Friday, February 27, 2009

Terumah 5769: Table Conversation

I'm a little behind in everything due to a series of deadlines and a lot of travel. So here is a revision of a 2005 Shlomo's Drash which I had posted only privately before, though a huge part of my own theology.

This week, Moses is on Mount Sinai beginning the Forty-day period of receiving the Torah. God starts with the design plan of the Mishkan, the portable temple that will be the center of Israelite practices until the time of Solomon. God starts holy and works his way out, giving plans for the Ark of the convenant, noting about the Ark: .

And there I will meet with you, and I will talk with you from above the cover, from between the two kerubim which are upon the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the people of Israel.[Ex 25:22]

It is from here that all divine revelation of the prophets comes. When the temple is destroyed divine revelation disappears. God continues our parsha with the plans for the Table, on which would be put what is usually translated the shewbread.

23. You shall also make a table of shittim wood; two cubits shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 24. And you shall overlay it with pure gold… 30. And you shall set the bread of display upon the table before me always.[Ex: 25:23-30]

We read much later in Leviticus 24:5-9, what this shewbread is and how it is used. The shewbread was loaves of bread that were placed on this table sitting in front of the Ark. They sat there for a week, from one Shabbat to another. At the next Shabbat, they were replaced and the old loaves were eaten by the Priests at this table. The Talmud mentions a miracle about this bread. The bread was as fresh as when it came out of the oven the entire week. On Yom Kippur, part of the service was to lift it to the crowds and declare [Yoma 21a-b] “Behold how beloved you are of God, for it is as fresh when it is taken off as it was when put on, as it was said: 'To put hot bread in the day it was taken away.'(I Sam 21:7)”

I once came down with a stomach flu. The evening I got sick I was sitting an Italian restaurant and a weird thought popped into my head. There is a quote in the Mishnah I have been quoting a lot lately, and thinking a lot about.
If three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, Blessed be He

However, I could not remember the proof text. For those not familiar with rabbinic logic, nothing exists unless it has some quote in the Tanach to back it up. As I left the restaurant, I stopped at a bookstore that was across the parking lot to see if they happened to have a copy of Jacob Neusner’s translation of the Mishnah, or some other translation of Pirke Avot which would have the proof text. Oddly enough, for a predominately Jewish neighborhood, they didn’t. While in the bookstore, my tummy rumbled, and went to the restroom. The beginnings of my flu erupted in Diarrhea. I got home, and spent most of the night with something coming out of one end or the other. By the morning, decimated, dehydrated, and exhausted, I was sitting in bed and that thought about the proof text popped up again. Being the Torah geek I am, it just so happens that I have a copy of the Mishnah by the bookshelf next to my bed. Although the book seemed to weigh a million pounds I did get it off the shelf and looked up the full quote
Mishnah Avot 3:3. R. Simeon said: if three have eaten at one table and have not spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead, for [of such persons] it is said, ‘for all tables are full of filthy vomit, [they are] without the all-present.’(Isaiah 28:8) but, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the all-present, blessed be he, as it is said, ‘this is the table before the Lord’.(Ezekiel 41:22)

I looked up the quote in Ezekiel 41:22, which actually wasn’t a lot of help, though it was related to this week’s portion.
The altar of wood was three cubits high, and its length two cubits; and it had corners; its length and its walls were of wood; and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord.
The table, though twice as tall as the Mishkan’s, is the table for the shewbread. Ezekiel was getting a preview of the third temple, the one to be built in the time of redemption, and here was the shewbread table in this temple.
That was nice but meant nothing to me, so once I felt better, I started digging. It turns out there was an oft quoted saying of two great rabbis in the Talmud who explained that verse:
[Berachot 55a] ‘The altar of wood three cubits high . . . . and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord’ [Now the verse] opens with ‘altar’ and finishes with ‘table’? R. Johanan and R. Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man's table atones for him
Where the Shewbread table used to be our connection to God, since the destruction of the Temple it is our own dining room tables, indeed anywhere we sit down and have a meal. As our text this week says, the shewbread table is before the Ark, where God meets with us. Therefore the shewbread table is God’s dining room table, and every meal we are invited to dine.
But the beginning of the verse interested me as well, which seems a little graphic, and given my illness, a little personal as well. Its proof text is Isaiah 28:8, which one needs a few more verses to get the context:
8. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that there is no place clean. 9. To whom shall one teach knowledge? and whom shall one make understand doctrine? Those who are weaned from the milk, and removed from the breasts. 10. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; 11. For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. 12. To whom he said, This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing; yet they would not hear. [Isaiah 28:8-12]

