Thursday, October 28, 2010

Haye Sarah 5771: Prayers Answered

This week’s portion, named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife. Then he tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do, decides the best thing is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebekah and eventually brings her back to Isaac, where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebekah get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, whom both Isaac and Ishmael bury jointly, everybody's one happy family until the twins show up next week, and things get really, well, hairy. But the whole portion pivots on one theme: prayers do get answered.

In the eight times that I have annually written about this portion, I invariably come back to the same set of verses. It is a prayer by Abraham's servant to have the god of his master help him find the bride for Isaac. He wants some very specific help.

12. And he said, O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.

The Talmud and Midrash find this prayer outright careless if not pagan divination. I have argued in five of those eight times that there is more going on here than meets the eye. It takes a lot of water, hundreds of gallons, to totally satiate ten camels. Yet the text goes on to say that Rebekah appeared immediately and did exactly that -- an act of hospitality equal to Abraham running across a field while recovering from circumcision, then preparing a meal for a bunch of strangers. While one may wonder why this is so, it becomes obvious when one adds a Midrash which I often quote along with the passage above.
A [Roman] matron asked R. Yose: ' In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ‘In six days,’ he answered. ‘Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after, those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ' I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ Straightway she summoned R. Yose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’ Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’ [Genesis Rabbah 58:4]

A good match is a miracle of a greater order than splitting the Red Sea. My comments on this week's portion have been my prayer, much like Eliezer's, for seven years. In retrospect, I didn't see the things that were happening each step along the way, but my prayer was being answered.

I have been praying for a mate for quite a long time. Each time I prayed, a new door opened, and often in the form of a book falling into my lap. I found Roger Kamentz's book The Jew and the Lotus which led me to Jewish Renewal, which led to learning Hebrew, then Aramaic. Quitting a project for the Renewal Kallah led me to Mordechai Gafni's Soulprints, and in him I found a teacher who brought alive the meaning of aggadic works for the first time. Shortly after, the rabbi of my then congregation retired, and in the tumult of picking a new rabbi, based on what I had learned from Gafni, Shlomo's Drash was born, and with it my prayer took a new form. I checked out matchmakers, and wrote for my first Haye Sarah Shlomo's Drash how little they resemble Ha Kadosh Bruch Hu making matches and how much that ditzy Roman Matron and matchmakers have in common. Then came Gafni's downfall and run from the Israeli authorities. In my despair over losing a teacher, I found Neil Strauss' "The Game", which taught me to be a confident human being. While many learned mere pickup routines from the book, I learned that being genuine and having confidence is incredibly attractive. With that confidence, I dated someone who introduced to Facebook. Early on in my Facebook experience, I friended the most beautiful woman I ever knew in college, though back then her circles and mine barely touched. She apparently didn't do much on Facebook, since I didn't seem to hear back from this woman after I wrote her. By November of that year, I broke up with the woman I had been dating. What I wrote in the Haye Sarah that year, a piece about social media, was where the fracture between us started.

At the very snowy end of that year, I got a happy birthday message from that college crush who hadn't answered me back in August. I wrote a thank you back and asked what she was up to. She wrote back and I wrote back. On New Year's Day I saw she was logged in, and chatted with her in what ended up as a four-hour conversation. Then our conversation became a series of e-mails about Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, all while I was on vacation. The emails led to nightly phone calls. The phone calls became visits half a continent away. The visits led to moving in together. A year after that first thank you on Facebook, I asked her to marry me. Next year, the woman of my college dreams, the love of my life, will be my wife.

When someone asks me if there is such a thing as prayer that gets answered, I think of this woman who I say the Shema with every night before going to sleep. Someone to say the Shema with was my "let me water your camels". That a snowstorm hit on that December day paralyzing her city, leading her to log on to Facebook and then to talk to me, was a miracle of a magnitude like the Red Sea. Yet, I look back on that list of what got me to that moment in my life, and I see there are two things that are true about prayer being answered: what you get is not what you expect, and when it does come, you have to act.

Circumstances both good and bad have happened to me over and over again. Only in hindsight do I see that each put me in the place where I am now. The beginning of our romance was over the grammar of Hebrew and Aramaic. I keep asking myself if I would be getting married to her, had I not gone to Hebrew school when I did. I ask myself had I not had the confidence I gained in my self-help courses, would I still be as invisible to her as I was in college? Had I not gained confidence, would I even have tried to talk to her, or would I have stayed as silent as I was twenty years ago?

