Thursday, January 26, 2012

Parshat Bo: Past, present and future

Anyone who has ever taken a public speaking or presentation skills class knows the principle:  Tell them what you are going to say, say it, then tell them what you said.  When you want to communicate something important, it is key to prepare the audience by letting them know what is coming, and to summarize at the end.

The Torah does the same with the Exodus.  The story itself of the actual leaving of Egypt is sandwiched between Moses' prepatory speeches (first a warning to Pharaoh, then a command to the Children of Israel) beforehand, and afterwards a command to observe Passover for the generations.  We are prepared for what is about to happen, it happens, and then we are told what happened.

This creates something of a paradox in the Exodus story.  The Children of Israel are commanded to eat the Paschal lamb on Matzot and Maror, and to remove leaven from their homes for seven days.  The command is given on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, a full 2 weeks before the Exodus.  Yet, in the story of the Exodus itself, we are told the reason for the Matza and prohibition on Chametz:

וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת-הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, עֻגֹת מַצּוֹת--כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ:   
כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ, וְגַם-צֵדָה, לֹא-עָשׂוּ לָהֶם) שמות י"ט ל"ב(

"And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual." (Exodus 12:39)

If the Matzah was scripted, what are we commemorating?  Which came first, the command to reeanact or the act itself?    Were the Children of Israel really in a hurry, or was the hurry scripted as well?  The whole thing reminds me of Battlestar Galactica: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

I once took a Bible class with one Sister Mary (whose last name I am ashamed to say I have since forgotten) when I attended a Catholic college.  She started the class with Exodus and then we went to Genesis. When we asked why, she explained that Exodus is the crux of the Hebrew Bible.  Everything that comes before is foreshadowing, and everything after refers back to it.  It is the central story of the Hebrew Bible. The insight has stayed with me, and helps me understand what is going on in the Parsha.  The moment of the Exodus is the mirror moment, so immediately before and after reflect it.  In other words, the command to the Children of Israel before the Exodus is just the culmination of everything that has led to that moment, and we are now close enough that all the details are becoming clear.  Immediately afterwards, we move into the commemoration of that moment, while it is still fresh in our minds.

With that in mind, let’s try to understand that commemoration.  Rashi has a shocking interpretation of the following verse from the Parsha:

 וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר:  בַּעֲבוּר זֶה, עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי, בְּצֵאתִי, מִמִּצְרָיִם.(שמות י"ג ח')

This is usually translated

“And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt”  (Exodus 13:8)

However Rashi reads it as follows:

“And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying:  It is FOR THIS [the eating of Matzah and Maror at the Seder in future generations] that the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt”

In other words, Rashi reverses the causality!  We usually think that we observe the Seder as a response to the great things God did for us when we left Egypt.  Rashi says the opposite – we were freed from Egypt so that we could observe the Seder.

Past, present and future are all intertwined in this story, and explicitly in its telling in the Parsha.  God’s command  to re-enact precedes the act itself, and the purpose of the act is the re-enactment yearly for generations.

At the seder,citing the above verse as prooftext, we say:

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם,

“In every generation a person is required to see himself as if he himself left Egypt.”

In the spirit of the reversals we have discussed, let’s turn this around.  Not only must we see ourselves as if we ourselves left Egypt, but perhaps we must understand that those who left Egypt were just like us.  The generation that left Egypt was following a script no less than we are.  They were told what to do and needed to imbue it with their own meaning, as they carried it out.  Just as we do, they needed to find transformational meaning in a pre-ordained, scripted ritual.

The paradox of the Exodus story is that it is both a historical moment and a scripted story.  It is pre-ordained from Abraham’s vision, yet it is lived in the moment.  As Jews we relive it daily, weekly and annually in our rituals, yet we always need to make sure we are living it – in the moment – not only repeating it by rote.  The distinctions between past, present and future break down.  We are re-enacting the past, whose purpose was that we would re-enact it in the present, and we do it so that our children will re-enact it in the future.  Time progresses, but telescopes down to a point. (I have an image of covering spaces from topology, but I think only my wife will get that reference). 

As Jews we live in all these forms of time at once.    We see a progression of history, but we see certain moments in that history emanating forward and backward into it, giving meaning to the narrative.  The Exodus is past, but also present and future.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Parshat VaEra - A Brief History of the Universe

I am going to tell a story.  The story is of a cosmic battle between good and evil, a story of primordial forces and moral choices.