Even with small pieces of study building on one another, no one in the Northern Kingdom listened. It would be like being invited to someone’s house, grabbing some food, and never speaking to the host, let alone thanking or acknowledging his or her presence. It’s mind bogglingly rude, as rude as intentionally puking and defecating on the table. R. Simeon was outraged that people would behave that way at God’s table.
Therefore, for one to say words of Torah at the table is to be God's personal guest and honor your host, to not say words of Torah is to insult your host. But why did I need that quote from the Mishnah? In Sannhedrin 37a, there is parable related to why life is so precious. Most people who mint coins mint them with a face of a king, and every coin has a face of that king. But the King of Kings, when he mints coins, “Fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow.” And of course of the first man, he “fashioned in his image.”(Genesis 1:27) We all are the faces of God, yet completely unique. It is interesting that the word in Hebrew for Shewbread is lechem panim. Literally this means the bread of faces. Since no translator can figure out whose faces, the usual translation in English is to revert to the verb, which means to turn. One turns to show the bread thus Showbread. Panim can also mean face to face. It could also mean the bread was face to face, lfnei Elokim, before God. What if those faces are the faces of those eating it? All faces are unique expressions of the God-image. When they sit eating bread, and discuss words of The Lord of Hosts the divine in each of us to combine to form a more complete connection to God, and as our portion says “And there I will meet with you, and I will talk with you”. In a collective we find divine revelation.
There is the old expression “Two Jews, three opinions” Often taken as sardonic humor one must ask where the third opinion comes from. The third is the synthesis of the two, the one that comes out of holy discussion, not a discussion of “I’m right your wrong” but of “Here is one case” and “here is another.” Together they make a third, one that we could easily call God’s opinion. When two Jews sit down at a meal, and talk words of Torah, there will their own opinions and together they will reveal the opinion of the Holy One Blessed Be He.
May your tables have holy conversations

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mishpatim 5769: Peanut Butter and the Goring Ox

How does contaminated peanut butter stand up to Jewish civil law? This week’s portion is primarily the civil law given at Sinai. Much of Jewish civil law is no longer binding but provides an interesting way of understanding how much more esoteric religious law was derived by the rabbis. While “an eye for an eye” is well known, lesser known but far more intriguing is the case of the goring ox:

28. If an ox gores a man or a woman, that they die; then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. 29. But if the ox was wont to gore with its horn in times past, and its owner had been warned, and he has not kept it in, but it has killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30. If ransom be laid on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is laid upon him. 31. Whether it has gored a son, or has gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done to it. 32. If the ox shall gore a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. [Exodus 21]

As this can invoke the death penalty for both the owner and the ox, the case is tried not as a monetary compensation case but a capital crimes one:

The ox to be stoned is tried by (a capital crimes court of ) twenty-three, as it is written, the ox shall be stoned and its owner shall be put to death — as the death of the owner, so that of the ox, can be decided only by twenty-three.[M. Sanhedrin 1]

As I noted last week, this usually means neither will die as actually carrying out the death penalty is very rare when one of these cases comes to court. Using verse 21:30, there is the possibility of a monetary penalty instead of a death. What is interesting however is that the ox is considered a life form here, one that can be tried the same way as a human.

Yet critical to the case against the owner would be if the ox was tam or mu’ad. A tam ox is one that has less than three incidents of injury prior to the incident that kills someone. This is the ox which is tame and docile, but through unforeseen circumstances charged someone. On the other hand there is the mu’ad ox, the one that has had three warnings of danger, and the owner did nothing to prevent them as mentioned in Exodus 21:29.

