Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Among the many religious freedom issues I think about each week is the prevalence of hate crimes. Just about everyone is opposed to hate crimes, but defining what we oppose is more than a little problematic. An entire hierarchy of offense has developed as we struggle with what it means to hold individuals accountable for the prejudices they may or may not recognize.
I hope that there is no disagreement that Matthew Shepard and James Byrd were murdered in hate crimes. Mr. Shephard was beaten and tortured because of the antipathy of his killers toward homosexuality, and Mr. Byrd was an African American man who died as he was dragged behind a pickup truck for the crime of LWB – living while black. In their memories, federal legislation codified as criminal hatred based on race or sexual orientation/identity when it results in bodily injury to the victim.
The courts, however, have interpreted that law very specifically. In order to convict, the prosecution must show that the hatred was an essential motivating factor in the attack (and not merely one factor). That is to say, the prosecution must show that but for the hatred, the injury would not have occurred.
You don’t have to be a lawyer (as I am proving) to understand what a high bar that is to clear. If the bar is so high in these cases of battery and murder, then how do we determine whether vandalism, discrimination, bullying and similar crimes – in and of themselves legally and morally wrong – include an essential element of hatred?
If we are going to depend on the law alone to prevent hate crimes, then we will always be dissatisfied. The most we can hope is that the law, in spite of its necessary definitions, will empower ordinary citizens and their institutions to prevent hate crimes. I don’t pretend to know what motivates someone to be a bigot, let alone what tips a bigot over the edge to violence. But it is not enough to give permission to a bully to stop just short of bodily harm. The criminalization of the result of hatred is the notice our society needs to reduce and, if possible, eliminate it.
There is a but-for section of the Book of Numbers that is read in synagogues this week. In a brief section (27:1-11), the five daughters of Zelophehad (yeah, hard to pronounce; say tz-loff-khad) come to Moses with a complaint. Their father Z died in the wilderness without a male heir. The result seemed to be that his property, and thus his name, would be absorbed into the apportionments to other families in the tribe. The daughters asked why the good man their father was should be forgotten for the “sin” (my sarcastic word) of having daughters.
Moses takes the question right to the top and asks God how to resolve it. What follows is a long set of conditions that must apply that prevent land from being inherited by women. Really, you almost have to go through the phone book (there’s an anachronism both then and now) before the daughters are eligible, but there it is, ink-on-parchment, that women are entitled to inherit. The but-for, the essential motivating factor, is the absence of any man who has a claim.
There are two ways to look at this section of the Bible – as an indictment or as an opportunity. Those who are looking to underscore the undeniable male-centric nature of Scripture will consider this vignette the exception that proves the rule. But those of us who seek evidence that the Bible tries to rise above its own circumstances view this encounter as a breakthrough. In context, Z’s daughters may be last resort when all men fail, but they succeed in disrupting an entrenched system and opening a consideration of the true meaning of human equality that, today, is light years beyond the anonymity to which too many women were sentenced. An injustice was corrected because the “but-for” forced us to look beyond the particulars of the law. The small wedge was worked and worked until today gender equality is the rule and mighty titans of industry fall on evidence of their sexism and abusiveness.
I know that it looks like I am suggesting that it was okay to wait 3000 years to begin to address this injustice. It wasn’t, which is all the more reason not to be patient with hate crime prevention. We don’t need any more lessons than we have already learned – Mr. Shephard and Mr. Byrd, pig’s blood and cow’s head, sheriff’s stars and what-makes-you-think-your-life-matters-so-much.
But-for is a limit. It is not permission for anything less than but-for. It is a caution to us that what we tolerate in the name of freedom to be politically incorrect encourages people to do harm, and therefore we have the responsibility like the daughters of Zelophehad to raise our voices and demand better.
