Monday, July 19, 2010

Devarim/ Tisha B'Av 5770: The Nine Days and The Concentration Cam

I once drove through a concentration camp, and I, I did not know it. Two years ago, I was going to a business conference in Tucson, and flew in to Phoenix where I rented a car. Driving Interstate 10 was a Interesting trek in the desert, a terrain so different than the Midwest. Around Exit 170 something, I do remember passing a sign that I was entering the Gila River Indian reservation. I didn't know what else was there. It wasn't even visible anymore.

Last winter, I was to plan a big social event for the summer. One date in particular one person I'm close to liked, but I was doubtful. On the Jewish calendar, it came out to the sixth of Av and the evening would be the seventh. I had problems with this date, three days before the Ninth of Av. While I don't observe much of the traditions and halakah concerning the 9th, it for some reason just seemed very creepy. The Ninth of Av is the day when the both the first and second Temple were destroyed, among many other calamities. As I found out, the first Temple happened over a period of several days:

On the Seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth [of Ab] and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day, as it is said, Woe unto us! for the day declines, for the shadows of the evening are stretched out.[Taanit 29a]

I was vaguely aware of this, but I wanted to do a little more research on the days leading up to the destruction of the temple. The party would have come out at the same date as the temple was desecrated. We changed the date to a week later, but I did a little more digging. What I found surprised me. I knew about some of the other events in Jewish history that occurred on or near the Ninth of Av. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the opening of Treblinka. I didn't know about the first orders to empty the Polish ghettos and deport everyone to death camps, and the beginning of this process in the Warsaw Ghetto. Yet there was one date I had no idea about. On the 6th of Av , July 20 1942 Gila River War relocation center officially opened. The interment of over 13,000 Japanese Americans from California and Hawaii at the fifth relocation center had begun on essentially stolen sacred Native American land. The name Gila River stuck in my head, and with a little work from National park service documents, and google maps, I found it and was in for a surprise. Today, interstate 10 runs right through the former camp. I drove through the ruins of that internment camp, and I, I did not know.

Then came the next surprise. I wonder if they felt it at Gila River, 300 miles away. Was there a odd warmth in the air, or a sound? Windows had been reported to rattle 200 miles away, but what was true in this valley, I do not know. What it was would thunder in their return to their home in a few months, but at a horrible cost. That morning the America made Zyklon-B used in Auschwitz and Treblinka a into mere plaything in comparison. On the morning of July 16,1945, the 6th of AV 5705, the Manhattan project successfully tested an atomic bomb near Alamogordo New Mexico.

I've thought about it a lot since I've done that research, how many events happened in that short nine-day stretch. I'm aware I could have picked any stretch of nine days and found a lot of bad things in history. But this period of time intrigues me for several reasons, one of them is why we read this weeks Torah portion without fail within the first nine days of the month of Av. Indeed the double portion of Matot-Masei is there in the calendar to make sure we do. This weeks portion is Moses telling the people almost every failure on their part throughout the entire journey. It is a non-stop rebuke. Moses starts at the episode that made them take so long to get to the land in the first place, the episode of the spies, who gave such an ill report, the entire community was about ready to rebel:
26. However you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God;
27. And you murmured in your tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.[Deuteronomy 1]

The rabbinic texts make a rather startling statement about this
Rabbah said in the name of R. Johanan: That night was the night of the ninth of Ab. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for a weeping throughout the generations to come.[Sota 35a]
There is date a few weeks earlier, the 17th of Tammuz, where tragedy began, and the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Bablyonians leading to the first destruction. Another date the 1st of Av, is when Aaron died, as we know from Numbers 33:38. This period among many in orthodoxy is a period of ramping up sadness culminating with the 9th of Av. First there is a level of sadness from the 17th on, then there is the 1st through the 9th where more prohibitions that are often associated with mourning are observed. Yet, most outside of that type of observance barely notice it.

The non-stop rebuke of the beginning of Deuteronomy, the telling to the people of every failure on their part for forty years seems to fit so well in this context it cannot be accidental. I've often thought the midrash about the establishment of Tisha B'Av of the was a lot like a father telling a kid, "what are you crying about? I'll give you something to cry about!!!!" It is a bit abusive and cruel. With what I did to get this portion out, I'm not sure that is the intent. A short cursory look into 9 days on the calendar in World War II history was enough to have me in tears every time I sat down to write. Thinking more broadly, it was not just Jews who suffered horrible things. We can all be guilty, either through complicity or actively in despicable acts to others of causing such acts. In the 1940's what did the American Jewish community think of the war relocation camps holding Japanese-Americans? What did they think of the Atomic bomb? I would wager most American Jews were as racist against Japanese-Americans as the local chapter of the KKK. They never cried. Without crying for the plight of others, there can be no change.

