Friday, April 12, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–M’tzora 5768–Human Nature

Human nature is a funny thing. We are awash in conflicting emotions, wants, desires, needs.We never really know how we might behave in a particular situation until we're in the middle of it.

Caught in the siege of Samaria, 4 lepers, living outside the city gates, yet still dependent on the city in many ways, decide it might be safer to take their chances defecting to the enemy camp. Oddly enough, they seem to believe that the option of going into the city is open to them. This puzzles me, somewhat. Surely, those in a ritually impure state would not be allowed in the city? Was the time when they were eligible for the ritual purification approaching? Did they know they could count on the good and generous nature, or perhaps compassion of the Israelites living there? Perhaps they thought they could bribe their way in? Whatever the case, they decide that staying either outside the city or within the city is certain death from the siege and subsequent famine. They decide to chance going to the enemy camp - they had nothing to lose by this gambit.

They come to the enemy camp and discover it is abandoned, with much of value left behind. Thrilled with their good fortune, they proceed to start carting off and burying all the silver, gold and clothing they can find. Yet soon, overcome, apparently, by guilt, they determine it is wrong of them to line their own pickets and not inform those in the city that their enemies have fled. So they go back to the city, and, standing outside the walls, shout the good news to the gatekeepers, who then tell the King and his flunkies.
The King suspects a trick. The enemy Arameans have left their camp and are hiding, waiting to ambush them. (Give the King credit, as he doesn't appear to doubt the word of the lepers, he just thinks they were fooled by the enemy trick. But the text sort of leaves that up to the reader to decide.)

Look, already, at how many differing sides of human nature we have encountered. Fear. Greed. Loyalty. Mistrust. Fatalism. All of them in conflict with each other.

Once it was ascertained that the enemy army had indeed fled, the people of the city proceeded to plunder the enemy camp. Guess you can;t blame them, although I'm not so sure that it was food they were plundering. Even int he midst of their hunger, avarice may have been dominant.

Whatever the case, the end of the siege brings good fortune to the city - just as predicted by the Prophet Elisha. (Elisha's prophecies occur in material not included in the haftarah.) It also bring a clever little comeuppance. An aide to the King had doubted the prophet Elisha's claim that within the next day, flour and barley would be selling for a reasonable price, as opposed to the siege-induced markups. The aide openly doubted that even G"d could make such a thing come to pass. In a lovely ironic twist, the aide is appointed commander of the city gate, and he is trampled to death by the crowd of townspeople rushing out to acquire the flour and barley for the predicted low price-an event the prophet had predicted as well, by telling the aide that he would see the prophecy of the lower price with his own eyes, but he would never eat of it. Ah, poetic justice.

Everything about this whole story just screams "story." It is well-crafted literature full of poignant lessons. It plays on our own emotions.Why choose lepers as those who discover that the enemy have fled? Why show the lepers as both fatalistic, opportunistic, greedy, and yet, strangely loyal? And that bit of poetic justice for the aide. It seems a little too perfect, too pat. Surely the reader is going to look at the text and think "this just has to be a story, and not reality."

Which of the two moral teachings are the core of the story-the "sort of "t'shuva of the lepers, or the foolishness of the aide in doubting G"d? Or are both equally important?

Eight years ago, I wrote a musing entitled "Even Lepers Bring Good News" which focused on that aspect of this haftarah-that even these lepers, forced to be apart from the community for their impurities, nevertheless still feel enough a part of the community to overcome their greed.  Like those lepers, many of us can, at times, feel disconnected from our communities, from the greater Jewish community, and filled with spiritual and emotional "leprosy." I know that I sometimes feel this way. Yet, underneath it all, there is still that tug, that connection. Not only would I like to think of myself as one who, faced with the same situation as those lepers, do the right thing - I have the evidence of my own behaviors to confirm that this is how I act in those sorts of circumstances. I suppose I should feel good about that.

