Thursday, December 29, 2005

If I could speak...

"Justice, Justice, shall you pursue."
Deut. 16:20

If I could speak…

If I could speak, I would try to persuade you of the injustice that exists in Judaism today, that hides itself behind the lips of the righteous, and that smiles out of the closed minds of teachers.

I would tell you that so many people suffer, that so many brilliant people are turned away from Judaism, not necessarily because science and religion cannot be fused, or because Judaism itself is wrong, but because the religion disgusts them. Because their earliest association with it has been that of shame and reproach, of a long listing of things they should not and cannot do. There has been no joy in the learning, no love of God, indeed, God was hardly ever described or discussed because he was too large a figure for the human imagination.

Why is it that a child can know God, but an adult cannot?

As a child, I remember believing in a perfect world. I remember innocently skipping, telling my father that I had gotten as far as “V’ahavta” in shul today, because the congregation went too quickly for me. I remember him smiling at me, talking to me at the table. I remember devouring books like The Little Medrish Says, books that fascinated me because of their rich descriptions, the parables and examples, and most of all the magic. Now that I am older I can find flaws in these books, places where they are biased or unkind, but when I was younger, they were the perfect tool for me to learn.

I remember thinking about the next world, which I envisioned as a place filled with light and colors. A dancing place, where the colors would sparkle and shine and all would be beautiful. I wanted to go there, wanted God to take me there. I lay on my bed, replete and happy, and asked him to please let me fall asleep (this is what I thought death was) so I could go there. When my wish was not granted, I reasoned that God understood that my parents would miss me too much, and undisturbed, I stood up and decided to play a boardgame.

I was imaginative, delving into toyboxes, dressing up as various figures, banging on the garbage can and repeating over the pulpit Rabbi’s speeches, always acting, pretending and playing. My parents were very good to me, and they believed in allowing me to learn at my own pace, in understanding and learning through imagination rather than following set rules. I did not know how to spell my name and could not write the alphabet, my motor skills were not very good and I would not sit still at circle time, but I was cheerful, brimming with happiness and curiousity.

I was always inquisitive, but my parents understood my questions. They gave me the answers, or allowed me to search for them.

Nowadays, Judaism is not such a welcoming religion.

I always thought the difference between Judaism and other religions was that Judaism permitted questions, reveled in questions, that the entire Gemara and Talmud was based off of questions from one Rabbi to another. And if they could question, why couldn’t I?

What I was taught in high school was that you have to be old, learned, wear a white beard and dress in a black caftan before you are allowed to question anything.

Needless to say, I did not like this at all.

There are three religious high schools for girls in Chicago. One is coed and Modern Orthodox, but because of the type of people who go there/the reputation of some students, many young girls will not attend this school. Its complete opposite is Bais Yaakov, where women go in order to be told that love, joy, and happiness will save the world, but education, learning, and especially college are to be shunned and scorned. And then there is the middle school, which for the purposes of this dicussion, I will not name.

This school is seen as an in-between place. You are not Modern Orthodox but you are not incredibly religious; you are in the middle. Sure, you’ll have to put up with some hashkafot you do not agree with, with an emphasis on tzniut, knee socks and no slits in skirts. But this should be all right, shouldn’t it? You’ll survive. You’ll get a good education, go on to college, and will be reasonably well-equipped for life beyond the religious world. Right?


May I even amend that to completely, incredibly, absolutely and totally wrong.

But I didn’t know this when I entered the school. I figured I was taking the middle road. I was a bit wary of the coed Modern Orthodox school, especially since the only girls attending from my elementary school were not the people I hung out with. I figured I’d go to the school where some of my friends were going, where I’d be all right. I might have a few unpleasant encounters, but nothing too serious.

The fact that I am now a senior at North Shore Country Day, an independent coed non-sectarian private school in Winnetka, should apprise you of how wrong I was.

My two years at- well, for the purposes of this, I’ll call it Templars- were awful. Templars was not a welcoming place. It operated in order to shut down the mind, to close off avenues of knowledge, to forbid rather than to welcome. To exterminate. To extinguish. To hurt. And most of all, to dispose of loners and dissenters as quickly as possible.

Templars was- and still is, for certain students- a living hell.

