Friday, April 27, 2007

Taboo or not Taboo?

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Last week’s Torah episode beckoned us to probe the darker side of life, where illness and loneliness demand of us humans to overcome fear and embrace the divine image inside all. This week – this challenging journey continues, as Leviticus continues to outline a collage of laws, including the do’s and don’ts of sexual conduct. Achrei Mot-Kedoshim is another double portion, cramming in not only the list of taboos, but also the rituals of the Day of Atonement, the way to treat a senior citizen, and other useful rules for kosher civic behavior . We were tempted to discuss bestiality, but thanks to Governor Spitzer, who JUST THIS MORNING announced his intention to seriously pursue the legalization of Gay Marriage in the State of New York, we’re going with the next best thing – the taboo oddly known as Sodomy.

OK, NEVERMIND how Sodomy came to describe homosexual relations – this is a curious enough fact that we reserve for another time. What interests us is the key word that is used to describe the problem that the Biblical authors had with these type of relations – a word that got tossed around a lot in the past years and months – especially in Conservative Jewish circles. The word is TOEVA, often translated as ‘abomination’, and though it appears throughout the Bible in multiple contexts, it is this week’s mention that usually draws the biggest crowds:

Leviticus 18:22

‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’

Most translators use ‘abomination’, while some use ‘abhorrence’, ‘an abhorrent thing’, ‘disgusting’, or ‘un-natural’. The Fox translation adds an exclamation mark – ‘abomination!’ (he does that with all sexual offenses, maybe it heightens the drama.)

Richard Friedman chooses to translate Toeva as ‘an offensive thing’, and in his translators notes adds: “in the present state of knowledge concerning homosexuality, it is difficult to justify its prohibition in the Torah…In my own view… it is not an ‘offensive thing’. “

Friedman is, thankfully, not alone in voicing this opinion, and very recently the Conservative Movement boldly chose to embrace this view as well, allowing the ordination of LGBT rabbis. But anyone reading carefully reading the lengthy legalistic that led to this historical decision cannot avoid the complex tightrope that the rabbis are walking while trying to juggle the ancient concept of ‘Toeva’ with the contemporary sensibility to human dignity. Amazingly, it really comes down to that one word and how it can be translated and understood in modern times.

Elsewhere in the Torah, Toeva appears in the context of behavior that is foreign and therefore suspicious to local customs and tastes. Earlier in Genesis, for instance, Joseph explains to his brothers how their way of making a living as shepards is an Egyptian social taboo . It is a TOEVA, he says to them – a loathsome, or disgusting, or abominable local custom.

Toeva is clearly a relative term, varying according to human perceptions. Challenging though this is to a literal reading of Torah as perennial truth, it is a compelling invitation for us to not only translate, but also to dig deeper in our quest for justice and new meaning. Rabbi Elliot Dorf, one of the active voices behind the Conservative movement’s decision was quotes as saying: ‘We have to interpret God’s will in our time.’

Will Spitzer pass the vote? Perhaps not just yet, but at least for many more around the world and at least in New York state,, what was once an abomination is realized more as simply another sacred way of life.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Never Alone

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Click For Podcast This week, Leviticus goes medical, delving into intimate and sometimes troubling details that have to do with human discharges, general mutilations and genital mutations. There is nothing profane about the wonders of nature, especially when the miracle of birth is discussed, and even when things go wrong in the body, but honestly, not everybody wants to discuss this stuff in the middle of Synagogue. But the Torah goes there – and especially this week – when the Supreme Court of the one of the world's leading democracies has taken a painful stand on the rights of humans to determine what is holy and sacred – a stand inspired in no small part by a narrow reading of biblical ethics – it is important to note the this ancient text addresses the human experience in ways that may hold the keys to a much better system of human health and dignity. We just need to read closer, and perhaps, Tazria – Metzora – this double whammy torah portion that has challenged rabbinic sermons for generations, calls for precisely this careful re-view of what is or isn't sacred, gross, or worthy of public discourse. In some ways, this text demands that we deal with all that life – and death - has to offer – in the noblest and most humane way possible.

