Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What's in a Name?

Each week one of the clergy team at our congregation sends out a brief D'var Torah to the congregation. Here is the one from this past Shabbat:

Much of the book of Genesis focuses on origin stories. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is no different. It tells us of God commanding Abram to take his wife Sarai and leave behind all that he knows to go to a land that God will show him. Abram does this. The Torah does not tell us why God picked Abram. Instead we turn to the rabbis, who created a midrash which teaches us that when Abram was young, he worked in his father Terah’s idol shop. When left alone one day, Abram decided to destroy all of the idols because he believed only in one God. He found the whole notion of idolatry to be abhorrent,[1] and he explained as such when his furious father uncovered what had transpired.

However, there is a hint as to why Abram may have been chosen that can be found directly in the Torah. A little later in Lech Lecha there is a description of an ongoing war of five kings against four (Genesis 14). Suffice it to say, without getting into all of the specifics, Abram becomes involved in this battle because the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah kidnap his nephew Lot. 

“A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew (ivri).”[2] Scholars have been unable to ascertain the origins of the word ivri, though there is a scholarly theory that it is related to the word Habiru. As the Plaut Torah Commentary notes, “During the 19th to 14th centuries B.C.E., a class of people known as Habiru lived in the Fertile Crescent. They may originally have come from Arabia and may have been related by family ties; they became prominent in Mesopotamia and after spread out all the way to Egypt.”[3]

In this sense, being identified as an ivri meant one was an outsider but an outsider of significance. This would explain why people like Jonah introduced himself as an ivri to the sailors when they asked him to identify himself.[4]

The term Ivri could also be related to the name Ever, Noah’s grandson of whom Abram is related. But my favorite explanation is that “the word ivri is said to be derived from ever, meaning ‘on the other side of,’ or ‘beyond.’ According to Rabbi Judah, the words ‘Abraham the Ivri’ meant that the whole world stood on one side and he on the other, that is, Abrahams’ faith ran counter to what all others believed.”[5]

Judaism is often maligned as a tradition of conformism. However, I would disagree. As we are all inheritors of being Hebrews, ivri; we are reminded that our heritage is based on the notion of not being like everyone else. Being an ivri means not accepting things simply because that is the way they are. Being an ivri means standing up for values rooted in our tradition of fairness, righteousness and justice. To be an ivri will often mark us as an outsider, just like Abram. But as we learn more about Abram’s journey and Sarai’s journey and the journeys of so many of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

[1] Genesis Rabbah 38
[2] Genesis 14:13
[3] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 106
[4] Jonah 1:9
[5] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 114

