Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Pesach Posts: The Omissions of the Megilla and the Haggada–and what they teach us.

In Uncategorized on March 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

The Holiday of Purim is based on events as recounted in The Book of Esther.  The Book of Esther, known as the Megillah (Hebrew for Scroll) has one glaring “omission”.  The name of God is never mentioned.  The Jews’ salvation remembered on Purim is often referred to as the “Hidden Miracle”.  Hidden, because no supernatural event was responsible, merely the combination of personal courage and good timing made the difference.  One chooses to be courageous, but timing often depends on factors beyond our control.  We choose to exploit the opportunities when offered, but the opportunities present themselves.  When timing works in our favor, we either call it “lucky”, or “Providential” depending on our worldview, or our belief system.  The “Hidden Miracle” of Purim sees the hand of God in the well-crafted natural events of the story.  The Megilla says, “And the Jews were enlightened…” They were enlightened to the fact that this salvation was not of their making alone.

The Passover Haggadah also has a glaring omission. Where is Moshe Rabbenu?  Moshe is not even mentioned once.  How can we have a recounting of the Exodus and ignore the central character?  What point is the Haggada trying to make?

One answer lies in this question, “If God is hidden during Purim why is Moshe hidden during the Pesach seder?”  Purim encourages us to understand that there is no such thing as a self-made person.  We all had partners who contributed to our lives.  Even when no sea was split, no plagues given, so-called unremarkable events have miraculous qualities.

The story of the Exodus might lead one to believe that God had to rely on Moshe to bring miracles into the world, that Moshe was not entirely human.  The Seder reminds us that not only was God ultimately responsible for the redemption, God was entirely responsible.  As the Haggadah says, “‘God took us out’, not by the hands of an angel, not by the hands of a messenger, but the Holy One in God’s full glory.”

Our historical origins were unequivocally miraculous and wonderful.  Our ancestors witnessed the revealed Hand of signs and wonders.  But remember, if the sea would have split and we wouldn’t have been there to cross, it would be a fluke of nature.  What makes it truly miraculous is that it happened when it was needed.  The essence of what makes a miracle a miracle, the timing of it, was as necessary then as it is now.


As for the Biden Insult, Something that gets to the heart of the matter, but rarely gets mentioned

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2010 at 7:43 am

Most Israelis don’t think of certain Jerusalem neighborhoods as “settlements”, but “suburbs”. Gilo, Ramot, Neve Ya’akov, Pisgat Ze’ev, French Hill, Ramat Eshkol are populated by moderate, bourgeois Israelis.  I imagine that there are some Haaretz journalists in these neighborhoods. Very few of these inhabitants think that they are going to be expelled anytime soon.  These thousands also have relatives and friends across the green line who feel the same way.  Nevertheless, journalists never acknowledge the distinction between these neighborhoods and Beit El which is perceived as the evil twin sister of Ramallah.  One cannot hope to bring around the moderate middle to the possibility of peace, if one does not see the difference between “greater Jerusalem” and Kedumim.  

I understand there may be no legal distinction between the two, but as soon as Gilo (a southern Jerusalem suburb a stone’s throw from Bethlehem) is called a settlement, it is tantamount to delegitimating the entire state.  The building of the Ramot Shlomo neighborhood was ill advised on any number of fronts, but there is a difference between an earmarked Jerusalem neighborhood for a particular constituency, and, say, Kiryat Arba.  

When I was living in Israel, and my sister was working as a foreign correspondent there, I remember her referring to Gilo as a settlement which was technically correct, but totally not a synonym in my Israeli, provincial lexicon. My first reaction was that she really doesn’t know what’s going on!  I am certain that is how many Israelis are feeling now, that nobody “out there” gets what is realistically possible.  Ham-handedness and lack of nuance are not only the province of the Middle East, the West is guilty of it as well. 

If you threaten Gilo, you’ve threatened Israel. 

Bruria, Gender, and Thoughts About Health Care

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2010 at 7:13 am

E. J. Dionne in today’s Washington Post alerts us to a religious schism that would not normally come to popular attention.  The Nuns vs. the Bishops on Obamacare.  The Catholic Bishops “regrettably” cannot support the bill because in their understanding, the bill allows for federally funded abortions.  The nuns read it differently and even though they would have preferred different language, they see the bill as not doing so.

This week, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claimed the flaws and loopholes in the bill’s abortion section are “so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote.” As a result, he said, “the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed.”

Although the nuns would never support a bill that sanctions what they consider federally funded murder, they can live with these loopholes in order to bring health care to thirty million more Americans.  This dispute has ancient Talmudic resonance where the gender fault line is in sharp relief.  The Talmud, that mostly masculine book, records the words of Bruria, an acerbic Jewish female icon who is known for beating men at their own game.  She is the daughter and the wife of great Sages, and though not obligated to study, was known and admired for her learning.  In the Gemara in Eiruvin 53נ,

Rabbi Yossi Haglili was walking and saw Bruria. He asked her, “Which way shall one go to Lod?” She answered, “Glili, you fool, don’t you know it is written, “Do not engage a woman in too much conversation?” You should have said, “Where to Lod?”

Well. a pious reading would teach that she knew “her place”, but one can’t help but see that she was having a bit of fun here.  On the one hand, because of her womanliness, men should refrain from anything remotely resembling conversation, but on the other hand, she asserts her superiority by declaring that Glili is a fool.  Is she mocking the ruling as well? Even if she is, she is also submitting to it.  The editors of the Talmud are enjoying the light comeuppance, and insert this anecdote without commentary.

In Brachot,  Rabbi Meir is being hounded by hoodlums and prays that God have “mercy” on him and have them killed.  Bruria gently protests this position quoting the verse “He will expunge sins from the earth and the wicked will be no longer.” It is the sin, not the sinner, that should be expunged and it would be better to pray that they change their ways, than to wish them harm. Rebbe Meir does as she requested, and lo and behold, they changed their ways.” In this exchange, she relates to her husband as an equal without the taunts we witness in Eruvin.  Peoples lives are at stake, and this is not a time for witty repartee.

The nuns similarly have rebuked the Bishops. This is not a time for casuistry, and the parsing of language, 30,000,000 people are at risk for not having adequate access to health care. The Bishops may speak for themselves but the church does not have a monolithic voice, and our voice shall be heard.  The Talmud invokes the voice of individual women–not just Bruria–to remind those male legislators that God wishes them not only to do what is fair but to do what is right and merciful. If there is a way to preserve life without bringing harm to anyone, then that is always the preferred option.

Bruria could poke fun at the absurdities she encountered as one of the learned who was nevertheless barred from opportunities that her male counterparts enjoyed.  In her own way, she was reconciled to them, and her lively personality is immortalized by those who should have been most threatened by her temperament.  It is noteworthy that even though she came to a tragic ending, the Talmud honors her, by only alluding to the story as a possible reason for Rebbe Meir’s exile, but they would not taint her, or her husband with the details.

Bruria, I think, if she were here, would remind us of a simple truth.  The richest country in the world should be able to provide basic health care to all its citizens, period.  That simple fact has not been lost on the nuns, and thanks to Mr. Dionne for helping us here their voices.