It would be easy to object that in any 9-day period in history one could find horrible events. Yet in thinking about all this, and thinking about speeding through Gila River as though it wasn't there, I wondered how many times we do that. I've come to another conclusion about that crying in the the month of Av. The high holiday season starts on the 1st of Av. Our repentance might culminate in what we do on Yom Kippur, but how we get there starts in Av. If we do not cry, we cannot change, because we have not felt for those harmed, Jewish and non Jewish. the nine day are days of crying, of dealing with the shock of how horrible the world is right now. Until we do that we cannot change either the world or ourselves. We cannot begin the self examinations necessary to get to the point where we can repent.

We need to cry, to weep for all big things we have had a hand doing in this world. We cannot change if we do not feel. While I had heard of Japanese relocation, I did not know Gila River was there on Interstate 10. There was only desert, the owners of the property prohibiting others from visiting as a way to prevent their sacred land being stolen once again. We need to cry to change. When we see the changes we can make in our world, and then in our selves, we can then to make this a better world. Besides the latest all-too-similar reasons for me not visiting Arizona, I could never drive I-10 in Arizona the same way again. I could never ignore the empty stretch of road between the exit to AZ 587 to mile marker 180 again.

How could we change if only we spent a few days crying?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Masei Matot 5770 -- Backlashing the Sisters

In the face of Zelophehad's daughter's victory comes a backlash -- and not just against them.

This week is a double portion. In the aftermath of the Baal-Peor idolatry mess with the Moabite women, God mentions some rules for making vows, and how women might have their vows invalidated. After this, God tells Moses that he is to order the armies to wipe out the Moabites, and afterwards it will be time for Moses to die. The armies don’t follow orders as well as they were supposed and spare all the women and children to take as slaves. Moses, rather angrily scolds the troops for sparing the women who cased the problem in the first place, and order the execution of all males among the captives, and any woman who isn't a virgin. After all this, the tribes of Ruben and Gad ask Moses if the conquered lands of kings Og and Bashan in Transjordan could be their inheritance, instead of the land east of the Jordan. After some haggling, the deal is made: yes the land can become the portion of Rueben, Gad, and half of Menasseh on the condition the men leave all their women and children in fortified cities, and the men enter the land as shock troops with the rest of the tribes. When the land is taken then they may return. The section ends with two and a half tribes settling this conquered land. In the second parasha read, there is a travelogue of all the places the Israelites stopped through the period of forty years of wandering, ending on the back of the Jordan not far from Jericho. The Torah then begins the process of figuring out how the land will be divided. The whole enterprise will be lead by Eleazar and Joshua. There will be princes over each tribe, who will then divide the inheritances by tribe. Since the Levite do not get a land inheritance, they instead will be given cities spaced through all the land. Six of the levitical cities, three on the east side of the Jordan, and three on the west, are to be set up as cities of refuge, places where someone who caused can legally hide if they caused an accidental death. The text ends with the objections of the elders of Menasseh concerning the inheritance of daughters.

When reading this week's portion I had real problems getting into it. In a word, it's rather misogynist. This didn't seem not a complementary section for women. First, women are told that men are bound by their vows, but the vow of a woman may be overturned by the man who has power over her, such as father or husband. Secondly, the non-virgins of the Moabites were executed, but the virgins were made captives, for the "use" of the army. The last slight was a little subtler. While two tribes Gad and Rueben ask about staying on that side of the Jordan, three are granted land by Moses. The third, a part of Menasseh, just so happens to be the same part of Menasseh the Daughters of Zelophehad belong to. For those who remember last week, these are the same women who outclassed Moses in halakic debate, and even got a compliment out of God. One has to ask, was Moses trying to keep these women away from everyone else?

We find out a little more of the story.

1. And the chief fathers of the families of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spoke before Moses, and before the princes, the chief fathers of the people of Israel; 2. And they said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the people of Israel; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Tzlofchad our brother to his daughters. 3. If they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance 4. So when the jubilee of the people of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers. [Numbers 36:1-4]

This problem with inheritance is solved with the strictest ban on inter marriage: In the case a daughter inherits, then she must marry from within her own tribe only. The daughters do follow this, and marry their cousins. But note in our section (Numbers 32:39-40)

39. And the sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead, and took it, and dispossessed the Amorite who was in it. 40. And Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh; and he lived in it.
Remember back in 27:1 the daughters were described as

Then came the daughters of Tzlofchad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
Thus to bring the point so far, the daughters were not allowed to enter and live in the land of Israel. Their portion was apportioned on the east side of the Jordan, decided for them by Moses and their kinsmen, the sons of Machir, for taking the city of Gilead. They must live only there as they must marry within their own tribe, so living in Israel as a wife in another tribe was out of the question. Until the land was conquered, they were also locked up in fortified cities. If you wanted to keep the smart girls as far away from the action as possible, one couldn't come up with a better plan.

