Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Arnold and Dominique: The Arificial Distinction between Sins and Crimes

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2011 at 9:25 am

In today’s WAPO Juliet Williams makes what she feels is a much warranted distinction between a sex scandal and a crime.  Strauss-Kahn is accused of a sex crime, while the former Governor of California has admitted to scandalous behavior, but the two types of sexual impropriety should not be conflated.  She complains that the mass media has encouraged one to see the similarities of these activities without emphasizing the qualitative difference between an assault and a betrayal of trust. Defenders of Clinton did the same thing. Sins are a private matter, while crimes are public.  Certain crimes are forgivable, like lying about your sins, because they should have been left to be private in the first place.

Within a crime there is usually a sin, but in intimate matters sins abound whereas crimes are scarcer.  In matters between him and her crimes emanate in most cases from lack of consent. Sins, however, are derived from the rules dictated by the Higher Authority.  Arnold sinned, and so, allegedly, did Strauss-Kahn, but only Strauss-Kahn may, if convicted, go to jail.

This dichotomy between sins and crimes only exists in a bifurcated system of values.    The Talmud sees rape as a more serious version of other forbidden sexual relationships, but the severity is in degree, but not in kind.

Can you imagine being the so very visible yet innocent child of a scandal and how that might effect your sense of self, through no fault of your own? By clarifying that what Strauss-Kahn allegedly did is much worse, there is a wink and a nod to those men who cheat, those women who are complicit. And to those unwitting spouses who were the last to know, there is precious little sympathy.

Juliet Wilson declares that clearly what Strauss-Kahn may have done is worse than what Ahhhrnold has admitted to doing.  Tell that to Maria Shriver and their children. For once I’m on the side of blurring categories to say a plague on both behaviors and the resultant suffering that will certainly live long after the headlines. Both of their actions, alleged and admitted, have one thing in common. These men live in a reality that entitles them to not play by the rules. What they don’t realize is that their example matters. They give permission for others to do the same.

It would behoove us to not make light of one behavior in order to highlight the severity of another.  Each one is awful in its own right.

The unsung heroes in the sordid Strauss-Kahn episode are the NYPD. Maybe Strauss-Kahn thought that nobody would prosecute the head of the IMF at the word of a chambermaid, a “nobody”.  I imagine what he didn’t realize is that the NYPD viewed this as an attack on a fellow New Yorker, and no Frenchman is going to come in and have his way with one of ours–we don’t care who you think you are.

Good for them.

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What if the rapture is a rupture?

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 8:11 am

How will the theologians adjust to the fact that the world is still here, and, all the faithful have yet to disappear? This is why the Talmud looks askance at those who try to ascertain the end of history. According to the Talmud and Midrash, by design the endgame was usually hidden, but even when revealed to individuals they were prevented, by sudden amnesia, from publicising the timing of the main event.

Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel, the first translator into Aramaic of the Prophets wished for Divine inspiration to do the same for the hagiographia כתובים of the Tanakh, but was refused by Divine decree. The reason given was that the timing of the “end of days” was encoded within them, and these were not to be known (Megilla 3a)

This is the cornerstone of the Jewish ‘this worldly’ pre-occupation. On the one hand, we are judged after we leave this world, but on the other hand, the work at hand is to make this world fit for redemption. Well maybe, a “deadline” would be helpful and get everyone moving? Such a theology would preclude the possibility of fulfilling the Torah’s commandments out of a deep love of the Torah. Instead, everyone would be committed out of fear for the consequences of the end time.

I’m betting that the only thing special about tomorrow is that it’s shabbos, and my son’s fourteenth birthday.

Nevermind, however, I am sure some theological accommodation will be made and those dollars will continue to flow to those selfless televangelists. Sheeesh!

Parshat Behar: Give it a rest

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

One of the most dramatic and radical Biblical ideas is the concept of a mandated day off, or year off, or a do over every seven years when it comes to cancelling a debt.

Rashi, quoting the midrash,  is puzzled by the following verse:

And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that when you enter the Land that I will give you, you shall let the land rest, a sabbath for God.

Rashi’s question?

What’s the connection between Mt. Sinai and the Sabbatical year?

In other words, why is this subject the one to be discussed on Mt. Sinai? These laws are not going to be observed for quite some time, what’s so important that cannot wait?

The answer lies in the verses that follow. The laws of the sabbatical year are enumerated in great detail, and although many commandments are not given the same treatment in the Torah, it is assumed that these details were rendered at Sinai, and that in fact there is noting special about the sabbatical year, it was chosen merely as an example. Some commandments will be more be given deper treatment in Deuteronomy, but here we learn the fact that the entire package was given at Sinai, even if much was not mentioned explicitly.

