Sunday, December 17, 2017

What 'The Last Jedi' Means to Me as a Post Bais Yaakov Girl

Warning: This post contains major spoilers for 'The Last Jedi.' Read at your own risk.

Luke Skywalker holds a light-saber, its light glittering green. A dark-haired boy lies asleep at his feet. Skywalker searches within the youth's mind, finding to his horror that the child has turned to the Dark Side. In a moment of weakness, Skywalker determines that the best way to rid the Force of this incumbent threat is to murder the boy. Before he can do it, he comes to his senses, planning to walk away. But by then it is too late. Waking to find his master standing over him, holding a light saber and wanting to end his life, Ben Solo fights his way free and escapes. He burns down Luke's Jedi Temple, taking apprentices vulnerable to the Dark Side with him and killing the others. Skywalker admits that the last time he saw Ben, he looked into the eyes of a frightened boy.

Luke misjudged Ben. Over the course of 'The Last Jedi,' it becomes clear that Ben's choice had not been made. He was conflicted, and remains conflicted still. In assuming Ben was evil and needed to be snuffed out, Luke causes him to turn to the Dark Side. To Ben's mind, if his own master, the person who is supposed to represent light, turns against him, what is the point of goodness? If he does not have faith in Ben, why should Ben have faith in him?

In a later scene, Kylo Ren (as Ben Solo now styles himself) sees Luke and orders that every gun in his army be trained on "that man." He blasts him with everything he has, rage radiating off him in waves. When Luke still does not die, Ren comes out to face him himself. He spits out that he hopes Luke hasn't come to say that he "forgives him" and hopes to "save his soul." Luke says that he has not come for that, instead admitting that he failed Ben.

These scenes resonated strongly with me as a post Bais Yaakov girl. Longtime readers of this blog are aware that I attended a Bais Yaakov school. At this point in my life, I recognize the complexity of my experience there. As a teacher, I realize that most of the teachers were ill-equipped to deal with me or my questions, were juggling multiple roles, and couldn't always correctly read my motivations. Part of that has to do with me as a teenager - opinionated and unafraid to show it. Certainly, there were times when I could have been more respectful, more deferential, where I could have chosen my words more precisely. At the same time, the way I was treated was and remains unacceptable. They were adults, and I was fifteen. Fifteen! 

Kylo Ren and his rage? I recognize that. I felt that. And at that time, if I had been given the opportunity to smite down all the people who harmed me, to blast them with every gun in my arsenal, I would have taken it. And even then, it wouldn't have healed the hurt inside me.

Many of my teachers did not look for the good in me. Instead, they passed judgment. They told me I was "speaking apikorsus and krum." They passed on their misconceptions rather than checking to hear my side of the story. An administrator sided with a teacher, who was lying, over me, who was telling the truth. A rabbi told me he "was not mekabel" my story.

There are people who wonder what makes people leave religion. It is exactly what made Ben Solo turn into Kylo Ren. There are those who assume they know us in our entirety, and determine that we are bad. They claim to stand for what is good and right, and yet it is these supposedly good people who betray us. This happens for different reasons. Malice. Ignorance. Fear. Maybe the person holds a lightsaber over our heads while we sleep. And maybe the person tells us that we are the problem, the ones who need therapy and are unstable. When in truth, they are the ones hurting us.

The judgment passed on us? It doesn't come from a place of goodness. There are people who set themselves up as being good, and we see they are not good. So of course we'll throw our lot in with whatever they aren't, whatever does not represent them. Maybe we'll find goodness there. At the very least, we'll find acceptance.

When I watch Ben Solo turn into Kylo Ren, I watch a part of my story.

I hope that in future installments, we'll see Kylo Ren develop. I hope we'll see him recognize that just because Luke wronged him doesn't mean the entire Jedi way, and the quest to achieve balance, is wrong. But that's a long and hard journey, and the odds are not in Ren's favor.

I'll hope anyway.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis

Tova Mirvis' memoir, The Book of Separation, is a beautifully written account of her break with Modern Orthodoxy (and religion as a whole). It's unique in the genre in that she left Modern Orthodoxy as opposed to Hasidim or the Haredi community; also, she left when she was turning forty, and the process of leaving involved the death of her marriage. That experience is unlike that of many college students or other young adults who slowly drift and then defect from the movement.

Mirvis struggles with guilt, shame, critical voices in her head, the role of men vs. the role of women and many other uniquely modern problems throughout the course of the work. She's at her strongest when she is describing the impact of leaving and the very real ramifications for herself and for those around her. There's a recurrent theme based on a story she was once told that people may leave religion, and partake of the pleasures of the world, but they will never be able to fully enjoy them. The mind remains caught within the religious strictures even when the body rebels. Mirvis also movingly describes the variegation within her own family- her brother became Haredi, she left Orthodoxy, and her sister was single at the age of thirty-seven. Each of these individuals had their own unique experience with religion and the attendant judgment, shame and the potential lack of understanding or acceptance from others due to their choices.

Mirvis is at her weakest when describing the death of her marriage, something which she consistently attributes to having gotten married too young and to the restrictions of religion. It seems obvious there was more to it than that; most likely Mirvis could not write about it in detail (either due to worry about defamation or because her children will read this book one day). In her narrative, Mirvis takes minimal responsibility, instead casting herself as someone brave, finally gathering the courage to live her truth; this reader sees her as someone who had a midlife crisis and decided to paint it in pretty colors.  The depiction of her husband is also flawed; he is a one-note character who only shows up as a foil to her supposed bravery. He wants to remain Orthodox, sticking with the status quo, where she wants to engage in free fall because she needs to do the things that scare her. Additionally damning is the fact that Mirvis was interacting with the man she would marry after her divorce at the same time that she was in couples therapy; granted, all of the interactions between them were innocent. Yet it's clear, in a scene where that man makes her feel confident and offers her courage, helping her overcome a long-held fear, that he is fulfilling her emotionally in a way her husband can't. It reads like an emotional affair even if nothing physical happened.

The scene which I found the most raw and impactful has to do with the relationship between art & religion. The Orthodox Forum asked Mirvis, along with other artists and creatives, to talk about the tension or correlation between religion and culture. Mirvis at first gave canned answers trying to claim that creativity wasn't stifled by religion, but then told the truth. In her words:
I sat down at my desk. The words rushed out of me. There was a conflict, a terrible one. To write required freedom, but I didn't think you could create freely with the admonitions of Orthodoxy looking over your shoulder. Did you have to show your rabbi any potentially controversial scene and ask whether it was permissible- here, too, were you subject to inspection What did it mean to write knowing you'd be viewed suspiciously by your community if you pushed past the comfort zone? What about stories that didn't conform the official public version of Orthodoxy- what about stories that wanted to challenge or subvert? Even though what I'd written didn't overtly cross any line- there was no attack against Orthodox doctrine, no open disavowal of the rules- I knew that I had become willing to walk closer to the edge. (194) 
Chaim Potok said something much the same when he talked about cultural fusion. It's something that I think all creatives struggle with- how to be part of the religion that binds you while interacting with a world you find spellbinding. The give and take, the push and pull, the tension that can choke do you navigate it?