When we talk of miracles and answers from God, we expect the splitting of the Red Sea, a burning bush, or the revelation at Sinai. But most miracles are so little and subtle, we often miss them. Often, they are near impossible to see, except in hindsight. Often, we are so self-occupied we miss them. On the occasions that we do see them, it is a time for blessing, of thanking God for the Blessing and the gift bestowed on us.

I've used this portion as a prayer of petition for close to a decade. Now I want to pray in thanksgiving. Blessed are you, God, for answering my prayers. Like your matching of Isaac and Rebecca, the great wonder of two people united in both love and marriage so far away have you bestowed such a miracle on me and my mate.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Vayera 5771: Akedah and the Builders.

This week we have the circumstances surrounding the birth of Isaac, from the time three visitors announce Sarah will become pregnant, through the events of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Issac's birth and weaning ceremony and the Akedah, the binding of Issac.

There is a midrash usually associated with Lecha Lecha which has parallels to the akedah. It is the second half of the well known story of Abram smashing the Idols in his father's store. He tells his father that the idols had a fight and the big one won. His father immediately said that Idols aren't real and can't do that.

Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying,’ he [Abram] retorted. Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship the fire!’ he [Nimrod] proposed. ' Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,’ replied he. ' Then let us worship water! ' ' Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water. ' ' Then let us worship the clouds! ' ' Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.’ ' Then let us worship the wind!’ ' Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’ ‘You are just bandying words,’ he exclaimed; ‘we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.’ Now Haran [Abram's brother] was standing there undecided. If Abram is victorious, [thought he], I will say that I am of Abram's belief, while if Nimrod is victorious I will say that I am on Nimrod's side. When Abram descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, he [Nimrod] asked him, ‘Of whose belief are you?’ ‘Of Abram's,’ he replied. Thereupon he seized and cast him into the fire; his inwards were scorched and he died in his father's presence. Hence it is written, AND HARAN DIED IN THE PRESENCE OF (‘ AL PENE) HIS FATHER TERAH "(Genesis 11:28 ) [Genesis R. XXXVII:13 ]

Several elements are parallel to the akedah, a sacrifice by fire, a father willingly taking his sons to be sacrificed. The akedah was a test we are told, and Nimrod was a test as well. it is the differences which provide a bit of insight. Another parallel is that Midrash tells us that it was in the fire God said to Abraham, "Lech Leha," which begins his journey, while the Akedah begins:

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did test Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.' 2. And He said: 'Take now your son, your only son, whom thou love, Isaac, and go for yourself [Lech lecha] into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'[Genesis 22]

Since the time of the Akedah, commentators have tried to figure out what happened and why. The way the Rabbis told the story of the death of Haran, who incidentally is Lot's father, indicates one possibility. God was testing Abraham and Issac. Isaac's test was to test his belief. Was he like his Uncle Haran, who believed in Abraham's god, when it appeared Abraham's god was stronger? Does Issac believe, like his father, in God? Abraham rebelled against the gods of his father, would Isaac rebel against the One God of his father? If Abraham did a good job of teaching and raising Isaac, then Issac would answer those questions correctly.

Abraham had an incredible mind shift to get to monotheism. He needed to transmit that mindshift to his sons Issac and Ishmael in order for monotheism to continue. One an idea is established It hard for any of us to understand why anyone thought the way people did in the past, so its difficult for contemporary people to really understand why this test was so important.

I am a painter. I'm not very good but I'm able to do some half decent portraits in watercolor. For portability reasons, I decide to invest in a an iPad and a few different art apps and learn to paint digitally. One might think that painting on a computer would be similar to painting watercolors. The experience, I have found is very different. It requires me to think differently about how to use color, and how to use the brushes in the programs. even in the same size area, drawing is not easy. I'm using a very different mindset, and one that was very difficult for me to accept. Here's two different paintings and although they are both my paintings, they look entirely different .I have to approach the blank white page so very differently.

I think that was the point of the Akedah. It is so very difficult to change, especially in a world so very different than you see it. Isaac could have assimilated into the culture around him, but he didn't. Abraham and God needed God to be in the new mindset. To learn good techniques there is plenty of good watercolorists around ready to teach me that. Digital painting on a iPad is a different story -- even related techniques for PC's or Macs don't help me. It's such a new product with even newer application to do art, there is little for me to learn from. But the thing is, as I learn, I can pass my ways of making art on an iPad to others, by writing tutorials. Issac had to learn not only what is monotheism, which is even more difficult than understanding some of my paint programs, but then teach the next generation such things.