Still, why was this particular issue selected as the example when there are many subjects that require great detail as well? Why is it the commandment that requires land to lie fallow, debts to be cancelled, and freedom to those enslaved that gets the center stage here? Why, too, is it “a sabbath for God” and not for the Land?

The Torah as a whole has a deep appreciation for creativity and industry. Even in the desert we were builders, and the rituals commanded in Leviticus were often reminders that what we have done was not by our hands alone. For it is a human tendency to magnify ones contribution and minimize the  work of others.

Rest had to be mandated in all aspects of life because left to our own designs we would not take the time one day a week, or let the land lie once every seven years, or afford a neighbor a second chance to get on his feet by cancelling a debt (the Biblical version of bankruptcy).  Even if we know that we would be happier, the land would be healthier, and the society would benefit, such forward thinking often eludes us.

The Torah is unequivocal because these enforced vacations are for God, and His world and not exclusively or primarily for you. Your enjoyment is a bi-product, but for the world to be sustained the way God wishes we need to be in it for the long haul.

It could be that the reason these particular laws are detailed is because they are in the broadest sense, the framework within which the world works. Rest and relief from pressure of all kinds is a necessary component for industry and creativity.

Embedded in Jewish consciousness is the concept of a day, or a year of ingathering and nondoing that cannot be put off with the excuse that there is something more important that needs to be done. Other than the saving of life itself, there is nothing more important.

A side note. Once, I was watching the detective show Kojac in Israel in order to practice reading the Hebrew subtitles. Kojac says to his sidekick Stavros: “What’s that got to do with the tea in China, Stavros?” The Hebrew subtitle quoted Rashi, saying, “What do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai Stavros?

Many Israelis are unaware of how much Torah they actually know.

Shylock, Lex Talionis, and Parshat Emor

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

During the time William Shakespeare lived, it was hard to find a Jew in England. In fact, Jews had not been allowed to live there for several hundred years. Nevertheless, the archetype of the nefarious infidel Jew was alive and well in Christopher Marlowe’s, The Jew of Malta, and more notably in Shakespeare’s own Merchant of Venice. Mostly for worse, and not for better, Shylock does not only represent himself, but symbolizes the qualities that required a virtuous English monarchy to expel the Jews from her shores hundreds of years before Shakespeare lived; presumably, because their very presence corrupted the moral fabric of Christian England.

The idea of the Jew, lived in English imaginations long after Jews were no longer there, and was personified in Shakespeare’s Shylock. Just as most Americans know very little about Islam, my assumption is that the English rabble knew even less about Jewish tradition.  Some, however, may have known pieces of the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution that is articulated as a general principle in this week’s parsha may have been known to many.

“…fracture in exchange for fracture, eye in exchange for eye, tooth in exchange for tooth.” (Leviticus 24:20)

I have translated the Hebrew word Tachat as “in exchange for” instead of merely “for”, because tachat is primarily used in a financial context. The rabbis when strongly reading this word, understood that this meant there would have to be some payment for the wound, and not that there would be a similar maiming of the perpetrator. The money reflects atonement more than financial compensation and the graphic language reflects the fact that the offender should see his payment as if he is giving his proverbial eye. This ruling dates back to at least the time of the Mishnah (200 CE) and most probably earlier.  The fascinating Talmudic discussion on this Mishnah uses quotes from the Mishnaic period as well.

It is often asserted that when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, he was critiquing what he perceived as the Jewish practice of his time:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39NRSV)

Given the fact that the Gospel of Matthew was written around the time of the Tanaim (first or second century), and that the Mishnah itself reflects discussion of earlier generations, at the very least, this understanding  displays ignorance of how the verse was interpreted by the Pharisee establishment. The tradition as recorded, never allowed for “an eye for an eye” to be taken literally. When one sees what is written in Baba Kama 83b, one is struck by how each tanna offers a unique way of learning that “an eye for an eye” refers to payment. It is clear that what is in dispute is how one derives this understanding but not the understanding itself. This indicates that the Mishnah reflects an undisputed practice that had been in effect for many generations prior to the codification of the Mishnah.

The Book of Matthew’s unvarnished rendering of the verse embedded in Christian consciousness that the Jew was obsessed by law and retribution, while Christianity was all about love and charity. It could also be that the Sermon on the Mount required a mastery of the pithy aphorism, and that accuracy was sacrificed for a more robust rhetorical punch. If Jesus would have said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye which requires financial compensation and not actual maiming. But I say to you…”—he may have lost his audience right then and there.

