Friday, May 25, 2007

Heal the Zeal

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

Onwards thru Sinai march the twelve tribes of Israel, to each a flag, an emblem, an appointed leader. This sacred geometry, a conquering army on its way to a promised land, is described in the opening chapters of the fourth book of Torah, made complete by the presence of a unifying center: The Divine, represented by the Ark of the Covenant, the 'black box' of the people. Carrying and maintaining the ark are the hallowed members of the thirteenth tribe – Levi, taking care of business, i.e. the Tabernacle. All seems to be, literally, 'in order' in this new Mosaic theocracy on the move, but as soon as the Book of Wilderness ends its fourth chapter with a detailed description of each Levites' task list, it surprisingly leaves the serene scenes of the sacred center and goes south - right to the frayed fringes of camp, where order limps, and human messiness challenges the conceits of harmony.

Chapter 5, chanted this coming week in synagogues near you as part of the weekly Torah episode 'Naso', reports on four possible social situations that threaten the wellbeing of civilized society. Crudely translated, the four categories include lepers, criminals, monks - and 'wayward' wives. Seemingly random, these four categories reflect different deviations from the 'normal order of things' – through disease, crime, religious zeal, or sexual drive. All four suggest a possible shake-up of the delicate balance between order and chaos, culture and nature- a tension familiar to our modern societies and personal lives as it was to the reality of Moses and his often wayward people.

Our focus this week is, no surprise, the wayward and deviant – that mysterious woman: Did she or did she not have an affair? What's the story? Then there's the husband, suspicious but with no proof, having a 'fit of jealousy'. What to do? Addressing this potential soap opera, Moses, speaking for the Lord, doesn't say 'If this happens' – he says 'when this will happen'. Frank and realistic, he goes on to describe a complex procedure for alleviation of jealousy, addressing the timeless and all too human tensions between the domestic and the erotic. Analyzed through Humanistic and Feminist lenses, this weird text can certainly be seen as an intolerable, archaic relic. But, like many other biblical passages, this text has also been widely read as mythic allegory- the deviant 'feminine' representing the people Israel, the betrayed 'masculine' is Israel's God, and the lover as any of the 'other' idols, identities and foreign cultures favored so by endless generations of assimilating Jews. To read this text as literal legalism upholds a painful patriarchal reality where woman is property and sexuality merely a duty. The allegorical, mythic re-readings, on the other hand, free up some breathing space for a glimpse into deeper-than-surface implied meaning, hinting at our personal and perennial struggles with the boundaries of Eros.

The book says thus:

'Any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust…and it is a secret, and she is defiled, and there are no witnesses, and she is not apprehended - it is then that a spirit of jealousy may come over that man…' (12:14-15)

The English word 'spirit' as in 'spirit of jealousy' is based here on the Hebrew word 'Ruach' – meaning either a physical 'wind' or a metaphysical 'spirit'. Other translators choose 'fit of jealousy', 'a jealous rage', or 'jealous storm' to present this violent picture. Remember Othello? Not unlike an Opera, this imaginary husband's jealousy has larger than life proportions, possibly super human. The word 'Ruach' is loaded - appearing here and previously at the very beginning of Genesis - as the very wind or spirit of God hovering over the nascent planet.

To complicate things further - the Hebrew word used here for 'jealousy', such as that of a jealous lover or husband is 'KINAA ' the very word used in the Torah to describe religious zeal- known today as 'fundamentalism'. Even in English the words 'jealousy' and 'zealotry' come from the same Greek root – meaning 'fermentation', or 'yeast'.

The concept of a 'spirit of jealousy' as a metaphysical, fuming wind is one of the reasons this text is often read as metaphor for divine wrath, or, more significantly, as the type of zealotry assumed and experienced by men on behalf of their God. From the late Jerry Falwell to the new Al Queida forces in Lebanon, and the rising ranks of right wing Zionist rabbis in Israel - zeal as a tool of righteous anger is certainly no obscure phenomena.

So what are we to do, in this age of excessive religious zealotry, with a verse about an allegorical God who is like a jealous husband whose rage festers like rising bread?

Options include: A. avoiding this painful verse and chapter altogether, B. dismissing it as yet another archaic chauvinistic bit of judeo literary history, C. read it as mythic commentary, beckoning a redemptive closer read, or D. Listen closely to the wind as it waves the flags and penetrates the rank and file of the marching tribes; a wild wind of jealousy, zeal, passion and possible, painful, inevitable change, the product of every necessary deviation. Option E. – all of the above. Option F. - anyone??