There is a very special place in the Talmud for those who take on the task of learning and teaching. In one of the more powerful statements, found at the end of several of the tractates of the talmud, we read:
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the Sages increase peace in the world, as it is said, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children(Is. 54:13) . Read not ‘thy children’ [banayik], but ‘thy builders’[bonayik]. [K'rithoth 28b]

Students are not just children growing up, but the builders of the next generation. It's important for them to transmit the mindshift to the next generation. This is not just book learning but something deeper. It's an attitude and belief at one's core, in one's heart and soul. Superficial learning or forcing someone, like Nimrod did, will not transmit much of this core change. If the core change happens, then we get the attitude of Abram confronting Nimrod, not the attitude of Haran his brother. Abraham may have been an architect of monotheism but it would take builders like Isaac and Jacob to really turn it into something lasting.

For sixty years or so, I believe we have been in the middle of a modern paradigm shift, a mind shift so mind blowing that it is very difficult for many to completely understand it. LIike Nimrod, again and again those who don't understand try to suppress it. The idea is old, but after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, what it means to so many people has changed radically. One of the most poetic version of it is the instructions given to death penalty witness in the Talmud:

[Adam was created alone] because of the peace of creation that no man shall say to his fellow "my father is greater than your father" and no heretical groups shall say "many rule in heaven." To tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that man stamps many coins with one seal, and each is like the other, but the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamps every man with the seal of the first man and not one of them is like his fellow.
[Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, B Sanhedrin 37a]

The story of creation means we are all family. Adam and Eve is everyone's ancestor. What is more we are all created in the image of the first human, and the image of the first human was in Btzelem Elohim God's image. To destroy Btzelem Elohim is to desecrate God. Yet to profess the greatness of God, we are paradoxically all different and all minted in that divine image. To not celebrate and honor those differences such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and belief system is to deny God's greatness.

There are Nimrods out there still, trying to enforce their beliefs. Btzelem Elohim for them is about one people being so, but not others. They feel more validated in such a belief, and thus superior to everything else. For them, there is a superior and inferior people, not that we are all reflections of the Divine. Like Nimrod, they enforce it with violence to the soul, to the heart and to the body. Somewhere inside of them they are threatened that they will no longer be superior, or that violence is the only way they can be superior. There are also Harans out there, following whoever seems to be the strongest. There are a few Abrahams, giving us the new paradigm. There are the Issacs, and Jacobs, the builders, those who do not enforce a belief, but make it their very day life and their core being.

Most of us are somewhere between Haran and Issac. Unfortunately the only way to tell where our core is under extreme stress, where there is only the core thinking. Abrham put Isaac thought the same intense situation that he went through, a burmt sacrifice, knowing full well what God was doing. Isaac did not have to choose like Haran who was stronger, but believe with all his heart all his soul and all his being that God is One. In that Isaac succeeded, and Abraham succeeded in teaching him to be so.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lech Lecha 5771: Mind Shift

This week begins:

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. [Genesis 12]

The rest of the portion chronicles the wanderings of Abraham up through Abraham's and Ishmael's circumcision. This includes a sojourn into Egypt where Abraham deceives Pharaoh, a lightning raid on the enemies of Sodom and Gomorra when Lot gets into a hostage situation, Ishmael's birth, and a really strange sacrifice.

A few weeks ago, I began attending a group discussion on Jewish theology. We are using a book edited by R. Elliot Cosgrove Jewish Theology in our Time an anthology of rabbis from my and younger generations as the starting point. Across the spectrum of Jewish thought, these authors presented ideas I was familiar with and which describe much of my own theology. Many ideas are not new at all, but showed how influenced the authors of these essays were by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the 18th and early 19th century Hasidic masters. Among the members of the class, there were strong objections to much of the material, and a complaint that these Rabbis' theology wasn't authentically Jewish. Apparently, in much of the group, only Maimonides is Jewish.