By the early middle ages much of Jewish civil and criminal law was superseded with the law of the land. But I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to see what would happen if it were still in operation. As a food safety consultant, I’ve been following the current Salmonella outbreak case. While the way it will play out in the courts of the United States will be interesting, I’m also wondering how it would play out in Jewish law, and how would one actually deal with this case.

Starting back on Novebmer 10, 2008 13 cases of Salmonella typhimurium caught the eye of the Centers for Disease Control. . Further investigation followed as the case load increased. On January 12, 2009 Minnesota department of health found a commercial container of peanut butter which definitively linked peanut butter to the Salmonella Other heath departments followed, confirming the links Minnesota found. The originator of the product initiated a recall. As of February 19, 2009, 654 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium have been reported from 44 states and there are over 2500 products recalled which contain products from two plants run by this manufacturer. Among persons with available information, 23% reported being hospitalized. Infection may have contributed to nine deaths:

What has also become clear in FDA’s investigation is that the product did have lot numbers that were shipped out either before it was determined the product contained no salmonella or when there had been a positive test. In one noted case of metal contamination it was shipped out of the U.S. to a Canadian producer, but the Canadian plant sent it back as unacceptable. When coming back into the U.S. FDA would not let it cross the border due to the excessive contamination.

This has me wondering something. Is a corporation which harms consumers considered a goring ox? Should we treat a corporation the same? In a thought provoking chapter in his book The Golems Among Us Byron Sherwin explains that in a legal sense corporations through the courts have given themselves the legal status of people without the consequences. In a sense they are a man made souless creature, a Golem. In his book, Sherwin compares golems like the legendary Golem of Prague to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein monster. Both Golems and the Monster were made by man as essentially soulless creatures, but there the similarities stop. Fundamental to this discussion is that Frankenstein’s monster is left unchecked for its primary purpose of running amok, while the golem, who primary purpose is to help humanity, could hurt people if left unsupervised. A golem requires safety measures. Golems are very much like the goring Ox. Oxen have their domestic purposes, but often require preventative measures to keep people safe around them. If those preventative measures are ignored, they might hurt someone. Furthermore, it’s clear from Tractate Sanhedrin that oxen are tried for murder just like humans are tried for murder.

Here we delve into speculation and many questions. We apparently have a company which internally knew of a problem, had far more than three warnings and their only action was to cover it up. Is a corporation a goring ox, and if they do such things are they a Mu’ad ox? In a corporation, who is the owner and what is the ox? If the corporation is Mu’ad how do you stone a corporation to death? In the case of a tam corporation, is death without benefit necessary? While the death penalty can be commuted to a financial penalty for the owner what does that mean?

This case has one more wrinkle, which was not true when I started thinking about all this. The company who made the peanut paste has filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. What if from the time the case starts to the time the case ends, the Ox dies, or the owner hides it or kills it himself?

I have no answers here, I’m interested in some interesting discussion.

What do you think? If we used Talmudic and biblical law, what should be done in this case?

If you happen to be around Evanston Illinois this Saturday, February 21, 2009, I’ll be leading the Torah Discussion at Beth Emet Kahal services on this topic.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Drash Yitro 5769: Jethro’s Gift of the Courts.