To be continued.. Shabbat shalom.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Wild Side

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This week we are crossing over into the fourth book of Moses, leaving Leviticus behind and venturing upon the Wilderness which is Sinai. The fourth book is known in English as 'Numbers' - due to the population census that happens in the first few chapters, but this book is less about bureaucracy and more about existence on the wild side of life.
The book's Hebrew name is Ba'Midbar – literally translated as 'in the wilderness' that geographical AND mythic landscape sometimes translated as 'desert' or 'wasteland'. The Hebrew meaning of the word 'midbar', somewhat lost in translation conceals dunes and expanses of deeper meanings, turning a physical location into a metaphysical truth.

A medieval Jewish collection of legends called Simon's Satchel writes:
'As the wilderness is endless – so are the teachings of Torah endless.' Thus, as many others have suggested, the very notion of engaging with a sacred text and the notion of seeking divine revelation is deeply linked to the very location of this historic revelation – the wilderness of Sinai. Why does one have to venture out to the wild in order to encounter the mystery? Perhaps it is because the emptiness of the expanses opens up a possible portal for higher, or deeper, listening. The Torah was not revealed in the Promised Land, but rather, poignantly, in the middle of nowhere. Where in your life does this principle hold true? (and we don't just mean turning off a highway to walk quietly, or turning off a cellphone to be fully present, but those are good places to start.)

The word MIDBAR originates from DBR, a primitive Semitic root meaning 'to speak;' but also and in a more destructive sense – 'to subdue' or 'disperse'. This is the same root of the word 'Commandment'-as in the 'ten commandments' and also the most popular word in the Torah – 'He spoke' as in 'God spoke to Moses'. In its warfare context the word is used to describe the annihilation of enemies, and in Modern Hebrew it is the word used to describe the fight against disease or the fumigation of bugs. Somehow the power of the word is such that it is the very root of constructing or deconstructing reality, and somehow, as our dictionary suggest, the word midbar is intimately linked with the word dabar---space becomes speech.

The fourth book of Moses describes the bulk of the wandering in Sinai, over thirty years of survival in a great wilderness, many deaths, and many miraculous moments. As we cross the threshold into this reality, on the eve of Shavuot – the holiday commemorating the revelation at Sinai, Lauviticus would like to invite us all to pause and take a deep breath of desert air. What awaits us on the wild side? Where, in our urban modern lives, is the space that beckons for sacred listening and inspirational speech? Let's take a walk on this wild side, if only safely through the weekly telling of the wanderings of our ancestors.
We begin the journey and end with a quote from a contemporary seeker of revelation:

"I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it's possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. " (From 'Desert Solitaire' by Edward Abbey)

Shabbat shalom!

PS - Speaking of crying out in the wilderness - Lauviticus is VERY CURIOUS - are you reading this? listening to the audio? ANYBODY OUT THERE IN THE WILDERNESS? please take a few seconds to let us know.
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Friday, May 11, 2007

Have A Blast!

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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This coming Sabbath will bid Leviticus farewell, until next year, as smoke trails off the altar into the vast wilderness which is Sinai. The combined Torah portions of ‘B’har-Bechuokotai’ conclude this perplexing book, complete with rules and regulations that defy our modern sensibilities; divine demands that have challenged countless generations to find relevant meaning in a discontinued sacrificial system. Mystics and sages have translated and interpreted Leviticus in ways that attempt to make rhyme or reason, but this week, an important Biblical law becomes the domain of the economists and environmentalists among us - ideologists of sustainable living for planetary survival. The law in question is that of the Jubilee - an often lost- in-translation concept that is one of the most audacious and utopian social reforms to have emerged from the Bible. So audacious in fact that is most likely sci-fi and never really happened. Fact of fiction – it is still a compelling case for healthy living and a great example of biblical translation out on a major limb.

The basics: grounded in the notion that a healthy lifestyle calls for a balance between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ the Bible calls for eternal rhythms revolving in cycles of seven. It starts with the Sabbath - every seventh day is dedicated to rest, expanding to the Sabbatical - every seventh year, in which the earth herself rests, and finally, to the Jubilee – the culmination of seven cycles of seven years– the fiftieth year of complete rest for all. It’s a great concept and is even engraved on the liberty bell in Philadelphia. But where does this word ‘Jubilee’ come from?