Absent in Mirvis' memoir was anything relating to Tanakh. She is a novelist, and so one might hope that she would have been exposed to the ultimate storybook- the Tanakh, with all its twists, turns, complicated characters and complex realities. But in her book, her focus is entirely upon halakha and Talmud. The halakha binds and restricts her, curtailing her every movement. She chafes against it, a bird caught in a cage she is partially complicit in building...and so at last, she must break free. The Talmud fascinates her, and she enjoys it as an intellectual pursuit, but it doesn't provide meaning to her. I have to wonder whether the Tanakh was taught to her with the same passion that halakha was. My guess is no. I wonder whether a Tanakh-infused Judaism, one where the stories were not moralistic (as so many of the ones she references in her memoir were), but rather real, would have made any difference. The one scene where Mirvis talks about Tanakh is when her teacher is engaging in apologetics for David & Batsheva. Mirvis catches on to the seeming hypocrisy; she would not be permitted to give this sort of excuse, so why does David get away with it? This is precisely why Rabbi Carmy and Rabbi Helfgot have written about the need to teach authentic Tanakh, one which does not (or at least does not only) excuse characters but also engages with them, flawed as they are.

Much in Mirvis' memoir speaks to me as someone who loves words, loves books, loves to write and is still a participant in this religion. Like Mirvis, I often find the halakha constricting, and like Mirvis, I dislike the focus upon nitty-gritty details. But unlike Mirvis, the stories capture my attention and move me. When I find myself frustrated by snow white cloths and drops of blood, I remember Saul and Samuel and Abraham; it's their world, and the meaning they wrung from it, that appeals to me. My world is made of stories and I believe the stories in our book are some of the most potent and meaningful. They differ from myths and other Near Eastern origin stories in important ways; they educate humanity and teach humans the importance of nobility over power. The way I see religion emphasizes God and the individuals with whom He communed above the law, especially the law wielded as a weapon. At the center of The Book of Separation is the fact that Mirvis' Judaism had no God, or at least no God with whom she could really speak. Her religion was run by men and comprised of everlasting details, inspections, things she could and could not do. There's a piece of me that wishes- that wonders- whether things would have been different if she had been raised to speak to God, and to find power in the stories of her heritage, power that would have superseded her frustration with the law's grip. In a different world, Mirvis would use her incredible talent to write authentically about the tension of being a creative caught within a religious world. However, she would recognize God cheering her on, eager for her to navigate that territory, and so she would not worry about His supposed emissaries holding her back.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lion and the Joseph Story

Today I watched a film called "Lion" which is based on a book I have not yet read entitled A Long Way Home. The film is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley. Saroo was born in India. He and his brother Guddu are poor and the two of them steal coal and work odd jobs to help out their mother (who is a laborer who gathers stones). One day Saroo follows Guddu to a job, becomes separated from him, endures a harrowing journey by train, and ends up lost. Eventually, he is adopted by a couple in Australia. The film tells the story of Saroo's separation from his birth family and homeland and his eventual return and reunion.

Over the course of the film, I realized that I was watching the story of Joseph brought to life. Joseph, too, was separated from his family. He endured evil and finds himself in a completely different culture, adopted/ raised by Potiphar and eventually Pharaoh. Just like Saroo wonders whether his mother is still alive and wants to comfort her, so too Joseph wonders whether his father is still alive and (eventually) wants to comfort him. The reunion scene between Saroo and his mother is similar to that described between Joseph and his father.

Below is a list of similarities between the two stories.

  • Both Saroo and Joseph are abandoned by a brother (in Saroo's case, it is not intentional)
  • Both Saroo and Joseph experience hardship and encounter evil (including in a sexual form). There are individuals who try to kidnap Saroo and others who want to use him for sex. Joseph is sold to a traveling band of individuals, was possibly intended for use as a catamite by Potiphar (see Rashi) and has to withstand sexual advances from Potiphar's wife. 
  • Both Saroo and Joseph encounter women who seem kind but cannot be trusted. (Saroo encounters Noor, who wants to groom him to be used sexually, and Joseph encounters Potiphar's wife)
  • Both Saroo and Joseph end up being "adopted" into/ raised in a different culture. (Saroo goes to Australia where he is adopted by loving white parents- so their skin, language and culture differs from his. Similarly, Joseph is "adopted" by Potiphar and then Pharoah- here too the language and culture differs).
  • Both Saroo and Joseph eventually experience living a privileged lifestyle.
  • Both Saroo and Joseph want to reunite with their families. (Granted, in Joseph's case it's unclear whether he initially wants to but in the end he does).
  • Both Saroo and Joseph express real concern over whether their parent is still alive. 
  • Both Saroo and Joseph have special markers that help prove they are who they say they are. Saroo remembers an incident where he got a scar because he was carrying a watermelon and was struck by an oncoming vehicle which he didn't see because he was carrying the watermelon. According to Midrash, Joseph sends agalot as a hint to his father that the last thing they learned together was eglah arufah.
  • Both Saroo and Joseph only reunite with their parents after an extensive period of time (over 20 years). 
I think it would be fascinating to use this film to teach the story of Joseph. I would want the students to first watch the film and document their feelings and reactions regarding the story itself, the protagonists, and the conflict experienced by the protagonists. Afterwards, I would want them to learn the story of Joseph, comparing and contrasting the two protagonists and noting their similarities and differences. (The differences are important as well! For example, Saroo expends a great deal of effort and energy trying to locate his birth mother. In contrast, it is never documented that Joseph reached out to his family. This leads to an obvious question the students need to consider: Why not?) 

What makes the film meaningful vis-a-vis the Joseph story is:
  • It shows that this type of story can happen (it's not "just" a Bible tale)
  • It helps give the students a context for the kind of pain, fear and emotions Joseph might have felt
  • It helps make the Joseph story more immediate and real for the students
  • It helps the students consider how they might have responded if they were in Saroo's/ Joseph's situation
It's always amazing to see biblical stories and themes reflected in contemporary films or television shows. There's a lot of Torah to be found on both the large and small screens. 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Tanakh Companion to Game of Thrones, Season 7

As many of you know, "Game of Thrones" is a hit HBO TV show that has many people fascinated. Well, I loved the series A Song of Ice and Fire way before it became popular (for example, see this post where I was using evidence from the books as a way to prove that Snape was good) and have enjoyed seeing the series brought to life on the small screen. As a Tanakh teacher, I find many connections between the books, show and Tanakh, and I thought it would be useful to elaborate upon some of them here.

First, for those interested, here is a link to a crowdsourced Google Doc where I (and other interested parties) add connections between Game of Thrones and Tanakh. Feel free to check back for updates. Let me note that I do not plan to go through every Season 7 connection in this blogpost- only the ones that I feel are most important.