Let’s start at the beginning of the story, and I really mean the beginning.  About 14 billion years ago, God created the Universe in a Big Bang.  In that primordial תהו ובהו  (chaos), the laws of physics reigned supreme.  Chemistry, as such, had no meaning yet, but soon, as atoms and molecules started to form in the early universe, basic laws of chemistry emerged.  In particular, there was one law, a fundamental part of both physics and chemistry.  It is known today as the second law of thermodynamics, and it shaped the developing universe. 

The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe is always trending towards a state of greater disorder.  Entropy, or chaos, is increasing at all times.  Any locally ordered state comes at the price of more disorder in the environment.  My professor of statistical mechanics many years ago suggested that the second law was simply an outcome of the fact that disordered states are much more numerous than ordered states, but Stephen Hawking has suggested that the second law is so fundamental that the passage of time can be defined as the direction in the space time continuum in which entropy increases.

The implication of the second law is death.  Nothing can live forever, nothing can last forever.  The Universe, in its infinite diversity, could create all kinds of structures and beings, but they are all, sooner or later, doomed to death and destruction.  Entropy always wins.

But then, about 4 billion years ago, something amazing happened.  In the ocean of a small green planet orbiting around an average sized yellow sun, molecules were randomly forming and unforming, entropy breaking them up before they could form anything significant.  Then in a divinely directed random event, a molecule developed a remarkable property.  In its short life span, before entropy broke it back up into its constituent pieces, this molecule could use the materials floating around it to build a copy of itself.  It cheated death.  As long as it could create a copy of itself once before breaking up, its structure could outlive the lifespan determined by the second law. 

But it gets better!  The molecule wasn’t a perfect copier.  Sometimes the copies were slightly different from the original.  Most of the time, the changes were either neutral or damaging.  The copy might be unable to copy itself again.  Once in awhile, though, a change improved things.  The molecule could make 2, then 3 then 10 copies of itself before entropy got to it.  The new, better molecules would quickly crowd out the older ones, using up the available raw materials faster. 

After 10 billion years of hegemony, physics had made room for biology.  Entropy still meant that all things died, but reproduction meant that living things could live beyond the time dictated by the second law, through their offspring.  Ordered states could get more and more complex, since they could build structure across generations.  The battle between biology and physics – between life and death - was joined.

Once the process started, it was unstoppable.  Molecules gave way to multi-molecular structures, which gave way to proto-cells, and then cells, and multi-cellular organisms and to whole ecosystems.  A great diversity of life began to spread across the Earth, not only in the ocean but on land as well.  And God saw that it was good.

And then, only a few million years ago, a creature evolved out of this great diversity of life that had a new capability.  It could look around itself and rather than simply automatically going on with the business of feeding itself and reproducing, it could ask “Why?”    God, who had been waiting for this new creature, breathed into it an immortal soul, and called it “human.”

Humans created a problem that was new to the Universe.  To quote Neo from the Matrix, the problem is choice.  Unlike all the creations before it, humans must choose their side in the battle between life and death.  The battle is no longer between impersonal, unthinking cosmic forces – it is a moral battle.  A battle in which we are called to choose sides.

We are now brought to the confrontation in our Parsha, only a few thousand years ago.

Our sages over the centuries have found the most basic of philosophical problems in our Parsha.  If, as we have said, the fundamental property of the human being is choice, how could God have taken that choice from Pharaoh, when his heart was hardened against freeing the Jews?  I don’t propose to delve deeply into this question, except to say that the philosophical crisis it created implies that it must be the exception that proves the rule – human beings have choice.

Pharaoh was the leader of a civilization that had chosen the side of death in the great battle of the Universe.  They built monuments to their dead that survive until today.  They saw the great life-force of the Israelites,

 ('וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. (שמות א' ז

"And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them." (Exodus 1:7)

Their response was fear, enslavement, and murder.  In addition to choosing death as their ultimate value, they denied the choice existed. Entropy after all, would always win in the end.  The Israelites must not be given the freedom to choose.