There is another who is finding the same fate, but with a shorter ending. This week, God notes to Moses that its time to die, implying he will not set foot in the land of Israel. But very much unlike Moses the daughters do make their way into the land despite everyone's best efforts to keep them out. We have in the text two possibilities for them to enter the land.

The first is a legal loophole. Only half of the land of Menasseh was to be Transjordan, the other half was to be in the land of Israel. Even if their inheritance were apportioned in Transjordan, they could marry family form Israel, and enter through marriage. Then there is the biblical story in Joshua, where these women show their halakic stuff. In the time of Joshua, the daughters come in front of Joshua and demand their inheritance, not from Gilead but from the land of Israel, recalling that God through Moses promised them a portion. (Joshua 17:3-6) Joshua gives each a portion of the land, along with five male descendants of Menasseh of their grandfather's generation, for a total of ten portions in the land for Menasseh.

Yet that will be years away for them. In this portion, we seem to have a strong backlash against women, and I truly wonder if it was that Zelophehad's daughters showed their smarts to all those men.

Their generation was far more praiseworthy than their male counterparts according to the rabbis, referring to one of the daughters whose name would become the capitol of the Northern Kingdom:

THOU ART BEAUTIFUL, O MY BELOVED, AS TIRZAH: this refers to the women of the generation of the wilderness, for Rabbi said: The women of the wilderness were virtuous and made up their minds not to give their rings for the calf. They said: ‘If the Holy One, blessed be He, could break the hard idols, how much more so the soft one! [Song of Songs Rabbah VI: 14]
The women of the wilderness refused to worship the stone idols of Egypt, and saw what God did to the Egyptian gods. They realized the God would find toppling the soft gold idol of the calf easy. In later times, The women of Jerusalem, once again resist what the men cannot, Baal-Peor, the god of the people of Moab, the people destroyed this week over the same god. There are always righteous women who don’t fall to idolatry. Not only that, but as the verse 5 of the Song of Songs notes, the daughters are the mighty flock descending from Gilead, into Israel. They reject living in Gilead, on the sidelines. Their eyes are intense on their prize, enough to make others cringe. If there is one thing to pull from the text this week, it’s the will and righteousness of these women, who stood up for what God promised them, and never took second best, like some of their kinsmen. Last week, we discussed these women as independent thinkers This week we once again looked into their story, spread out in small pieces throughout the biblical text, and their fight for their portion of land, even when others would restrict their rights.

Interspersed with the story of Zelophehad's daughters in Torah, is the seduction of the men of Israel by the unrighteous women, the seductresses of Baal-Peor. I wonder if they might be intentionally in contrast to one another. Righteousness, strength, determination and Law, even in the most extreme conditions are what is to be praised, not idolatry and seduction. Both women and men have a choice in life, which of these paths to follow. Tirzah and her sisters are there to point us in the right direction.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Pinchas 5770: Midrash on a Gay Pride Float

Last Sunday I could not get a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel out of my mind "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying." Sunday I was not praying but making Midrash in an experience I never thought I'd actually have. After some problems in college with a particular woman who happened to be lesbian, I'll admit I was not very fond of gay rights issues. So it amazed me how a straight guy like me was there on a back of a flatbed truck for a GLBT Synagogue waving at the crowds as we drove the Chicago Pride parade route. Yet I realized along the way, what I was doing was not much different than the Daughters of Zelophehad. In this week's portion God promises the the priesthood to Pinchas and his descendants, then there is a genealogy, to divide up the land. But there is an objection:
1. Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. 2. And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the Tent of Meeting, saying, 3. Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. 4. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no sons? Give to us therefore a possession among the brothers of our father.[Numbers 27 ]

It's such a good question Moses has no answer and has to ask God for advice, who replies:
6. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 7. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right; you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers; and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them.[Numbers 27]

The daughters of Zelophehad did something no one actually pulled off to this time: they questioned authority. Up to this point, as the daughters point out, there are many rebellions against Moses. They are mere complaints which take the form of rebellion. The daughters are different. They ask a question which every rule dictated by God up to this point does not answer. Doing so, they create new law and new possibilities, unheard of before: women, under certain circumstances, inherit the possessions of their fathers. They challenged a faulty assumption by their example. It is true not true that all families have sons, they assert. They asked the question: what should be done in this case? Then they give an answer.

