On Erev Shabbat, May 22, 2020, the press was filled with the White House's call for people to go to church and synagogue right away, this Shabbat, the Shabbat when we Jews begin the book of Numbers, the parashah of counting. In this ten minute sermon, I reply to the president's call, using the wisdom of our Torah and our Sages as we consider what that would truly look like, and how we count in this time.
Are Our Front Line “Heroes” Actually the New Servant Class? Leviticus Demands Redemption not Servitude
In his essay in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer proposes that our self-understanding of the social contract is revealed by the decision-making process about the pandemic, as he writes that “the pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others.” I compare his views to that of the end of Leviticus and of The Book of Ruth, which both demand that shared resources are understood to come from God, and that we overcome our picture of earned inequality and instead the privileged share their blessings freely, not with strings attached that preserve serfdom and servitude. Honestly, hasn't the pandemic revealed that those in power view the economically deprived as needing to serve those able to telecommute? Aren't the terms of our social contract that their "liberty to work" and "be heroes" really is a self-serving rhetoric because we want them to serve us by putting their lives at risk? Leviticus would have us pay the nanny not to work, because she is an extension of family, rather than pay her a "bonus" to put herself at risk due to her "right" to work (which is really her need to feed her family). It's time to end the self-serving rhetoric that the poor should have the "freedom to work" and "they are our heroes" when what we should be doing is redeeming them by sharing our blessings with them and treating them as kinsmen.
In this lecture from my series on "The 8 Most Misunderstood Things in the Bible," I tackle Leviticus's preoccupation with "uncleanness" and "impurity" that seems to stigmatize and isolate women, the sick, and others. It's one of those things that make people pick up a Hebrew Bible and say, "This stuff is barbaric and misogynistic." I argue that this is likely the parade example of misunderstanding Torah, based on misleading translation and the human being's inherent penchant for presuming metaphysics (invisible mechanisms that operate like they're physical but we just can't see, hear, or touch them?). Using the philosophical therapy of philosophical Pragmatism (found in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty), I present "tamei" not as "uncleanness" but rather as "time-out," a state in which one is required to take grief leave, maternity leave, medical leave, and, for one week a month, sexual leave. We can learn a lot from the Torah's insistence that these can only be norms that do not stigmatize individuals if they are required and not optional, and I apply that to our modern issues with people being presumed to return to work during grief, sickness, and maternity, and are stigmatized when they do not. At the end, I address two questions, one being that I am not dealing sufficiently with the bad-patriarchal bent of the Torah. You'll hear my answer at the end.
In this lecture, I present one of my "Most Misunderstood Concepts in the Torah"... Revelation. What does it mean that God speaks to Moses? What is the revelation of Torah? I present the philosophical frame for this debate, beginning with Descartes and Kant and then the devastating critique of them by Nietzsche, and later Wittgenstein and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. How do we avoid the betwitchment of our language in such crucial areas as "I think means that I cause my thoughts" or "If I experience God, then God is an object of my experience?" How can we become closer to Torah through breaking out of our silly thinking and coming to a more subtle, meaningful, and common sensical identification with revelation?
The quotes used may be viewed by clicking here.
Aaron Coming Close To God by Suppressing His Grief? Our Hope During Pandemic Lies in Those Who Are Working So Hard At the Cost of Postponing their Emotions
When Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu suddenly die by fire while offering the first sacrifices, we have an odd series of verses that seem to suggest --on the surface-- that God has glorified Godself by killing them and now God demands that Aaron show no grief for his own sons also for the greater glory of God. What? Do the verses really say this? A closer look (helped by the commentator Sforno), shows us what's really going on: there are times when we glorify God by choosing to do our jobs (when lives are at stake) over allowing ourselves to feel our feelings of grief, of anxiety, or fear. What seems so unfeeling of God, so self-glorifying and cruel, comes alive to us now: we are only told to postpone our fears, our emotions, our worry, our wailing, our mourning, when we find ourselves (even unbidden) in the chain of operations meant to save lives. God even bestows a personal word of loving care to Aaron: don't turn to the bottle, another message so important at this time.
