Jul 20, 2008

Pinchas 5768: "The Blessings of Brokenness"

Pinchas 5768: "The Blessings of Brokenness
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The great Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik once said that reading a translation is like kissing through a veil.  The beginning of Parashat Pinchas illustrates this quite clearly.  And not only does the biblical Hebrew lose its power refracted into the vernacular, but even if the Hebrew of a handheld Chumash is consulted, there is much missing which can only be experienced by direct contact with the Torah scroll itself.

First the language.  We read (translate) the following:

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Phinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My Jealousy. Say, therefore, 'I grant him My 'Covenant of Shalom'. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he was jealous for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.' Numbers 25:10-13)"

The beginning of Parashat Pinchas recounts in only the vaguest of terms that which Pinchas actually did.  He killed an Israelite who was publicly licentious with a Moabite woman.  Pinchas struck them both through with a spear.  This act, incredibly violent, is narrated in the conclusion of the previous Torah portion, separated from ours, perhaps in order to demonstrate an ancient discomfort connecting God's blessing to Pinchas' violence.  

The word for God's "jealousy" is also curious, offered sometimes as "passion" or "zealousness."  But the ugliness of jealousy captures the text's rawness better than those other terms, and still falls short.  God is jealous, and Pinchas' act is connected to that angry, self-doubting emotion.  Whenever Israel cheats on God, straying from theological monogamy, God gets jealous.  

Indeed, it might be possible to read the text as suggesting that through Pinchas' ugly act, God learns.  God's Jealousy is manifest on a human scale through Pinchas' violence.  Perhaps the Covenant of Peace is one which God only recognizes as necessary when the raw divine emotion actualizes through Pinchas and wreaks havoc in the human sphere.  It is as if God says to God's Self, "Gevalt.  Look what jealousy, connected with Me, does on earth."  Pinchas teaches God through demonstrating the wrong example, an imperfect response to personal pain.  He certainly needs God's Covenant of Peace - as does God in moments of Divine Anger.  It is just too easy to think small and foment pain in the world.  If I feel threatened, my natural inclination is to lash out.  Our vision of God, connected in its Essence to our self-understandings, makes this very clear.  If God learns by observing violence in God's name, how can we not?  Limited religious vision in our day and age results in violence.  Wouldn't we accept the Covenant of Shalom if offered? 

Now to the Biblical text itself.  The traditional calligraphy of the Torah intentionally includes two oddities in the opening verses.  The 'yud' in Pinchas' name is incredibly small, and the 'vav' of the word 'Shalom' is broken in half.

The small 'yud' is connected to tradition of biblical names which refer to God's own Name.  Avram becomes 'Avraham', where the letter 'heh' is part of God's Mysterious Name, and Ya'akov becomes 'Yisrael', including the name 'El' from 'Elohim', another Name for God.  Here, Pinchas' name includes a holy 'yud', but that visual connection to God's Name is reduced.  Perhaps Pinchas' essential holy connection is reduced through the smallness of his act.  Violence is effective and flashy, but not sustainable, not healthy - and not holy.  Pinchas cares deeply about God but fails to be a partner in conversation, forgetting to mediate the intensity of Divine emotionality with the individuality of being an other to God's Self.  

Rashi suggests that Pinchas wasn't officially a priest until this episode, and so we might imagine that Pinchas was jealous of the honorific, the respect, the public acknowledgment of being a servant for God in the world.  And perhaps his violent act suggested to God the need for more structure, more rules.  Being a priest included certain garb, certain rituals, certain decorum - all rationales for curbing the powerful emotional instability Pinchas (and others) demonstrate.

The broken 'vav' in the word 'Shalom' means that God's blessing to Pinchas is a Covenant of Broken Peace.  When we believe we contribute to the world and that we are whole as we do so, we forget that the world which calls our attention so loudly needs the care of a similarly broken soul.  As Parker Palmer suggests in A Hidden Wholeness (2004):

"Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.  Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness... need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life. (p.5)"

May we all be blessed by God's Shalom, the awareness that righteous indignation has its place but is deeply misplaced when manifested as an attack.

May we remember that our vulnerable selves are holy and that the wholeness we seek is sought too by the Holy One.


A Note from Rabbi Creditor: "Continuous Creation" in honor of David Stein and Aliza Segal

A Note from Rabbi Creditor:
"Continuous Creation"
in honor of David Stein and Aliza Segal

  15 Tammuz 5768
July 18, 2008

While tradition teaches that "kol hatchalot kashot/all beginnings are hard" there are times when beginnings are moments of palpable love.

