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
The Last of Deuteronomy
or erect a stone pillar, for such the Lord your God detests. Deuteronomy 16:22
A very long time ago (in my life, that is), I was a student in a pristine building that was the newest iteration of a venerated educational institution. The setting was magnificent, the facilities modern, the change from the previous location breathtaking. Unsurprisingly, about five months into the academic year, a dedication for the campus was scheduled. Suddenly, plaques started showing up everywhere. Large brass signs were installed on expanses of wall. Letters paying tribute to donors were affixed above doorways and walkways. Smaller signage appeared near windows and on furniture.
I was offended, as only a young and self-confident man could be, that with all the learning and teaching and good works going on in this new building, it was people with money who were going to be honored. I was pretty vocal about it to the administration, and the president of the university, who was also one of my professors, actually devoted a day of class to discussing the concern. He made no attempt to defend the practice of naming structures for generous donors; he acknowledged it as a convention and something necessary to secure the kind of capital funding needed to create the space for learning. Instead, he talked about the donors themselves. He wanted us to know who they were – people he had gotten to know when he was younger and they were poorer, and what the values were that they embraced before they had money to put where their mouths were.
I can acknowledge all these years later what my prejudices were about rich people (not many of whom I actually knew), which was a reflection of my attitudes about money in general when I didn’t have any. But the lesson of that day, and of my experiences over the longer haul, is that being rich doesn’t make you a person undeserving of recognition.
A few years later, in a different city, I had a conversation with a retired New York City social worker. I asked him about the lessons he learned about people in his job. He responded that the most important thing he learned was the truth of what his own father had told him as he began his career – but that he did not want to believe. It was this: just because you are poor does not mean you are a good person.
The lesson I took from that pair of experiences is that money has nothing to do with character. Like every other measurable commodity in life, it is what you do with what you have that is an indication of your values. If you project your personal worth onto your net worth, any correlation will be accidental.
Putting your own name on a building (as opposed to honoring someone’s finer qualities with a tribute to their acts or generosity) is most certainly a matter of ego. It has never been an option for me, so I cannot represent the thought process that goes into a decision to slap my name on brick and mortar, but I do believe there is a sense that, by doing so, a permanence of some kind is secured. We know that’s not true, of course. Buildings rise and fall, and lately even monuments seem to have an expiration date. But investing a sense of recognition, power and longevity in construction is an old mistake. To use an old pun, call it the edifice complex.
I get it, I must say. Stones seem to have more permanence that lives. They have been around longer, generally resist deterioration and have “witnessed” the rise and fall of circumstances and even civilizations. Among those fallen civilizations were those that attributed such longevity to a corresponding divinity. Stone pillars, assembled from raw materials or carved into likenesses, were fetishistic representations of pagan gods. The Bible’s innovation – a deity without a (permanent) physical manifestation – stands against the inclination to make the false equivalency between spiritual permanence and physical permanence.
Likewise, human beings who feel powerless may very well turn to the relative impenetrability of a solid structure. After all, a rock feels no pain. But in the end, relying on such a structure is hollow trust. Putting up a building, erecting a monument to yourself, constructing a wall to make a case for your own greatness – all of those things are insights not into wealth, but into personal poverty. It’s easy to see why it makes someone detestable.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake. Deuteronomy 14:29
I like to think that I have lived a blessed life, and I certainly hope that those blessings continue for me and those around me. I do not believe that I have earned these blessings; I have the good fortune to have been born into circumstances that allow me to help provide for the Levite and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. My values include efforts to extend my blessings to others.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate that such an approach is pretty much the definition of privilege. As I have come to understand it, privilege is not the same as arrogance. It is instead a presumed advantage, even when that advantage is not pursued out of malevolence.
Call me a snowflake or a wuss or whatever you like, but before you dismiss my confession, take another listen to the voice in which this Deuteronomic instruction is reported. Were I a Levite, stranger, orphan, or widow, it would be immediately clear to me that I was not being addressed in either the collective or singular “you.” The desired norm is to have a hereditary portion, a settled place to live and enterprises that are successful or, perhaps more Biblically, to be “blessed.”
The Levites, for all their honor and access to the divine, are permanently disenfranchised from owning land. The stranger – that is, not merely someone unknown, but someone not a part of our people or tribe – requires special instruction to live among us. The fatherless and the widow are some combination of young and female and without a grown-ass man to care for them. They are the objects of this instruction, not the subjects.