The group went on bashing the beliefs of the young rabbis, discrediting their credentials while continuing to compare them to the their ideal image of the intellectual Maimonides. I felt very alone in that room. I agreed with many of those contributing Rabbis in the book, At the same time, I understood where the rest of the class were coming from: a world that was different than the one I grew up in, even if it was in the same country. Rationality made Judaism special in their minds, compared to the far less rational Christians around them. For them, Maimonides is the pinnacle of rationality and intellectualism. But Jeremy Gordon, the Rabbi of New London Synagogue, England Shares my concern about Maimonides when writing his essay in the book:
I am not that interested in dogmatic assertions that allow me to test who is and is not a proper Jewish theologian. None of these theological endeavors seems to help me be better: A better husband,father or rabbi. They don't even seem to help me understand the world with more accuracy or insight (More Theos less Ology, 51)

I believe like many of these rabbis' essays that the logic and rationalism that Maimonides uses fails when talking about theology. It is an import and reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle and not what the tradition uses to work out theological problems. Instead, it is Aggadah, stories and midrash which provides the medium for such discussions. Yet I was seemingly alone in that, and so alone I was afraid to respond in the discussion, short of defending the credentials of the contributing Rabbis to the book.

I sometime fear others will take me for crazy for asking for wisdom and guidance from God, because I very often get an answer from God. God would give the wisdom in signs. I've done that myself so many times I take it for granted but never thought that I was crazy. I talk to God all the time, then look for God's responses in a street signs, songs on the radio and even the occasional fortune cookie. Yet, I'm uncomfortable talking to others in my synagogue about praying and finding wonders, who probably would find it irrational, and believe me crazy. I know that many think I'm crazy that heartfelt prayer for me does not happen in the Big Synagogue. For me, it needs something smaller, warmer and more personal. Yet the older generations in liberal communities seem to have a hard time understanding that. The older generation was interested in rationality, and my spiritual life has so much more richness than mere thinking. I wrote in my notes for the theology class a summary of one article:
We don't find God's wonder's until we shut up and listen. the Shema does not read "Proclaim oh Israel!", But "Hear oh Israel!"
Yet in much of my life I find few who do keep still and quiet long enough to actually hear -- they are too busy talking.

Abram was told by God to Lech Leha, to go for himself, in doing so he became Abraham. Many know the Midrash of Abram Smashing the Idols, but few know the rest of the story. Terah, Abram's Father, took Abram to be executed for this act. After Abram was thrown live into a sacrificial fire pit, [Genesis R. XXXVII:13] it was then that God said "Lech lecha."[ibid, XXXIX:2] Breaking some pottery or a few assets of a merchant wasn't the issue, thinking differently than everyone else was. The thinking of the people of Abram's time was so rigid, Abram's father Terah wanted to see his son die than change his view, and Abram was willing to be sacrificed for his.

There are different generations, and they are influenced by different things. The generations of liberal Jews older than me were influenced by a need for rationalism, a continued fear of anti-semitism, the Shoah, and the joy of the establishment of the state of Israel. The generations younger than me are influenced by different things, those issues which influenced the older generations are now in the past far enough to be not be significant in their lives.

The way I read the situation, the older generations want and seek a prime mover, and are often puzzled by its absence in horrific events while demanding their free will. The younger generation wants a prime lover, the most moved mover, and is often puzzled in how to keep or even start such a relationship. Neither is wrong or even inaccurate, just different based on different life experiences.

In every older generation there will be mavericks. It is often these mavericks who inform the next generation as its teachers. My own education was at the feet of students of Abraham Joshua Heschel.. A majority of the baby boomer generation may remember Heschel for Selma and his views on Vietnam. My generation and younger generations will remember him more for God in Search of Man, which was panned by the Jewish community at its publication. It's clear to me that many of the young rabbis in Cosgrove's book remember Heschel for his theology than his social justice stands, though both are important.

As Midrash and the text tell us, Abraham the patriarch was a maverick. He was aware that a statue, a pocket sized clay figure, a tree or a hill was not a god. There was something more than the wind and the sun, and that something more was God. The older generation of his time, including his own father, could not make that conceptual leap, and so they set out to destroy him.

Abraham left that world to define himself and his family in the mind shift to monotheism. We celebrate his iconoclasm, all while being fallible human beings and clinging to idols of the mind, the assumptions we hold so dear. It may be assumptions of our generation, gender, sexual orientation or social status. We hold them so dear they become idols. When the rabbis of the Talmud would challenge a statement, very often they would phrase their challenge "how is this derived?" Understanding why a rule was written the way it was came before rejecting it on seemingly logical grounds. Once understood, it could be accepted or rejected. But understanding came first, and even in rejection tolerance for a community's view remained. I find so little of that in our world, and that class was only the latest and last example. Most people would rather defend their idols of assumptions, than even listen or understand to the the assumptions of another.