Standing before this Pharaoh is Moshe, who has come to tell him that there is a God, the God of life, the God of freedom.  It is not enough for this moment of history that the Israelites be freed.  The civilization of death must bow before the God of life, who can cause the Nile to run with life-blood, and the land to teem with frogs and vermin and beasts, and who can also bring sickness, death and destruction in the service of life and freedom, when necessary.

At the forefront of our story is Moshe, who some 40 years later, will tell his people of the battle they must continue, and the choice they must make as he sends them off into their lives as a people:

 רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע (דברים ל' ט"ו).

“Behold, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil,” (Deuteronomy 30:15)

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה (דברים ל' י"ט);

“I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The choice we have is a moral one – life is good and a blessing, death is evil and a curse. 
This is the battle of our Parsha, and the battle of our lives.  

Choose life.   As Moshe said,

 וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ: כִּי הוּא חַיֶּיךָ, וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֶיךָ
('דברים ל' י"ט-כ)

“Choose life, that you may live, you and your children.  To love the Lord, your God, to listen to God’s voice, and to cleave to God.  For that is your life and the length of your days.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Choosing life means choosing to love, to create, to build, to care.   It means choosing to see and to cherish the diversity of humanity and all life.    It means choosing to see the intrinsic value of each and every human being, and acting on the implications of that.  It is not a onetime choice.  It is a choice one must make over and over again throughout a lifetime.

Choose life.

(This dvar torah was originally delivered last year at my daughter's bat mitzvah)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back of the bus? What about back of the shul?

In the recent firestorm over women's issues in Israel, nothing has been more emblematic than the long-overdue pushback on Haredim who try to enforce a "women in the back" policy on public buses.  This is such a clear and obvious violation of women's rights, and evokes such strong visceral reactions in anyone familiar with the American civil rights movement that it is an easy target.

In the segment of National Religious Orthodoxy that I am part of, everyone seems to agree that forcing women to the back of the bus is not a halachic requirement, and is a Haredi stringency that is counter to the way we see ourselves as Orthodox Jews.  Women in our community would never accept being sent to the back of the bus.

So why do we accept women at the back (or the top) of the shul?  At the corner of my street is a shul we used to be members of.  They completed a building a few years ago and the women's section is a balcony.  There is a small cage-like section with a few seats on the main floor in the back, but that seats only a few people.  The beit midrash, where daily services are held, has an ever shrinking women's section in the back corner.  It looks (and must feel) like a cage with only one or two seats.  This is despite the fact that there are women who come to say Kaddish at many of the daily services.  On the one hand, I admire these women for their commitment to Kaddish despite the way they are being treated.  On the other hand, I wonder how they can allow themselves to be treated this way.

By the time the shul was built we were active in another shul, but we had kept an associate membership.  When we saw what had been built, we withdrew our membership, but it is still the most convenient daily minyan.  Unfortunately, my regular shul is only a Shabbat minyan, and there are no better alternatives in the area.  I daven there regularly, but it makes my blood boil.  I love the Rabbi at this shul.  He is a progressive by almost all standards in Orthodoxy.  His wife is a brilliant talmidat chacham (Torah scholar) and speaker, as well as a leading lawyer in Israel.  How do they put up with this?  (To be fair, he was hired after the building was built.)

This is not a rant against this specific shul.  It is a problem across Orthodoxy in the Diaspora and Israel.  I can somewhat understand that buildings built 50 years ago are hard to retrofit (although that too is possible).  But how can a shul built in the past 20 years, in the Modern Orthodox community, not have a women's section which is side by side with the men?  Have we made no progress at all?  In my main community, we use a shul that was built with a balcony. It was designed (also in the past 10 years) by a famous woman architect who is secular.  What was she thinking? Would she have built a lecture hall (the shul is on a University campus) with a section in the back for the women?  We did not build the shul - it was just the best available option when we were looking for a venue.  However, we put a mechitza down the middle downstairs, and use the upstairs as overflow seats for the men.  It is doable - people just need to insist.