But what to do? I cannot speak…and if I do, people will not listen. They will see me as the abberation, the abnormal, the one who does not fit the norm. “If you are as intelligent as Chana…” they will say. These are not the type of things one can ignore. Yes, they are paying me a compliment. But it has nothing to do with intelligence. It has to do with Judaism.

The following passage is from Chaim Potok’s ‘The Promise.’

“You want too much!” Rav Gershenson was shouting. “You want to make them all into saints! You are destroying the Torah!”
“What do you say?” Rav Kalman almost screamed. “I am destroying the Torah? I?” He stood on the tips of his toes, his heald tilted back, his dark beard jutting outward almost level with the floor, and I saw his hands clench into fists. He shook a fist in Rav Gershenson’s face. “It is you who are destroying the Torah!” he shouted. “You!”
“It is a different world here! You cannot-“
“It is a corrupt world! I will not be changed by it!”
“You are destroying people with your religiosity!” He used the Yiddish word “frumkeit,” hurling it at Rav Kalman as though it were an epithet. “Know that you are destroying people!”

Know that you are destroying people.

This is what I want to say, what I want to shout from the rooftops, throw at people. I want them to see. I want them to know that they are destroying people.

That they could have destroyed me.

That I’m only safe because of my parents.

I’m trembling. I tremble as I write this. Not outwardly. I’m not shaking, not even moving. But inwardly. I do not want to lie, but I want to show you what I saw.

I want you to understand.

I could have been dead today. I could have been dead, spiritually dead, walking into a school that I hated and whose inhabitants dreaded me, were frightened of my thoughts. I could in turn have hated the parents who imprisoned me in that school, the religion that held me captive.

I could have simply been hatred.

But I’m not. Thank God I’m not. And to keep my sanity, to keep myself from dying, I had to resort to something looked upon as a sin, as a scandal, as insanity- to moving from my Orthodox Jewish female single-sex school to a non-sectarian coed independent private school.

And I am so much happier there.
And more religious, more spiritual, than I ever could have been at Templars.

Why? Well, this is the story why.

If only I could speak…

Monday, December 19, 2005

Cross-dressing, Men's Garments, and Women's Garments

"No, thanks. I'm very cold. Could I borrow your jacket?"
"It's a man's jacket," he said, hesitating.
"I'm very cold, David."
"You're not-" He broke off and slipped the jacket from his thin body and draped it over my shoulders. "Let me carry that for you," he said, and took the Times from under my arm.
(Page 214, Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok)
    This is one of the most beautiful moments I can recall in Jewish literature.
    David believes it is a sin to allow Ilana to wear his jacket, however, due to the circumstances (she has just found out her father may have died in a bombing, and is suffering from shock) he realizes that he can put aside his stringencies and allow her to wear his jacket.
    The question is- is this truly a sin?
    Let us look at the verse in Deuteronomy that discusses this, located at Devarim 22:5.
ה לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה: כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כָּל-עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה. {פ }
      5 A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; for whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the LORD thy God. {P}
          When I read this verse (and this may just be my interest in linguistics and semantics showing through) I notice that a woman is not allowed to wear a "khli gever" whereas a man is told he may not wear a "simlas isha." This seems to denote a difference, where a woman may not wear, as the English translation states, "that which pertaineth unto a man," i.e. anything that belongs to/ has to do with men, whereas men are specifically forbidden to wear the "simlas isha," only the "garment of a woman." It does not use the same terminology, "khli isha."
          Why is this? I have looked at the various commentaries, and come up with several thematic answers.
          1. Khli ish refers to everything that is associated to/ with a man, namely, his armor, weapons, belt and clothing, as opposed to simply a garment
          2. (The most frequent answer) These laws are in effect to prevent neiuf, or adultery/ promiscuity/ immoral behavior.
            Now, in Judaic law, do we usually judge according to the letter of the law or the spirit of the law? It seems to me that we have room to be lenient according to the case. In the case of a ba'al sorer umoreh one is extremely strict in that the boy must devour exactly the correct quantities of meat and wine at exactly the correct age in order to have sinned. In the case of an accidental murderer, on the other hand, the intent is what matters more, for the man must flee to an ir miklat, or city of refuge.
            Another question- why is it that a woman's garment is a "simlat isha" but a man's article is a "khli gever"? Wouldn't we find it more logical to oppose "ish" and "isha" as opposed to "isha" and "gever"? If the root of "gever" lies in gevurah, this implies that this commandment specifically refers to the warrior, the man of strength, the hero, as opposed to an ordinary "ish."
            The next logical place to look is the Talmud. At Nazir 59a we seem to become even more confused. Because while it seems logical that a woman would not be able to wear the accoutrements of war (in R Eliezer b. Jacob's view) why would the shaving of hair be considered the wearing of a "simlas isha?" Also, how can we learn out the prohibition against using cosmetics/ makeup from this? Isn't there a reason that the terminology is different? "Khli" means more than a garment, but how does one make "Simlas" into cosmetics or bodily hair?
            I came across an interesting paragraph here:
                Only a few sources spell out what is meant by "women's clothing" and "men's clothing." Women normally wear colorful clothes; men wear white. Most sources leave the particulars undefined, because they realized that while gender distinction in dress is almost universal, the particulars are a matter of local fashion trends. As the Tur (c. 1300 C.E.), the predecessor code of the Shulhan Arukh, puts it: "A woman should not dress in clothes specifically for men lefi minhag hamaqom according to the local fashion" (YD 182)."
                While all of this is interesting and informative, is there an actual statement/ law/ ruling? Is an item forbidden because a man had it in his posession (i.e. owned the jacket before someone else, even if it is unisex) because it is actually made for a man (i.e. a man's jacket only) or does this only refer to the specific accoutrements of the "gever," the warrior? And as to the "isha," how does her simlah relate to cosmetics and her adornments?
                That's what I've been wondering lately.

