Archive for the '2.06 Mishpatim' Category

Painfully Parve: The Moral Challenge of Adiaphorous

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we learn about many laws. Some of them deal with kashrut, food taboos. One of the laws states, ” You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” (Exodus 22:30) Clearly eating without thinking about the experience of the animal is to be like an animal. Our holiness is connected to our being conscious consumers.

Another law states, “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”(Exodus 23:19) At first glance it might seem that this prohibition falls in line with other taboos in Judaism of mixing things, I think that is an over simplification. Just as in the previous case, this is an argument for conscious moral living. Cooking a kid in it’s mother milk is an obvious case of cruelty. Not doing mixing milk and meat is not moral stance, but an occasion to be mindful in life and to strive not to be cruel.

This also creates categories of trief (not kosher), milk, meat, and “parve”. Pronounced PAH-riv or pahr-veh, “parve” is a Yiddish (and by extension, Hebrew) term for something that is neither meat nor dairy. Examples would be water, eggs, fish, and anything that is plant-derived, such as fruit, nuts and veggies. Thus, a cookie labeled as “parve” can be eaten together with cream-laden coffee, or after a steak dinner. Since meat and dairy utensils are also kept separate, dishes that are used for neither meat nor dairy are also known as “parve.” The origin of this word is unknowm. Perhaps it is from Middle High German bar (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Germanic bazaz (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Indo-European bosós, from bos- (“bare, barefoot”), and thus cognate with English bare. Or perhaps from a West Slavic source such as Czech párový (“occurring in pairs”), because it is something that can be paired with either meat or milk.

In a more general context, being “parve” can also mean being neutral, unremarkable, or lacking in distinctive qualities or characteristics. To be “painfully parve” would mean to be frustratingly neutral or unremarkable in a way that causes discomfort or dissatisfaction. This could refer to a person, an experience, or anything that is perceived as being uninteresting or bland. It suggests a sense of disappointment or a desire for more excitement or stimulation.

Similarly I just learned a new vocabular work, adiaphorous. Based on the ancient Greek “ἀδιάφορος” (“adiáphoros”), meaning “indifferent.” The idea of adiaphorous concepts is associated with the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who split human life into categories of good, bad, and indifferent. The term for “indifferent” was “adiaphora,” and they used it to describe activities that were neither essentially good nor essentially bad. An early example of something adiaphorous is the pursuit of fame, which is neither bad in nature, nor necessarily a good thing. Stoics believed adiaphorous actions were decided as good or bad by the way one carried them out.

There is something painfully parve about moral indifference. I am interested in Jewish law being an expression of our values. When it come to food there is no problem being parve, but in life we need to pick teams. Being adiaphorous is trief. As Elie Wiesel wisely said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

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The Limits of Cancel Culture: Jeremiah and Our Moment

John McWhorter is a professor of linguists at Columbia University. It makes sense for him to be interested in a Chinese language professor in California who was leading a discussion on filler words, such as “like” or “you know” in English. A common pause word in the Chinese language is “na-ge.” During his lecture, the professor repeated several times the term, which sounds like the N-word, but means “that.” Students complained, and the professor was suspended. “Those are cases that make the news because they’re especially colorful,” says McWhorter. “But it happens all the time.” There are real perils of cancel culture. While I do not agree with everything he wrote, I found his book Woke Racism to be a compelling and a really thoughtful book.

It is clear that we have become a culture of extremes, laying waste to people in the middle. Be it the mobs of cancel culture on one side or newly victimized anti-cancel culture advocates on the other, we increasingly use bombastic language. This makes us more tribal and less willing to take time to understand situations that are not our own. Both sides believe they are always right and are the guardians of truth. Both groups espouse politics that become equally zero-sum and exclusionary. The boundaries of our echo chamber are clear. In this current climate we are less likely to hear one another out. This ultimately takes us further away from fixing the serious problems. We have an inability to have substantive and serious debate about fundamentally crucial topics. We have lowered our level of discourse. Our next step is not clear.

To be clear, it is wonderful to live at a time when there are real and clear consequences for bad actions, we desperately need accountability. We need to continue our long march to living in a just and fair society. In the case of Chinese professor, too much is lost in translation. Have we gone too far? How might we fix this?

I was thinking about this issue this week when reading the haftorah, which is taken from the book of Jeremiah. There we read :

Just as I would not cancel My covenant with the day and night and I would not cancel the laws of heaven and earth, so too I will not cast away the descendants of Jacob . . . for I will return their captivity [to their land] and have mercy on them.(Jeremiah 33:25-26)

It concludes with words of reassurance that God’s relationship with the Jewish people is as implacable as God’s commitment to the natural order of time and law’s of nature. In Jeremiah we see that there are consequences for our behavior, namely captivity, but God is not into this cancel culture either. For us to return to a higher level of discourse we must follow God’s example. We cannot allow ourselves to be held captive by extremes. We must be open to listening to each other in good faith without just canceling them. We need to be clear when people hurt us, be open to change, have mercy for people doing their best, and most importantly rebuild trust. A world without accountability and a belief in and practice of teshuva is one that will remain broken. As sure as the passing of day and night and laws of heaven and earth, we need to find a way to return.