One year ago, when we arrived in Berkeley with almost 3 children and many dreams, we took a step forward into the unknown.  Netivot Shalom, a place of deep Torah and caring, was a new and mysterious community.  I remember that very first day in my office, that very first Shabbat, those first friendships.
  Two of those first friends, two beloved members of our community, are making new beginnings in the coming weeks.  I'm humbled to return the care with which they welcomed my family as they prepare for their next steps by sharing these words.

The Torah's first story recounts the difficulties involved in creation.  Mystery and challenges in the narrative speak to and about people who are at the junction of faith and history, of science and future promise. The Hebrew text is so pregnant with meaning that it can fill whole libraries dedicated to Midrashic thought and interpretation.  But there is one clear direction of creation, in which God takes the waters that were a primordial void, divides and stops them up in the Heavens above ("shamayim", the Hebrew word for the Heavens, is actually two words "sham mayim: there is water") and the sea below.

One would think that this divine effort would last.  But it doesn't.  The very next Torah portion, the story of Noach, includes an undoing of creation.  God "takes out the stoppers" for the waters above and releases the fountains below, erasing the creative event.  Only through an ongoing creation, sustained in every subsequent story, can history flow and gain strength.  Creation undone is rupture, and only a temporary accomplishment - even for God.

It is in light of this thought that I turn to the grand work of David Stein and Aliza Segal.  It is because of their generous spirits and profound commitments to our community that we are where we are.  This shul community is growing in strength, numbers, and intimacy.  We understand more about systems and communication.  We have a better understanding of the responsibilities each role in our shul demands.  They have empowered our community to continue the process of creation they tended so well.

Aliza greeted my family the very day we arrived for the interview Shabbat.  With her she brought abundant food and overflowing grace.  She helped us know the soul of Netivot Shalom by sharing her own with us.  And then, when we were blessed to move here, she and her family moved just 4 doors down from our home.  We had a little "kibbutz" of a block with children visiting all the time, parents sharing Shabbat and the park.  But when I began my work as rabbi of Netivot Shalom, it was Aliza's mind and skill that inspired me the most.  She brought real care and mindfulness to our office, to our shul.  And with the blessing of Tova Nechama in their lives, she and Yehoshua's decision to take their next step as a family is, while natural, a loss to us all - to me.  I'm proud to be Aliza's friend.  We'll miss the Segals very much, and are proud to always be their home.

David Stein.  All I can do is start by saying his name and smiling.  My first moment with David was informative - we spoke for just a few moments in which he made clear to me his passion and skills, and his
commitment to continue as executive director for one year of the next rabbi's tenure, a promise of continuity and stability.  No gift could have meant more to me personally, professionally, and to our community as a thriving, dynamic entity.  And I have loved David since meeting him.  He is my friend and my teacher.  When he and Bill moved to Berkeley, in order to be close to our shul, I was inspired.  When we sat to plan the transition to a new executive director, I was overwhelmed.  David has worked harder than we could have asked.  He has cared more than we will ever know.  And we are blessed that he and Bill are - and will always be - members of the Netivot Shalom community.  Because of David's gifts, we are ready to continue creating.

Every transition is an opportunity to realize the blessings we already share, and to envision the blessings to come.  Aliza and David were honored by our shul community last Shabbat in a Friday night celebration.  Today, "Sabbah Daveed" was the guest of honor at the Preschool "pretend Shabbat."

May Aliza and her family feel our love and our gratitude every step of their ways.

May David and Bill enjoy their new "civilian" roles in our community.

May they and we always feel this kind of love and gratitude, experiencing the ongoing creation of
healthy, holy community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom
1316 University Ave, Berkeley, CA

Jul 8, 2008

A Reflection on Jewish Law for the Modern Jew

A Reflection on Jewish Law for the Modern Jew
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

For those who have not heard of the decision by Church of England this past Monday (July 7) to endorse women as bishops, the relevant New York Times article should be read as a potential tool for re-understanding the tension felt by any living spiritual community:  how to remain both religiously authentic and honestly responsive to the world in which we live. 

There are those in every faith tradition who would depict responsive traditionalists as "manipulators of [Religious Law] to justify their abandonment of whatever elements of Jewish religious law frustrate some of their congregants' wishes or clash with contemporary societal mores."  These were the words of Rabbi Avi Shafran, in the sequel to his now-infamous "The Conservative Lie (Moment, Feb. 2001)," in which he claimed that "while proclaiming fealty to halachah [Jewish Law], the movement's leaders have brazenly trampled the very concept."  Compare them, in tone, to the following words in reaction to the Church of England's decision this week:

"It's getting worse; it's going downhill very badly," the Rev. David Houlding, a leader of the traditionalists, said after the York vote, according to a report by the newspaper The Guardian. "It's quite clear that there is a pincer movement, and we're being squeezed out." But he added, "There will be no walkout — yet."