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Lessons from the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder(1563)
This week we will be reading from parashat Noah. It is probably one of the most well-known portions in the entire Torah. This is in part because we love to teach it to our children. It involves cute animals, an ocean cruise, a raven and a dove, the redemption of humanity through Noah and his progeny, and Noah’s wife: Joan of Ark. Of course, we spend little time on the darker side of the story like the destruction of humanity, Noah’s predilection for drunkenness, and that unicorns completely failed to show up on time.
But in all seriousness, the Torah portion, though often dismissed as a metaphor or allegory at best and a fairytale at worst, there are some serious implications and lessons for us that can be found in this week’s parasha.
However, instead of looking at the story of Noah, we are going to take a deeper dive into another section of this Torah portion, the Tower of Babel. As we learn in Genesis chapter 11: “All the earth had the same language and the same words. As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then people said to one another: ‘Come let us make bricks and fire them hard.’ So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower (Migdal) that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!’ Then God came down to look at the city and tower the people had built. And God said, ‘Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings now, no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying. So it came about that God scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Bavel, because there God confused (ba’lal) the speech of all the earth and from there God scattered them over the face of the earth.”[1]
There is a lot going on in these nine verses. Upon initial examination one might think the pashatinterpretation is: The Migdal Bavelis a story to explain why people are scattered over all the earth and why we speak so many different languages. According to Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell…”[2]So in a way, the story of the Tower of Babel accidentally, unintentionally or perhaps deliberately supports current scientific thinking when it comes to the evolution of language in human beings. 
However, there is more at play in this story than just an explanation for the human condition. Like the story of Noah, the story of Babel is also a morality tale. According to ChumashEtz Hayim, the Conservative Movement’s Torah commentary, “Commanded to disperse and settle the earth, Noah’s descendants insist on clustering in one area. Commanded to submit to the will of God, they set out to make a name for themselves. The story of the Tower of Babel seems inspired by the Babylonian temple towers (ziggurats). Can we sense here the Torah’s ambivalence about large cities, with the anonymity, crime, and lack of neighborliness they represent? Or its suspicion that technology, the celebration of human ingenuity, will often lead to idolatry, people worshipping the work of their own hands. 
One writer distinguishes between ‘mountain cultures,’ which see the heart of the world in wilderness, revering nature and adapting to it, and ‘tower cultures,’ for whom the essence of the world is the city and the human-made environment, stripping the sense of awe from nature and attaching it to the social and technological order. Egypt, land of pyramids and treasure cities, will be a tower culture. Israel, from Mount Sinai to the Temple Mount, will be largely a mountain culture. The people of the Tower of Babel are a pre-eminent example of a tower culture. Although human beings have done many wonderful things to reshape their environment, there is always the danger of becoming so enamored of technology that human values are lost.”[3]
Or to put it another way, according to this interpretation, the story is reminding us of how the Torah is gravely concerned about the implications of becoming a settled society. This is why the wilderness is idealized in our tradition over and over again. And even today, we often talk about returning to nature or becoming one with nature. That there is something inherently evil or at least distressing or dangerous about societies. 
As was mentioned by Harari, in another sermon, “The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks (meaning agriculture). It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis, and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”[4]
So perhaps the story is a cautionary tale against domestication. That by becoming settled, we are paying a physical price.
Another possibility is there is a different moral element at play. According to Etz Hayim, “A rabbinic legend relates that people paid no mind if a worker on the tower fell to his death. If a brick fell, however, they lamented the delay in their building project.”[5]It’s not just about becoming enamored with the work of our hands but becoming so focused on our endeavors that we forget or overlook the human cost. 