It is not my conclusion that the Bible does not claim that all people are created equal. From the very beginning, it is clear that humanity is descended from a set of common ancestors. Each of us is born into this world innocent and filled with potential. But from that moment on, we are victims of choices, some made by us, most made for us. A man who works the land, a woman who suffers in childbirth. A son who mocks his father’s nakedness, another who covers the embarrassment. A father’s favorite who sells his birthright, a mother’s favorite who steals a blessing. In each generation, the Bible chooses the subjects of the story and relegates the rest to supporting roles, to anonymous support, to being acted upon.
Does that perspective nullify the worth of Biblical instruction? Hardly. But it does raise, in my mind, at least two questions. The first is, what is the goal of inviting the under-privileged into my home? If it is merely to ameliorate their disadvantage, that is, to assuage their hunger, then my generosity is only a delaying tactic. Certainly, they will hunger again tomorrow, defined by their disenfranchisement. The second is, what is the nature of my compassion? However deeply and intensely it is felt, it is, at some level, condescending. “Oh, you poor thing” is as much a judgment as it is an expression of concern.
Taking any verse or group of verses out of context is disingenuous, whether discussing sacred texts, legal decisions, or public oratory. So, I will acknowledge that it is unfair to conclude that the entirety of the biblical ethos is addressed to the privileged of that time or any time. But it is impossible to ignore that there is a streak of noblesse oblige in so much of what is taught as God’s will.
The antidote, I believe, is empathy. Appreciating a commonality of circumstances with others changes an act of largesse offered at arm’s length into an embrace. In other places, we are reminded that we were strangers once. Most everyone will be orphaned, half the number of life partners will be widowed, more than a few will await no hereditary portion.
At least in my Jewish tradition, empathy is a lesson God learns from human beings. Having no peer, the Holy One is stuck with judgmental responses – compassion, anger, approbation, actual judgment. They are gifted to members of the human family to give us God-like powers.
But empathy requires something common, both in the sense of “shared” and in the sense of “ordinary.” The Levite is my brother, the widow is my sister, the orphan is my ward and the stranger is my long-lost family. Maybe I am not evolved enough to say “all that I have is yours,” but I hope I can be wise enough to invite you to live in my world because I live in yours.
In the end, that’s the blessing of being a human being. And the privilege.
THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE-FORCE
The Last of Deuteronomy
Only you must not partake of its blood; you shall pour it on the ground like water. Deuteronomy 15:23
When I was a rabbinical student, longer ago than I like to admit, I took an extraordinary set of courses from a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ze’ev Mankowitz, of blessed memory, was an exceptionally popular instructor for visiting students. His subject was the Holocaust. His expertise and erudition were not limited to the horrors of the murdering of so many human beings – though he did not omit any aspect in the year-long class. He insisted on exploring the question that every student carried into his large lectures: why.
You don’t need to scan this column to find the fast answer. There is, of course, no one answer. The convergence of religious doctrine, pagan practice, economic interests, political changes, intellectual pretensions, sociopathic ambition, and scientific arrogance (and inauthenticity) all contributed to the “othering” and dehumanization of Jews and others deemed inferior.
But the one aspect that Prof. Mankowitz presented that made the greatest impression on me was anthropological. He discussed in one session the uneasiness with which human beings of all stripes treat bodily effluence. Those substances that should be contained in a sealed system – like the body – become dangerous and threatening if they escape. He used a remarkably effective illustration, distributing clean disposable “shot glasses” to us and challenging us to spit our own saliva into it and then drink it back down. Some students could and some could not, but all of us were struck by how something that was a split-second previously a natural part of our own body became, once outside that body, a source of profound discomfort.
The lesson went on to discuss other such “escapes,” including feces, urine, ejaculate, infected fluids and, of course, blood. In art, “science,” and rhetoric, the Nazis became adept at exploiting a history of denigrating Jews as those who feasted on those substances expelled from the body, most especially blood.
I repeat: there is no one explanation for the atrocities of the Holocaust, but once I was exposed to this aspect, it stayed with me for, so far, forty years.
It was especially powerful in the context of the work of Margaret Mead, who wrote extensively on the belief in “mana,” not the sustaining food of the Israelite wandering, but the presumed life-force that was honored and feared in pre-scientific cultures. There is no room for a primer on the notion here, other than to say many cultures understood that the life-force by any name was contained in the blood. It makes sense. If an animal or person bleeds, the more blood escapes, the weaker it gets. And therefore, it makes sense that if you consume the blood of another, you acquire the life-force.
For the Nazis, Jewish blood was polluting (and also ejaculate, most certainly). It was in their perverted interests to reinforce the revulsion to escaped fluids that would pollute the purity of the Aryan individual and, both literally and metaphorically, the Aryan culture. It was part of the broader plan to marginalize and devalue Jewish lives.