The Moral Dimension of Money Revealed: Seeing Ourselves as Experiencing the Exodus during Coronavirus
In this teaching immediately following the Seder(s), I follow through the commandment to see ourselves as if we experience(d) the Exodus story at this profound time. I explore how the food of Passover is restoring our humility, our connection to our humble (poor) roots, how the moral dimensions of money are now exposed to create, when we are at our most honest, a compassionate human interaction over returning or paying funds --just as God brings grace (at the exact moment of the 10th plague) to the interaction of money between Israelite and neighbor, and finally the fact that the text never says the plague only affects the guilty and Israelites are spared. Our overlapping Zoom shivah services belie that, and now we experience that the text never says that: we bring the bones of our dead with us until the future.
We are experiencing synchronicities with the Torah: the locust plague, the sheltering in place of the 9th and 10th plagues, the 10th plague which is simply plague itself, the Torah telling the Nasi (president) to make expiation for his sin, now the Seder -- blood on the doorposts of the 10th plague so similar to the red cross painted on the doors of homes quarantined during centuries of European plague-- with mathematical models predicting infection and death during the Pesach holiday as the Seder commemorates sheltering in place. Are these signs? What is apocalypticism? Is it the dubious book of revelations, wars of Gog and Magog, the end of times, some infantile Nostradamus notion of Bible prophecy,? Or could it be something different, hinted at in the final Pesach-preparation (Shabbat Hagadol) haftarah of Malachi (predicting ruin if we aren't caring for those at or below the poverty line) and suggested by the Torah curses themselves: signs that the human societal structure we consider totally normal is off and therefore can crumble at a plague (which shows the weakness of our man-made social system)? Is what is happening "revealing" ("apocalypse") how broken and arrogant the system we take for granted truly is, and how it's the poor who end up suffering the most?
The beginning of Leviticus spells out a fourfold process of bringing order to society and keeping at bay the threat that chaos can invade and tear our system to shreds. The fourfold process involves the expiation of sin, a process that adds two middle steps of relationship to God and to oneself that is often missing from our typical American formulation. I am used to the model that skips the whole notion of sin: rather, society works because if you break the rules you get punished, and that fear of being caught --along with a system of punishment-- brings Order. The two middle notions that the Levitical process adds in between action and punishment is "consciousness that one erred unwittingly" and "realizing that one's erring has consequences on the anonymous others within the System." That allows one to "take in new information" and then GROW. Those are the middle steps of relation with God. It's only, as Leviticus chapter 5 explains, when you take in new information but you are so attached to your own ego that you don't witness to it, that you arrive at the step of punishment. (For example, if you receive information that you previously underestimated the virus or need for types of precautions or measures, do you admit the consequences of your unwitting sin prior and then witness to this new information, or choose your ego over God?] It is the Levitical explanation of unwitting sin and then expiation through growth and acknowledgement of consquences on others that our political leaders are avoiding today. Instead, our Nasi's (President, some governors and congresspeople) are attached to their own sense of perfection, they deny God, refuse to grow, and refuse to witness to new information, fostering chaos over order. What plagues do practically and theologically is to explose the weaknesses in the System, and allow chaos in. Our Nasi is inviting it, just as the Pharoah narrative describes and the Levitical sacrificial system explains.
Shalom Bayit And All Getting Along Sharing a Small Space During Pandemic: Lessons from Judaism and From Counseling
In this Zoom presentation, I share ideas for creating new balance ("Tiferet") in reconstructing our home systems when conflict, a sense of failure, miscommunication, mess, and frustration can arise when many are sharing a small space. There is a handout that goes with this called "Shalom in the Home During Social Isolation" which can be found by clicking here:
The first parashah that accompanies this novel period of social distancing has lessons to teach us in how to best use the time we now have returned to us.
The parashah begins with the command that a (naturally antimicrobial) copper-brass laver of water is placed in the central courtyard of the tabernacle and that the Levites must wash their hands between every interaction of service lest they die. Synagogues today incorporate the adapted features of the Tabernacle with the exceptions of the incense and the laver. We have restored the laver this week with the large bottles of Purell. How apropros.
Ki Tissa continues with the completely out-of-order story of the Golden Calf. Why doesn't this pivotal story about idolatry -- idolatry is when we put our money, time, and spiritual resources into the wrong areas-- occur way back when it actually happened, before the revelation at Mount Sinai?
Because we needed what has happened since, all the activities of building the portable sanctuary, the practices of renewal during Shabbat, the visions of divine Service of the Levites... to give us a context for understanding what the opposite of idolatry is.
And these activities give us ideas for how to use this time of crisis for a renewal of our relationship to time.