The music gene in our family seems to be dominant in our middle daughter. She escapes her job in DC for a week each summer to attend what she laughingly calls “band camp” with a cohort of people who love to play great music well. She sends us dispatches (far more regularly than when we sentenced her to summer camp) about the excruciatingly interesting people she meets. One of them, it turns out, is a classical music critic for the New York Times, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. I have never met Corinna, but from my daughter’s description, in addition to having a name that destined her to be a classical music critic for the New York Times, she is an absolutely delightful person, which explains how she and my kid became friends.
The missive today contained a link to a column Corinna wrote the week of Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. In it, she explores an invitation her grandfather sent to her grandmother to join him in listening to a broadcast of the love song from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” in April 1944. Käthe was in their villa in Hamburg. Hermann was in Block 59 in Buchenwald.
Read the column, please, as Corinna wonders about the “telepathic conduit” between her grandparents. And then give some thought to similar conduits in your own life. Maybe you had “your song” with a past lover. Maybe the aroma of baking bread takes you to your mother’s kitchen on Friday afternoon. Maybe a whiff of the guy wearing “Old Spice” on the subway makes you flash on the iconic bottle on your father’s dresser. Maybe it is moonlight through the pines, that old hootie-owl, Jack Frost nipping at your nose. The connections may be temporal or spatial, but they resonate in a way that transcends the immediate circumstances in which you re-encounter them. The power of memory – please God, happy memory – reminds us of what is possible in the darkest hours.
In the cycle of Torah readings, the hour is pretty dark for the Israelites. They have lost Miriam and Aaron and misery abounds. Never mind that they are perceived as the dominant power, I imagine the satisfaction index to be pretty low. Into the narrative, very much off to the side, comes Balak, the Moabite king. He offers fame and fortune to celebrity prophet Bilaam (called Balaam in most translations, for reasons I never understood) to pronounce an imprecation on the Israelites. Call them names, he says, because whomever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6). Bilaam is reluctant, but does his best to come up with something – “Low Energy,” “Crooked,” “Lyin’” – but nothing fits. Bilaam recognizes that he is looking at a people of inherent worth and worthiness. And in spite of being paid a huge amount of Balak’s own money, Bilaam finds that the only thing he can pronounce are these words: How good are your tents, o Jacob, your dwelling places, o Israel.
The Israelites likely didn’t hear Bilaam, but the words of his poem/song soon became known to them. In fact, the words of this prophet-for-profit gained official status in both liturgy and custom; they are the words a Jew is to recite upon beginning morning prayer or entering a synagogue. School children use them in a musical round, choirs sing them in majestic settings, people (like me) speak them in a whisper. Each time, it whisks singer and listener vertically across history to a windswept mountaintop and horizontally to the doorway of every place Jews have dedicated to prayer. I am in one of Jacob’s tents as well as at the threshold of synagogues in Bucharest, Beersheba and Baton Rouge. And Buchenwald.
The optimists among us like to put a positive spin on things. I would like to think that the people of the United States would like to be inspired to their better natures when they hear the songs, see the sights and smell the apple pie that have always made America great – not because that old-time rock and roll was so much better,* but because our greatness comes from those things that bring us together, not tear us apart. Bilaam beheld the dwelling places from a distance, unaware of problems within. When I declare mah tovu, “how good,” I don’t want to go back to that wilderness; I want to capture the redemptive spirit of the whole. I am not hoping to drag people back in time; I want to reassure them about the future. I want to be reminded not to capitulate to the enemy without and not to capitulate to the enemy within. That’s what the music does for me.
With that, I have to acknowledge it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the darkness refuses to yield, even to the music of devoted lovers. Bilaam died in battle. Synagogues anointed by his words have been abandoned or destroyed. Käthe and Hermann…well, read the column.
But this week in an idyllic New England setting, the daughters of the disappointed are making music great. Again.
*in fact, that old-time rock and roll was indeed so much better
If you know this story, I apologize for retelling it. I tell it to myself all the time.