Last Sunday, Here we were, gay, lesbian and straight, sitting on a float, and I was thinking of the daughters. They in a way started what was happening here on Halsted and Broadway streets in Chicago. The marchers behind us had handed out signs which had "____________ is a human right". In a one-word midrash for the week, I wrote "Thinking" in that blank. The Daughters of Zelophehad reminded us the precious gift granted by God of thinking for ourselves. In doing so, we expand our world. Indeed to do Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, may very well require such expansion. It could have been easy to restrict to the written word of Torah. Anything outside the written word could be said not to exist. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, was too smart for that, and left such large gaps in Torah it was impossible to not ask questions, to make midrash. The word midrash itself come from the Hebrew root דרש for seeking, for asking a question. While we often believe midrash to mean the interpretation of story, it can be said to be a more encompassing idea of asking questions of Torah, and then finding the answers. Modern evidence to the contrary, this is not just for an elite, but something we all do. The Daughters give us the example of everyday people involved in midrash. Here are five women in a man's world challenging the status quo with a simpler and logical question. They thought out a question and they got an answer.

I have on many occasions championed the case that while tradition puts Leviticus 18:22 as talking about homosexuality, given linguistic ques the verse was talking about pedophilia instead. It was about rape, not love. While there may have been people of the same gender who did love each other as far back as biblical times, many changing roles in both men and women in our modern era have opened new questions, like marriage between people of the same gender, and it is important to think about those questions, as they define not only the questioner, but everyone. Will gay marriage destroy an already beleaguered institution of marriage, or will it set precedents to strengthen a commitment to one's partner for life?

As we pass down the streets, I notice how many different ways people are dressed, and in some cases, not dressed. From the fully decked out cross dressers, the bikini wearing guys dancing on the roofs of a restaurant, gals with electrical tape barely hiding their chests, to many creative t-shirts, there is no one way of dressing here. There is a lot of creativity, and a lot of different experiences, in so many ways so very different than many of the bland by comparison fourth of July parades that will follow Pride in a week.

We are free to think -- it is a right of being human. Yet, while watching the news helicopters and news crews filming and photographing the parade, I wondered about that. How much are we controlled? The photographs that ended up in the paper was not of groups like us, a religious community, nor of the churches along the parade route which were clearly showing their support. The photos that usually get published are those which are the most sensational, leading readers, including me, to some very false conclusions about the people at the parade. What is published tells a story, one that is described as "truth". I don't care if there is liberal or conservative media: what is seen or not seen changes our opinion of the world, and in a sense mind controls us to think in a certain way. No one is fair and balanced. The stories that sell and get people to listen are by nature primarily bad, and tell us this is a bad world so we think it a bad world. I never listen to the morning news for this reason: I will start my day depressed if I hear the bad news. I will not be the creative person I am in the morning. I'd rather listen to a novel of imagination, and believe in the impossible. In such a mind I think anything is possible.
To make everyone think one way is sad. Almost all the signs and banners were individual statements I saw around the parade route. No one, in any of their colorful, cheerful and very creative statements there on the miles of parade route told me what to do or think. There were a few signs at the very end where some Christian Fundamentalists told me what to think in black, drab and very oppressive signs. It was a darkness in a sea of light, the brown-black posters they sported was like an oil slick on a colorful Caribbean reef. But it was contained. In the creative mode of the day, a guy next to these protesters, dressed as Jesus, held up a big white sign; "I'm not with them" So what did we do when we passed? We blessed all of them.

In an interesting play of words those fundamentalists were protesting homosexuality by promoting homothinking. While this parade is about the choices people make who to love, ultimately this parade was about hetero or even better polythinking. It is about the infinite possibilities and infinite ways of thinking out there in front of us. There were 450,000 ways in front and back of me Sunday. Free will and free thinking is necessary to come up with many ways of living and loving. Rabbi Akiba in the Perkei avot stated:

Akiba would probably have thought that such a display as the Gay Pride parade, would have led to lewdness [Avot 3:12]. I think that since free will was given it is not for a man or even God to decide our choices or thoughts. That is up to us individually. Do we love a man a woman or both? Some are personal choices, some made by the way our body is constructed. Some are more than that, they are personal choices and questions that affect the world as a whole. There is a group of men and women forty-one years ago, who in the bungled closing of a bar, asked those questions that had never been asked publicly. Twenty years ago, they were the ones asking the questions we still do not have all the answers for, about a blood-borne virus that can kill anyone slowly and horribly. The questions the parade ask is "Will everyone else accept who I choose to love?, will they accept me for that choice and who I am because of that?" The answers are many, but here mostly positive. Asking those questions started a long time ago. When Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah challenge Moses about property rights of women, they did something that directly affected their own destiny, and everyone's at the same time.

When we ask questions, and find answers, we cannot know what will happen, as little as the agnostic homophobe I was leaving college can believe I was there waving at the crowd from a gay synagogue float a few floats behind the Stanley cup. I did this because my first thought was to support my friends, but even in supporting them was a huge statement, one I didn't realize before then. What those actions did to the world as a whole, I cannot know either. I can only pray all of mine are for the betterment of the world. I'll be back next year at Pride to keep that going.