The Failure of Democracy

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays.  Amidst this litany of commandments we read:

You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute -after the majority must one incline —nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23:2-3)

Simply put it is suggesting that justice cannot be political. The adjudication of what it right or wrong cannot be defined by what is popular. The law to follow the majority is the birthplace of democracy.

This principle comes into play in the story of Tanor Shel Aknai. The story starts with a debate over the halakhic status of a new type of oven but ends with a crazy disagreement of the nature of law and authority. Rabbi Eliezer standing by himself uses miracles and even a Bat Kol to prove his side of the debate. The Rabbis hold their ground saying that God does not have authority over the Torah after giving it to humanity and the law must follow the majority. Check out this video from Godcast z”l on the story:

There in the Gemara we learn:

Said Rabbi Yeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Bat Kol, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority must one incline”.( Exodus 23:2) (Baba Meitzia 59b)

This means that we need to follow the majority and overlook the divine will expressed in miracles. The power and authority sits with those who debate within the walls of the yeshiva. We literally silence the divine voice to make room for the voice of the human majority.

This reminds me of a story that my brother Daniel shared with me. He was an avid rower in college and even coached. A while back he sent me the following joke:

Yeshiva University decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lose race after race. Even though they practice and practice for hours every day, they never manage to come in any better than dead last.

Finally, the team decides to send Morris Fishbein, its captain, to spy on Harvard, the perennial championship team. So Morris schlepps off to Cambridge, Mass. , and hides in the bushes next to the Charles River, where he carefully watches the Harvard team at its daily practice.

After a week, Morris returns to Yeshiva. “Well, I figured out their secret,” he announces.
“What? Tell us! Tell us!” his teammates shout.
“We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row.” 

Who is rowing and who is leading? Too often we think we are leading by screaming and not just rowing. Successful rowing is by definition not a democracy.

These stories have a strange relevance to this moment in our politics. For right now we see the Democratic candidates all screaming at each other and no one is driving the boat toward the finish line. We are at a scary moment in our democracy where an impeached president is going unchecked. This is leading him to continue to behave as if his voice is divinely ordained, he necessarily in the right, and should win every debate. With Russian meddling in the news again many fear that they will pervert the voting process again. People do not trust that their vote represents their voice. How might we go “after the majority” if we do not trust our capacity to hear their voice? This is the failure of democracy.

As Churchill wisely said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

Let’s just try to scream a little less.

– For more on this story of the Tanor Shel Aknai- check out this source sheet

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Empathy

As anyone who ever reads my blog knows, I am a bit of hasid of Dr.Brené Brown. There is something she shared that I have been thinking about lately. She said, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”  I always assumed that empathy was a trait. What does it mean that empathy is a choice? Does that mean that it is more nurture than nature?

I was thinking about this question this week while reading Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). If the Torah wanted to it could just have instructed us not to wrong or oppress the stranger and left it at that. Instead it goes on to give us a rationale. We should not do wrong by the stranger because we  “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment seems to be a profound lesson in empathy.  The reason that we should not marginalize anyone else is because we ourselves endured a national experience of being strangers in a strange land.  In this way our collective  slavery is the foundation of our morality.

This mandate to look out for the stranger is not limited to this one commandment. We learn in the Ein Yaakov:

We are taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “Why does the Scripture in thirty-six, according to others in forty-six places, warn regarding strangers? Because his original character is bad [into which ill treatment might cause him to relapse].” Why is there added “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus 22:20)? We are taught: Rabbi Nathan says: “Do not reproach your neighbor with a blemish which is also your own” (Ein Yaakov, Bava Metzia 4:12)

Be it 36 or 46 times it a rather pervasive and systemic message in the Torah to look out for those who might be marginalized. But what does it mean regarding our assumptions around human nature? I do not agree that we are bad from the start. That being said it seems that Rabbi Nathan thought that the best way to deal with this limitation is the commandment from this week’s Torah portion. By empathizing with the stranger we can uproot this flaw. Essentially Rabbi Nathan was saying that “those in glass houses should not throw stones.” Like Brené Brown’s lesson from above, we are commanded to be vulnerable and look inward if we hope to evoke empathy for others.

This reminds me of something that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson taught. He wrote:

Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’

Be it a commandment or a choice the importance of looking out for the stranger seems pretty straight forward. The lesson plans or effort needed for becoming an empathetic person seem truly complex. This is hard work, but something we need now more than ever.