              Thursday, December 01, 2005

              Oedipus Rex, Micah, and Garcia Marquez

              Oedipus is one of the most tormented men alive, similar to the other long-suffering hero, Odysseus. Oedipus and Odysseus are both ruled by Fate and the gods, no matter how they (or, as it may be, others) strive to go against it. However, the more interesting idea in Oedipus is the way in which biblical themes and sources once again connect. There are some biblical stories and connections that are so similar and important that it would be difficult to read Oedipus’s sad tale without thinking of them.

              Before I begin to draw connections, let me first explain one of my sources. You may have heard of the Talmud, which is a “compendium of discussions on the Mishnah (the earliest codification of Jewish religious law, largely complete by 200 AD), by generations of scholars and jurists in many academies over a period of several centuries. The Jerusalem (or Palestinian) Talmud mainly contains the discussion of the Palestinian sages. The Babylonian Talmud incorporates the parallel discussions in the Babylonian academies.”[1] The Talmud contains the Oral Law, which is the second part of the Torah. The Torah contains the Written Law, which is, as it would sound, that which is written and codified in the first five books of Moses (but also including the Prophets and Writings), and the Oral Law, which was passed down through the sages and scholars, from the time of Moses and onwards. This Oral Law was only transcribed for fear of its being forgotten, for the time of prophets was over and the Jews were considered laymen, not as learned as they once had been.

              Anyway, in the Talmud, specifically in the part known as the Gemara, there are various discussions and debates between Rabbis. Footnotes and commentaries are added on to these discussions. Hence, there is a statement that reads:

              A Tanna taught: Nebat, Micah, and Sheba the son of Bichri are one and the same.14 [He was called] Nebat, because 'he beheld but did not see'; Micah, because 'he was crushed15 in the building';16 and what was his real name? — Sheba the son of Bichri.

