Sunday, November 13, 2016

God's Katherine Hepburn

The Rabbis taught that each human being has a yetzer tov/good Inclination and a yetzer ra/evil inclination. Our yetzer tov is the part of us that inclines to be giving. Our yetzer ra is our selfish side. However, the yetzer ra is also the part of us that is responsible for our ambition, independence and drive. That’s why the Rabbis also said that “the yetzer ra is good. Were it not for the yetzer hara, human beings wouldn’t marry, build houses or engage in business”. That is, unbridled, the yetzer hara is ego gone wild. But, when the yetzer hatov has the services of the yetzer hara, good is more effective in the world. 

The yetzer hatov makes its first appearance in the Bible in the form of the serpent who tempts Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve is attracted to the Tree because she believes eating its fruit will make her as powerful and independent as God. It’s her competitive impulse that draws her to rebel against God’s command. In our Bible class, Shaynan Graves suggested that Eve was more likely to oppose God, because she was created to be an ezer k’negdo/a helpful oppose. That is, Adam is attracted to Eve, in part because she is different from him. She offers him a perspective on the world that he does not have. And, with that perspective, Adam is more complete.

When Abraham appears on the scene, he elevates the yetzer hara to a new level. In opposing God’s plan to destroy the wicked Sodom, Abraham accesses his independent, rebellious side. But, Abraham’s motivation for opposing God’s will is not to compete with God. Rather, Abraham is trying to hold God to God’s own highest standards. In this way, Abraham becomes God’s ezer k’negdo (helpful opposition). 

It is clear that this is exactly what attracted God to Abraham in the first place. In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, God is depicted as searching for a partner, someone who will understand Him, but also, where appropriate, oppose him. God’s initial search for a human partner ends in frustration, much as Adam initially does not find a suitable mate. Adam and Eve, Cain, the generation of Noah and the people of Babel are all a disappointment to God.

Along comes Abraham, and God declares ‘zot ha’paam’—this time, it’s right---as Adam declared about Eve. When God considers ‘not covering up’ what God is about to do to Sodom from Abraham, it is reminiscent of the stage in a love relationship where partners begin to share things with each other that they would share with no one else. God even uses the words ‘ki tedativ’/ for I have ‘known’ Abraham. The word ‘yada’ in Biblical Hebrew is the word for intimacy, both physical and emotional. 

This aspect of love is well known to us from the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies. The Hepburn character is attractive to the Tracy character precisely because she opposes him. Throughout the Bible, we, the Jewish people, are Katherine Hepburn to God’s Spencer Tracy.  God is constantly complaining about our rebelliousness, calling us  ‘a stiff necked people” and in the prophets ‘an untrained calf.’  Our disobedience often results in the severest of punishments. But, it is arguable that the same quality in us that is so problematic for God is precisely what attracted God to us in the first place.


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is the Bible Sexist?

In last week’s class, we noticed several troubling features of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 2-3:

·        Eve was created second. She appears to have been derivative, secondary, created to serve Adam’s needs.

·        God barely speaks to Eve. God speaks only to Adam, until the end of the story, when God questions her for eating from the Tree of Knowledge (after first speaking to Adam)

·        Adam names Eve, as he names the animals. The naming seems to be an expression of power over Eve, as Adam has power over the animals.

·        Worst of all, God says to Eve, after she and Adam have eaten from the Tree that Adam’will rule over you,’ i.e. that from this point forward, men will rule over women.


We responded to these issues in the following ways:

1.      There is no question that the Adam and Eve does not reflect a 21st century ethical sensibility in every way. There are elements of the story that we must reject as the product of a human element in the Bible, and not as reflecting God’s ultimate will. The idea that women will be ruled by men is not something we can accept today.


2.      Phyllis Trible has written that the Adam and Eve story is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it’s clear that before Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden, they lived in a state of equality. The dominance of man is equated with a fall from grace. It’s implied that the return to a more ideal state would mean the restoration of equality between men and women. The rest of the Bible and Jewish history is the story of how we seek to get back to the Garden. So, modern feminism is in keeping with the idea that male chauvinism is a flaw in human relationships that must be corrected to retrieve what God wants of human beings.


3.      This idea is supported by a later story in the Bible, the story of Esther. In chapter one of the megillah, male chauvinism is ridiculed. A drunken king objectifies his queen, demanding he show off her beauty to her male comrades. When she refuses, he calls a cabinet level meeting to decide what do to. Memuchan frets that if Vashti’s refusal is allowed to stand, all the women of the kingdom will rise in revolt against their husbands. It will be a catastrophe!  The king issues an order that the man is the boss of the house everywhere in his empire. This story portrays men who seek to dominate women as weak and foolish. 


