Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Shabbat B'ha-alot'cha

I bought myself a new Torah commentary this week. It was one of those unplanned, impulse purchases – I had taken the girls to Barnes & Noble to use up a gift card and, as I am prone to do on my way back up front from the children’s section (which, as you may know is tucked, as children’s sections often are, in the far recesses of the store), I ventured through the small, but somewhat meaty, Judaica and Religion sections. The title immediately struck me compelling me to purchase: “The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Jewish Men on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions.” Modern, indeed it was published just this year by Jewish Lights, a prominent publisher of Jewish materials. At first glance this publication smacks of reaction – and perhaps in large part it is. Over the last few decades there has been a surge of feminist commentary on Torah text. Indeed, “The Women’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions” was published by the same publisher in 2000, and its companion Women’s Haftarah commentary, New Insights from Women Rabbis on the 54 Weekly Haftarah Portions, in 2004. Women’s commentaries, including the Union of Reform Judaism’s newly minted and quite substantial The Torah A Women’s Commentary, have proliferated in recent years because of the desire, the need, to balance the male point of view that has historically been passed on through traditional commentaries.
Have we, though, in our effort to forward a feminist view, to bring out the woman’s voice in our tradition, unintentionally alienated the male?
The appearance of this “modern men’s commentary” seems to indicate that we have, if not alienated men, at least left some feeling on the outskirts of the rich chevruta (fellowship) of study that has developed among women in recent decades.
Both “The Women’s…” and “The Modern Men’s Torah” Commentaries on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions offer valuable insights into parashat Beha’alotcha, insights for all of us regardless of gender.

The complaining begins more than half way into our reading this week. Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, who comments on the portion in “The Men’s Commentary” focuses on the lesson to be learned by Moses’ apparent burnout as expressed in Moses’ plea to God:“I cannot not carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg you, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.” (Num 11:14-15)
The despair in the community is pervasive and palpable. Tired of the journey, bored of the monotony, and not able to see the light – no vision – at the end of the path, הָאסַפְסֻףthe ‘riff-raff’ gathers, rising to the surface forming a congregation unified solely out of that despair, negativity and a desire to express grievance. While Spitz focuses on Moses’ burnout, I go further and see the lesson in God’s burnout. Despite the challenges of leading this people who are at the same time complaining about the present and selectively reminiscing about and glorifying their experience in Egypt, it is unclear if the burden of the people is the sole source of Moses’ depression.
Its gotten bad out there, and Moses recognizes it:וַיִּשְׁמַ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־הָעָ֗ם בֹּכֶה֙ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֔יו אִי֖שׁ לְפֶ֣תַח אָהֳל֑וֹ וַיִּחַר־אַ֤ף יְהוָֹה֙ מְאֹ֔ד וּבְעֵינֵ֖י מֹשֶׁ֥ה רָע:, Moses heard the people weeping by clan each at the entrance of its tent; and God’s anger raged; and in Moses’ eyes it was evil/bad.
But what was evil in Moses eyes? The people’s wailing or God’s reactive rage? Either can be read from the textual pointing; I lean towards the latter.
Immediately after Moses’ confession of despair and hopelessness, God changes: instead of reacting with rage (ויחר אף), God now responds in a way that is useful recommending a balance of leadership that can truly respond to the concerns and fears of the people. The great Medieval commentator, Rashi, as Spitz notes, highlights in his discussion of the first chapter of Exodus, that the root of the word for shatter, or break into pieces, sh-v-r is a word used by Isaiah (37:3) as a metaphor for a ‘birthing stool’. In Isaiah’s case, he was remarking thatכִּי בָאוּ בָנִים עַד־מַשְׁבֵּר וְכֹחַ אַיִן לְלֵדָה: ד ; the babes were ready to be born, but lacked the stregnth…Isaiah then implores, אוּלַי יִשְׁמַע יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיך, perhaps God will hear!
It takes Moses’ utter despair for God to really listen, to hear. Sometimes a shattering of hope is required in order to give birth to new ideas and innovative approaches in the face of crisis.
“The Women’s Commentary” on B’ha-alot’cha focuses far less on crisis and instead on Miriam’s silence in the text. Drawing on both critical and midrashic methods, Rabbi Ruth Sohn argues that in the ancient period, Miriam’s voice was most likely very present. Textual fragments within this week’s portion and throughout Tanach underscore her role as a prophet, as a leader within the community even if, as Sohn argues, later editing worked to diminish and silence her voice. Clearly she was important enough that the entire camp waited for her while she healed. In discussing that very detail, the fact that Miriam is not left behind, commentator Ellen Frankel, in her Five Books of Miriam (one of the number of women’s commentaries published in the last two decades) concludes that Miriam was at the least “someone to be reckoned with” – a force in the community.
No question, much of Miriam’s tradition has been lost over time. As Sohn notes, while her presence echoes throughout the text, her silence in the face of a tradition that places so much emphasis on words underscores a failure of preservation. Yet, one could also read her silence as a choice in the face of a male-dominated system of leadership. Perhaps a fantastical read, I admit, but I imagine Miriam choosing to exclude herself from the nonsense for a week. Enough was enough – she too was experiencing the same despair as her brother and her fellow Israelites, but her voice, her leadership, so quickly overshadowed by her brothers, not heard by God as was Moses. Instead of staying put in such circumstances, she proactively imposes upon herself a hiatus, a respite – that in turn forces the entire community to pause and reflect.
Perhaps we need to pause and reflect before publishing any more new Torah Commentaries.