Lev. 25:10 ‘And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you’. The Hebrew for Jubilee is YOVEL – and it’s no coincidence that they sound the same. While the Fox translation renders ‘yovel’ as ‘Home-bringing’ and the Greek translation of Torah used the term ‘release’, something gets lost in the primal reality of this ritual. The word Yovel may have meant ‘ram’ as in the animal – and by extension, also meant ‘the ram’s horn’ as in – the Shofar. The Fiftieth year was ushered in on the Day of Atonement to the blast of the ram’s horn, thus lending the entire year its name, both practical and symbolic. So while the ultimate derivation of the word jubilee is disputed, it’s interesting that the very notion of liberty and rest stems from an obscure musical moment. The sound of the Shofar, according to Kabalistic views, is the very sound of the Divine – a hollow carving through time and space. Amazing to think that the original Fiftieth year was known for precisely this concept, now lost in translation. Interesting also to note how this verse made it onto a bell – a modern version of a ram’s horn – a musical ritual intended to announce, celebrate and – Jubilate – another derivative of this word, Jubilee.

While we don’t have the Jubilee concept for global rest in practice, we do have the 50th night of the Seven Week count towards Revelation at Sinai. This coming Shavuot, Lauviticus invites you to ring the bells, blast the horns, and contemplate where in your life is the need and ability to carve out space and time for divine rest – a divine blast.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Day After

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Lauviticus

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Some biblical words, like, say, 'abomination' carry great emotional baggage and cause social revolutions. But there are some words that are rather technical but have actually caused full-on religious schism. This week's Torah episode, entitled ' Emor', contains one such word, seemingly simple, surprisingly complex. The word is 'Sabbath' but it is NOT just any Sabbath. The historical schism in question, 2,000 years old, stems from two different ways of determining the context for this particular Sabbath, resulting in two different Jewish calendars, and two opposing doctrines dealing with biblical translation/interpretation. Is the Bible literal or not? How open is it to human analysis and adaptation? This IS the stuff religious wars are made of, then and now.

The context for this problematic 'Sabbath' is the instruction to count fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai. But when do you start counting exactly? In the late Second Temple era, the Pharisees went against the Sadducees in determining this crucial date. At the time, these two views represented the two main sects of Judaism. Today, the debate is no longer an issue, the Pharisees won – but there is something about this controversy that it both timeless and timely.

Leviticus chapter 23, verse 15 reads:

'And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering---the day after the sabbath---you shall count off seven weeks. ( Etz Chayyim)

The 'sheaf of elevation offering' is known as the Omer, and the counting of the seven weeks, leading to the 50th night, usually begins right at Passover. The word 'Sabbath' according to the current understanding refers to the First Day of Passover– not to the Sabbath that falls during the Passover week. In this context the word 'Sabbath' means 'Holy Day' – not necessarily 'Seventh Day'. The countdown to Sinai begins, according to this reading, favored by the Pharisees, on the day following the Seder.

In accordance with this view, the Orthodox Artscroll Torah translates this verse as:

You shall count for yourselves---from the morrow of the rest day when you bring the Omer of the waiving---seven weeks; they shall be complete.

But the Sadducees liked to read the Torah literally, and insisted that the word 'Sabbath' does not mean 'holy day' but rather what it usually means – 'the seventh day'. According to this system, the counting of the Omer begins on the first Sunday during Passover week. This of course results in a different date for the celebration of Shavuot, and in accusations of heresy, on both sides of the debate.

The interpretation of this word became one of the major points of controversy between the two sects. While the Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood, the Pharisees controlled the judicial courts and intellectual leadership. Eventually, the Temple burnt, and the Pharisees, known also as the Rabbis or the Sages, took over the leadership. An interpretive reading of Bible, based on the oral tradition, prevailed, and has been the backbone of Jewish scholarship, and strife, ever since.

We're tempted to endorse the post modern approval of multiplicity and pluralism, imagining a reality where neighbors celebrate the same holiday on two different dates and it's not a big deal. But there are, of course, the down sides to this approach, where diversity becomes anarchy. Modern Jews don't argue about when Shavuot occurs these days, but how are the residues of this ancient debate still shaping and shaking our attempts at being a united people, once again on the road to Sinai? Who are the current day 'literal' readers of Scripture and where are the fighters for an ongoing human understanding of the ancient revelations? The answers to those questions are not so simple – and we'd love your thoughts.

The countdown to Sinai continues.