- Exodus 7:21
- Malcolm Harris cited in Petersen
- Genesis 2:15
- Ibid and Job 5:7
- Micah 6:8
- Genesis 18:19
- Leviticus 19:2
- Pirkey Avot, 6:11
- Likutei Sichos Vol 1, p. 111-112
- Genesis 29:7, and 31:39-40 and many other sources in the oral law
- Kappes, H. and Oettingen, in Lomas, T. (2016) The Positive Power of Negative Emotions, Piatkus, p. 48
- R. Bachya ibn Pakuda (Chovot Halevovot, Sha’ar Yichud Hama'aseh, ch. 5), p. 44 in Feldheim edition, The Baal Shem Tov, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/145431/jewish/Tzavaat-Harivash-2-3.htm
- Pirkey Avot,4:1
- Exodus 20:9
- Mechilta cited in Rashi
- Psalm 127:2
- Deuteronomy 16:20
Friday, January 25, 2019
“And the fish in the river died, and the river stank” (1). This is a description of a plague upon the Nile river, at a time that the Hebrews were dehumanised and driven to perform hard labour. In our own time, the depletion of the Darling river system and the death of over a million fish at Menindee is devastating for the people who live near and depend on the river. While this blog post is about depleted human beings, rather than rivers I see a parallel between the ways in which we are taking too much out of rivers and humans. In this blog post I argue that the stresses of modern life can be reduced by de-emphasising materialistic striving and replacing it with a more spiritual and accepting worldview.
I was moved by an article by Dr. Anne Helen Petersen on How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation (2). She describes depleted people. Simple tasks can make millennials feel overwhelmed. “I was deep in a cycle of “errand paralysis.” I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next, haunting me for months. None of these tasks were that hard: getting knives sharpened, or vacuuming my car. A handful of emails — one from a dear friend, one from a former student asking how my life was going — festered in my personal inbox,... to the point that I started calling it the “inbox of shame.”
Petersen argues that: “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. ...it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”
What is going on? Some of the elements in the article by Petersen are the following:
Purpose: This generation has been “trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace — first in school...— starting as very young children”. (3)
Expectations: Millenials have great expectations that emphasise individual fulfillment and success: A students told Professor Petersen: “I want a cool job I’m passionate about!” For millenials the job needed to tick 3 boxes; “employment that reflects well on their parents (steady, decently paying...) that’s also impressive to their peers (at a “cool” company) and “doing work that you’re passionate about”. More broadly, there were expectations that the current generation would be better off than their parents’ generation in terms of health and finances. Many millennials have realised that this expectation is not being met. “One thing that makes that realization sting even more is watching others live their seemingly cool, passionate, worthwhile lives online”.
Work Conditions and rewards: Apart from the distortions created on social media, there are real injustices in the ways that many modern workers are rewarded for their hard work. The nature of the work itself is exhausting for many people. There is a tendency to work 24/7, replying to emails in bed, is one example of this. “The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced”.
How does one respond to this situation from a Jewish perspective?
Judaism insists that beyond values like progress, and success in the “market”, lies a higher spiritual purpose to life. To protect the earth (4) in addition to working it (5), “The doing of justice, the love of kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God” (6); It is about righteousness (7), and holiness (8) and behaving in way that contributes to the “glory of God” (9). Of course, one does not need to be religious to live for a higher purpose.
Like life in general, education must also be oriented toward a higher purpose, preparing children for this purpose rather than for work. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that education focused on work-readiness was spiritually similar to what the Egyptians tried to do when they threw Hebrew boys into the Nile. The Nile was an Egyptian God and the source of their livelihood. The Rebbe railed against those he believed were “throwing Jewish children in to the river of the customs and mannerisms of the land, ...which to their mind gives them “Parnasa”, their livelihood” (10).
The disregard for secular knowledge can certainly go too far. Good Jewish schools combine Torah education and excellent secular education. Their students learn; how to be good, well functioning people, good Jews, as well as the skills and knowledge required for the workplace.