As we’ve seen, both of these works, “The Women’s” and “The Modern Men’s” commentaries are great sources of inspiration for study, but rather than continuing to segregate our scholars into male and female categories, can we not join forces and simply offer good and substantial commentary inviting to both women and men? Well into the 21st century, seems time to have a cooperative effort. Let’s explore possible titles: “The Co-ed Torah commentary”? “The Bi-Sexual” …no, of course not. The “Men’s and Women’s Torah Commentary” or perhaps then “The Human Torah Commentary” (to make it clear it isn’t for our non-human friends). Okay, I’m being silly; but the challenge of finding an appropriate title underscores the fact that the titles of these commentaries themselves place the focus less on Torah and too much on the individuals, the modern men and women, approaching the text. Let’s be honest with ourselves, how many men will purchase “The Women’s Commentary” and how many women will purchase “The Men’s” when in fact we can all be enriched by the commentary contained in both volumes?

I urge us all to resist re-instituting partitions. Instead of re-enforcing that divisive mechitza we worked so long ago to tear down, it is time for us to cross those boundaries of gender by studying texts that help us understand each other’s point of view. Maybe we can encourage Jewish Lights Publishing to make their next Torah commentary simply that: “A Torah Commentary,” one that contains “New Insights from Prominent Scholars on the 54 weekly Torah Portions” regardless of gender.
Delivered by Rabbi/Cantor Silverman

new sermon

Shabbat B'ha-alot'cha - and a comment about the new "Modern Men's Torah Commentary" published this year by Jewish Lights Publishing

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My first blog post!

I have been interested in making my sermons and research musings more available to those who are actually interested in reading them, thus despite being somewhat technologically challenged, I am entering the world of blogging!

Below, see my response to the tragic killing of Dr. George Tiller on Shabbat Naso.

bamidbar – Apparently we are still in the wilderness – that a man can walk into a church and gun down a fellow human being because of a difference in opinion. Taking the life from a man who himself was serving his community by ushering his fellow congregants into worship, whose wife was helping elevate that divine worship with her voice, because of a difference in opinion – a strongly held opinion, for sure, but ultimately Dr. George Tiller lost his life because instead of finding a more appropriate path for his passionately held views, Scott Roeder was incited to express them through violence.
Already comment has been made in the media that the perpetrator of this heinous crime suffered from mental illness (and I don’t doubt that possibility), but I am not willing to let our society dismiss his actions and so quickly fail to take responsibility for such a violent expression of hate.
I make no secret of my passionately held opinion – for the record, I believe our country’s legal system must protect a woman’s right to be responsible for her own body and her freedom to find appropriate and safe medical care without fear of being harassed or attacked physically or verbally. And her doctors must not be limited in their capacity due to fear of such harassment. Any legislation that falls short of such comprehensive protection in my view is not only ‘anti-choice’ but ‘anti-life’ – no life is protected by forcing women into unsafe conditions which experience in our own country and elsewhere reminds us will result. And no life is protected by intimidating our medical professionals out of providing safe and appropriate care to those in need. However, those who hold to another point of view – those who label themselves as ‘pro-life’ have as much right to their opinion as I do to mine, and while I may think they are wrong, I respect the expression of those views in appropriate and peaceful venues. Sadly though, what our country seems to have allowed, in the name of free speech and the 1st amendment no less, is a monologue of hateful and manipulative language that not only instills fear in place of dialogue, but leads to physical and verbal abuse of women and the physicians trying to serve them, and can lead those less stable to acts of violence such as the killing of Dr. Tiller.

Parashat Naso outlines one of the least understood ancient rituals (see Numbers 5:11-30). Labelled by Rabbinic tradition as the ritual of the Sotah, it is unclear if this test of a woman’s innocence in the face of an accusation of adultery arose out of a primarily misogynistic or protectionist attitude towards women. Of course, we hope for the latter. Regardless, what the text underscores is the reality of the vulnerability of women in biblical society and the tenuous nature of their status. Even if the ritual was to serve as protection against an enraged and jealous husband, the woman – passive, perhaps even victimized, is placed in a position of having to prove innocence through a public and humiliating display. Our discomfort, embarrassment even, over this puzzling ritual is evident in the later literature. Early Rabbinic as well as modern commentators have struggled with the pshat, the plain meaning of the text many arguing that such a ritual rarely if ever was implemented, others maintaining the Talmudic principle: אין האיש מנוקה מעון ־ אין המים בודקין את אשתו, that the waters could only prove a wife guilty if the husband himself was above reproach (B. Sotah 47b). There has been no shortage of apologetic explanation of its place in the canon; yet, despite our discomfort, we rarely challenge the text outright. We don’t live in the Biblical period, and while explanations to place the ritual of the Sotah in the context of the Ancient Near East are compelling to me as a biblical historian, as a modern Jew seeking insight from our Biblical tradition, the text only stands as an example of how not to treat women.

Furthermore, it stands as a lesson we still need to learn. Too often we remain passive in the face of such treatment today accepting ‘the bitter waters’ as a reality of society rather than making the effort to confront the forces in society that seek to limit a women’s access to care and council without judgement and interference. How many women in our modern world are publicly humiliated for their choices or pressured out of fear to make choices not in their or their family’s best interest. Why is there an inherent assumption by so many that if women are allowed access to abortion, or birth control even, they will engage in reckless and wanton behavior? And if indeed the goal of the right is to “reduce unwanted pregnancies”, why is there not equal attention paid to developing and implementing quality educational programs that help both young men and women to do just that.

I fear, not only as a woman, but more importantly as a mother of daughters, that we as a modern society are not treating women much better than our biblical text. We must stop placing a woman’s destiny in the hands of others, others who may or may not know the full story of her situation, and instead trust her ability and desire to make good and appropriate choices for herself and society. To do otherwise greatly diminishes her’s and our humanity.