One of the challenges to human wellbeing that is discussed here is an
ailment commonely referred to as 'leprosy.' This is probably not the
condition that modern medicine recognizes as such (still prevalent in parts of the world) but is some kind of a general biblical prognosis for an overall bad state of skin disfigurement – although it can also be found on houses or inanimate objects. The real issue with leprosy, however, goes beyond skin deep.
Over time, lepers have been identified not only as persons with a specific physical illness, but also as metaphoric carriers of alienation, disfigurement, and 'Otherness'. The one key feature about lepers is the keen interest of society to keep them isolated – out of sight, and out of mind. This is a healthy precaution perhaps, but also a human cruelty. A random Google search for 'leprosy' yields an astonishingly high number of associations with HIV/AIDS - and never kindly.

We can't argue with the medical demand for sterility and the prevention of spreading disease –– but we can read closer and challenge the notion that the random carriers of such conditions are to be subjects of estrangement and loneliness. When translating one verse in this torah episode, several translators tackle this challenge and offer subtle solutionst:

Leviticus chapter 13, verse 46 describes the fate of the leper: "All the days in which the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall his dwelling be."

The Hebrew word for ALONE is 'Badad' – translated elsewhere as 'solitary', 'separately', 'in isolation', 'kept by himself', or 'dwell apart'.

The classic Aramaic translation, the Pseudo Jonathan, goes even further - adding another prohibition that increases the leper's
loneliness: 'he shall dwell alone by himself, to the side of his wife he must not come near.'

These translations are similar – but not identical – offering different treatments and varying degrees of human dignity. They seem to suggest that 'alone' does not have to mean 'lonely'.

It's difficult to translate this Biblical verse and transcend its necessary but cruel implications, but maybe we can do what one is supposed to do with this text – read it carefully, challenged it, translate it anew. Maybe this is a reminder for us to take every measure possible to honor 'other' in our midst and alleviate the emotional and physical pain of suffering in every way possible. Can we find which is the part in our selves, in our community, which is a temporary, lonely leper and do something to ease the pain and increase the intimacy so much yearned for by all who plagued by life?

Remember how Princess Diana kissed kids with AIDS back in the 80's?
Here's to more of that.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Playing With Fire

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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With Passover now over, we return to the weekly installment of the sacred saga, and this week takes us into the fire, literally, retelling a tragedy that engulfed, like flames, an auspicious day awaited with much anticipation.

The name of this week’s Torah episode is Shmini – the Eighth Day – and it refers to the day on which the Tabernacle was to be officially inaugurated, following seven days of intricate rituals. In chapter 9 of Leviticus, Aaron and his sons successfully perform their required duties, and right on cue the heavenly fire descends from heaven and consumes the offerings. The Hebrews love the fireworks, "and all the people saw, shouted, and fell on their faces." But playing with fire is tricky business, even for Levites, and the joy quickly turned to horror as something went terribly wrong: the Eighth Day of celebration turned into the first day of seven days of mourning for two young priests, the sons of Aaron. Were they victims, martyrs or sinners? Different translations shed different light on what exactly happens here, altering their actions, motives and consequences – giving us various options to comprehend an otherwise totally mysterious and heartbreaking event:

Leviticus 10:1-2 Now Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered alien fire before the LORD, which he had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them. (JPS)

The key word here is the one used to describe the fire – JPS uses ‘Alien’ to translate the Hebrew Zara, while the King James prefers ‘unholy’, and others opt for ‘outside fire’ or ‘strange fire’.

The Hebrew root - ZOOR carries the suggestion of the estranged, the profane, even the abnormal, and there are other synonyms—excessive, deviant or perverse---which suggest something about the character and motivation of the two sons. On the other hand in some classic commentaries, their trespass is viewed as an excess of zeal and their deaths a kind of holy ecstasy. The Zohar, for instance, sees their death not as a sign of profane behavior but simply as a warning for the importance of timing and preparation when matters of the mystical are at hand.