That revulsion, however, is also present in the Bible. The prohibition of consuming blood is comprehensive, expanded into requirements of preparing kosher meat by soaking and salting or broiling to reduce, to the greatest extent, even the accidental ingestion of blood. Likewise, the flow of blood and other fluids from the body is depicted as polluting, not from a hygienic point of view, but from a ritual perspective (which I might argue parallels the anthropological description). It is quite an irony that some Christians and all Nazis exploited this disgust embedded in Judaism to denigrate the Jews most likely to uphold these prohibitions.
You might think we know better now – slogans like “blood and soil” are relegated to those not-so-fine people on the other side. But I would contend that the messaging is just a bit more subtle. Over the past four years the race, ethnicity and religion of “outsiders” have been called into question by leaders in high positions. They depict not so much a conflict of ideas as an inherent “mana” that should not be allowed to escape into the purity of what makes America great. They are rapists coming for your daughters. They are murderers wanting your blood. They are dangerous criminals stoppable only by lethal force. And some of them have sent over an invasive virus designed to pollute our economy and, incidentally, our lives.
As the verse says, you must not partake.
AN HONEST SINNER
The Last of Deuteronomy
For you will be heeding the Lord your God, obeying all his commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 13:19
I have always tried to be a rule-follower. I have not always been successful, but at least I am willing to acknowledge when I have stepped over the line.
One of the lines I know I intentionally blur has to do with the practice of fasting. To put it simply, I don’t. Until very recently, when medical circumstances have made nutrition and hydration necessary, I was diligent about Yom Kippur. But the locus of my rebellion otherwise has been the roster of major and minor fasts that symbolize our mournfulness for past tragedies. They make me physically miserable and spiritually resentful, never mind some of my philosophical objections to what they commemorate.
The mistake I do not make is suggesting that God does not want me to fast. Whatever rationale I have developed for my personal practice, I do not lay claim to knowing better than the instruction of the tradition and/or the consensus of believing and practicing Jews in which I count myself what God’s will is for us in general or me in particular. In the classic words of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I dissent. Unlike the Notorious RBG, my dissent is not grounded in the law.
I mention my transgression so soon after I have atoned for others because I wonder about the phrase “doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.” The small verse above contains three measures of devotion – heeding, obeying, doing. Do they represent three ways of saying the same thing (not at all unusual when the Bible is emphasizing a point) or three different assessments of commitment (not at all unusual among commentators who consider nothing superfluous or repetitious in the Bible)?
If it is the former, my intentional transgression dooms me to be an unrepentant sinner. I know that sounds so, well, religious, but it’s a big deal when someone considers himself, well, religious. For those whose more liberal standards about Jewish practice lead them away from certain kinds of ritual observance, my choice may seem inconsequential. But at least in theory (and however broadly I define the standard), I am committed to heeding the word of God and obeying God’s commandments. I go to great lengths and inconvenience to uphold that standard.
Let me add that I am not looking for absolution, as if some other rabbi could exempt me from fasting or shabbat observance or keeping kosher. I am not looking for reassurance from others who have compassion for my reasoning. I am not looking for support from Jews Against Fasting or some other group that objects to this ritual. I know what I am doing is, by the standards I accept for myself, wrong. I prefer to live with that dissonance. That is, IF heeding, obeying, and doing are parallel concepts.
But what if the three phrases mean different things? What if the first means attending to God’s instruction, the second upholding that instruction, but the third finding that which is the distinct way for me as an individual to do what is right in the sight of the Lord MY God?
I have always been skeptical of anyone who claims to know the will of God personally. I know that flies in the face of some understandings of my own tradition and of broad swaths of believers in other faiths. Perhaps it is my proclivity to following the rules, but I look askance at any statement that begins, “I believe that God wants ME to…”
Mostly, what follows those words is an excuse to ignore a collective standard. Often it is to excuse oneself from an inconvenient requirement (which is why I will never say “I believe that God wants me to eat on a fast day.”) Sometimes it is an excuse to exceed the limits of piety (as when ultra-orthodox Jewish men will not sit next to a woman on an airplane). But mostly it is used to justify something that has less than nothing to do with God’s concerns; instead, it has to do with a personal desire to be justified with a theological claim.
God does not care about touchdowns. God is unconcerned about holiday greetings. God does not select political candidates.
I make those statements not because I know the will of God personally, but because the Bible is pretty clear about what is right in the sight of God. To do justice. To love mercy. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. To cultivate holiness within and compassion without. To remember how awful it is to be a stranger.
I’d rather be an honest sinner than a lying believer.