Not quite a month after my father died, I went on a trip to Poland with a group of rabbis. The trip left out of Chicago, so I came in a couple of days before and, at my mother’s request, my brother and sister and I went through his clothes and belongings to choose what we wanted to remember him by. The evening we spent was crazy and hilarious and heart-breaking. We tried on suits and hats, remembered Dad wearing particular shirts (remember Qiana?) and made piles of his quality clothing to benefit men who could never afford them. We examined his collection of broken electric shavers. We read the letters we wrote to him as kids. And at the end of exhausting hours, the three of us sat on the edge of our parents’ bed and looked at what was left, lined up on the top of his chest of drawers.
There were six watches. Dad had two older wind-up watches, two modern everyday electric watches (one analog, one digital) and two jewelry-quality watches that were his late life indulgences. Nobody wanted to pick first, but we collectively decided that my sister had first dibs, then my brother, and finally me. Everyone got what they wanted, as it happened. I wanted the old wind-up watches, especially the one that had a mechanical alarm that vibrated against his wrist when it went off.
There was a reason for it. He wore that watch every day when I was a little boy. When he came home from work and reached out for me, it is what I would see. When I saw that watch, daddy was home.
I used to try that watch on all the time. When I was little, it slid above my elbow. When I got to be a teenager, I was scrawny enough that it flopped around on my forearm. It never fit.
The whole story resonates for me in a particular way when I read about the death of Aaron (Numbers 20:23-29). Lots of people die in the Bible in lots of different ways. Miriam seems just to have stopped living a few short verses before. And before that plague, fire and earthquake took care of the rebels against Moses. But Aaron’s impending death is announced and orchestrated. The uniform he wears as High Priest, the sign of the office he holds, is to be passed along to his successor, Eleazar.
At God’s instruction, Aaron, Moses and Eleazar climb to the top of a mountain. Moses strips the garments from his older brother and dresses Eleazar in them. Aaron lies down and dies.
What kind of moment was that? This family had known public triumph and private tragedy, but their private tragedies – the death of two of Eleazar’s brothers, the loss of Miriam, the challenges to leadership – were all played out publicly. And now, Eleazar stands by as Moses removes his father’s tokens of office – and life – and bestows them on him.
Over the course of my years of teaching this section of Torah, I have asked people to imagine the scene. Sometimes, using the technique of Bibliodrama developed by my extraordinary friend Peter Pitzele, I have asked them even to be Moses, Aaron or Eleazar. From elementary school students to older adults, the richness of the story produces heartbreak, a rush of love, disbelief and, so often from “Aaron,” pride and satisfaction.
As my siblings and I slipped in and out of our father’s various uniforms – his army boots, his exercise outfits, his business suits, his leisure wear – we inhabited him for a moment. Maybe we realized that even without his clothes we inhabited him as well.
I went off to Poland the next day and my mother packed up what I had chosen and sent it off to me in Virginia. It arrived just as I returned home from the trip. I unpacked the boxes and hung up the suits, found a place for his cufflinks and collar stays of every size, wondered if I would ever dare to wear a Qiana shirt. And there was the watch. I tried it on. And it fit.
To this day, I can’t think of that moment without feeling the disorientation that overwhelmed me. Not quite a month after the inevitable end of his complicated health issues, I experienced his loss all over again. That watch was not supposed to fit me. I was never supposed to grow into it.
I am certain that Eleazar felt the same way. The text makes no mention of it, and for sure there was no watch for him to wear – perhaps it was a mitre, a breastplate, a tunic. Maybe it was just the scent of the smoke from the sacrifices that he smelled reaching for him rather than emanating from him. But the time had come for him to wear his father’s clothes.
Look around you these days and you will wonder where you will find the outsized figures of a generation past. The people who pursue leadership and high office seem to fall short in so many ways, and the mitre or the mantel looks more like parody than promise.
Then go look in that box of things you inherited and try them on. Guess what?