In the end their motives remain a mystery, but Nadab and Abihu are remembered as boundary crossers, guilty of excess. Their deaths remain a warning of what it means to play with divine fire. How thin the line between being ‘fired up’ and being ‘fired’…

Those of us who play with the sacred fires of our tradition---the white fire and the black---find in these two sons of Aaron a cautionary tale. How much is too much? When are we - as individuals or a community - guilty of bringing too much ‘other’ into our inherited legacy, and is there a measure for that ‘otherness’? The eighth day looms over the book of Leviticus, smoke trailing off into the Sinai sky, etching question marks that linger on:

Where and when are we playing with fire in our lives? (Think Don Imus…)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Hide and Seek

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

The special torah reading for the Shabbat of Passover continues the telling of the Passover saga where the Seder leaves off: the day after the crossing of the sea, and the day after that: forty years of wandering on the way to the promised land. Dayenu, they say, the tired ex slaves, on their eternal journey to freedom - enough already! but the story (like some seders) persists, and, fed by manna, torn by ongoing strife, the children of Israel trudge on through the wilderness on their way home. But not really. None of the 'children' who left Egypt will actually make it there, their children, the next generation, born in Sinai will inherit the promise. Residues of how bitterly this story ends for so many are still in our teeth this post seder morning – left over horseradish, bits of matza – yes, we won and here we are, but at what price freedom? Would they have left Egypt knowing that they will die in unmarked graves in the middle of nowhere? Given the same opportunity today, would any one of us make that sacrifice? Would any of us have this level of FAITH in the unknown?

Faith is a big deal in this Passover story. Perhaps that's why our ancient sages chose the "post golden calf" scenario for the weekly torah telling that falls on Passover – telling us something about hindsight and perspective, teasing our endless fascination with wanting to believe and know what comes ahead. Even Moses, the greatest prophet, is eager to know what's ahead, not only that – he wants to SEE the head---the very face of the boss for whom he labors. In a famous passage in Exodus 33 – the bulk of this week's tale – he pleads with the Divine for forgiveness for the cattle worshipping Hebrews (granted, sort of), and demands to see or know who God is. What follows is a cryptic description of a revelation far more intimate than Sinai – for most translators render the event as 'God showing Moses God's behind', quite literally. Some translators surprise us by taking this metaphor deeper – addressing the human demand for empirical knowledge that will enhance faith AND the seemingly Divine reluctance to supply this 'proof'.

In chapter 33 God instructs Moses to stand inside the cleft of a rock, eyes covered by God's hands, until the following happens:

33:23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen. (King James Bible)

Here the translators added a footnote to the word 'back': 'As much of my glory as in this mortal life you are able to see'

Most translators render the Hebrew word 'Achorai" as 'God's back parts', breezing through this shocking striptease without a flinch. Michelangelo went as far as depicting the very muscular behind of the Lord on the very ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – two panels away from that famous finger (how did he get away with THAT??) But the classic Jewish translators simply couldn't bring themselves to portray God in such human and disturbingly mundane terms, going out on a limb to translate this verse as allegory:

The Aramaic Pseudo Jonathan translation provides one amazing image based on lore – God showing Moses the Divine (and possibly feminine ) nape – adorned with the leather phylacteries – Tefilin shel rosh, a blurred vision amid a mob of angels:

"And I will make the host of angels who stand and minister before Me to pass by, and you shall see the edge of the tephillin of My glorious Presence ; but the face of the glory of My Presence you can not be able to see. "

Meanwhile Onkelos, the other premiere Aramaic translator, usually quite literal, goes all philosophical:

'and I will take away the word of My Glory, and you shall see that which is after Me, but My Aspect shall not be seen.'

There is a lot of hide and seek going on during a Passover seder – broken matzas traded in for expectations and prizes. But maybe the real hide and seek is more internal, echoed in this mysterious passage. If even the greatest of prophets gets to only know the true meaning of the past, but not the future, what of us mere mortals? And perhaps the seeking is even deeper – the search for faith – for the ultimate proof of God, the possibility of hope in narrow places and hard times, the promise of redemption, something to hold on to during the long way home. It may not be much, but for us at Lauviticus Headquarters, seeing God's ass is plenty of comfort, and we walk on, single file, all the way to the next part of the story.