This is not a halachic issue.  I accept the the halachic need for a mechitza and separate sections for men and women.  I just don't accept that women should be at the back of the shul, any more than they should be at the back of the bus.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Feminist look at Partnership Minyanim - Book Review and personal response

I just finished reading Elana Maryles Sztokman's book The Men's Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World, which is a qualitative, interview based study of the men who participate in partnership minyanim.  For those unfamiliar, partnership minyanim were pioneered by a community in Jerusalem called Shira Hadasha.  The model is based on an article by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro in 2001 that suggested the halachic permissibility of women reading from, and getting aliyot to, the Torah in the context of a traditional Orthodox synagogue.  In the model of Shira Hadasha there are now 20+ such communities around the world, where women lead the parts of the service (Pesukei D'Zimra, Kabalat Shabbat, etc.) and participate equally in the Torah service.  These communities have mechitzot (the traditional partition between men and women in an Orthodox synagogue) but the service is led from a podium that either straddles the mechitza, or is in a central neutral area between the men's and women's sections.

I am a founding member and gabbai of such a minyan in Raanana, so I was curious to read Dr. Maryles Sztokman's insights into what motivates men to join them and how that plays out in the context of finding a balance between remaining Orthodox while pushing the boundaries in an egalitarian direction.  (The minyanim are not truly egalitarian, as I insisted when ours was named, they are just more egalitarian then the standard Orthodox model.) 

The first time I attended Shira Hadasha, I expected it to seem weird.  Although I loved the idea, I was sure that hearing women read Torah and lead services would take some getting used to at the instinctual level.  However, my reaction was just the opposite.  It felt like coming home, like everything was finally in the right place.  Like the harmony had been missing a part, and it was finally complete.  I started looking for opportunities to go back, and later brought my wife (a serial founder of women's tefilot), who also found it inspiring.  We held our daughters' bat mitzvah celebrations in the context of a partnership minyan (that we organized with our friends and family at a hotel).

The book begins by defining the "man box" of Orthodox masculinity.  Orthodox men are socialized to live up to an ideal of regular, punctual prayer with a minyan three times a day, with the ideal man being able to lead the service and Torah reading precisely and perfectly.   Emotion and devotion in prayer are essentially ignored in this construct, and men are judged by our peers in our ability to meet this standard.

Although I never thought if it in the oppressive terms that the author describes, the Orthodox "man-box" is truly as she describes.  She correctly points out that realization of this standard is dependent on others, usually women, in a supporting role - taking care of children especially.    I was very aware of this in my own life.  Although in college I was pretty good about making minyan regularly, once we had kids, I consciously decided that I did not see any great merit in being a Tzadik at someone else's expense, and only went to minyan when it did not interfere with my being home with the kids in the mornings.  However, I never really questioned the ideal of the "minyan man", I just decided that in the conflict between that ideal, and my ideal image of a father, I would temporarily give up one for the other.  Even after reading the book, and understanding her critique, I still see the "man box" she describes as a positive value.

The second part of Dr. Maryles Sztokman's book is about how the partnership minyan does, and does not, break the "man box" of Orthodox masculinity.  While she appreciates the efforts men must make to empathize with women's disenfranchisement in order to step aside and allow women's leadership alongside men's, she is critical of the way men somehow still find ways to hold on to power.  More importantly, she concludes that the partnership minyan is essentially a masculine construct that women are being allowed to participate in, rather than creating a joint construct in which men and women can share - not only the roles, but in the creation of the construct itself.

The book's critique rang very true to me, but I am not sure how to respond.  In today's world, if I wanted to participate in a fully egalitarian religious experience, I have options outside of Orthodoxy.  The reason I remain Orthodox is that, despite my own difficulties with traditional structures, I am not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.    I want to reform from within, not break away.   Clearly, women are paying most of the price for the slowness of this reform.    Is the price worth it?  I guess individual women need to decide for themselves.

One thing I certainly took away from the book were specific ideas about what to avoid at our own minyan.  I certainly hope that some of the more egregious occurrences described in the book would not happen to us.  However, we do struggle with the need to balance the need to encourage new and unexperienced baalei tefilla and baalei keriah (both men and women) with the desire for a reasonable standard in quality.  I understand the author's concerns about how this standard impacts how people feel judged, but the reality is that it can be unpleasant to sit through a long service where the reading (the issue is mostly with Torah reading) is poor.  Reading the book has made me more conscious that we need to handle corrections gently and to be forgiving as new people take the very brave step of trying to lead the congregation.