Maimonides asserts that payment was the original and only intent of the verses, and even in the court of Moses himself an eye was never taken in exchange for an eye. He calls it a halacha leMoshe M’Sinai , an oral tradition that was given at the time the Torah was received by Moses at Sinai.  The maiming of individuals by a Jewish court was inconceivable to him because he saw the exegetical exercises of the Sages as unsatisfactory, and so therefore assumed that this tradition was not based on any Talmudic interpretation, but was the original intent of the verse. The Sages later merely justified this tradition by creatively parsing the verses with midrashic pyrotechnics.

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, the original editor of the “Encyclopedia Talmudit” wrote an article about whether Shylock’s claim of a pound of flesh would hold up in a Jewish court.  He felt it was important to see whether Shylock was acting according to Jewish values or whether he was influenced by the English courts of his time. Would such a claim have any validity in Jewish tradition?

R. Zevin argues that a Jewish court would have thrown out the case because Antonio was only the steward of the collateral offered, and not the owner. The pound of flesh did not belong to him, but to the Almighty. God, Him/Herself, would have had to have been the guarantor. Just as a person cannot commit suicide because the One who gives life is the One who may take it away, so, too, one cannot offer a pound of “his own” flesh in payment. He never had the right to offer something that was never his.  To allow this possibility was maybe a Venitian, but more likely a Shakespearian mishugas, and not a Jewish one. In a Beit Din Shylock would have not have been allowed to make this condition.

He ends the article by quoting a famous liturgical poem that is in every selichot service most famously prayed during the ten days of penitence: The soul is Yours (God’s) , and the body is Yours (God’s), have mercy on Your labor.

In 1994, I was invited to the Palace of Saint James for a launch of an international translation series sponsored by Edgar Bronfman, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, among others.  My translation of Gates of Light, a thirteenth century Kabbalistic lexicon, was one of six books from which people of various faiths were going to read. The Archbishop who was going to read from my work shared with me the selection he had chosen.  Although the book had scores of pages that gave serious reflections on prayer, tzedaka, wisdom, compassion, and love, he chose two pages where the word justice appeared at least twenty times.  In the most collegial, and amicable fashion, I felt that he was demonstrating what he most admired about the Jewish tradition, but also what he felt was a serious omission that only Christianity could provide.  Namely Jews are obsessed with getting theirs, but selfless love was something of which only a practitioner of Christianity is capable.

The argument of an “eye for an eye” versus “turn the other cheek”, unfairly framed as it was, is still alive and kicking (us).

This was a piece commissioned by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships Alumni Network

On Bin Laden: Jews Get WASPy.

In Uncategorized on May 9, 2011 at 7:45 am

As a species, we are not as highly evolved as we would like to think. The veneer of civilization is very, very thin.  I have read many Jewish responses to the assassination of Bin Laden, and, at least among the published responses, the qualified reaction of relief, but no joy at the death of a human being is the most popular opinion offered in the name of “Judaism”. The most popular sources are the verse from Proverbs enjoining us not to celebrate the downfall of our enemies and the Midrash where God stops the angels from singing after the Egyptians have drowned in the Red Sea.

There are many sources that countenance a more visceral triumphalist response, most prominently, the Book of Esther where we dress up in costume, ridiculing our long dead enemies. In a shabbat prayer during the Torah service, we look forward to the day when the  “Father of mercy” is asked to avenge the suffering of His people in very graphic language that leaves little to the imagination.

It is a time honored tradition that we cherry pick our sources so that our temperaments will be buttressed with the sanction of sacred writ. Into the mix, I throw out a quote that seems to dance between the weddings of unqualified joy at Osama’s death, and somber relief at the evil one’s demise.

Beloved is the human who was created in His image. Execessive affection was designated for him [as a result] of being created in the image, as it is written: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed, For in His image did God make man’… (Pirkei Avot 3:14)

The first line is often quoted, but people forget to quote the Biblical prooftext that makes the opening statement “Beloved is the human…” a little less straightforward.  If the reason a human is beloved is that humans are enabled to kill those who murder among their species, how exactly is that demonstrative of being beloved?

It seems that anyone who kills another is desecrating an image of God, and therefore deserves the ultimate punishment, but why should the punishment be destroying another image of God? It must be that any murderer forfeits his ‘image’ thus becoming a counter image that needs to be removed by those who retain the ‘image’.

The intentional murder of non-combatants would certainly fall into this category. How one responds to the killing of Bin Laden is a matter of taste, but nothing more consequential than rooting or booing a football team. I don’t paint my face, strip half naked with letters on my torso, but I do celebrate the triumph of my team, as I am disappointed when they lose.  I also think that those who get loaded and act profanely are within their rights even if I wish they were sitting a little farther away.

For me, any response to Bin Laden’s demise is a question for Miss Manners and nothing more, and yes, I believe that I have my sources too.