A way to translate this to our modern situation is that though we have much greater concerns and regulations for safety in our country today, there are human costs to our economic endeavors. In her book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, author Ellen Shell explains through scientific and economic inquiry the tremendous impact on our landscapes, environment, and people paid for the pursuit of low prices. As is stated, “It has fueled an excess of consumerism that blights our landscapes, raises personal debt, lowers our standard of living and even skews our concept of time.”[6]Perhaps the story of the Tower of Bavelis a cautionary tale to remind us to pay close attention to the cost and impacts of human endeavors. Everything we do and everything we pursue for our own glory impacts ourselves, those around us, the environment, and countless peoples we may never know. We need to strive to be more cognizant of the price we pay for the choices we make.
However, the interpretation I find most fascinating comes to us from the WRJ’s – The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Here the authors wrote, “contrary to some expectations, God prefers diversity to unity and uniformity and, in this story, actively promotes it.”[7]
“According to Ethnologue.com, there are nearly 7,000 languages spoken across the world today. Only a fraction of these languages (359) are truly global, spoken by millions of people. These include Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindi. The remaining 6,550 languages have a much more limited scope, and many are in danger of being lost entirely. To put the dichotomy in perspective, 94% of the world's population speaks 6% of its languages, while 6% of the world's population speaks 94% of its languages.”[8]
What this means is that even if the Tower of Babel is a metaphor or a myth, it does remind us that we, as human beings, are an incredibly diverse group of people, especially when it comes to communication. But this makes sense, because communicating via the spoken language is at the heart of the human endeavor. And according to our ancient author or authors, this diversity of language is something to be celebrated rather than condemned. 
It reminds me of the old joke: Two guys decide to try out a new Jewish deli in their neighborhood. A Chinese waiter approaches their table and takes their order in perfect Yiddish. The two men are utterly amazed that this Chinese waiter can speak to them in absolutely impeccable Yiddish. 
The waiter returns with their food and bids them a hearty appetite, in Yiddish of course. The men eat their meal as they continue to discuss this unbelievable Chinese waiter. Finally, they call the waiter over and ask him for their check. The waiter gives it to them and in Yiddish bids them farewell. As they are paying for their meal, one of the men asks the owner, “where did you find this incredible Chinese waiter?”
The owner looks around to make sure no one else is listening and he says to them, “Sha, he thinks I’m teaching him English!!!”
According to Shlomo Weber, an economics professor in Russia, “Religion and language [are the] two most important factors in identifying, people identify their selves. People’s attachment to the language is a symbol of their identity and a desire for independence. Everywhere and every case the importance of the language, attachment to language, and importance of education of language of your own children and this language is very difficult to overestimate.”[9]
This means that to try to remove one’s language for another may very well have the unintended consequence of destroying their sense of self and community. Which doesn’t mean people should be encouraged to learn other languages, but it should not be at the expense of their primary language.
Perhaps then, one of the primary lessons of the Tower of Babel, where humanity all spoke the same language and engaged in a building process to celebrate their own hubris, we are being reminded instead that diversity of language and thought celebrates not only a wide variety of cultures but also of differing perspectives. If we were all uniform, it would make it that much more difficult for the human endeavor to be creative and dynamic. Or to put it another way, the Torah is teaching us that diversity and diversity of language, as God said about creation, is good. 
Needless to say, this is a lot to digest out of a mere nine verses of Torah. Whether we look at the Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel as an explanation for the multiplicity of languages, a cautionary tale about urbanization and domestication, a reminder of the costs to human endeavors, or a celebration of the diversity of language, all of it is Torah. So rather than simply dismissparashatNoah as simply a fairy tale, we can see that there is a lot to be reflected upon when it comes to the human condition. Through the study of Torah, we can learn a lot about ourselves. And isn’t that one of the greatest journeys we can take?
Shabbat Shalom