It's hard to make a mind shift. One of the hardest is to remove the assumptions that our assumptions are facts. We need to examine them, to continually challenge ourselves to say "how is this derived?" In some cases, like the Rabbis of the Gemara, we may continue to believe or we may see how we are faulty in our thinking. Like Abram, we may learn to lech lecha, to move on to a different way of thinking, away from the prejudices and faulty assumptions of our kindred and ancestors' house.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Noah 5771:Ravens and Doves

This week we come to the story of the Noah and the flood, Noah getting drunk and stupid after the flood, and the Tower of Babel. But the story that interests me has to do with my tallis. Over the high holidays I got a lot of compliments on my hand-designed silk tallis. A very important part of that tallis is the image of the Dove. We read of doves in the Noah story (Genesis 8:6-12)
From Blogger Pictures

6. And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; 7. And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. 8. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; 9. But the dove found no rest for the sole of its foot, and she returned to him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her into the ark. 10. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11. And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. 12. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which did not return back to him any more.

The question arises what is the difference between the dove and the raven? Popular reading of this story puts the dove as the good guy and the raven as the selfish bad guy. But is that the case? Reading the text carefully it does not say the raven just disappeared, but instead kept looking until its mission was finished - of finding dry land. The dove however returns to the Ark, until the time after it returns with an olive branch.

The story hints the ancients were very aware of many animal behaviors. Ravens, as scavengers are known to keep searching until they find a meal. It is for this reason the Rabbis of the Talmud likened ravens to Torah scholars who spends too many hours in deep study [Eiruvin 22a]. Ravens, however, are for the most part independent creatures not relying on any other bird, even neglecting their young in their pursuits. Ravens on rare occasions group together when there is a group interest. Doves on the other hand are Doves are committed to their mate. Often when perching on a phone line you will see doves in pairs. So committed are doves that even when their mate dies, they will circle the body for hours not letting go to their mate. They also will never look for another mate. It is such strict animal monogamy that Noah used to get some message to the status of the world. While accurate, using the raven takes time to get feedback. Until things are dry, Noah will not know what the status of the world is from the raven. On the other hand the Doves desire to be with her mate is so strong, she cannot stay away for long. When the dove comes back with the olive leaf, only then does the dove change its strategy and prepare the nest for both itself and her mate, who will soon join her.

On my tallis I have a picture of two doves one on each side of the tallis. On the collar, instead of the traditional blessing, I have the words in Hebrew Hinach Yafa Ra-yati, Hinach Yafa, ay-na-yich Yonim which is from the Song of Songs 1:15 as an declaration of the male to the female. In English, this translated to the phrase How beautiful you are how Beautiful! Your eyes are like doves.' It is easy to believe that her eyes are pretty because they have a soft, dove-like quality. In The Song of Songs 1:9 the male lover compares the female to a mare released among all the stallions of Pharaoh's army. While the allusion seems to be a man who is taken back by all the the suitors the female protagonist has, but 1:15 shows she has eyes for no one but the male. Her eyes are like doves as they can only see her mate.

In the rabbinic mind, the Song of Songs is a parable. The male here is God, the female Israel. The rabbis also do not believe that eyes are compared merely on appearance, but on their qualities. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah I:66) Within the Song of Songs, Israel, while having many suitors, only has eyes for God. The Rabbis comment:

Just as a dove, from the time that she recognizes her mate, never changes him for another, so Israel once they had learnt to know the Holy One, blessed be He, have never exchanged Him for another. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah I:64)

Similarly it is the Tzitizit of the tallis, which are to remind us not to have eyes for others.

39. And it shall be to you for a fringe (tzitzit), that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray; 40. That you may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. (Numbers 15:39-40)

I combined these images, the tzitzit and the Dove together to make my tallis. My tallis is about commitment, both in the worlds above and the worlds below. It is a commitment to God. It is also about commitment to all of our relationships in this world. The one I was thinking at the time I made my tallit was of course finding the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. It so fills me with joy every Shabbat to stand next to my fiance and wear the tallit that I show my commitment to both.

The Raven was committed to finding land, and not coming back till it did. The dove was committed to its mate and would make multiple trips to the ark. The wicked generation of the flood had no commitment.
For all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. (Gen. 6:12) R. Johanan said: This teaches that they caused beasts and animals, animals and beasts, to copulate; and all of these were brought in connection with man, and man with them all.