The Ten Commandments are not the most important part of this week’s portion in my mind. While most will remember this portion for the preliminary smoke and fire and the recitation of the Ten Commandments by God, there is something far more significant. While moving towards Sinai, Moses’ father in law Yitro catches up with the Israelites bringing Moses’ sons Gershon and Eleazar and wife Tzipporah with him.
Yitro notices the long line of people that want to talk to Moses and ask for judgment in one kind of case or another. Moses looks totally frazzled by the long lines, and Yitro begins to notice the people on the line are not too happy either. Yitro pulls over his son-in-law and gives some sagely advice:
19. Listen now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God shall be with you; Represent the people before God, that you may bring the causes to God; 20. And you shall teach them ordinances and laws, and shall show them the way where they must walk, and the work that they must do. 21. And you shall choose out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens; 22. And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge; so it shall be easier for yourself, and they shall bear the burden with you.
Moses enacts this system, creating a judicial bureaucracy. However it alone does not go far enough. As we will read in Numbers, Moses burns out over a second complaint about the food:
14. I am not able to carry all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. 15. And if you deal thus with me, kill me, I pray you, at once, if I have found favor in your sight; and let me not see my wretchedness. [Numbers 11]
God then creates one more council, a court of seventy elders along with Moses to deal with the bigger issues Moses cannot do alone.
Rabbinic law changed and transformed this system, but the judicial system became the backbone of an entire order of the Talmud: Nezikin. In one of its tractates Sanhedrin, the organization and operation of the courts is discussed:
Monetary cases [must be adjudicated] by three judges… capital cases are adjudicated by twenty-three…a tribe, a false prophet and a high priest can only be tried by a court of seventy-one. War of free choice can be waged only by the authority of a court of seventy-one.[M. Sanhedrin 1]
Unlike the system of population to decide cases this system is based on the type of litigation. Interestingly, all three courts have a prime number of judges, there is no way any set of parties could have an even split. There can be no hung juries, even by multiple factions. What is also clear is that for capital cases and more important national matters the courts are so large they would have a hard time convicting anybody where there is the slightest doubt, as deliberation would go on forever. Indeed in capital cases this is made explicit in Tractate Makkot:
A Sanhedrin that effects an execution once in seven years is branded a destructive tribunal; R. Eliezer b. Azariah says, once in seventy years. [Makkot 7a]
This is despite the huge number of capital crimes found in the Torah. These even include several of the Ten Commandments such as murder, desecrating the Sabbath and insulting one’s parents, all of which should be relatively easy to find people guilty of. Yet very few are convicted, because of the court procedure in such cases, with a few exceptions, is not directly noted in Torah. Human beings, namely Rabbis and Judges came up with the system of jurisprudence found in Tractate Sanhedrin that made it near impossible to enact capital punishment.
This is the gift Yitro gave us before the revelation at Sinai. While Mitzvot are of Divine origin, how we implement them is a very human thing, requiring a very human process of questioning and finding solutions to dilemmas using a system of debate. This is core to what we might call Jewish thinking. It is not just Mitzvot that we follow, but the Halakhah, the derived rules that our ancestors debated and found, and the Halalka we derirve today and that our descendants will derive in the future. The Oral law may have been given at Sinai as well, but it has been adapted many times over millennia for new circumstances. The Oral law is never closed, never complete.
What Yitro did in suggesting to Moses was far more than delegation. In Egypt, Pharaoh’s word was absolute, and the slaves obeyed or were punished, On the way to Sinai, Moses’ word was absolute, because the people had no one else, and thus followed the Pharaoh model. What Yitro did was change everyone’s thinking from one person dictating policy, to ten percent of the population deciding its formation, and all the people able to ask questions to create the conditions for change. All of this was based on the original framework of Mitzvot in Torah. For former slaves this might have been a near impossible task, but the existence of order Nezikin proves that it was a successful one. While it is not the democracy of the Greeks it is democracy nonetheless: it is a democracy founded not in legislation, but in jurisprudence. For one of the minority religions on the planet, the assumptions behind that system have let Jews survive for thousands of years all over the globe, being one of the oldest continuous religions on the planet, constantly adapting to new conditions when necessary.
It builds on the system of God’s partnership with humanity, Mitzvot and Miracles are the realm of God, and God’s participation in this world. We through Halakhah and Aggadah contribute to creation, filling the gaps left by God in Torah for us to fill. This was not revealed at the top of Sinai by God, but by Moses’ father in law at the foot of the mountain, a gift we should be eternally grateful for.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Beshallah 5769: Back in the Harbor Again