              The footnote on this statement serves to explain where Micah acquired his name. A commentator named Rashi determines that this refers back to the time of Egypt.
              Micah is called Micah because his name derives from the Hebrew word nismaech meaning crushed or squashed. The reason for this is because in the time of Egypt, when the Jews were slaves for Pharoah, Micah (as a baby) was placed in a wall in the spot where bricks should have been placed. Indeed, Moses calls out and states that God has made things worse for the Jews, for now, if they have no bricks, people will have to use the sons of the Jews to build (the walls.) God replies that the children/ infants being placed in the walls are like “thorns” and that it is revealed to Him that they will live to grow up to be completely wicked people. However, if Moses desires, he is allowed to test God and take one out from between the bricks. Moses did this, and the child was called Micah [2]

              Micah does indeed grow up to be a wicked person (at least, in terms of Judaism.) The next reference we have to Micah is in the commentary on Exodus, Chapter 32, verse 4. The verse reads:

              4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: 'This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'
              However, the commentary Rashi expounds upon this verse once again, stating that Micah was actually present at this creation of the Golden Calf (the first and most important instance of idolatry in the history of the Jewish people.) Micah is said to have had the golden tablet which Moses had used to call to Joseph’s bones/ casket (sunk deep in the Nile, for under Joseph’s reign Egypt had prospered) and cause them to rise. The tablet was engraved with the words ‘Rise up, Ox’ as the symbol for the tribe of Ephraim, who descends from Joseph, is the ox/ bull. Micah threw this tablet (with this inscription) into the fire, and through use of this and various forms of magic, a Golden Calf emerged. Hence Micah plays a pivotal part in starting an idolatrous movement amongst the Jewish people (which fulfills the expectations that he will grow up to be a wicked person.)

              The third time Micah is mentioned is in Judges, Chapters 17 and 18. There is a difference of opinion as to whether this is the same Micah, but some commentaries believe it is. This example is obviously very striking- Micah makes himself a silver idol, creates his own temple, hires a priest to serve his idol, and has methods of communicating with the dead (the legendary terafim). Thus, Micah has fulfilled God’s decree- he has indeed grown up to be a “thorn” as God said he would be, and according to the Jewish law, he is considered a wicked person for denying God and appointing idols in His place.

              I think the resemblance between the biblical Micah and the mythical Oedipus is striking. True, Micah does not grow up to sleep with his mother and murder his father. However, they are similar in that both of these children have their fates decreed upon them at a very young age, and both of them grow up to fulfill these fates- even though others have decided to take it upon themselves to save them. More importantly, each person saves the child out of the kindness of his heart. Moses saves Micah because he cannot believe in the justice of seeing the baby boy squashed beneath bricks, serving as yet another piece in the construction of a building. The kindly shepherd “pitied” the baby whose ankles are pierced, and his pity leads to a most heinous crime, even as Moses’ pity/ mercy leads to the ultimate crime against God- idolatry.

              However, Micah is not the only biblical figure to bear a unique resemblance to Oedipus. Another character who is reminiscent of Oedipus is the biblical Jacob. Indeed, the idea that Oedipus was tied together by his ankles and was given the name he bears due to this fact points very much towards Jacob. Jacob’s name actually comes from the word “ekev” which means ankle. Anyway, the way in which Jacob is similar to Oedipus is through the terrible vow he makes in Chapter 31, verse 32, (and really the rest of that entire section) when Laban asks why Jacob has stolen his idols from him.

              With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen ascertain for yourself what is with me and take it back. (Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.)

              Indeed, we see that later on Rachel dies in childbirth, and never reaches the land of Canaan. Obviously Jacob would never have uttered such a curse if he had thought the idols had been stolen by the woman he loved. In a similar vein, Oedipus declares:

              As for the criminal, I pray to God-
              Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number-
              I pray that that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness.
              And as for me, this curse applies no less
              If it should turn out that the culprit is my guest here,
              Sharing my hearth. (14)

              This is, once again, similar- if Oedipus had known he was cursing himself, would he have made such a dire vow? Most probably not. But he did not know, and in that lack of knowledge he dooms himself.

              The last biblical counterpart is actually that of the wicked King Ahab. Oedipus resembles this king when he orders for Teiresias to be sent to prophecy before him. In Kings I, Chapter 22, King Jehosophat comes to visit King Ahab. Once there, Ahab asks whether Jehosophat would join him to do battle for Ramot-gilead, and Jehosophat asks that they inquire of a man of God. First the King sends for his false prophets, who tell him to do battle. Then, at Jehosophat’s urging, he sends for a true man of God, but one he hates, for “he never prophesies good of me- only bad…” The prophet’s name is Micaiahu son of Imlah (this is a different Micah than the afore-mentioned one.)