We take smug satisfaction in Winston Churchill’s famous critique of democracy – it is the second-worst form of government after everything else. We also like to think that democracy works because of an informed electorate, in spite of evidence to the contrary. This election cycle has upended a lot of things, and it could be that our infatuation with democracy could be one of the casualties.
I am guessing that rabbis all over the United States will be talking about Donald Trump this week that we read in synagogue about the populist rabble-rousing of Korach. Whether they support him or revile him, the comparisons are enticing. I want to look at the same story, but from a different perspective.
But first…what form of government is suggested by the Torah? If you said democracy, you would be wrong. At this point in Numbers, some form of theocratic patriarchy is the only kind of governance imagined. Both on the “federal” level – Moses – and on the “state” level – the twelve tribes – one person has been appointed to carry out God’s will. The “judiciary” – the priesthood – is also in the hands of a divinely-designated functionary whose directed offspring will inherit his mantle. Somewhat grudgingly, God acknowledges that another form of government might emerge, though it isn’t recommended. That would be the monarchy. (Just for the record, it didn’t work out so well.)
Democracy can be kvetched out of later teachings of ancient rabbis, but only by expanding on their creative interpretation of a verse (Exodus 23:2) that actually warns against majority-rule. And even in confirming a sort of majoritarian approach to Jewish law, their electorate is composed only of the educated elite (one rabbi, one vote).
However, there is a moment that foreshadows democracy and its dangers. The result is in the story of the rebellion of Korach (Numbers 16), but the story begins five chapters earlier when God responds to Moses’s meltdown by telling him to gather a sort of representative body of leaders to share the gift of inspiration and authority. The number given is 70, which probably shouldn’t be understood too literally. But the number we should take seriously is two – the two guys who were not interested in a life of public service, Eldad and Meidad. They declined to show up for the initiation, but God’s spirit entered them anyway, in the midst of their everyday routine. Seized with prophetic ecstasy, they circulated among the people sharing their insights.
Joshua, aide-de-camp to Moses, rushes to report to his boss this breach of protocol, and Moses makes a statement that will haunt him twice: “Would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put the divine spirit upon them!”
I imagine that expression of personal humility was reported quickly and widely by word of mouth (who needs Twitter?). Maybe the wagon-driver and the nursemaid didn’t dream of being as close to God’s will as Moses, but his brother and sister do. Pretty soon (well, a few verses later in 12:2), Aaron and Miriam are claiming that they, too, have encountered God and ought to enjoy Moses’s prominence. (In another precursor to American politics, they attempt to introduce race and sexual conduct into the critique of their brother.) God steps in on behalf of Moses and punishes Miriam for denigrating him (not Aaron, but that’s a different column). But what God does not do is suggest that the offenders do not legitimately encounter God. Don’t think that wasn’t lost on the people.
And now back to our regularly scheduled story. What does Korach claim in his grab or power? “All the congregation is holy, every one of them, and God is among them!” The two-hundred-fifty or so members of the junta probably solemnly nodded their heads (or whatever people did back then) in agreement because Moses and Aaron had both affirmed the possibility and desirability of that claim.
Mind you, this is no election. Most of the people seemed to have a willingness to follow the winner of the contest between Moses and Korach, which Moses wins definitively when Korach is swallowed by the ground and his entourage is consumed by fire. But the seed of political equality that was planted by this sequence was not from a disreputable source. Moreover, it was consistent with the egalitarian story of human origins that opens the Torah.
The principle of democracy can be derived from this unpleasant interlude in the history of our people. But we make a mistake if we believe that, endowed as we are with decision-making capability, the proper determinant of casting a vote is merely personal preference or self-interest. The cynicism of campaigns directs attention at winning the vote by appealing to those self-centered motives. It deflects attention from choosing the better leader.
The ground will not open if we choose wrongly, and people who squander their chance to chart the course of the nation on mere party loyalty or personal dismay will live to vote again. So it is worth spending the time listening for that spirit of discernment that gives us our authority to choose wisely. Voting on principle is the second-worst reason to cast a ballot.