[1]Genesis 11:1-9
[2]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, 2015, pg. 21
[3]Lieber, David L., ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pg. 58
[4]Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, HarperCollins, 2015, pgs. 80-81
[5]Lieber, David L., ed., Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, Jewish Publication Society, 1999, pg. 59
[6]Shell, Ellen Ruppel, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Penguin Books, 2009.
[7]Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Adrea L. Weiss, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Women of Reform Judaism, New York, 2008, pg. 49

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Can You Hear Dinah's Voice? Erev Shabbat 09-28-18

The Abuduction of Dinah by James Tissot
Tonight, I’ll be doing something I rarely do, which is actually be quoting from today’s D’var Torah. However, I do expand upon the original text sent out earlier today. But before we begin, tonight’s D’var Torah is reflective of recent events, and discussions and conversations many of us are having with each other and through Social Media, I thought it important to take a look at what Judaism has to say about sexual assault. This is very difficult topic and conversation. For some your wounds are fresh, while for others, the pain is seared into your memories. If you need to step out from our service at any time, please feel free to do so. 
First, a few staggering statistics from the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

·      1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).[1]
·      About 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.[2]
·      From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse.[3]
·      A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.[4]

Clearly sexual assault is happening. Of that, there can be no doubt. And if there is one ray of light in today’s troubled times, even as wounds are being re-opened, it is also reminding us to engage in these vital conversations, and to listen to the heartbreaking stories of our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, friends, and so many others. 
Tonight and tomorrow, we will be reading from a selection in Exodus found in Ki Tisa. It has to do with the aftermath of the destruction of the first set of tablets following the incident of the Golden Calf. In it, Moses pleads with God’s merciful nature. Then he offers up the words that have become known as the 13 attributes of God, which we recite every High Holy Day and festival. And then Moses goes up to receive a second set of tablets. Either in those tablets or in addition to the ten, he receives instructions to command the observance of the three pilgrimage festivals, including Sukkot. 
However, for our purposes, we start at Exodus 33:12 where it says, “Moses said to God, ‘See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor. Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too that this nation is Your people” (Exodus 33:12-13).
What Moses is seeking here are really two things. 1. A partner in the journey to lead a people destined to become the nation of Israel. And 2. Guidance towards through the right path in the wilderness. Though one can expand upon this as to know God’s ways as a guide for personal and national behavior in order to be God’s partner.
Which is why it is frustrating that the Hebrew Bible, not just the Torah is ambiguous at best when it comes to sexual assault and abuse of power. For example, there are the stories of Lot’s daughters[5], the rape of Tamar[6], the story of the Levite’s concubine[7], David and Batsheva, and the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah by Shechem.[8]
Each one of these stories is troubling. Lot’s daughters were almost cast out to appease an angry mob. Tamar had to prostitute herself to get what she was due from Judah. The Levite’s concubine, who is never named, dies as a result of neglect and abuse because of her infidelity. David used his position of authority to have Batsheva’s husband Uriah the Hittite, and one of his generals killed in battle, so that he could ‘acquire’ Batsheva, the beautiful woman he observed bathing in her courtyard from his balcony. And Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter listed in the Torah, was raped by Shechem.
In the story of Dinah, her father Jacob says nothing when the heinous act is revealed, and Dinah is never consulted by her brothers who ultimately slaughter Shechem and his whole tribe in retaliation. As is noted in the Plaut Torah Commentary, “The story also sheds light on the status of women in the ancient Near East. The rape was seen as damage inflicted upon the family rather than on the woman.”[9]If there is one saving grace to this passage it is, “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations. We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment. Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her.”[10]
It is the Rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations who begin to take on rape in a slightly more substantive and compassionate manner. For example, the Talmud prohibits marital rape.[11]Another section of Talmud teaching that bad sex produces bad children condemns several sexual circumstances that the Rabbis believed resulted in offspring who rebel and transgress. These circumstances include: (1) the woman feared the man, (2) he forced her, (3) one of them hated the other, (4) they were fighting, (5) they were drunk, and (6) one of them was asleep.”[12]Meaning, there are consequences. In this case the Talmud is equating sexual assault with rebellious offspring. Or to put it another way: don’t do it, otherwise your kids will have behavioral issues. The reality is, even the Talmud, which does take a more nuanced approach, nonetheless, does not provide us with all the answers we are looking for. It is a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be said and done. 
Only recently, has our contemporary understanding of tradition today universally condemns sexual assault, but it has taken a long time to get to this point. Reform Judaism really only began to address these issues openly in the 1970s. Since then we have been on the forefront of acknowledging and speaking out against sexual violence and domestic assault. 
What can we do? One of the most important lessons we can learn from our tradition is to hear the voice of Dinah. Sadly, what she felt and what she had to say were never written down. But it no longer has to be that way. Instead of sitting in judgment or ignoring the cries of victims, it is time we combine the story of Dinah with the most important mitzvah in our tradition: Shema,listen! Listen to the cries of victims. Genuinely hear their stories. If we wish to walk in God’s paths and to truly know God’s ways, and gain God’s favor, we need to hear the voices from all of God’s creation. Not just those of a specific gender. Not just those who are in positions of power, but from all. Moses was looking for a partner in his journey. Now God is looking to us to partner once again in a journey to acknowledge and call out all instances of sexual abuse and assault.
Until the scourge of sexual violence is ended once and for all, we have to unite and stand up and hold all who commit such crimes accountable and not dismiss the testimony of those who suffer at their hands simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Shema, Listen!

A Prayer for the Victims of Sexual Violence
Bless all who have suffered the trauma of sexual assault and rape
Bless those who are reliving their experiences
through the words of the pain of and suffering of others
Support all them with your abounding love
at all times 
Grant them comfort
as they wrestle with the challenges
of each day.
Sustain them in hope
as they prepare for the days ahead.
And God, through your guidance help us to genuinely hear and believe the words of the victims
And to also be understanding and supportive to those who make the choice not to share their stories
Remind us not to discount their voices, their memories
Remind us to listen and not judge
Grant us the strength to raise up our voices and actions in solidarity,
And the courage to hold all who commit such heinous deeds accountable now and forevermore 

[1]National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[2]National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).
[3]United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. Child Maltreatment Survey, 2012 (2013).
[4]Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sex Offenses and Offenders (1997).
[5]Genesis 19
[6]Genesis 38:1-30
[7]Judges 19–20
[8]Genesis 34
[9]Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 218
[10]Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, ed. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pg. 204
[11]Babylonian Talmud Eruvim 100b