Others believe the animals, wild and domestic, copulated willingly:
R. ‘Azariah said in R. Judah's name: All acted corruptly in the generation of the Flood: the dog [copulated] with the wolf, the fowl with the peacock; hence it is written, For all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. (Gen. 6:12)[Genesis Rabbah 28:8]

The generation of the flood did not even commit to a species let alone a single mate. Some in our society today think that sexual promiscuity is where one does anything that isn't about making children. Sexual promiscuity is where there is a lack of commitment. A lack of commitment was the big sin that got everything killed. Anyone, Gay, Bi, or Straight who makes a commitment to others is far from promiscuous.

Living in the modern world my talis is a reminder to that commitment, in a simple promise to our life-partner's commitment for a healthy lifetime together, to our commitment to God forever. For me, commitment is a holy thing. Praying next to my bride-to-be every Shabbat, I find joy in my commitments to God, and to the commitment to this woman who is the love of my life.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Breishit 5771: Fruitful and One Flesh?

Breishit 5771: Fruitful and One Flesh?
This week, we start again the story of Torah. This year I start as a member of not one but two synagogues, and infrequently attending a third on some holidays. Why this is so is what I want to write about, because two verses in this week’s parasha are at the heart of this situation.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.'[Genesis 1]

24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh. [Genesis 2]
These verses are part of the two creation stories we find at the beginning of Torah. In the eyes of the rabbis, these two lines say the same thing, though it may not appear it. Rashi, summarizing Sanhedrin 58a, show us how 2:24 is the same as 1:28
one flesh: The fetus is formed by them both, and there [in the child] their flesh becomes one.

For Genesis 1:28, Rashi comments on the possible bad grammar of the sentence. God starts in the plural, but if one vowel is different, "subdue" is in the masculine singular.
It is also meant to teach you that the man, whose way it is to subdue, is commanded to propagate, but not the woman (Yev. 65b).
In short, these two verses define a family as a husband as the head of a household, and he should have a woman to procreate with. The classic line "A marriage is one man and one woman" comes to mind. It seems to establish itself in the story of creation.

Though one half of the genetic material of a father and one half on the genes of a mother come together in a fetus, I have thought, "one flesh" does not mean children. The reason for making woman in Genesis 2 is to correct the first problem of creation: loneliness.
18 And the LORD God said: 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.'[Genesis 2]
The solution given in Genesis is to have a ezer c'negdo, a companion, an opposite. Where this opposite comes from is the separation of the sides of a whole creature. Tzela, is often translated as rib, but is better translated as a side. God spilt the first creature in half to find a companion for it. Woman and man are two opposite halves. When put together, they make a unit which can be more than the sum of its parts. That whole may produce children, but that may not always be the case.

Children are a biological imperative of course. In my experience these verses have substantiated that biological imperative and elevated it to the level of a mitzvah. For many non-observant Jews, I have observed it had long ago become the only mitzvah: be fruitful and multiply. As long as you have Jewish children, you are okay. Kosher? Shabbat? Acts of Charity? Not needed. The assumption is be fruitful, have some Jewish kids and get them to the Bnei Mitzvah Bimah. After that it is up to the kids.

While many might take exception to this, it is this assumption of what is a family which drives much Jewish community structure, often defined as our prayer community, our synagogue. The assumption of "be fruitful and multiply" is to produce children who will need a Jewish education. Thus having kids attending the events that are supposed to shape them into good Jewish adults becomes a driving force in the culture of the synagogue. I spent Simchat Torah at such a synagogue, which beautifully orients the entire service to the kids, and to the parents to support their children. This education continues till the child reaches their bar mitzvah. At the point where the child becomes responsible for themselves, some of those kids will go on too teen activities at their synagogue. Some will even go to Hillel services and activities at their college or university. But what happens to those kids after that?

When it comes to be fruitful and multiply, while the assumption is this is the greatest mitzvah, the reality is very different. In 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey raised some alarms about the rates of intermarriage. Inthe follow-up, NJPS 2001 continued to see such a trend. That was not the only alarming news however. Fertility rates were low, and childbearing years were later than the general population.
At all ages, fertility among Jewish women is lower than fertility for all U.S. women, whether gauged by the percent who are childless or the average number of children ever born...The fertility gap between Jewish and all U.S. women narrows but is not eliminated in later childbearing age groups, indicating that Jewish women delay having children until later years, and then come close to, but do not match, fertility levels of all U.S. women.