In this week’s portion, there are a few verses in the biblical text that often gets lost in the excitement of the crossing of the Sea, The Song of the Sea, the battle of Amalek and the Manna. Yet it has the greatest impact of all, indeed repeated on Sinai itself.
The lost verses happen on the sixth day after Manna becomes standard food for the Israelites. While the people are told not to collect more than they need, the Israelites collect double portions as there seems to be double portions produced. The elders are puzzled and go to Moses.
23. And he said to them, This is what the Lord has said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy sabbath to the Lord; bake that which you will bake today, and boil what you will boil today; and that which remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning. 24. And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade; and it did not stink, neither was there any worm in it. 25. And Moses said, Eat that today; for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you shall not find it in the field. 26. Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none. 27. And it came to pass, that some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather, and they found none. [Exodus 16]
Of course the people who went looking for manna on Shabbat doesn’t go over well with God, who makes his instructions more explicit:
28. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long refuse you to keep my commandments and my laws? 29. See, because the Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ 30. So the people rested on the seventh day. [Exodus 16]
In the Exodus 20:8-11 the Ten Commandments will make Shabbat explicitly a time to not do work. This passage,the first mitzvah of Shabbat makes different requirements. We do as God does in the Exodus 16 passage. Since God doesn’t cook on Shabbat, so too we don’t cook on Shabbat. To make sure we don’t do any gathering, we stay in our place and don’t carry anything in our out of our dwellings. Exodus 20 concerns work life while Exodus 16 concerns our home life.
What is meant by mimkomo “his place?” The text does not use the words moshavo for his habitation or beito for his house. Therefore “his home” might be the best definition. I realized the distinction between house and home about twenty years ago on my first job out of college. The job required six days on the road in a territory that covered anywhere from Pittsburgh to Omaha. I was so used to travel my apartment looked just like a suite at a Hampton Inn, down to the furniture and the sink outside the toilet room. Neither the hotel rooms I stayed at nor my apartment were home. Home was still my parents’ house, where I connected with my family. In that job, I connected nowhere else. After I left that job I did find a home not in my apartment, but in an old sports bar in a far northwestern suburb of Chicago. Here, home was having a few drinks and some munchies with other people in the pottery studio where I used to do my art. A few years later, I found Home in my synagogue life. For most of that time, Home would not be the four walls I paid rent to keep my bed and bookshelves in.
Home is more than just the shelter of a house. Home is about relationship, a place where one feels connected to others. Someone close to me was talking about being Home last week and even had given me a song by Jimmy Buffet about the subject, which made me think a lot about being Home.
I have before talked about Jimmy Buffett and how his song One Particular Harbor is my expression about Shabbat. But the harbor explains our passage as well. Boats spend their days out on the sea, freely moving with the wind, though rarely in communication with other boats. Yet every once in a while they come into harbor, and sailors talk on the docks and in the shops and bars that surround the harbor. Sailing is one thing but without being able to tell the story of your adventure, to relate with other sailors, it is an incomplete thing. So too with Shabbat. We work so hard during the rest of the week, we often forget to relate to our loved ones and friends. One day a week, we do nothing but bind those relationships closer together. Home is where those we care about are, and Home is where we spend Shabbat.
Heschel commented that Shabbat was not a place in Space but in Time. It is the time that we use for strengthening our relationships. We strengthen our relationships to God, to creation, to others in our spiritual community, our friends and our loved ones. It saddens me when those relationships break down on Shabbat, to me there can be no bigger desecration. Exodus 35:3 will command us to kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day. Not only is the fire in the hearth indicated here, but the fire in the heart. Controversy and fighting is not an appropriate activity on the Sabbath. We have six other days for such things. All too often, hurtful words are used and not only feelings but relationships are hurt. Home, whatever and wherever it is, sadly becomes a battlefield.

I try to avoid that. I think of Shabbat as that One Particular Harbor that Jimmy Buffett sings about:

And there's that one particular harbor
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within.

We are told that Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come, one sixtieth of the messianic era. In a week full of stress controversy and strife, I like Shabbat to be that time to rest and work on building relationships. Once a week sailing into the sheltered port of Shabbat from the storm of life is a delight, an Oneg. Having a world around me peaceful enough to witness creation and enter into relationship with it is the joy of the day, if not my week. While John Lennon naively wrote of atheism in his song, Imagine, I still believe the chorus applies to the world where all celebrate Shabbat as a day of rest and building relationships:
You may say I’m a dreamer,
But I’m not the only one
Some day I hope you’ll join us
And the World will live as One.
Or as Zachariah prophesized in a passage which ends the Aleinu Prayer:
On that day the Lord shall be One, and his name One [Zech 14:9]