4.      What’s more, later in the story, Haman’s paranoia about Jewish ‘disobedience’ to the king’s laws is equated with male paranoia about the female disobedience. Male dominance of women and persecution of the Jewish people are equated and declared equally illegitimate. At the end of the story, a strong woman emerges as a hero over weak men. Still, there is a missing piece. The Jews have escaped death, but we are still powerless and vulnerable to a fickle non-Jewish population. We have power, but it is the power behind the throne. It is clear from this Diaspora story,that the ideal is for the Jewish people to be in charge of our own destiny. This we can only achieve by having complete sovereignty in our own homeland (depicted by the Bible as the new Garden of Eden). The implication of the Esther story is that similarly, the triumph of women through manipulation of weak men is only an intermediate step. Ultimately, women deserve to be men’s equals, not just the power behind the throne, just as the Jewish people deserve to be authorities in our own land, not just vice presidents in someone else’s country.


5.      What emerges from the Esther story is that the Bible is a conversation, reflecting varied points of view, just as later in Jewish history, the Talmud is debate among Jews who have different opinions. The tendency of the Jewish people to wrestle with each other and with God in seeking to find the best way to live is found in the Bible itself from the very beginning. In next week’s class, we will look at how this tendency is found in Abraham and Sarah.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

In the beginning...God created inequality

by Laurie Powazek

Rabbi’s Note: This is the first of a series of guest blogs on the Bible. Laurie raises several provocative questions about Genesis 2-3. We encourage you to post your reactions. And, we will deal with these questions and more when we meet for the next class, Sunday, October 30.

I have so many problems with the word choices and story line of these two chapters.  First of all in the creation of man and woman, God forms man from the dust and with God’s own breath.  He is organically formed and somewhat of God.  God fashions woman out of man’s rib, she is surgically constructed and of man - of his flesh. The other male and female pairs of creations were made similarly to each other, so why did God create man and woman differently?  This inconsistency in creation has led generations to explain that by creating man and woman differently, God wanted us to have different roles and functions.  It also suggests that we could be treated differently. The implication is that we are not equal. 

In the story of the Garden of Eden, God purposefully places an untouchable tree in the center of the garden and tells man and woman that they will die if they eat from it.  When woman gives into temptation (as voiced by the serpent) and eats from the tree, she does not die.  Did God lie? She then shares this forbidden food with man and he eats it without question.  He also does not die.  Upon being discovered, man’s immediate response to God is “the woman...she gave me of the tree”.   Why did God allow Man to blame the woman for his behavior? Man blames woman, she blames the serpent, and God lashes out at everyone, but not equally.

God’s punishment to woman - that she “urge to her husband and be ruled by him” - has led to centuries of the misuse and domination of women.  From the beginning Bible story of the garden, woman is portrayed as a temptress of man and as the owner of the first sin.  These understandings have led to the mistrust of womankind.  Too many women have been harmed because of this text.  In the final verses of Chapter 3, woman ceases even to be named. Instead, God refers to her in terms of Adam: “the man and his wife”, “Adam and his wife”.  In the eviction, God only mentions the casting out of man, not of two beings.  Eve had been invalided.

There are many ways to soften this reading.  The commentary suggests that the rib from man represents a connection between man and woman.  I’d have preferred a more equal creation.  If woman was also created with God’s breath perhaps the generations of inequality wouldn’t have been so easy to justify.  As for the Tree and the explanation of free will vs. animal instinct that is taught through the garden’s story, better word choices would remove the inequitable blame placed on woman.  Instead, Genesis chapters 2-3 remain intact and have contributed greatly to our patriarchal society and the basis for the degrading of women based solely on gender. 

Did He not foresee the effect this story would have on the lives of women both Biblical and beyond?

It is unnerving to be bothered by the Bible so early in this class.  I’m irritated that God created woman’s story with so evident a bias in language and story line.  He did not create an equal partner to Adam.  He created for him a “helper” and in so doing diminished the importance, the goodness, and the reputation of woman.

In the beginning, God created inequality and devalued the worth of woman.  And I’m disheartened.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Religion about Nothing

A Religion about Nothing
Most commentators translate the first three words of the Bible “Bereshit bara Elokim” in one of two ways: a. ‘In the beginning God created’, or b. ‘When God began to create’. Either way, God is the subject of the sentence, the creator. But, the kabbalists gave these three words a daring (and rather outrageous) interpretation. They translated: “In the beginning Elokim/God was created”. Why did they do that? 

Both the mystics and philosophers of the middle ages struggled with the idea that whatever we say about God we are limiting God. Even to give God a name, like Elokim, is a limitation, because names are meant to define the limits of a person or object—where they end, and something else begins. But, God has no limits. How do we refer to God in a way that doesn’t limit God, the way calling a tiger by its name implies they are not a bear? 

The mystics solved this by referring to God in God’s ultimate essence as ‘ein sof’/limitlessness or ‘ayin’/nothingness. And, elokim, God as God is named, is actually a lower manifestation of God, an emanation of ein sof, otherwise called a sefirah.
Here is one way of thinking about the difference between ein sof and elokim. Imagine a table. How was that table created? First there was a generally felt need for something that would function like a table. Then there was an idea of how to create a table. Perhaps next there was the name table. And, only later is there an actual physical table that results from this process.  