The virtue of diligent work in highly prized in Judaism (11). However, let us not deceive ourselves that preparation and hard work always deliver wealth. Expectation is a great source of misery. It is utter rubbish to believe that if you expect something “the universe will give it to you”. In fact the evidence proves that exclusively positive thinking can reduce your successes (12). Instead we are encouraged to aspire to equanimity- the ultimate virtue (13), happily accepting whatever outcome we get (14). Not easy, but worth aspiring to.
Freed of expectations we can try to ‘go with the flow’ rather than be driven at work. We are instructed to rest on the Sabbath but in six days we should do “all our work” (15). This means that on Friday when we finish work, we regard it as complete and avoid thinking about on the Sabbath (16). Any work not done in the previous week is irrelevant to the week that passed. It is next week’s work! The psalms said it best “It is a falsehood for you, early risers, delayers of sleep, eaters of bread of tension! Indeed He [God] will give sleep to those he loves” (17).
To change our individual thinking and habits is not enough. Pederson reflects on the fact that despite seeing injustices in the workplace, “we didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised. We tried to win it”. The Torah demands that “justice, justice you shall pursue” (17). Perhaps we can start with replenishing ourselves by orienting ourselves to a more spiritual sense of purpose and a balanced pace of work and life. The next step is to engage with our communities and politics to ensure that people, the rivers and natural environments that nurture us are all cared for effectively.
Friday, December 14, 2018
A cheap white plastic ritual washing cup (Kvort in my mother tongue, yiddish) with two handles stirred strong emotions in me. Really. I felt that I was home among my people. The feeling surprised me. It confronted me with the challenge I still face, of navigating otherness and insular identities. The Jewish festival of Chanukah is a good time to grapple with this topic.
|Muslim Washing Stations (Wudu) at Sheik Zayed |
Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
|Jewish Ritual Washing Cup, (Kvort), |
at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
|Shaykh Abdulla Bin Bayyah seated, with Shaykh |
Hamza Yusuf, Rabbis including Mark Lustig, David
Rosen and Zalman Kastel, Lighting Chanukah
Candles. Photo by Peter Sanders
On the third night of Chanukah I found myself on my first visit to an Arab country, Abu Dhabi. I was there to participate in the Forum for Peace in Islamic Societies, which was initiated by an Islamic authority, Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. Delegates at the Forum included many Muslim leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the US. Alongside these leaders were a number of Christian and Jewish leaders. The diversity of the participants reflected the aim of the conference: advancing an alliance of virtue between people of different faiths (2).
A highlight for me at the forum was when Shaykh Bin Bayyah joined me and the other Jewish delegates as I lit my Chanukah oil lamp. He was genuinely very warm in his conversation with us. I was deeply moved by the significance of the moment and the togetherness it represented.
The interfaith candle lighting moment reflected the inclusive spirit of the forum as a whole. Nearly every panel had Jewish and Christian panelists alongside Muslim scholars. Kosher food was brought in from neighbouring Dubai. Still, communal Jewish morning prayers there provided an opportunity for me to sing the Hallel prayer together with members of my “tribe” alone.
Loyalty to one’s “tribe” is a significant factor in how we live our lives. One speaker at the Forum, Rabbi Dr Reuven Firestone, recalled how early Islam taught people a universal approach to justice that could override tribal loyalties where appropriate. The challenge now is to apply this approach to overcome unconditional solidarity on the basis of religion, or as expressed in identity politics.
Another speaker, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani of the Fiqh council, Karachi, Pakistan, offered conference delegates a more technical legal approach that does not rely on transcending those ties, instead it emphasises obligations to one’s neighbours and fellow citizens. “There is an implicit pact between Muslims and non Muslims, wherever they live alongside each other, not to cause harm to each other. Violation of that implicit pact is a sin”. A Yazidi delegate man at the forum, pleaded for this principle to be applied in Northern Iraq so his people don’t live in fear and will not need to emigrate. “We are peaceful people” he declared.