It is not until age 35-39 that less than half of Jewish women remain childless, compared to a fifth of all U.S. women. By age 40-44, usually considered the last childbearing age group, the gap narrows but is not completely closed, with just over a quarter of Jewish women remaining childless compared to less than a fifth of all U.S. [NJPS 2000-2001]
Be Fruitful and multiply is something many young Jews do not do early in their lives. Many plan to have children after they feel they can successfully financially support a family. Fertility rates, the NJPS notes directly correlate to graduate school attendance. In some graduate research I performed surveying dating websites, I found the age one finishes graduate school correlates with when one begins to look for a mate to have children with. Yet they are not the only ones who reject these two verses. Those who find ezer c'negdo in a member of the same gender also run into dilemmas. Is one’s other half always of the opposite gender? The GLBT community would disagree. The drive to having children in gay and lesbian couples is not as prominent as mainstream straight couples. One could contend it is this lack of fruitfulness which many straight people find so disturbing about the GLBT’s communitty. There are also those who just decided, for whatever reason, that raising children is not for them. All of these have in one way or another decided it is not raising children that will be the center of their universe.

Yet in the culture of the Synagogue, these childless demographics are not the lifeblood of the synagogue, the traditional family is. Many synagogues might have adapted enough to allow for two-mommy or two-daddy families, but they are parents and children still. The culture, like the synagogue I was at for Simchat Torah, admirably revolves around educating Jewish youth in both Jewish culture and belief. Yet in this pedagogy, the Childless are both left behind and made to feel alien, even the nest-makers who want children. As Synagogue 3000's demographer Steven Cohen and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman report, all those same kids who went to Hebrew School in the big synagogues stay away from those same synagogues as adults because there is no place for singles and couples without children.

I experienced this myself almost a decade ago at a previous extremely liberal synagogue, one that prided itself on open-mindedness. I realized back then how much work it is to raise a child well, and realized I was not up to the task. As a straight man, I do not know what it is like to come out of the closet, but the day I told my friends I would not have children is one that is probably a lot like coming out. Coming out as gay that day would not have caused as much a furor as when I told them I decided not to have children. Instead of listening to me, they tried to find way I would have children.

While I am no longer at that synagogue, I'm a lot like my gay and lesbian friends as far as the culture of any mainstream synagogue is concerned. While I can admit to who I am to most people, there are some who will react strongly. Indeed I'm taking a big risk in outing myself as Childless by Choice to people who will not be tolerant of my life choices. Yet like my GLBT friends, I will be by definition be a minority in synagogue life. Synagogues are for Parents, Children and Grandparents. I have found over the years, If you are anything else, particularly if you do not ascribe to Be fruitful and multiply you don’t exist, and it’s often best not to show up.

Even when a synagogue calls itself "gay friendly”, I have found the culture still diminishes them as a minority. So too the childless like myself. To emphasize pedagogy is to emphasize having children around. As one who has chosen childlessness, I for one find myself rather comfortable in a community of GLBT Jews in ways I don't in a community of straight Jews. And so I am now a member of both a larger mainstream Synagogue and a smaller, GLBT synagogue. The part of me that doesn’t fit in one, fits in the other.

Although I choose not to have kids, I do still take some responsibilities with children very seriously. The Talmud states:
He who teaches the son of his neighbor Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him [Sanh. 19b]
I may not have my own children, but in the children I know it is vital that I am there to show them how good it is to embrace words of Torah. This week it was literally embracing as I danced with the Torah, with little kids around me wide eyed in the delight of Simchat Torah. Many of their parents do not do what I do, waltzing around with that Torah, or sing verses of Torah off the top of my head. Many do not keep kosher to any degree, or refuse to work on Shabbat. That third Synagogue is where the kids are, and so on some Holidays, I am there too. But my job extends beyond the synagogue walls to the rest of life and teaching the little ones about who they are and who they should be as Jews. Jewish education is also outside of the classroom and synagogue. When the little ones ask me why I davven on Shabbat, or say some particular blessing or why I don’t eat cheeseburgers or bacon, I can tell them, and they can learn something along the way.

I may choose not make more Jewish Bodies, but in doing so, I’m also committed to keep Jewish souls joyously Jewish.