Bob Schwartz

Category: Judaism

Random Torah: The Continuing Conjunction in Leviticus 9

Today’s Random Torah chapter (Leviticus 9) is helpful for bible students, students of translation, all writers and all lovers of language. All you need to look at is the very first verse.

In Hebrew the first verse is:

וַֽיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א משֶׁ֔ה לְאַֽהֲרֹ֖ן

(Vayehi bayom hash’mini kara moshe l’aharon)

Two reputable translations render it this way:

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons (New Jewish Publication Society)

On the eighth day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons (New Revised Standard Version)

But Robert Alter and a number of traditional translations (including the King James) show that something is lost in translation:

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron (King James)

Or as Alter has it:

And it happened, on the eighth day, that Moses called to Aaron (Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

Alter notes:

And it happened. This formula (wayehi) is characteristically used to mark the beginning of a unit of narrative.

It is hard to know why so many translations leave this out and jump right into the story (“On the eighth day”). But this omission is more significant than it seems.

Beginning writers are often taught never to start a sentence with a conjunction. Like many rigid rules of writing, it can rob creativity and meaning.

“And” in this verse is what might be called a continuing conjunction. If you are a fan of TV series, you get this. Episodes begin with a “previously on” prologue, followed by the implicit “and now this.” Everything that happened before is still present, and now this is happening.

It’s true that as a writer I have a tendency (sometimes edited out when excessive) to start sentences with conjunctions. And I do recognize the habit. But if it’s good enough for Leviticus, it should be good enough for you or me.

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Yom Kippur Picnic

Emma Goldman’s dislike of religion is evidenced by her participation in events such as this [Yom Kippur Picnic], scheduled on Jewish holy days.
Jewish Women’s Archive

We were invited to a picnic this Saturday. We declined. Because it is Yom Kippur, a fast day and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Curiosity led to discovering that there were once not only Yom Kippur Picnics but Yom Kippur Balls.

Eddy Portnoy writes in Tablet:

When Jews decide to chow down on Yom Kippur, it’s usually done clandestinely, sneaking tasty morsels in a dark pantry, or disappearing into a diner in some nearby non-Jewish neighborhood. But furtive noshing wasn’t always the heretical path of choice on the Day of Atonement. Just over a century ago, a range of leftists held massive public festivals of eating, dancing, and performance for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur, not only as a way to fight for the their right to party, but to unshackle themselves from the oppressive religious dictates they grew up with. What does one do, after all, when prayers and traditional customs no longer hold any meaning yet you still want to be part of a Jewish community? Eating with intention on a fast day allows you, in one fell swoop, to thumb your nose at the religious establishment and create a secular Jewish identity.

These Yom Kippur Balls, organized initially by anarchists in the mid-1880s, started in London and migrated to New York and Montreal. Smaller nosh fests and public demonstrations were also celebrated by Jewish antinomians in other locales. Unorthodox Jews in interwar Poland could pull hundreds of locals into small venues on Yom Kippur in shtetls like Kalish and Chelm; in larger cities like Warsaw and Lodz, they could sell out 5,000-seat circuses. Heresy was big business; tickets for early 1890s Yom Kippur events cost 15 cents for anarchists: capitalists who deigned to attend paid double.

There’s no suggestions here about what Jews of any religious or political stripe should do about fasting or partying on Yom Kippur. As with all such things, there is what your society or community expects you to do, what your God demands that you do, and what your heart and mind tell you to do. If there is a paradise, Emma Goldman is probably there, still railing against injustice, still noshing on Yom Kippur.

 

Ohigan, Rosh Hashanah and Autumn: The Other Shore

“The goal of our life’s effort is to reach the other shore, Nirvana. Prajna paramita, the true wisdom of life, is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached.”
— Shunryu Suzuki

These days in September, three celebrations coincide: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; Ohigan, the twice-yearly Japanese celebration of the equinox; the autumn equinox itself.

One way to harmonize these is to look first at Ohigan. The name literally means “other shore”, and is taken two ways. There are the ancestors honored who have crossed over to the other shore. And there is the crossing over to enlightenment, on the path of the paramitas (perfections): giving (dāna), morality (śīla), patience or forbearance (kṣānti), effort (vīrya), concentration (dhyāna) and wisdom (prajñā).

Then there is Rosh Hashanah, the Birthday of the World, the start of Ten Days of Awe, during which through teshuva (turning), tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (righteousness) we emerge by the time of Yom Kippur on the other shore as newer people in a new year.

It is autumn again. Summer is left behind again. We can live with giving, morality, patience, effort, concentration, or wisdom, or not. We hope at least to arrive safely on the other shore of winter, maybe more enlightened or newer.

Rosh Hashanah: Tashlich

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the custom of tashlich is to throw bread into a body of water, casting your sins away. (When no natural body of water is available, a well or even a bucket has been known to do.)

A passage from Micah is recited:

What god can compare with you; taking fault away,
pardoning crime,
not cherishing anger for ever
but delighting in showing mercy?
Once more have pity on us
tread down our faults
to the bottom of the sea
throw all our sins.
Micah 7:18-19, Jerusalem Bible translation

Fault, crime, anger, sins. Ourselves and others. Pardoning, mercy, pity. Hard for ourselves and others. And as delightful as ducks and fish eating bread on the lake.

Rosh Hashanah

If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix.
If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

Shana Tova! (A Good Year)

Selichot, Angels and Heschel

I lit a candle
For the care of those
In the storm’s way
The light answered:
It is up to you.

The Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on Wednesday evening, September 20. In preparation for that, on Saturday night, September 16, are the prayers and contemplation of Selichot.