How do those who advocate for a responsive tradition respond to both the claim of inauthenticity and the threat of walkout by self-described 'traditionalists'?

Charles Taylor argued in his classic The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) that "we are only individuals in so far as we are social... [and that] being authentic, being faithful to ourselves, is being faithful to something which was produced in collaboration with a lot of other people."  Taylor points out that the concept of "authenticity, of self-fulfillment... seems to render ineffective the whole tradition of common values and social commitment."  Whereas Taylor carefully pointed out the perils connected to modernity's inclination towards self-realization, he was not as quick as others to dismiss it, calling for a "freeze on cultural pessimism."

Some words from the masterful new book by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law (2007) are useful here.  In rejecting the theory of Legal Positivism, embraced by some including Rabbi Joel Roth, and positively pessimistic in my understanding of Taylor's term, Dorff writes:

"[Legal Positivism is] the doctrine that the law is totally encompassed by what the legislators say it is in the the law they posit.  They may have had all kinds of reasons to enact a particular law - moral, social, economic, political, or simply the pressure of time - but none of that matters in interpreting and applying the law; what counts is what the law says (49). ...Roth gives less weight to [external] factors than to the stated law itself, evidenced by the very term he uses: by describing such factors [as moral, social, economic, etc...] as extralegal, he clearly asserts that for him their are, literally, outside the law (50).  ...This immediately identifies the law with the received, written tradition.  Other theorists of the Law [including Dorff] would disagree with him completely, pointing to the oral nature of most of the tradition from its very origins and the immense role that custom, morality, economics, politics, and even style have played in the history of Jewish law, especially as Jews spread all over the world.  As a result, despite Roth's conscientious effort to demonstrate the role of such extralegal elements in the law in the past, his theory seems to limit the scope and the methods of the law far too much to be historically accurate, and many would find his definition of Jewish law too narrow to form a wide basis for making Jewish legal decisions in our own time (52). ...Finally, with Roth's understanding of the nature of the law, there can be no serious moral or social critique of the law.  Instead either the law is accepted forever as the criterion of what it means to be moral or it loses any claim to morality. ...  This was clearly in evidence, for example, in [Roth's] method for justifying the ordination of women [in the Conservative Movement], by which he based his argument solely on what he could find in precedents without mentioning morality as even one of several motivating factors for the change (57). ...[The] continuing interaction between received Jewish law with both internal and external factors is the reason that Joel Roth's claim that law must be 'the dog wagging the tail of theology' cannot be right.  It is rather that Jewish law, theology, morality, and political, social, technological, scientific, and economic developments in the Jewish community and in the larger communities within which Jews live are all intertwined, and each affects each other in critical ways in an ongoing basis (68)."

There are important balances to this philosophy of responsive traditionalism, including deliberately maintaining the integrity of the system while celebrating every advance.  But the claim that introducing change into religious tradition is corrosive presumes a limited legal approach similar to Roth's and is damaging to both the relevance and the authenticity of a modern traditional Judaism.  After Roth resigned from the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards due to the acceptance of a legal response permitting most sexual activity between men, sexual activity between women, commitment ceremonies and ordination for LGBT Jews, he wrote in the JTA op-ed Committee on Gay Ruling Stepped out of Halachic Framework (Dec. 10, 2006):

"Despite the popular view of what we were arguing about, I believe that the subject of gays was not what we were really divided over. It happened to be the specific subject that revealed the real fault lines in the committee, and in the Conservative movement in general. ...I believe we were divided over the following irreconcilable issues: How entitled are we to overturn longstanding and uncontested precedents of Jewish law? ...What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance... Even if the prohibition against sexual behavior other than male intercourse is rabbinic in authority and not biblical, what justifies our abrogating that prohibition? ...How halachically defensible does an argument have to be before it can be considered within the halachic ballpark?"

Roth was right about the questions being asked.  But embodied in his response is the presumption of modern powerlessness in the face of imperfect inherited tradition.  Older Jewish codes which are challenged by new questions were themselves, so many times, challenges to earlier articulations of tradition, none of which were infinite in their future vision or authority. 

The authenticity of each generation's religious voice and the parameters by which they are commanded must include the wisdom gained by their own experience and an expansive and textured love for the God who has yearned along with every generation of spiritual seekers.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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