The bar set by the Mufti is not very high but it is a critical minimum. The forum usefully addressed coexistence at a range of levels. On one hand it openly confronted the problem of violent extremism on one end of the spectrum but Shaykh Bin Bayyah also called for the highest ideals of loving the stranger, quoting the Torah (3). In fact, he pointed out, the Arabic word for brother is almost exactly the same word as the one meaning other. What's amazing is that he said this in Arabic and it also works in English and Hebrew:
- Brother = Akh أخ
- Other = Akhr آخر.
In Hebrew, Akh - אח and Akher - אחר.
The combined message of striving for a ideal of togetherness while insisting that at least we do not harm each other is realistic and useful.
My time in Abu Dhabi wrapped up with a visit to the massive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with a Palestinian- Australian friend. From there I was back on a plane to a land very precious to both my friend and me.
I spent the final days of Chanukah with my son who is studying Torah in the Holy land of Israel. During my visit there was one more little identity conflict to deal with. I'm of Eastern European Yiddish heritage. On Chanukah “my people” eat Latkes, a kind of fried potato pancakes. But the Israelis have jam doughnut as their Chanukah food. Only partly in jest, my son and I engaged in a Latke hunt across Jerusalem, peering into numerous shop windows in the old city, only to see falafel and endless sugary doughnuts. We went to the ultra-religious area of Meah Shearim, but the elusive Latke could not be found. So we went to the yiddish speaking area of Geulah and bingo! The Latke search yielded two delicious oily specimens. I was with “my people” at last.
Together and alone. As the great teaching by Hillel puts it. “If I am not for myself [my community] who will be there for me? But if I am only for myself [and my kind] what am I? (4). As I reflect on my trip, I am grateful for the inspiration from the Muslim Imams, their hospitality and goodwill. I carry with me photos and memories of marble ritual washing stations in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Yet, I continued to feel a sense of home when looking at a cheap white plastic Jewish ritual washing cup.
1) Numbers 23:9
2) This practical problem solving focus has been endorsed by Rabbi JB Soloveitchik in his essay, Confrontation, and chabad Rabbis I have discussed it with. It is also at the heart of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, the Home We Build Together.
3) Leviticus 19:34
4) Pirkey Avot, 1:14
Friday, November 9, 2018
Eleven lives were extinguished violently in an incident in a Pittsburgh synagogue last week. Each of the murdered Jews represents an entire world destroyed (1). This atrocity confronts Jews everywhere with the very real and present threat of antisemitism. We are left to grapple with our emotions and thoughts arising from this heinous crime.
Thursday, May 31, 2018
The Torah forbids a Cohen, or a “priest” (1) to marry a divorcee (2). The explanation of this prohibition is that the role of the Cohen in worship requires him to be holy.
This law disturbs me. I'm concerned that something negative is implied about divorced women. The assumption seems to be that, if a Cohen marries a divorcee, this would detract from his holiness. I will not “solve” this riddle in this blog. As a Jew, the discussion itself and questions, in general, have value irrespective of the answers.
I posted a question about this issue on Facebook. More than 120 comments were posted in response. One Jewish woman asked why “no responsibility for the breakdown of a marriage is placed on the man”? And if there was an equivalent law about divorced men? A Muslim woman agreed. She wrote that “in many cultures ...we have this issue of the blame being on the woman too and divorce being such a taboo topic...that people are forced to stay together to not bring shame on the family”.
There are several approaches to explaining this law, written several centuries ago.
1. Blame: "...a woman, being divorced, will already show that a matter of disgrace was found in her, [so] it is not fitting that a Cohen should marry someone who was not fitting to be a wife [for her first husband], because he [the Cohen] is holy to his God” (3). The assumption is that “the husband did not divorce her out of the wickedness of his heart…” (4). So, it must be that the divorce was in response to a significant moral failure on her part (5).