But then there's that other question. If a prophet told me that G"d would bring something about, would I accept it on faith, or roll my eyes and sarcastically dismiss the idea? More than anything, this is a source of much inner turmoil. Does G"d, or my understanding of what G"d is or might be, still take an active role in this universe? Did G"d ever do so?
While I've not had the misfortune to be trampled to death like the doubting aide, I've lived through situations where the outcome certainly wasn't the one I expected, and I couldn't really attribute it to some rational, scientific explanation. Yet I still doubt G"d's active (and even passive) role in the universe. Even amidst all the miracles I observe daily - flowering nature, birth, majestic scenes of tectonic and volcanic action - I still doubt.

I need, perhaps, to take to heart what Heschel said, that "wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of knowledge."  I'm going to spend this Shabbat trying to change my doubt into wonder. Wish me luck.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester

Random Musings Before Shabbat–Tazria 5768–Just Not Good Enough is Just Not Good Enough

Every once in a while, things just come together. These moments are rare, however, and they can slip by us if we let them. This time, I'm determined not to let it slip by me.

As much as I enjoy the work of redeeming irredeemable texts, all week long I have been dreading the encounter with parashat Tazria. This whole concept of "tum'a," impurity or uncleanness, is difficult for us to wrap our modern sensibilities around. To be sure, there have been many attempts to do just that, through apologetics, referring to the text in its own context, and other means.

The venerable Baruch Levine, editor of the JPS Commentary on Leviticus argues that rather than seeing tum'a as a negative state, we can view it as showing veneration for the significant life events of birth, death, and illness. He asks us to look beyond the layers of superstition that have been added over the millennia.

And so we play these self-deceptive tricks, trying to understand tum'a as a sort of spiritual impurity. We wander through our orchard, our "pardes" of p'shat (plain meaning,) remez (hints of deeper meaning,) d'rash (looking for deeper meaning though comparison, and sod (secret) searching for meaning in our own time and context.

Sometimes, those wandering stray pretty far, as they did for me this week.

The congregation where I work has a sharing partnership, a covenant, with a Presbyterian church - we share the same sacred spaces in the same building. At least once every year (and in practice, far more often in informal settings) our spiritual leaders lead us in a joint interfaith dialog, trying to understand each others' perspectives. This year's topic was "covenant" and the first of two sessions was held this week. Though it was intended to lay a foundation for understanding the meaning of the term covenant in both Jewish and Christian views, the conversation often strayed into tangential pathways. One that seemed to strike a particular chord for the 50 or so folks present was the idea of "original sin."

The Jewish view, in essence (though keep in mind that the answer to "does Judaism believe...?" is always yes, no and maybe) is that t'shuva, repentance, is always possible. The Christian view, in its essence (though again, the yes, no, maybe applies) is that we are by nature so irredeemable that an ultimate sacrifice was required on G"d's part. Of course, modern protestant Christian theology seeks to distance itself from this. Yet, even to the discomfort of his own congregants, the church's pastor could not outright reject original sin as a core understanding. As the Reverend Jon Smoot put it so aptly, "we are all toast." (Now, there's fodder for a Nadav and Avihu musing for next year. Just wait. I've kept my notes.)

As our congregation's spiritual leader Hazzan Sunny Schnitzer pointed out, the Jewish view is that ultimately anyone can be a lamed vavnik, one of the 36 righteous persons thought to exist in every generation. He also reminded us that, historically, humanity, and the Jewish people in particular have continually failed to live up to the standard that G''d requires to keep up G"d's end of the covenant (though, in the end, for Jews and Christians both, G"d is ultimately compassionate and loving and forgiving.) For Christianity (and note I say "Christianity" and not "christians") G"d, finally deciding that humanity, having acquired the knowledge of good and evil through Adam and Chava in Gan Eden, simply could not live up to the covenantal standards - no amount of ritual sacrifice as prescribed in the Torah would be enough. Thus G"d made the ultimate sacrifice, by sacrificing G"d's own self through an incarnation.

I don't accept that premise, and will stubbornly maintain that the Jewish position that we are all ultimately redeemable is correct. So, being consistent with my own position, I ought to accept that the troubling parts of parashatTazria are also ultimately redeemable. But how?