I’ve written before about a controversial Selichot prayer, Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyers of Compassion):

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

The controversy is theological and has gone on for centuries, with the prayer being redacted and even deleted among some Jewish communities and traditions. Machnisei Rachamim asks angels to serve as intermediaries for prayer, and some claim that this is wholly inconsistent with the Jewish theology of an unintermediated and direct line between Jews and God. One contemporary rabbi who opposes it claims that its continued recitation is a symptom of Judaism becoming “too spiritual.”

Rather than weighing in on this dispute, and being a Jew who is probably “too spiritual” for some (that is, whether it is angels, saints or bodhisattvas, humankind needs all the spiritual help it can get), I turned to the greatest of modern Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for some thoughts on angels. I found this story he told, which is not only about angels, but about the Torah portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the akeda, the binding of Isaac.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1967, Heschel talked about being a child in Poland, learning about the akeda from his rabbi. Heschel said:

“Isaac was on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. There he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat very fast. I actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard, ‘Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest God.’ And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked my rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ I said to him, still weeping, ‘But rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late!’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”

And then Heschel said: “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late”

The Furniture of Religion

When I look at the religions I practice or have a studied interest in—Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity among them—I see empty houses and furniture.

Some religions seem to begin with emptying the previously stuffed house, or at least minimizing the furniture. Buddhism and Christianity look like this, at least in the beginning. But the nature of religious evolution is to buy, borrow or build furnishings to fill the rooms, because it seems an improvement and because it is what people seem to like in their homes. And so, thousands of years later, you find plenty of variety in the Buddhist and Christian neighborhoods—some very grand constructions spiritually, intellectually, and physically, that seem a long way from the original simple houses.

Judaism, which like Hinduism harks back to a more ancient world where more is more, begins overstuffed (or in the Yiddish expression, ongeshtopt, meaning overstuffed). There have been continuing movements to strip down the Jewish furniture to basics and barer floors and walls, the most powerful of which has been the Hasidic stream, flowing from the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. (But in the spirit of exponential furnishing, the Hasidic movement became more and more overstuffed over the next few hundred years, leaving the Besht’s house barely recognizable.)

Regular readers know my appreciation for religion and my practice of Zen, which for me remains the best (but not only) way to clear out the furniture, or at least see through it to the basic house, or even to see through the house itself to where it sits in the universe. Once there, you can bring in the furniture you really need, whatever the period or the style.

 

The Heart of Shabbat

The Heart of Shabbat

On Shabbat
The mountains walk away
Gone beyond
Not to distract
With grandeur in space
Reminders of time
In their absence

Further reading:

The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Mountain and Waters Sutra, Dogen (“The green mountains are always walking”)

The Heart Sutra, translated by Red Pine (“Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha”)

 

Shonda fur di goyim (A shame in front of the non-Jews)

“I want a leader like Trump but more racist, who won’t give his daughter to a Jew…I don’t think you can feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl, okay?”
Charlottesville white supremacist leader Chris Cantwell

Expectations have never been lower for moral courage. Not just for Trump, who has no morality or courage, but for politicos and operatives who seem to believe that keeping silent in the face of horror is the only way to keep power and their jobs.

This is a narrow message about the Jews in Trump’s inner circle, such as chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Minuchin, son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump, and others (including, I suppose, Trump’s Jewish grandchildren).

I repeat that expectations are low. But if there is a case where you might expect more or better, it is for Jews at the center of this moment to speak up about a (neo) Nazi attack, such as Cantwell’s targeted screed, or about the crowd in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!”

There is a Yiddish expression, “shonda fur di goyim,” roughly meaning a shame that is embarrassing in front of the non-Jews. I don’t suppose it is any more embarrassing to hear the silence of Cohn, Minuchin, Kushner and Ivanka than it is to observe the diffidence of most elected Republicans. Other Jews can imagine the self-serving rationalizations rolling around in the heads of these high-profile Jews who seem convinced that it is best not to say or do anything, such as denouncing Trump or quitting their posts.

Jews—along with every other besieged and reviled minority—have had to learn the very hard way that when things get this explicit, you not only have to pay attention. You have to take a stand. Why these particular Jews have not done that yet is unfortunate. And a little embarrassing.

The Book of Ruth: Ivanka and Jared, Donald and Charles

It was reported that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuot this week, though without much other detail given. It would be interesting to know more, given the connection between the holiday and their own current situation.

Shavuot began as an agricultural festival, celebrating the “first fruits” of the harvest season. It evolved into the holiday marking the giving of the Torah. Among the traditions associated with Shavuot is reading the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is considered one of the literary treasures of the Bible. It is often referred to and analyzed as a short story or novella. What a story it is. A woman and her daughter-in-law are separated by culture and religion but bound together—forever—by family. When their men die, what connects them is stronger than any force that might tear them apart. It is about loyalty, love and faith above all else, through the hardest times. These strong women are not an ancillary sideshow; they are the main event. They alone assure continuity and the future. No wonder it is thought possible that among the biblical books, this one might have been written by a woman.

We expect that Ivanka and Jared, as faithful Jews, read the Book of Ruth this week, but we can’t know what they make of it. Do they also feel that unbreakable obligation that overcomes the greatest adversity and testing? Before the current events, each of them probably faced some difficulties with their respective fathers. Now the stories of Donald Trump and Charles Kushner are entangled through their children. Those children, Ivanka and Jared, might well believe and say to those fathers, as Ruth said to Naomi, “wherever you go, I go.”

For more about Shavuot and the Book of Ruth, see this earlier post.