Some of Dr. Maryles Sztokman's informants expressed their social need to remain Orthodox.  In my opinion, she was overly dismissive of this need.  Both men and women have a social need to belong.  By joining partnership minyanim, we risk our affiliation with the communities (beyond the direct prayer community) that we live in.  Especially in Israel, the schools our children go to, the social milieu we are part of, and the terminology we define ourselves by, are all Orthodox.    It is not surprising that many participants of the partnership minyanim want to make sure their membership in the minyan does not risk their acceptance in the larger community.  I personally think it is a lost fight, and I am not so hung up on the label, but I see where it comes from.  I am lucky enough to live in a community where, while the partnership minyan is controversial, my participation in it has not risked my ability to fully participate in other congregations in the area.   I also did not grow up in the Orthodox community, so I have less at stake.

However, on the larger issues, I question what we can do to make the service more reflective of the feminine while still remaining Orthodox.  The author has a lot of discussion of the way punctuality plays a negative role. I understand her point, and I certainly try hard not to make anyone individually feel bad about their late arrival.  However, I also know how uncomfortable it can be to wait for a minyan, especially when there are mourners who want to say Kaddish.  On the one hand, they want to say Kaddish.  On the other, I am concerned that they are made to feel uncomfortable for holding up the congregation because otherwise we would continue to a later part of the service, as Pesukei D'Zimra does not require a minyan.  What does a prayer service look like if no one worries about coming on time? We don't need everyone there, but without a minyan, there are issues I don't know how to solve.

What else can we change?  I would like to explore finding a way for men and women to lead services equally, and not just some parts as is currently practiced.  I am still examining the sources, but I see it as a project to undertake during my ordination studies.   However, that solves nothing from either the feminist or Orthodox perspectives.  From the feminist perspective, it is an extension of sharing roles in this masculine construct - it does not feminize the experience.  From the Orthodox perspective, it will make it harder for partnership members to see themselves as Orthodox sociologically, and certainly for others to see them that way.

The book left me at a bit at a loss.  Is it possible, even in the long-term, to have an egalitarian Orthodoxy?  Is halacha so irredeemably patriarchal that we need to choose between our commitment to egalitarianism and our desire to remain part of halachic discourse?  Both my friends on the right and on the left would agree that I do have to choose.  I am still trying to explore how to reconcile these values.  As long as there are women (and in particular my life partner) who are willing to explore with me, I will continue to do so.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Parshat Shemot: Moshe as anti-hero

In his book, Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud offers an alternative understanding of the Exodus story.  Most of his ideas have been rejected by biblical scholars, both religious and academic, but he has one insight that strikes me as extremely powerful.

There is a motif in ancient mythology, from the Babylonian Sargon, through Greek, Assyrian and Roman stories of Oedipus, Perseus, Heracles, Gilgamesh, and many others.  It is repeated in modern stories such as Tarzan and even Luke Skywalker of Star Wars.  The story goes as follows:  A royal couple is blessed with a child, but the parents are concerned with a threat to the child and hide the child from sight, often with a family of low status.  The child eventually grows to be a hero, learns of his heritage and comes into his royal birthright.

Freud's insight is that while Moshe's story conforms to this ancient theme in its structure, it turns the particulars on their head.  Rather than being born to a royal family and being raised in secret by peasants, Moshe is born to slaves and is raised in the Egyptian royal family.  His coming of age and discovery of his heritage is not a discovery of royal birthright, but rather a challenge to the social order, and a rejection of his people's slavery.

The basic message of the ancient hero motif is that "blood will tell" – a person born to royalty will grow into a hero by nature of their family qualities.  Moshe's quality is different – he is compelled by his own nature to confront injustice and seek peace: killing the Egyptian overlord, intervening in the fight between his Israelite brothers, and rescuing the Midianite women from their tormentors.  He is the anti-hero, not seeking challenges and glory, but retreating to his shepherding until called by God.

This former member of the royal household now enters the palace as the leader of a slave revolt.    The stage is set for a confrontation between the ancient idea of royal divinity, of the right of the elite to rule over and oppress the populace, and the then-new Torah concept that all people are created in God's image.  The social structure is not a divine rule, but an affront to divine justice.  It is Moshe's role to say, and to prove through the plagues, that Pharaoh is no more a god than the slaves he rules over.  He can be brought low by the true God of the land, who wants people to be free.  It is not enough that the Israelites leave; they must do so in a way that demonstrates to all, for all time, that an oppressive social structure is not only not endorsed by God, but abhorrent to the divine will.

(First written for my daughter's bat-mitzvah last year)