One of the reasons I loved A Song of Ice and Fire was because George R.R. Martin departed from many other fantasy authors in having protagonists who were deeply flawed. The moment Ned Stark got himself killed because of his noble idealism, I knew I was in for a treat. I like people who are complicated (because in real life, these are the people I know) and complicated means that people can be blind or selfish or cruel or kind - and rarely are they simply one thing. Tolkien gave us incredible works, but Sauron was wholly evil whereas Gandalf was meant to be wholly good, and this archetypal rendering needed to be shaken up a bit. Enter GRRM- and a world where heroes don't survive just because we like them, some characters end up redeemed and some characters really don't. You can understand the motivations of every character, because as GRRM likes to say, most people don't see themselves as the villain of their story; in fact, it's the opposite, where they see themselves as the hero of their narrative.

Now, let's talk about the overall Tanakh connections. One of the problems I commonly encounter when people are reading Tanakh is that they bring their own viewpoints, culture, beliefs and understanding of ethics and impose it upon the book. (It's a bit of the reader response method as opposed to trying to determine authorial intent.) What they fail to understand is that one needs to look at the mores and behaviors of people during that time period in order to comprehend what is happening. If one then wants to make arguments about how exactly the law should be applied today in keeping with current views, that's a different matter. But it is highly problematic to impose, for example, a Western viewpoint on a text that was written in the ancient near east because it means that one is unlikely to understand anything that is happening in that text.

Perhaps one of the most significant places where this comes up has to do with the idea of individuals as opposed to the community. In Tanakh, and indeed in the ancient near east as a whole, the entire system was based upon communal norms, the good of the community, ensuring the best outcomes for the community, and so forth. Thus, for example, the laws regarding rape. The woman was not looked at as an individual with individual rights; she was looked at as property and the crime that was committed against her was a crime that diminished her worth within the community. It harmed her value and her father, and thus her rapist was fined and ordered to marry her. A typical American gets up in arms about this, and perhaps that reaction is warranted when one reads the text with a 21st century perspective, but my point is that one must first read the text in keeping with the viewpoint of that time period. When one does this, one will find that much of what occurs within the Tanakh is not only sensible but actually radical in comparison to what the rest of the ancient near east was doing. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about this extensively.)

Atonement/ Communal Accountability vs. Repentance/ Individual Redemption 
In this season of Game of Thrones, there was an excellent scene between Jon Snow and Sansa Stark that brought home just this point. This scene dramatically highlights the tension between the system of atonement and communal accountability within Torah as opposed to the switch to repentance and individual redemption in Prophets. (See more about that switch in this class taught by The Adept at Revel.)

Read Tanakh and you will find countless scenes where the community is held accountable for the sins of the few. There are plagues that affect the whole nation when only certain members are sinning, and notably there is the lost battle of Ai because of Achan's actions. God remembers the sins of the fathers upon the children for generations. But suddenly there is a shift in the time of the Prophets, and God declares in Jeremiah 31:28-29:

כח  בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם--לֹא-יֹאמְרוּ עוֹד, אָבוֹת אָכְלוּ בֹסֶר; וְשִׁנֵּי בָנִים, תִּקְהֶינָה.28 In those days they shall say no more: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.'
כט  כִּי אִם-אִישׁ בַּעֲו‍ֹנוֹ, יָמוּת:  כָּל-הָאָדָם הָאֹכֵל הַבֹּסֶר, תִּקְהֶינָה שִׁנָּיו.  {ס}29 But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

God has realized communal punishment and accountability no longer works with His nation. Instead, He needs to switch over to an individual model of relating to Him, where each individual has the ability to seek Him out, sin and repent.

But what was going on? Why did God ever think that communal punishment was the way to go? That's what this debate between Sansa and Jon so beautifully illustrates. Here's the scene:

Bannerman: The Umbers and the Karstarks betrayed the North! Their castles should be torn down and no stone left standing.
Sansa: The castles committed no crimes. And we need every fortress we have for the war to come. We should give the last hearth and karhold to new families. Loyal families who supported us against Ramsay.
Everyone: Aye.
Jon: The Umbers and the Karstarks have fought beside the Starks for centuries. They've kept faith for generation after generation.
Sansa: And then they broke faith.
Jon: I'm not going to strip these families of their ancestral homes because of the crimes of a few reckless sons.
Sansa: So there's no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty.
[Silence in the room]
Jon: The punishment for treason is death. Smalljon Umber died on the field of battle. Harold Karstark died on the field of battle.
Sansa: They died fighting for Ramsay. Give the castles to the families of the men who died fighting for you.
[Murmurs throughout the room]
Jon: When I was Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, I executed men who betrayed me. I executed men who refused to follow orders. My father always said: "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" and I have tried to live by those words. But I will not punish a son for his father's sins. And I will not take a family home away from a family it has belonged to for centuries. That is my decision and my decision is final.
Sansa: [sighs]

What I think is so vivid in this scene is the role that loyalty plays in all of this. To give one's word, swear fealty and give one's oath is to make a binding promise incumbent not only upon oneself but upon all of one's future progeny. In such a case, if faith is broken, the entire family deserves punishment. That is what it means to make a binding oath. Jon is against this, feeling keenly what it is like to be the bastard son, the individual who doesn't fit. But in the Torah, the system that was originally set up was a system based on Brit. Rabbi Dr. Josh Berman of Bar Ilan has a fascinating perspective on Brit where he compares the system to vassal treaties with Hittite kings. The Hittite king would make the treaty with his vassal and it would all be inscribed on tablets (does this sound familiar?) Should the vassal die, the treaty would need to be renewed (much like oaths of fealty would need to be renewed) but this was little more of a gesture; the assumption was that the king would continue to keep faith.

Thus, going back to God, the original system as devised in the Torah was one of Brit. The covenant was binding not only upon those who originally swore it but upon their children. For those children to break faith was an extreme sin, and one for which they could and should be punished. Eventually, however, God realized that the people simply could not operate in the communal fashion He had once envisioned. Instead, each person had to accept Brit on their own- not only as a community but as individuals. And each person had to be judged and given punishment or reward based on their own merits, not only as part of a nation with an ancestral heritage. In short, God changes over from Sansa's way of thinking to Jon's and that's the major switch in Navi vs. Torah.

The Shame of Enemy Capture 
One of the scenes that is at times difficult for students to understand occurs when Saul commits suicide. Saul is one of my favorite characters in the entire Tanakh specifically because he goes through so much inner turmoil and pain. Haunted by a ruach ra'ah (what I think many of us might correlate with mental illness nowadays), he at turns is capable of great nobility and self-sacrifice and at the same time, an inability to do what is required of him. At the last, he is abandoned by God and finds cold solace in the words of his mentor Samuel, who informs him that the next day he and his sons will join the prophet in his eternal rest.