This 14th and 15th century approach does not take into account the reality, we all know today, that divorce is often not the result of a woman’s shortcomings. Although circumstances were different at that time in terms of male dominance, Judaism has long recognised other valid grounds for divorce. One example given is “if she burned his cooking” (6). This trivial example makes the point that the specifics of the complaints couples have about each other, are unimportant. According to the Torah, the main reason for divorce is because there is hatred between the couple (7). Another valid reason given for divorce is if a wife finds her husband repulsive (8). Abuse and various other failings on the part of the husband are also grounds for divorce (9). Based on both factual and textual evidence, the blame approach is problematic.
2. Blemish: Another approach sees the marriage partner’s virginity as important for the Cohen. Just as the Torah forbids a Cohen with physical imperfections to serve in the temple, it seeks “perfection” in his spouse (10). Needless to say, this approach does not sit well with the modern reader, including the writer of this blog. Surely, a woman’s worth is determined by her personal qualities far more than her virginity! And a man’s “completeness” surely relates more to his own spiritual achievements and shortcomings than the qualities of “his woman”.
There is also a textual problem with this approach. The Torah states that only the chief Cohen, the Cohen Gadol, is forbidden to marry a widow, but places no such requirement on an ordinary Cohen (11). Jewish law also allows a Cohen to marry a woman who engaged in sex, despite not being married (12). Clearly, marrying a virgin is not a precondition to serving as a Cohen.
3. Bedroom thoughts: A third approach centres on thoughts during sexual intimacy. Jewish tradition strongly disapproves of a couple being physically intimate with each other while their thoughts are about other people or sexual partners (13). This concern is part of a broader insistence of a union of hearts and souls during intercourse (14). Jewish law recommends that sex is to be “with the desire of both partners and their joy” (15). Overall, the physical sexual experience is deemed worthy and positive if there is a corresponding strong and pure spiritual union.
Concern is expressed that a divorced woman is at risk of thinking about her past partner during intimacy with her current partner. This concern does not take into account the degree of probability that this will occur. (16). This thinking is linked to the law forbidding the marriage between a divorcee and a Cohen, who is meant to strive for perfection17).
This explanation might be more plausible if it applied equally to a divorced male Cohen and his possible thoughts about a former partner. I also feel uncomfortable with this explanation because it suggests that only divorced partners have this type of thought; yet our tradition acknowledges that anyone might have their thoughts wander during sex to think about someone they “saw on the road” (18).
4. Perception: For me, a more palatable approach is to locate the problem not within the divorced woman, but in the assumed perceptions of the community (19). With this approach, there is concern that people might respect the Cohen less because his wife has been divorced. A similar explanation is used for not allowing a Cohen with a physical “blemish” to serve in the temple (20). In fact, based on the problem being one of perception, a dispensation is given in the following circumstances: if the community is familiar with a particular Cohen who is blind in one eye, their familiarity with this Cohen would permit him to perform the priestly blessings because they are unlikely to be distracted by his condition (21). If we apply this “perception” approach here, we eliminate any disparaging implications about divorcees and explain this law as a practical concession to flawed superficial human perspectives.
Regardless of the approach one takes, the burden of all this holiness falls on women rather than men. This imbalance is partly corrected by the prophet Malachi’s scathing critique (22) of male Cohanim (plural of Cohen) who opportunistically abandoned their first wives in favour of the perhaps more exotic, idol-worshipping women they encountered.
The prophet thunders thus:
“And now, O priests, this charge is for you...The Torah of truth was in his mouth, And he turned many away from sin… But you have turned away from that course...And I, in turn, have made you despicable and vile in the eyes of all the people… and this second thing you have done, You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, weeping, and moaning... But you ask, “Because of what?” Because the Lord is a witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith, though she is your partner and covenanted spouse...let no one break faith with the wife of his youth. ...For I detest divorce—said the LORD,...do not act treacherously.