The mystics say the will to create emerged from ein sof, and as it began to take on the form of a definite idea it became the sefirot, and only in the last stage does a concrete world emerge from the sefirot. To say that elokim created the world is a little like saying that the table began with an idea for a table. But, the idea itself (here called elokim) was not first. It emerged from the more mysterious, impossible to define ein sof. Simple, right?! 

So, why is God also called ‘ayin/nothing’. Think of the word nothing as composed of two words: no thing. The ‘thinginess’ of this world is what is defined. Every creature has a form that make us like all other creatures who go by our name. Humans have eyes, ears, and DNA that define how we look act and feel.  

Yet, think of someone we love. Try to define them. You can’t. We can say all kinds of things about their physical composition and their psychological profile. But, we will missing what we most love about them---the quality that makes them absolutely unique. Mystics called this quality the no-thing.  We humans are 99% thinginess and a tiny, but important fraction of no-thingness. In most ways, we are like everyone else. But, not completely.

But imagine something/someone who was all no-thing—completely unique. Imagine what the indefinable essence that we love about someone precisely because it is so unusual. Now multiply that by a zillion. That’s God. Ultimate lovability. Unlike us, nothing about God is like anyone else. God has the quality we most admire in each other in spades. That’s why God is called Ayin, No-thing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

This World is Brought to You by the Number Two

Here is one idea we explored in last week’s class:
Idea#1: This World Is Being Brought to You by the Number Two:
The Rabbis taught: ha’olam nivra b’vet/the world was created with the letter bet. What they meant was: The letter bet correspond to the number two. Two-ness is essential to Creation. Without division, nothing would exist—no individuality, no boundaries, no identity, no life. That’s why God began creating by dividing things—light from darkness, day from night, sky from water, water from land, human from animal, male from female, and most intriguingly human beings within ourselves. Each of us is self-reflective, which means that most of the time, there is a voice inside of us speaking and another listening. Both are us. 

The world is two. God is One. Yet, we yearn for one-ness. We yearn to overcome the divisiveness, hatred, conflict, and loneliness that our two-ness creates. At the same time, we don’t want to give up our individuality, our identity and our uniqueness. This drive to be ourselves, say the Rabbis, is built into the fabric of the universe. The midrash tells a story about how even the lowly grass defied God’s initial instructions because it didn’t want to get lost in the crowd. How can we be ourselves, fulfill our driving ambitions, and be recognized for our uniqueness and yet at the same time fall in love, connect with other and be part of our harmonious community?   

The Rabbis say the desire to be one (to connect) and the desire to be two (to be ourselves) inevitably clash, but we can find ways of having them work together. The Rabbis called the desire to connect Yetzer Hatov/our good inclination, and our desire to be ourselves, the Yetzer Hara/the ‘bad’ inclination (bad because in isolation it takes the form of selfishness). But, the Rabbis also said that the Yetzer Hara can be good. If personal ambition to the desire to serve, the result could be a great doctor. 

At the same time, if we want to create the good life, we need to learn to work as a team. The midrash (creative rabbinic interpretation) tells us that in the beginning the sun and moon were of equal size and brightness. But, the moon complained about literally having to share the spotlight. So, God demoted the moon and made it dimmer than the sun. The rabbis’ interpretation was based on a very close reading of Genesis 1: 16. The first have of the verse says that God created “shnei ha’m’orot hagedolim/the two great heavenly lights” (meaning the sun and the moon. But, in the second half of the verse, the text refers only to the sun as “ha’maor hagadol/the great light” while the moon is called “ha’maor hakaton”.   

Of course, the simple meaning of the text (what we call the ‘p’shat’) is that God created two great lights, and one was bigger than the other. No big deal. But, the rabbis saw an opportunity to teach a lesson about humility and the importance of collaboration. So, they created a story which explained how it happened that in the beginning both the sun and the moon were ‘gedolim’/great, but later, the moon became ‘katon’/smaller than the sun. It’s important to understand that the rabbis knew they were being creative. They were well aware of the simpler, more straightforward meaning of the text. 

Finally, the desire to be ourselves and the desire to connect cannot be resolved. But, it can be managed. Jewish practice aims to help us balance our need for one-ness and two-ness. For example, Shabbat is all about overcoming barriers between people. It’s about becoming one. When Shabbat is over, we recite Havdalah, which means distinction.  We enter the world of differentiation, where each of us strives to make our own unique mark on the world, creating a beautiful world of diversity.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Chasing the Garden of Eden

What does the human transition from hunter gatherers to farmers 10,000 years ago have to do with the Garden of Eden, the land of Israel, manna and Shabbat? Click on this link, go to the sermon titled "Chasing the Garden of Eden,"  and find out!