One of the fears that Saul has which leads him to commit suicide has to do with the desire not to be degraded by his enemy (the Philistines) once captured. (We know that they do this as we've seen evidence of it with Samson, whose eyes were gouged out and who was made to stand about at large parties as a way of showing Philistine might and conquest.) In Saul's words in I Samuel 31:4

ד  וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל לְנֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו שְׁלֹף חַרְבְּךָ וְדָקְרֵנִי בָהּ, פֶּן-יָבוֹאוּ הָעֲרֵלִים הָאֵלֶּה וּדְקָרֻנִי וְהִתְעַלְּלוּ-בִי, וְלֹא אָבָה נֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו, כִּי יָרֵא מְאֹד; וַיִּקַּח שָׁאוּל אֶת-הַחֶרֶב, וַיִּפֹּל עָלֶיהָ.4 Then said Saul to his armour-bearer: 'Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and make a mock of me.' But his armour-bearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell upon it.

Indeed, Saul does not escape this fate. The Philistines do desecrate and defile his body- but consider how much worse it could have been had he fallen into their hands while still alive.

ט  וַיִּכְרְתוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁוֹ, וַיַּפְשִׁטוּ, אֶת-כֵּלָיו; וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ בְאֶרֶץ-פְּלִשְׁתִּים סָבִיב, לְבַשֵּׂר בֵּית עֲצַבֵּיהֶם--וְאֶת-הָעָם.9 And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry the tidings unto the house of their idols, and to the people.
י  וַיָּשִׂימוּ, אֶת-כֵּלָיו, בֵּית, עַשְׁתָּרוֹת; וְאֶת-גְּוִיָּתוֹ, תָּקְעוּ, בְּחוֹמַת, בֵּית שָׁן.10 And they put his armour in the house of the Ashtaroth; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

The scene in Season 7 where Euron Greyjoy leads Yara Greyjoy and the Sand Snakes through the city to Cersei is an excellent example of what happens when one is captured by the enemy, and the mockery/ defilement one experiences in such a case.

Betrothal Through the Blood of One's Enemies 

Euron Greyjoy wants to sit the iron throne. In order to do it, he has to wed Cersei Lannister. She won't have him, arguing that he has been disloyal in the past. He tells her ""In my experience, the surest way to a woman's heart is with a gift. A priceless gift. I won't return to King's Landing until I have that for you." And indeed, when he returns he brings her the enemy that slew her daughter Myrcella.

This sheds light on David's bloody betrothal to Michal, princess of Israel, as referenced in I Samuel 18:27-

כז  וַיָּקָם דָּוִד וַיֵּלֶךְ הוּא וַאֲנָשָׁיו, וַיַּךְ בַּפְּלִשְׁתִּים מָאתַיִם אִישׁ, וַיָּבֵא דָוִד אֶת-עָרְלֹתֵיהֶם, וַיְמַלְאוּם לַמֶּלֶךְ לְהִתְחַתֵּן בַּמֶּלֶךְ; וַיִּתֶּן-לוֹ שָׁאוּל אֶת-מִיכַל בִּתּוֹ, לְאִשָּׁה.  {ס}27 and David arose and went, he and his men, and slew of the Philistines two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full number to the king, that he might be the king's son-in-law. And Saul gave him Michal his daughter to wife.

(Granted, Saul was trying to cause David's death at the times, but it still explains why this made David a suitable son-in-law. Vanquishing enemies could be an impressive bride price.)

Trying to Prevent Mass Destruction (When No One Believes You) 
Jon Snow finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to prevent mass destruction and slaughter of humanity. He is aware of The Night King and the White Walkers, armies of the dead that are intent upon laying waste to the world and killing everyone in their wake. In the meantime, everyone in Westeros is squabbling over who will sit the Iron Throne. He has a poignant conversation with Tyrion Lannister in which he asks, "How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is coming to kill them all?"

This is exactly the dilemma that Jeremiah (and many other prophets) were faced with. They were graced with nightmare visions of an apocalyptic future, aware that God planned to kill and exile them in horrible, brutal ways. Jeremiah did his best to persuade the people of this, and their response was to laugh at him, mock him or try to kill him. In the scene with Tyrion, Tyrion does a good job of explaining why this was.

Jon: You probably don't believe me.
Tyrion: I do actually.
Jon: You didn't before. Grumkins and snarks, you called them. Do you remember? You said it was all nonsense.
Tyrion: It was nonsense. Everybody knew it. But then Mormont saw them and you saw them and I trust the eyes of an honest man more than I trust what everybody knows.
Jon: How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is coming to kill them all?
Tyrion: Good question.
Jon: I know it's a good question. I'm looking for an answer.
Jon: People's minds aren't made for problems that large. White Walkers. The Night King. Army of the Dead. It's almost a relief to confront a comfortable, familiar monster like my sister.

And that's the thing- not only do people not want to change their comfortable lives and the status quo, but what Jeremiah (and Jon) are telling them is totally unbelievable. It's too much to fathom- destruction, exile, death and mayhem at the hands of an enemy they don't perceive as the real threat- which is why most prefer to ignore it.

A Woman Can Make a Man Evil 
There's an idea in the Gemara that a woman can make or break a man. There's an example where Korach's wife is said to have pushed him into his rebellion, while On ben Pelet's wife saved him from the consequences of his folly. The same idea takes root when it comes to Achav and Izevel. While Ahab was in many ways a terrible king, there is an idea that Izevel made him much worse than he otherwise would have been. In part this has to do with Izevel's casual disregard for the law (for example, her willingness to subject Navot to a sham trial to achieve her husband's ends, much like Cersei does to Tyrion simply because she hates him.) This exact relationship is typified between Cersei and Jaime, as Lady Olenna points out.

Lady Olenna: She's a monster, you do know that?
Jaime: To you, I'm sure. To others as well. But after we've won and there's no one left to oppose us, when people are living peacefully in the world she built, do you really think they'll wring their hands over the way she built it?
Lady Olenna: You love her. You really do love her. You poor fool. She'll be the end of you.
Jaime: Possibly. Not much to be gained from discussing it with you, though, is there?
Lady Olenna: What better person to discuss it with? What better guarantee could you have that the things you say will never leave this room? But perhaps you're right. If she's driven you this far, it's gone beyond your control.
Jaime: Yes. It has.
Lady Olenna: She's a disease. I regret my role in spreading it. You will, too.

Stay tuned for more Tanakh connections and comparisons.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fenrir the Wolf & Samson: Fairy Tales & the Bible

I've spoken often of a course I could give on Fairy Tales (and Mythology) and the Bible. Noted author Neil Gaiman has recently released his retellings of Norse myths, appropriately titled Norse Mythology. His collection is eminently readable, and in the tale of Fenrir the Wolf, Loki's son, readers will recognize strong similarities to our Samson story. I've reproduced Gaiman's retelling of the story below.

Excerpted from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, pages 97-106 

When they had brought the third and smallest of Loki's children back from the land of the giants, it had been puppy-sized and Tyr had scratched its neck and its head and played with it, removing its willow muzzle first. It was a wolf cub, gray and black, with eyes the color of dark amber.

The wolf cub ate its meat raw, but it spoke as a man would speak, in the language of men and the gods, and it was proud. The little beast was called Fenrir.

It too was growing fast. One day it was the size of a wolf, the next the size of a cave bear, then the size of a great elk.

The gods were intimidated by it, all except Tyr. He still played with it and romped with it, and he alone fed the wolf its meat each day. And each day the beast ate more than the day before, and each day it grew and it became fiercer and stronger.

Odin watched the wolf-child grow with foreboding, for in his dreams the wolf had been there at the end of everything, and the last things Odin had seen in any of his dreams of the future were the topaz eyes and the sharp white teeth of Fenris Wolf.

The gods had a council and resolved at that council that they would bind Fenrir.

They crafted heavy chains and shackles in the forges of the gods, and they carried the shackles to Fenrir.

"Here!" said the gods, as if suggesting a new game. "You have grown so fast, Fenrir. It is time to test your strength. We have here the heaviest chains and shackles. Do you think you can break them?"

"I think I can," said Fenris Wolf. "Bind me."

The gods wrapped the huge chains around Fenrir and shackled his paws. He waited motionless while they did this. The gods smiled at each other as they chained the enormous wolf.

"Now," shouted Thor.

Fenrir strained and stretched the muscles of his legs, and the chains snapped like dry twigs.

The great wolf howled to the moon, a howl of triumph and joy. "I broke your chains," he said. "Do not forget this."

"We will not forget," said the gods.

The next day Tyr went to take the wolf his meat. "I broke the fetters," said Fenrir. "I broke them easily."

"You did," said Tyr.

"Do you think they will test me again? I grow, and I grow stronger with every day."

"They will test you again. I would wager my right hand on it," said Tyr.

The wolf was still growing, and the gods were in the smithies, forging a new set of chains. Each link in the chains was too heavy for a normal man to lift. The metal of the chains was the strongest metal that the gods could find: iron from the earth mixed with iron that had fallen from the sky. They called these chains Dromi.

The gods hauled the chains to where Fenrir slept.

The wolf opened his eyes.

"Again?" he said.

"If you can escape from these chains," said the gods, "then your renown and your strength will be known to all the worlds. Glory will be yours. If chains like this cannot hold you, then your strength will be greater than that of any of the gods or the giants."

Fenrir nodded at this, and looked at the chains called Dromi, bigger than any chains had ever been, stronger than the strongest of bonds. "There is no glory without danger," said the wolf after some moments. "I believe I can break these bindings. Chain me up."

They chained him.

The great wolf stretched and strained, but the chains held. The gods looked at each other, and there was the beginning of triumph in their eyes, but now the huge wolf began to twist and to writhe, to kick out his legs and strain in every muscle and every sinew. His eyes flashed and his teeth flashed and his jaws foamed.

He growled as he writhed. He struggled with all his might.

The gods moved back involuntarily, and it was good that they did so, for the chains fractured and then broke with such violence that the pieces were thrown far into the air, and for years to come the gods would find lumps of shattered shackles embedded in the sides of huge trees or the side of a mountain.

"Yes!" shouted Fenrir, and howled in his victory like a wolf and like a man.

The gods who had watched the struggle did not seem, the wolf observed, to delight in his victory. Not even Tyr. Fenrir, Loki's child, brooded on this, and on other matters.

And Fenris Wolf grew huger and hungrier with each day that passed.

Odin brooded and he pondered and he thought. All the wisdom of Mimir's well was his, and the wisdom he had gained from hanging from the world-tree, a sacrifice to himself. At last he called the light elf Skirnir, Frey's messenger, to his side, and he described the chain called Gleipnir. Skirnir rode his horse across the rainbow bridge to Svartalfheim, with instructions to the dwarfs for how to create a chain unlike anything ever made before.

The dwarfs listened to Skirnir describe the commission, and they shivered, and they named their price. Skirnir agreed, as he had been instructed to do by Odin, although the dwarfs' price was high. The dwarfs gathered the ingredients they would need to make Gleipnir.

These were the six things the dwarfs gathered:

For firstly, the footsteps of a cat.
For secondly, the beard of a woman.
For thirdly, the roots of a mountain.
For fourthly, the sinews of a bear.
For fifthly, the breath of a fish.
For sixth and lastly, the spittle of a bird.

Each of these things was used to make Gleipnir. (You say you have not seen these things? Of course you have not. The dwarfs used them in their crafting.)

When the dwarfs had finished their crafting, they gave Skirnir a wooden box. Inside the box was something that looked like a long silken ribbon, smooth and soft to the touch. It was almost transparent, and weighed next to nothing.

Skirnir rode back to Asgard with  his box at his side. He arrived late in the evening, after the sun had set. He showed the gods what he had brought back from the workshop of the dwarfs, and they were amazed to see it.

The gods went together to the shores of the Black Lake, and they called Fenrir by name. He came at a run, as a dog will come when it is called, and the gods marveled to see how big he was and how powerful.

"What's happening?" asked the wolf.

"We have obtained the strongest bond of all," they told him. "Not even you will be able to break it."

The wolf pupped himself up. "I can burst any chains," he told them proudly.

Odin opened his hand to display Gleipnir. It shimmered in the moonlight.

"That?" said the wolf. "That is nothing."

The gods pulled on it to show him how strong it was. "We cannot break it," they told him.

The wolf squinted at the silken band that they held between them, glimmering like a snail's trail or the moonlight on the waves, and he turned away, uninterested.

"No," he said. "Bring me real chains, real fetters, heavy ones, huge ones, and let me show my strength."

"This is Gleipnir," said Odin. "It is stronger than any chains or fetters. Are you scared, Fenrir?"

"Scared? Not at all. But what happens if I break a thin ribbon like that. Do you think I will get renown and fame? That people will gather together and say, 'Do you know how strong and powerful Fenris Wolf is? He is so powerful he broke a silken ribbon!' There will be no glory for me in breaking Gleipnir."

"You are scared," said Odin.

The great beast sniffed the air. "I scent treachery and trickery," said the wolf, his amber eyes flashing in the moonlight. "And although I think your Gleipnir may only be a ribbon, I will not consent to be tied up by it."

"You? You who broke the strongest, biggest chains there ever were? You are scared by this band?" said Thor.

"I am scared of nothing," growled the wolf. "I think it is rather that you little creatures are scared of me."

Odin scratched his bearded chin. "You are not stupid, Fenrir. There is no treachery here. But I understand your reluctance. It would take a brave warrior to consent to be tied up with bonds he could not break. I assure you, as the father of the gods, that if you cannot break a band like this- a veritable silken ribbon, as you say- then we gods will have no reason to be afraid of you, and we will set you free and let you go your own way."

A long growl, from the wolf. "You lie, All-father. You lie in the way that some folk breathe. If you were to tie me up in bonds I could not escape from, then I do not believe you would free me. I think you would leave me here. I think you plan to abandon me and to betray me. I do not consent to have that ribbon placed on me."

"Fine words, and brave words," said Odin. "Words to cover your fear at being proved a coward, Fenris Wolf. You are afraid to be tied with this silken ribbon. No need for more explanations."

The wolf's tongue lolled from his mouth, and he laughed then, showing sharp teeth each the size of a man's arm. "Rather than question my courage, I challenge you to prove there is no treachery planned. You can tie me up if one of you will place his hand in my mouth. I will gently close my teeth upon it, but I will not bite down. If there is no treachery afoot, I will open my mouth when I have escaped the ribbon, or when you have freed me, and his hand will be unharmed. There. I swear, if I have a hand in my mouth, you can tie me with your ribbon. So. Whose hand will it be?"

The gods looked at each other. Balder looked at Thor, Heimdall looked at Odin, Hoenir looked at Frey, but none of them made a move. Then Tyr, Odin's son, sighed, and stepped forward and raised his right hand.

"I will put my hand in your mouth, Fenrir," said Tyr.

Fenrir lay on his side, and Tyr put his right hand into Fenrir's mouth, just as he had done when Fenrir was a puppy and they had played together. Fenrir closed his teeth gently until they held Tyr's hand at the wrist without breaking the skin, and he closed his eyes.

The gods bound him with Gleipnir. A shimmering snail's trail wrapped the enormous wolf, tying his legs, rendering him immobile.

"There," said Odin. "Now, Fenris Wolf, break your bonds. Show us all how powerful you are."

The wolf stretched and struggled; it pushed and strained every nerve and muscle to snap the ribbon that bound it. But with every struggle the task seemed harder and with every strain the glimmering ribbon became stronger.

At first the gods snickered. Then the gods chuckled. Finally, when they were certain that the beast had been immobilized and that they were in no danger, the gods laughed.

Only Tyr was silent. He did not laugh. He could feel the sharpness of Fenris Wolf's teeth against his wrist, the wetness and warmth of Fenris Wolf's tongue against his palms and his fingers.

Fenrir stopped struggling. He lay there unmoving. If the gods were going to free him, they would do it now.

But the gods only laughed the harder. Thor's booming guffaws, each louder than a thunderclap, mingled with Odin's dry laughter, with Balder's bell-like laughter...

Fenrir looked at Tyr. Tyr looked at him bravely. Then Tyr closed his eyes and nodded. "Do it," he whispered.

Fenrir bit down on Tyr's wrist.

Tyr made no sound. He simply wrapped his left hand around the stump of his right and squeezed it as hard as he could, to slow the spurt of blood to an ooze.

Fenrir watched the gods take one end of Gleipnir and thread it through a stone as big as a mountain and fasten it under the ground. Then he watched as they took another rock and used it to hammer the stone deeper into the ground than the deepest ocean.

"Treacherous Odin!" called the wolf. "If you had not lied to me, I would have been a friend to the gods. But your fear has betrayed you. I will kill you, Father of the Gods. I will wait until the end of all things, and I will eat the sun and I will eat the moon. But I will take the most pleasure in killing you."


Please compare this story to the one about Samon and Delilah in the Book of Judges, Chapter 16.

I am most interested in the similarities and differences between the two tales.

In the case of Fenrir, he is a wolf with the attributes of a man. He can speak and reason as a man. In the case of Samson, he is a man who has the attributes of an animal. As a consecrated Nazirite, his hair is long, unbound and wild, uncut. He is extraordinarily strong and powerful.

Fenrir's strength comes from an unholy place, the union between Loki (a god) and a frost giant. In contrast, Samson's strength comes from his devotion and allegiance to the Lord.

Samson is undone because he loves Delilah and her loyalties lie with her Philistine people. In contrast, Fenrir is undone because he cannot resist pride (showing off his strength) and he is betrayed by Tyr, his childhood friend, and Odin, father of the gods.

It takes four tries for Samson to finally reveal the secret of his strength (and for Delilah to cut off his hair) while it takes three tries to successfully entrap Fenrir. The fourth try is unusual in the Samson story as such stories typically fit the trope of three.

I didn't write this part of the story, but Fenrir's mouth is jammed open with a sword to prevent him from biting down and harming others. Similarly, Samson is blinded (to humiliate him, but perhaps also so that he would not be able to find and harm others if he were sighted).

At Ragnorak, Fenrir will succeed in killing all the gods. In the Samson tale, once Samson's hair has grown back and he entreats God, he brings down the entire Temple of Dagon around the Philistines' ears.

What I think is fascinating is that Fenrir's tale focuses upon an unjust betrayal (from his viewpoint) as he has not actually harmed any gods yet. It also teaches about how pride can lead to one's downfall. Granted, Fenrir's trust in Tyr is also a problem, but it is not the main problem. In contrast, Samson's tale is a critique of Samson in that he trusts the wrong person (Delilah). He has already fought against the Philistines and thus they are justified in considering him an enemy. In his case, it is love that leads to his downfall. In Norse mythology, the Fenrir tale is another tale of the gods' cunning and trickiness. In Judaism, the focus is on the flawed nature of Samson as a judge. Where the emphasis in the story is placed is important as it helps stress what each worldview finds to be most significant. The Judaic emphasis is on the flawed nature of man, his tendency towards seduction (or short term gratification), but how even he can be redeemed. There is no such moral in the Fenrir version. There, cunning and trickiness win out in the short term, but one day Fenrir will have his due.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Solomon's Tikkun: The Restoration of Justice

Once upon a time there was a young boy crowned only through the efforts of fierce protectors. Warned by his ailing father, he found himself surrounded by enemies. Summarily, he banished one, placed one under close guard and executed another. Weary of his efforts, at last his kingdom was won. But a challenge remained: he needed to win the hearts of his people.

This boy's name was Solomon.

When we read the scene where God appears to Solomon in a night vision, it appears as though part of a fairy tale, as if Solomon were visited by a djinn.  And though he can choose anything, anything at all, the youth, wise beyond his years, makes the following request:
ט  וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ, לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת-עַמְּךָ, לְהָבִין, בֵּין-טוֹב לְרָע:  כִּי מִי יוּכַל לִשְׁפֹּט, אֶת-עַמְּךָ הַכָּבֵד הַזֶּה.9 Give Thy servant therefore a listening heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this Thy great people?'
But why this request? 

The answer that immediately comes to mind is that this is indicative of Solomon's wisdom. He cares for the people and wishes to rule them well. He understands, even at this tender age, that he exists beyond himself, that he is a servant of the nation as well as their leader.

But there is something deeper here.

And that can be uncovered through referencing all of the events prior. Solomon's story begins in context of his brother Adonijah's rebellion. Adonijah has claimed all the trappings of his brother Absalom but he does not share the vision of Absalom. He does not have a reason to rebel. He is simply tired of his weak, dying father. He wishes to seize power for the sake of it. But due to the textual echoes, we, the readers, are put in mind of Absalom. And there is a reason for that...