              Then comes an intriguing conversation between Micah and the kings. Micah first echoes all of the false prophets (almost sarcastically.) Then, in verses 16-17, we read:
              The king then said to him, “I adjure you many times over that you speak to me nothing but the truth, in the name of God!”

              [Micaiahu] then said, “I have seen all of Israel scattering to the mountains like sheep that have no sheperd; and god saying, “These have no masters; let each man go to his house in peace!”
              This is strangely reminiscent of what we read in Oedipus. On page 17, Oedipus cries, “In God’s name, we all beg you—“ and later, on page 48, Iocaste strangely echoes the imagery of the sheep with no shepherd when she states, “Our hearts are heavy with fear when we see our leader distracted, as helpless sailors are terrified by the confusion of their helmsman.”
              Oedipus bristles and becomes angry at both the blind seer and Creon as soon as he hears the truth- that he is the murderer, in the same way that King Ahab states in verse 26 that Micaiahu is to be put in prison and fed on minimum bread and water rations until he returns safely from war. Ahab tries to escape his fate by donning the clothes of a regular soldier/ horseman, while King Jehosophat wears regal garments. However he cannot escape. Indeed, in verse 34, “A man [of Aram] drew his bow aimlessly, yet hit the king of Israel between the joints of his armor.” Later on, King Ahab dies, and the prophecy is fulfilled, just as Teiresias’ prophecy is to be fulfilled.

              There are two problems with Oedipus as a character- his pride, and his penchant for riddle-solving. (One actually leads into the other. Because he rescued the entire city from the sphinx, he feels pride, which can be deadly.) References to riddle-solving can be seen:

              1. “You saved us from the Sphinx, that flinty singer…It was some god breathed in you to set us free.” (Page 5)

              2. “Then once more I must bring what is dark to light.” (Page 9)

              3. “When that hellcat the Sphinx was performing here, what help were you to these people? Her magic was not for the first man who came along; it demanded a real exorcist….Oedipus, the simple man, who knows nothing- I thought it out for myself, no birds helped me!” (Page 21-22)

              4. Teresias: You were a great man once at solving riddles.
              Oedipus: Mock me with that if you like; you will find it true.
              Teiresias: It was true enough. It brought about your ruin. (Page 24)

              “How can you say that, when the clues to my true birth are in my hands?” (56)

              “And I of dreadful hearing. Yet I must hear.” (63)

              “Think no longer that you are in command here, but rather think how, when you were, you served your own destruction.” (80)

              “This is the king who solved the famous riddle…yet in the end ruin swept over him.” (81)

              Oedipus engages in his own self-destruction. True, he does not know his fate and cannot be held accountable for his actions (although he does proclaim himself guilty.) However, his everlasting lust to figure out riddles, to know the truth, is what undoes him. The prophet does not wish to speak, yet he forces him to do so. The shepherd and the messenger do not wish to speak, but he forces them as well. He wishes to find out the secret of his birth and thinks his wife wishes to prevent him from knowing for fear that he is a commoner. Yet it is his pride that brings him to this pass. Indeed, there is a passage that describes him very accurately, stating:

              The tyrant is a child of Pride
              Who drinks from his great sickening cup
              Recklessness and vanity,
              Until from his high crest headlong
              He plummets to the dust of hope.
              That strong man is not strong….

              Oedipus is the child of Pride- he is proud of his ability to outwit the Sphinx, and feels that the city is his to command because of that. However, because of this pride he is blind, as the seer points out- more blind than he who is truly blind (this is, of course, an Ursula reference to One Hundred Years of Solitude. As I never tire of pointing out, pride is a major theme in Garcia Marquez’s work as well, whether it be Colonel Aureliano’s or Ursula’s or anybody else’. When pride finally collapses, only the ruins are left. Melquiades knew the entire history of Macondo in advance, but he could not have told it to the Buendias- they would have to live it, experience it, go through the various webs and nets of incest and so forth, all having been prophesied by him. In the end of time it is too late- and they, too, have been unable to escape their fate, just as Oedipus cannot escape his. The first of the line is tied to the tree and the last is eaten by the ants…

              [1] From

              [2] This entire section and summation can be found on page 101b on the following website. Click on footnote 16 to read what I have recorded: