodox movement find this rejection entirely unacceptable, given that such a significant portion of the Torah is devoted to sacrifice.

There's so much more to talk about. The sacrifices themselves; the problems and obscure parts of the text, including essential ritual details that have remained entirely unstated; the differences in Orthodox and Conservative siddurim relating to sacrifice. A more detailed tracking of the history of transition from sacrifice to prayer, and priest class to priest religion; related texts found in other cultures, that help us understand the international flavor of these rituals.

But let me end with a bibliography. I have 4 Chumashim: Samson Hirsch, Aryeh Kaplan, Fox, and the Reform Chumash by Plaut. Every one is a treasure chest of ideas and commentary. Plaut's is particularly good, altho the actual translation he uses is uninspired. Then there's the Jewish Publication Society's 5 volume commentary. Finally, the online sources are very expansive. I give my students a list of 4 sites, and I'd be glad to email them to anyone who requests. And these are the sources that will simply help you scratch the surface.

Shabbat shalom.

Addundum on sacrifices, with apologies for a little repetition from above.

First, I ask your indulgence. I think it appropriate to discuss the kinds of sacrifices described in our portion. The term "sacrifice" in Hebrew has a general name: "Korbon". Chapter 1 describes the first kind of korbon, the Olah, often translated Holocaust, because, excepting the skin, the whole animal was completely burned; none was eaten. It is a KIND of sacrifice; it had more than one purpose, but it was never used to remove sin or guilt. "Olah" means "ascent" so it's a supplication. "Remember us. Be kind to us."

Oddly, both the terms Korbon and Holocaust came to be used to describe the destruction of European Jewry in our era. While Korbon quickly went out of use, Holocaust has become the most widely used and known term, but many object to it, because it has its origins in a sacred ritual, which seems entirely inappropriate. That is why many people, including myself, prefer the term Shoah, which means "destruction" and has no sacred or ritual antecedents in its usage.

Chapter 2 describes the second type of sacrifice, the "minkhah", which translates to "tribute" or "gift". It establishes the donor's subservience to God. Here again there is no expiation for sin or guilt with this sacrifice. Originally, Minkhah was a generic term. Both Kayin and Abel's sacrifices were called minkhah, even tho Abel's was animal, and Kayin's grain. Here, now, it is taking on a more specific character. Now it is NOT an animal sacrifice. It is a grain offering, more accurately wheat, and still more accurately, semolina, the best part of the wheat. It too was burned, but only a handful. Before burning, it was usually mixed with olive oil and frankincense. What was not burned was eaten by the priests, presumably without frankincense. Minkhah was a late afternoon or evening sacrifice, and it's name, and its intentionality have been transferred to the daily afternoon prayer service.

Chapter 3 brings us to the Zevakh, especially the Zevakh Sh'lamim, the "sacrifice of well being" or the "sacred gift of greeting". This was specifically a sacred meal, so altho some would be burned, the majority would be eaten by the priests WITH the donor. So, it was unlike the Olah in that much was not burned, and it was unlike the minkhah in that the donor also ate it. Also, it could even be eaten outside the sanctuary. These latter 2 differences also made it a step down in holiness.

So you can see the borders between these offeringss are hazy, with many shared components and some distinct ones. More importantly, because we don't do them anymore in any physical way, it's hard to see the value in trying to figure them out. It can be compared, perhaps to the laws of Kashrut for someone who doesn't keep kosher. You can eat meat and you can eat milk, but you can't eat milk and meat together. You can eat fish and you can eat meat, but again, not together. But just a second, you can eat milk and then you can eat meat, but not the reverse. You get the point. If you don't do this every day, it's definitely confusing, and it's hard to see the point why anyone would WANT to do it. So why do Jews do this? One reasone is because there's knowledge and meaning in the DOING that can't be derived from the ideas alone.

This parasha covers 2 more sacrifices, as well. These are specifically to expiate sin or guilt. They are called the Khattat and the asham sacrifices. These 2 sacrifices are meant to restore purity. In the Biblical context purity and sinlessness are equated, and impurity and sinfulness are equated. While the text talks a bit about the sacrificial ritual, more of it is devoted to defining the crime and its category. I could discuss these sacrifices at length, but let me say only this: sacrifice was NEVER meant for purposeful sins. You sinned; you were subject to punishment. Only if your sin was unintentional, or due to ignorance of the laws, could sacrifice be used as a PART of the expiation. You were still also subject to appropriate restitution, as Chapters 4 and 5 describe.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Eternal Jew's Tale, Part 2.2

Continuing from my previous post, Feb. 24, 2011, of Part II of The Atternen Jewz Tael. Introducing this poem in my last post, I said that here “the Jew recounts his wanderings after leaving Jerusalem.” Well, actually that’s not quite true. Jerusalem has just been destroyed by the Romans. So as he sets out from the ruined Temple of God, he reflects on previous “temples” and the human compulsion to create them. The first temple he describes (see the previous post) is Eden. And from there...

Well, we bilt it aggen, that goddee pallas.
Seemz we haf tu. Its wut we du,
Tryen a rememberz ar uther werlz
Tho we kant see kleer akross that horrize.
I meenz, yu theenk ar sensenz sho it awl?
Its not jes thru a darken glass
We seez, but thru a narrowee krak
And broke down intu slivverz a time
Thin az a rainboez shaddo. An then
Thaerz deth. Wut made arsellz a dans,
Slips awway an dansen elsware.
Libareez fule a such wunderenz
Ov ar feelenz an fakenz and faent rekawlz.
O, its reel ennuf, tho lakking a proov.