For Absalom did have a reason to rebel. It was a very compelling reason. 

You see, Absalom had witnessed a terrible miscarriage of justice. His sister was raped by the crown prince, Amnon. And though their father was very wroth, he did not actually do anything. Amnon was not imprisoned. He was not executed. His actions were not checked. And so Absalom took it upon himself to right that wrong, to correct that miscarriage of justice. He arranged for a sheepshearing that was anything but, and at that ostensible celebration he murdered Amnon.

Then he fled to Egypt because he knew his father would not see that justice had been served, but rather would seek to harm him.

Eventually, he returns. But even when he is reunited with his father, he realizes that David does not have the passion for justice that Absalom has. David does not burn with that bright sacred fire. But Absalom is incandescent with it.

And so he acts.

א  וַיְהִי, מֵאַחֲרֵי כֵן, וַיַּעַשׂ לוֹ אַבְשָׁלוֹם, מֶרְכָּבָה וְסֻסִים; וַחֲמִשִּׁים אִישׁ, רָצִים לְפָנָיו.1 And it came to pass after this, that Absalom prepared him a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him.
ב  וְהִשְׁכִּים, אַבְשָׁלוֹם, וְעָמַד, עַל-יַד דֶּרֶךְ הַשָּׁעַר; וַיְהִי כָּל-הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ-רִיב לָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ לַמִּשְׁפָּט, וַיִּקְרָא אַבְשָׁלוֹם אֵלָיו וַיֹּאמֶר אֵי-מִזֶּה עִיר אַתָּה, וַיֹּאמֶר, מֵאַחַד שִׁבְטֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל עַבְדֶּךָ.2 And Absalom used to rise up early, and stand beside the way of the gate; and it was so, that when any man had a suit which should come to the king for judgment, then Absalom called unto him, and said: 'Of what city art thou?' And he said: 'Thy servant is of one of the tribes of Israel.'
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְשָׁלוֹם, רְאֵה דְבָרֶיךָ טוֹבִים וּנְכֹחִים; וְשֹׁמֵעַ אֵין-לְךָ, מֵאֵת הַמֶּלֶךְ.3 And Absalom said unto him: 'See, thy matters are good and right; but there is no man deputed of the king to hear thee.'
ד  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַבְשָׁלוֹם, מִי-יְשִׂמֵנִי שֹׁפֵט, בָּאָרֶץ; וְעָלַי, יָבוֹא כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ-רִיב וּמִשְׁפָּט--וְהִצְדַּקְתִּיו.4 Absalom said moreover: 'Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man who hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice!'
ה  וְהָיָה, בִּקְרָב-אִישׁ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת, לוֹ; וְשָׁלַח אֶת-יָדוֹ וְהֶחֱזִיק לוֹ, וְנָשַׁק לוֹ.5 And it was so, that when any man came nigh to prostrate himself before him, he put forth his hand, and took hold of him, and kissed him.
ו  וַיַּעַשׂ אַבְשָׁלוֹם כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר-יָבֹאוּ לַמִּשְׁפָּט, אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ; וַיְגַנֵּב, אַבְשָׁלוֹם, אֶת-לֵב, אַנְשֵׁי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {פ}6 And on this manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment; so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.
Absalom's cause is justice. He is a passionate advocate and he is convincing. He tells the Israelites there is no one there to listen to them. The Israelites believe that they, too, would be better served were Absalom their High Judge in lieu of David. Of Absalom it is written that he "stole the hearts of the men of Israel." Absalom's rebellion was not a plot countenanced by only one tribe, Judah, and by men in high places, Joab and Evyatar. No. Absalom's rebellion was the people's rebellion.

And so when Solomon finishes managing the burdens laid upon him because of his father's past...punishing Joab, Shimi ben Gera, showing mercy to Evyatar and rewarding the Barzillai...he realizes he is not done. His father was many things, a military man, a Godstruck man, a man who created a kingdom out of blood and sweat. But he was not, or at least he was not in the eyes of the people, a just man.

And so when Solomon asks for a listening heart to judge the people, he is not just being astute. He is actively rectifying a grave mistake on his father's part. David lost the people because he was not seen as just. In contrast, Solomon goes out of his way to be just. He is willing to give Adonijah a second chance- but he also carries out swift justice when Adonijah breaks his bond. He asks God to help him remain just. He opens his courtroom to prostitutes. Solomon has just lived through an attempted coup by Adonijah. He has punished Shimi ben Gera, who appeared on the scene in the time of Absalom. And so he thinks about Absalom. He recognizes the threat to his kingdom, the threat to the throne, his father's one great failing. And so, when he speaks to God, he speaks not only for himself but to fix what was broken. To mend what was flawed.

He asks God to help him be the kind of king the people wanted. The king Absalom wished to be, but could not be. The king David showed himself not to be, when he did not punish Amnon at once.

Solomon is wise because he learns from history, and he heeds the echoes of the past. He understands who he must become to retain his people's trust. It is what makes it all the more ironic and tragic when his son Rechavam is unable to hear the people's cries.

Solomon's request is flavored by the past. The monarchic enterprise cannot succeed unless Solomon can restore justice to the throne. And so he acts to mend, to build. He begins his monarchy as one that will heal the rifts that existed in the past. That is what makes it all the more devastating when he later chooses to destroy, building the Millo and breaking David's Breach, creating new rifts. Wisest of all men, Solomon needs to maintain balance between repairing David's legacy and creating his own. Is it any wonder it became too challenging? He sought to create, and his creativity was astonishing. But at one point, his creativity overflowed, tipping the balance. He built, but not on land that truly belonged to him. It was, instead, public property, land upon which the Israelites pitched their tents when gathering for their pilgrimages. He built, and in so doing destroyed the history that came before. His fatal mistake, his eventual downfall, comes due to this. The monarch who began by learning from what came before his time fell at last because he thought himself above those events.

It is history which enwraps, envelops, moves and binds us. Knowing how to learn from it...that is the question.

Yisro and the Mitzri

There is a midrash which suggests that Pharoah spoke his words "Come, let us outsmart them" to three advisers. These advisers were Yisro, Iyov and Bilam respectively. Yisro passionately argued against the monarch's plan. Iyov kept silent. And Bilam vociferously agreed.

Each protagonist meets a doom befitting his actions.

As I was reading through a particular scene, however, I looked at it with new eyes. If we say Yisro was a refugee, someone fleeing Pharoah's justice, it makes sense that Moshe would end up with him. Moshe would need a guide, a mentor, someone to show him the way. In this understanding, it is Yisro who mentors Moshe, who teaches him about monotheism and God, and in effect, who both heals him and prepares him for his encounter with God at the Burning Bush.