Perhaps more interesting than all the text is the lived experienced of a modern day Cohen, let’s call him Abe, who is married to a wonderful woman, who had been divorced prior to their marriage.
Abe told me that he and his now-wife “were faced with a moral dilemma: he could continue to remain unmarried in the new relationship, which would not impact on his standing as a Cohen; or he could remarry, thereby honouring the relationship and those closest to them who believed in the sanctity of marriage. If he proceeded to marry her, Abe faced losing Cohen privileges. He had particularly enjoyed blessing the community as a Cohen.
After consultations with various Rabbis, they decided to remarry. Unable to do so through an Orthodox ceremony, they did so through Reform.
Nevertheless, Abe has continued to be an active member of the Orthodox Synagogue. Although he disobeyed the commandment not to marry a divorcee, he feels accepted and comfortable over there. Looking back, though, he clearly misses not being able to “bless the people of Israel with love” during the ”Blessing of the Priests” ceremony. At the same time, he feels grateful for his loving, married relationship and thriving, blended family.
Abe does not feel resentful. He accepts that the dignity of the office of the Cohen needs to be preserved, even though he personally has chosen to prioritise the dignity of his wife and family.
Abe’s choice is not condoned by the law. Sadly, he is paying a price for his choice, and I am sure this was not easy for his wife, either. In the end, I am left with the question: why does it need to be so?
1. The word Cohen is often translated as a priest. A Cohen is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. In the times that the temple stood in Jerusalem, they had a key role in offering sacrifices. Today, the main role of the Cohen is to bless the community.
2. Leviticus 21:7
3. Ralbag (1288-1344, France) on Leviticus 21:7, כבר יורה היותה גרושה שנמצא בה דבר גנות ואין ראוי שיקח הכהן לאשה מי שלא היתה ראויה לאשה: כי קדוש הוא לאלהיו. ולזה אין ראוי שיקח אלו הנשים אשר הם בזה האופן מהגנות: See Gittin 90b which would seem to support the Ralbag’s approach.
4. Abarbanel (1437-1580) on Leviticus 21:7, he creatively suggests that the phrase “he is holy to his God” can be applied to the ex-husband, who (for some unexplained reason) is assumed to have been holy and motivated in his decision to divorce his wife by religious puritanism because of her immoral conduct.
5. This approach is influenced by the first scenario of divorce given in Deuteronomy 24:1-3. “1. When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly [moral] matter, and he writes for her a bill of divorce and places it into her hand, and sends her away from his house, 2. And she leaves his house and goes and marries another man, 3. If the latter husband hates her and writes her a bill of divorce, and places it into her hand and sends her away from his house…” See various opinions and interpretations in the Talmud Gittin 90a and 90b that emphasise the woman being at fault as being the reason for a divorce.
6. Talmud Gittin 90a and 90b
7. Beis Shmuel on Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 119:3, while the language is quite male-centric, the key principle is that strife between the couple is the primary factor in consideration whether divorce is appropriate.
9. Maimonides Yad Hachazakah, Hilchos Ishut, 14:8
10. Zohar, Raya Mehemna, on Emor, p.89b and 90a, on the verse “and he, a virgin”.
11. Leviticus 21:7 and 21:14
12. Shulchan Aruch Even Ezer 6:8
13. Talmud Nedarim 20b, midrash Tanchuma Naso 7
15. Maimonides, Yat Hachazaka, Deot, 5:4
16. Talmud Pesachim 112a and b, Talmud Moed Katan 23a, Tosafot starting with Ad.
17. Radvaz, in Taamei Hamitzvot, כבר ידעת כי המחשבה עיקר גדול בזיווג ואשה גרושה דעתה על אחריםSefer Hachinuch mitzva 272, and 273
18. Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 7b.
19. Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva?
20. Abarbanel on Emor,
21. Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, book of Love, Laws of Prayers and Lifting the Hands 15:2, see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 128.
22. Malachi 2