-See related post on the 36: The Laws of the Stranger

Gratitude for the Hungry Dogs: Mishpatim and the Eagles

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays.  Amidst this litany of commandments we read:

You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.( Exodus 22:30)

On this Rashi comments:

Why does the Torah say “to the dogs” ? Because the Holy One, blessed is God, does not withhold the reward of any creature, as it is said: “But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue” (Exod. 11:7). Said the Holy One, blessed is God, “Give it its reward.” [ Mechilta]

The Torah is telling us that we should show gratitude. Just as we hope that God will not let our good deeds go unrewarded, we show gratitude by giving forbidden meat to the dog.

I am moved to express gratitude for the Eagles and the people of Philadelphia. This past Sunday with their grit and determination they  taught us all that “hungry dogs run faster”. No one believed in them and yet they won. It is lovely seeing them get their just reward.

Image result for hungry dogs are faster eagles

And as I reflect back on the last few weeks watching my Facebook feed I realize I have been moved by a virtual sense of community. I was touched seeing all of my childhood friends from Philadelphia who now live all over the world having a real experience of galus from the town in which we were raised. We share much nachas from this “Philly Special” victory.

 

Image result for philly special t shirt

Blood on Our Hands

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of this blood?

An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Yosef and his brothers.

Originally, Yosef’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Yosef’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuven said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).

In the case of Yosef’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at times.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Yosef’s blood is on our hands for generations. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for looking out for people who are marginalized. Even today it is easy for us to hide behind a law, but without DACA innocent people’s lives will be destroyed. To fix this we might need to get my hands dirty.

Strangers Look Out for Strangers: Mishpatim and Trans Rights

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to empathize and care for other strangers.

I was thinking about this on Wednesday night when reading about the Trump administration’s withdrew of Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity. In a recent study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics. The study suggested an association between the drop in teen suicide attempts and the implementation of same-sex marriage policies. Suicide is the ultimate expression of the feeling of being a stranger. While the study did not prove the drop in teen suicide attempts was caused by the implementation of same-sex marriage policies, it would seem that even the possibility that more open policies would drive down the number of people committing suicide would create a moral mandate to extend these policies.

As descendant of strangers I feel that it is our mandate to look out for people who are foreigners, be they not born to this country or to their birth sex.  Social conservatives love to talk about the primacy of life, it is strange in that they clearly do not mean it.

Arbitrary Rules : A Parenting Perspective

With the advent of Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we are presented a long list of rules. Last week’s story of the revelation of the 10 Commandments at Sinai seems like and interesting mix of nomos and  narrative, but this week there is all law and almost no lore. What is the significance of this shift in the text?

There is no doubt to me that there is a value of law in society and it would make sense for the Torah to communicate laws. Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. So where are the stories in our Torah portion?

The one section of narrative in this Torah portion is another take on the story of revelation. There we read:

And Moshe went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day God called to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moshe entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moshe was in the mount forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15-18)

The source of these laws is a devouring fire. As a parent I can relate to this burning desire sometimes to have my children follow rules blindly, but in the long run I realize that things would work out better if I took the time to explain the meaning of the things I want my children to do.  Just as I am not surprised if not actually happy when my children push back on why perceive to be arbitrary rules and directives, I am no surprised that the sin of the Golden Calf will come before the end of these forty days and nights.

 

 

 

Hands Up Don’t Shoot

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to relate to other strangers. In light of this I wanted to share these images:

Image result for ferguson hands up boy

We cannot just through our hands up and say that the racial issues in this country are not our problems. We too need to put our hands up and work with those who are estranged by the systems power. We need to do our part to enact a rule of law that treats everyone equally.

In the words of Common in the song Glory from Selma:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough

That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up

We are either part of the solution or we are part of the problem.

The Laws of the Stranger

My friend Rav Aryeh Bernstein recently put together a great event called SermonSlam in Jerusalem. I have been watching the videos online. The event was an amazing mash-up of a groovy spoken word poetry slam and a gevalt Tische. One video that really stood out to me was by the brilliant comedian  Yisrael Campbell. You got to watch it:

He pointed out that most people we know in the Jewish community are complete aliens to the notion of being alienated. While our tradition talks about slavery, today we have no way of relating to that feeling of being a stranger. For a people that always talk about slavery we really do a horrible job in acting on behalf of the stanger.

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about one of the 36 references to our mandate look out for the needs of the alien. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ( Exodus 23:9)

Empathy is the root of any ethical system. But if we lost a memory of being slaves how can we fulfill these commandments? Campbell points out that Jewish law did a great job creating law regarding the prohibition of eating milk and meat. Jewish law represents a code of conduct that helps sculpt an ethical life. What Campbell says in jest actually seems like an important plan of action. Why not spell out a code for how we treat the stranger?

Campbell says it so well, “I don’t know what Egypt is, but I know narrowness is and I know what slavery is.” Spelling out a code for how we treat the stranger would help open us up to live the right life.  I have some ideas about how we might work on this project, who wants to help?


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