But it's the scene after Moshe saving Yisro's daughters that really intrigues me. Here's how the dialogue goes:
יח  וַתָּבֹאנָה, אֶל-רְעוּאֵל אֲבִיהֶן; וַיֹּאמֶר, מַדּוּעַ מִהַרְתֶּן בֹּא הַיּוֹם.18 And when they came to Reuel their father, he said: 'How is it that ye are come so soon to-day?'
יט  וַתֹּאמַרְןָ--אִישׁ מִצְרִי, הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים; וְגַם-דָּלֹה דָלָה לָנוּ, וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת-הַצֹּאן.19 And they said: 'An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and moreover he drew water for us, and watered the flock.'
כ  וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-בְּנֹתָיו, וְאַיּוֹ; לָמָּה זֶּה עֲזַבְתֶּן אֶת-הָאִישׁ, קִרְאֶן לוֹ וְיֹאכַל לָחֶם.20 And he said unto his daughters: 'And where is he? Why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.'
It occurred to me that perhaps the women stress Moshe's identity because they know their father is a refugee. "An Egyptian saved us from the shepherds," they say, and their tone is one of wonder. But perhaps it is also one of concern. This is unlike the habits of the Egypt their father knows, the Pharaoh who enslaves rather than frees, who cares little for justice. Perhaps this Egyptian is here seeking their father- perhaps this kindness is a clever facade. For all they know, this man is an assassin, come to deliver the king's justice.

But it is Yisro who teaches them that fear ought not to hold one back. He is surprised by their concern, chagrined that they would allow the man's nationality to blind them from his actions. Yisro assumes the best, believes the man to be authentic, not a dissembler. He rebukes his daughters, asking them why they have not invited the man home, and telling them to return to find the man and bring him so that he may eat. Despite having been wronged by Egyptians (or by Pharoah himself), despite needing to flee in order to survive, Yisro does not paint everyone with one brush. There can be kind Egyptians. He does not allow his one experience to color everything else.

And so we ought to learn from Yisro, who perhaps took a risk. He decided to judge a man based on what he had done- his actions- not based on his birth or nationality. We can control what we do with our free will; we cannot control the color of our skin, the language of our birth or the blood that flows in our veins. It is our actions that make us who we are- and that is the lesson and legacy of Yisro.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Our Community's Shame: The Alienated LGBTQ+ Orthodox Jew

Today, a brave student named Joshua Tranen wrote an article in The Commentator entitled "Why I left YU, and Why I'm Writing About It Now."

Joshua is gay, and that is the sole reason he is now studying at Yale University. He did not feel safe at Yeshiva University. We, members of the Orthodox community, have allowed that to happen. And thus, it is up to us to fix it.

When I was in high school, I underwent some very challenging experiences. I was a seeker, someone who asked a lot of questions, attending a school on the Bais Yaakov spectrum. As you can imagine, this situation led to clashes. I was disturbed by teachers' rhetoric, actions and the ways in which they were allowed to treat me (and others). Despite my pain, the school principal and other members of the rabbinate refused to believe me, support me or help me when I was falsely accused of improper behavior. In the end, I switched from that school to the non-Jewish North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, an experience which brought me a great deal of healing.

Out of my pain, I once wrote a post to the off the derech community saying that I understood them completely. I had been there. I knew what it was like to be betrayed by the rabbis and teachers who were supposed to be your guides and role models. I knew what it was like to be lied about. I knew what it was like to be hurt. I knew what it was like to be so angry that I felt like Judaism itself was at fault. For two years after my high school experience, I did not touch a siddur, a chumash or engage in typical Jewish study. (I did attend TI and take Jewish Philosophy courses, which were refreshing and helpful when it came to forging my understanding of the religion). I was too angry and too hurt.

And that is the reason that I feel the pain of LGBTQ+ members of our community. People like Joshua have to force themselves to "gather the strength required to learn, for yet another day, alongside rabbis that had publicly called gay people an abomination, blamed them for natural disasters, and advocated for conversion therapy—a pseudoscience so dangerous it has been outlawed in many states." He and others live in fear of being "discovered" or outed.

Joshua shared his gay identity with his roommate. The roommate was so disturbed that he immediately moved out. Now, I understand why this might be. It must be disconcerting to realize that the person you are living with potentially views you as a sexual partner. You probably would have behaved differently (in terms of how you dressed, if nothing else) had you known that. Thus, it is likely the roommate simply felt like his privacy had been invaded and was upset. But to Joshua, his roommate's leaving felt like this person, this individual he had thought was his friend, was saying he would not stand by him. It was deeply painful.

I was at YU when a gay student ran for a position on student council, and I saw the posters put up with quotes about homosexuality and bestiality. (I also saw fellow students tear them down.) I was Editor in Chief of The Observer when Dr. Ladin came out as transgender. I and my staff covered her story. It is an issue of the newspaper of which I remain proud. We had an interview with Dr. Ladin, articles about the halakhic process of transitioning, informational content on what gender dysphoria is, student responses, and interviews with other Orthodox or formerly Orthodox transgender individuals. I was at YU when the historic gay panel took place (I wrote the transcript).

I thought we had gotten past this. I thought our community understood. But it appears the same message needs to be repeated once again. Here it is:

It is entirely possible to be a halakhic Jew who believes certain actions (actions, NOT people) are forbidden according to the law and still- STILL- remain loving, respectful and kind. To understand is not to condone.

A Jewish Orthodox LGBTQ+ individual faces immense struggle. But it is up to God to judge-  not us. Our job is to respect the person, to be kind to them, to reach out to them, to always act out of love. And, of course, to remember that this person is keeping many more mitzvot than they may be transgressing (assuming they are even acting upon their identity.)

So how do we fix it? How do we create an environment where people would not laugh at Ben Shapiro's jokes targeted at transgender individuals? How do we raise kind children? Among other things, we need to provide them with information.

I believe that every Jewish day school should have a class that addresses Contemporary Topics and/or Evaded Issues. (Full disclosure: I teach this class!) I think it is essential that students are actually taught the sources on homosexuality and/or transitioning when one is trans. They should see exactly what the halakha says. And then they should also be taught facts. They should know medical facts about what doctors currently believe it means when one is gay or trans. They should be given knowledge and they should be taught compassion.

We are alienating individuals from the Orthodox community. We are going to lose them. Some of these individuals are our best and brightest minds (this young man went to Yale, which should demonstrate something in itself). And yet, if we continue as we have been, we are going to make our gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans children leave Judaism (certainly Orthodox Judaism).

I am not saying you need to approve or condone every behavior or action. But your qualms, if you have them, should be totally motivated by halakhic adherence, not by personal antipathy, ignorance or disgust. You must act and speak with the greatest kindness. If there is something you cannot do because God has forbidden you to do it, the attitude must be one of sorrow. I wish I could tell you this is permitted, but I can't...and I know it pains you...and it pains me, too. I feel your hurt and I am sorry for it. I wish I could change it. LGBTQ individuals comprise our students, friends and family members. We must find a way to keep them with us. The loss we face from their defection- the splintering families, the weakened community, this creation of "us" vs. "them" to our detriment-  is too great.