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Archive for Abril de 2013

SPOKEN MATTERS

 

During our religious services, every time we return the Torah scroll to the Ark, we sing words from the book of Proverbs, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (3:17). In light of the concluding scene of this week’s parasha, we are left to wonder regarding the extent of this pleasantness and peacefulness.

 

Parashat Emor relates the story of an unnamed son of an Israelite woman who blasphemes the name of God. We are given little details regarding this man’s age or name; all that we know is that he is from the tribe of Dan. Judgment is pronounced and the blasphemer is to be brought outside the camp where the community is obligated to stone him to death (Leviticus 24:10-16).

 

Sadly, there is no pleasantness and peacefulness to be found here – not for the person who is to be executed, and not for the community who must enforce this horrific punishment. For a punishment of this magnitude to be carried out, the crime committed was truly one of immense proportions.Today, countries throughout the world respond differently to the issue of blasphemy. Many countries, Israel included, have provisions in their penal code, specifying imprisonment for acts that revile another person’s religion, and for the issuing of publications and spoken words that offend another person’s religious faith. Other countries that govern according to sharia continue to regard blasphemy as a severe crime, punishable by death.

 

According to the Wikipedia article on Blasphemy laws in US, Pennsylvania has one of those in the books. The last U.S. Conviction for blasphemy—at least that of any significance—was of atheist activist Charles Lee Smith in 1928. The case then dragged on for several years until it was finally dismissed. [1] we could not imagine putting anyone to death for openly speaking their mind, expressing their opinion, or even claiming that God doesn’t exist. Debate, disagreement, and discourse, within reason, are part of our everyday culture. If we take offense at what someone says, we may either confront him/her and request an explanation, or simply walk away.

 

But even open dialogue has its limits. For example, this week I came across a website of a Japanese restaurant in Philly [2]. The disclaimer the read as follows:

 

We love comments that articulate a different point of view, a witty insight, some humour or a shared experience. Our moderators will reject comments that personally attack the author or other commentators. We also wont publish comments that are aggressive, sexist, racist or in any other way discriminatory or derogatory. We hope these guidelines make the process of commenting on stories and reading the comments left by other users as enjoyable as possible.”

 

Speaking about religion, speaking about another person’s conception of God involves great sensitivity and thoughtfulness. Though Torah’s proscriptions seem neither palatable to us nor directly applicable to today’s American culture, we can still benefit from their warning to us – to watch our words mindfully, to assess the potential impact of our words before speaking, because once spoken, we cannot take our words back. Herein lies the timeless message of Parashat Emor, the word “Emor” meaning, “Say.” We are instructed to be mindful not only of what we say, but of how we say it. May all our words and our ways, be ones of pleasantness and ultimately of peace.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blasphemy_law_in_the_United_States

 

[2] http://fujimt.com/cchngiunilag/more-details-about-our-comment-policy-her-crosimg-antenella.html

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The combined reading of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim cuts a broad swath of teaching, from Chapter 16 which details the observance of Yom Kippur in ancient times to chapter 19 encompassing the heart of Jewish ritual and ethics in what has come to be known as “the holiness code”. In the surrounding chapters are many commandments proscribing certain sexual relationships, not just incest and bestiality, but also homosexuality. Thus, this portion highlights the difficulty in reading and applying Torah to our times. On one hand we have incredibly uplifting notions such as the original teaching of “you shall love your neighbor like yourself” and on the other a commandment that has led to incredible injustice against people with different sexual orientation.

 

I believe that we must always read the Torah so that the words of the Psalm sung as we return the Sefer Torah to the ark apply: “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” In doing so, we follow in thousands of years of tradition of sages and rabbis before us who, when confronted with a problematic text, limited it and contextualized it (for example, eliminating in its entirety the teaching that we should stone to death the rebellious child), yet expanded and enhanced other teachings such as ethical speech, based on a line from the holiness code (do not go about being a talebearer, Lv. 19:16). While there may have been reasons beyond our knowing for the Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality 3,000 years ago, those reasons no longer apply when we generally understand sexual orientation as part of our inner nature. That our core spiritual text has partly contributed to the suffering of others because of who they are is not acceptable.

 

Those who are not heterosexual are merely asking for equal rights in society and religious ritual. We should not hide behind words of Torah to be inequitable. Last month the Supreme Court heard arguments on Proposition 8 and DOMA. This week the New Zealand Parliament legalized same sex marriages; one can only hope that other countries will follow. Religious authorities as well can acknowledge that the written word, while remaining intact, has always been interpreted through context and that we must learn, as our ancient sages did, which teachings we wish to expand and which contract as we apply core principles of justice and compassion. The Torah – its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

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Connecting Shemini and HaGevurah

 

This week we read the tragic story of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu. As the community is gathered together to celebrate the first sacrifice in the tabernacle, these two young priests come forward and offer an “alien fire” before God. As a result of their actions, they are consumed by fire and die upon the altar. It is not clear what their “sin” was, for what reason they met their end and the answer to this question has been grist for the rabbinic mill. Many suggest that the two men were morally corrupt, that they were drunkards who did not treat their high office with respect. Further, it is argued that they took advantage of their position, using their priesthood to acquire favors, to laud themselves over others. Others suggest that their ambition was so great that they were counting down the days until their father and uncle would move on and they could appropriate the leadership of the people and with it, consummate power. But there is nothing in the text to suggest any such moral deficiencies, all we know is that they brought a strange offering which was not commanded by God and as a result their lives were ended at the hand of God.

 

So why this desire by the commentators to brand the brothers immoral and unscrupulous? Because it places some order on an otherwise random chaotic series of events. If Nadav and Avihu were such terrible people then perhaps they deserved

their deaths, or maybe, at the very least, their deaths become more understandable. And if that is the case, then it removes a small uncertainty from life. We have a path; don’t sin, don’t behave immorally and God will not take your life. But that is not the way of the world. That is not what happens in life. All around us innocent, good people die horrible, tragic unexplained deaths. People are taken from their families, from this life, too soon, in cruel and painful ways and there is no explanation, no reason.

 

In response to his sons’ deaths the parashah tells us that Aaron is silent. He has no words, he has no way to contain in language the pain of his loss, his anger, his hurt, his suffering. Moses comes to him with an explanation, an attempt to comfort, he says, “This is what God meant when God said through those near to me I show myself holy.”(Lev. 10:3)

 

But Aaron says nothing, what is there to say in the face of such a loss? He cannot be comforted with Moses’ words. But Moses says; “we shall all mourn for them, the whole community of Israel.” (Lev 10:6) This does not remove Aaron’s pain, his grief, but together the community can be a balm, a way to remember, to hold them and Aaron in their arms.

 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagevurah, the Shabbat before Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The time we remember the millions who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. There is no explanation, there are no words which can contain the grief, the suffering, the pain, the loss. We feel that we should perhaps be silent like Aaron, for how can a language adequately express what happened, how can we even begin to try to understand?

 

The numbers are overwhelming, the pain, the tragedy too great. Yet we must be like Moses and the community, we must find a way to speak into the silence, to cry, to express our anger, our pain, our grief and hurt. To tell the stories and to remember. We must mourn together as a community, not to attempt explanations but instead to stand beside all the Aarons, to hold them, to cry with them and remember. It is our responsibility to stand together with the survivors, with our community this and every Yom Hashoah. May each of the murdered souls be at peace.

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