Now, in thinking about the situation on this planet around 2000 years ago, while I don't really accept the concept, I can see some sense in G"d making a choice to become incarnate so that G"d could better understand why G"d's creations were having so much trouble trying to keep the covenant, in trying to act righteously. If we play out this little mind game, we wind up asking if this attempt to learn about humanity through becoming incarnate was a success or failure. The answer, of course, depends on your point of view on whether or not humanity is capable of rising to the righteousness desired by G"d. From my point of view, arguing that we cannot is taking the easy way out, the path of least resistance. If G"d did indeed decide, after this brief period of living through proxy as one of G"d's own human creations, that we were hopeless, I'm not sure that's a G"d in which I can or want to believe. Were I to accept the idea of this incarnation, I'd say it was successful if G"d took a look around, and decided to give humanity another few millennia to work it all out.

Now, I don't believe for a second that G"d chose to become incarnate in one itinerate rabbi from Nazareth. I'm perfectly capable of believing however, the one Saul of Tarsus, renamed Paul, could come to the conclusion that humanity is ultimately irredeemable, and, perfect car salesman that he was, co-opt the death of the leader of a reform Jewish movement as an ultimate sacrifice by G"d, to relieve humanity from of the obligation to follow all those silly rules in the Torah. Thus, in this make-believe scenario, G"d's attempt to understand humanity through proxy was a dismal failure. For me, for those who accept Paul's invented religion, it would have to be viewed as a failure - that G"d so loved the world that G"d sacrificed G"d's incarnate proxy as the ultimate sin offering of all time. "My creations just aren't good enough, and never will be, so I will make a final atonement for them so that they may live." Gives me shivers just to think about that. Not a G"d of my understanding.

Having come to reject thoroughly the idea that our failures are insurmountable, I perhaps gain new insight into parashat Tazria. I haven't quite worked it all out yet, but there's a kernel of an idea there. This state of "ritual impurity" called tum'a is not permanent. I may not like or agree with how this state of tum'a has been defined in the Torah, and I know that it creates a particular problem for women, but just knowing that it is a state from which one can recover through action, deed, ritual, perhaps even thought, or just plain time (as in the case of ritual impurity from menses) makes it just that little but more palatable - especially compared to the notion that we are all stuck in a state of perpetual tum'a from which only G"d can release us. What kind of covenant is that? If a covenant is two-way, what's the point? If only one party can do anything, is it a covenant?

So I leave you with this little crack in the veneer of parashat Tazria to explore for yourself, along with others. I know I will certainly be digging deeper into it.

Now, I'd like to leave you there, but I simply can't resist another part of the strange convergence. It's the haftarah for Tazria, which only is read in leap years and other times when the usually combined parashiot of Tazria and Metzora are not combined.
Now, this year, it is Shabbat HaHodesh, and so we read from Ezekiel, which talks about "temple dues," the high priest making expiation for all the people, the Passover sacrifice, a bunch of narishkeit on purifying the Temple and sacrificial rituals, and a nice little inheritance clause for priestly families, with a sneaky little trick using the sabbatical year to make sure that descendants of priests get back any gifts their ancestors made to any plain old common person. Yet for my convergence to work, I need to focus on the usual haftarah for Tazria, so I ask your indulgence.)

What is the haftarah about?  Miracles. The miraculous multiplying of 20 loaves of bread to be able to feed hundreds and still have some left over.

The miraculous healing of lepers. Stories certainly borrowed for later use by the disciples of that itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. What can I learn from their retelling and reinterpretation of these miracles? What does it mean that these same stories come from my own tradition?  I know there is something there that can strengthen my own Judaism if I but open myself to it. (Just as my experience as one a few Jewish students at a nominally Christian divinity school strengthened my Judaism.) If I have learned anything in my time on this earth, it is that we need not fear the encounter with the other. Interfaith dialog that seeks to persuade, proselytize, or convert is not dialog. As Heschel wrote, "The purpose of religious communication among human beings of different communities is mutual enrichment and enhancement of respect and appreciation, rather than the hope that the person spoken to will prove to be wrong in what he regards as sacred." Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury understands interfaith encounter as I do: "In the context of interfaith encounter, we need to bring to the surface how our actual beliefs shape what we do - not simply to agree that kindness is better than cruelty." In that spirit, I look forward to next week's part II of the inter-congregational dialog on covenant. May I find fodder for more yet musings then. Ken y'hi ratson.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester