Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sensuality, Spirituality & Ancient Birth Rituals

The ideal of a God centred life in which fulfilment is derived from spirituality must confront the reality of sensual pleasure, especially at it relates to sexuality. Torah messages on this topic range from celebrating the sensual, channelling it, to containment and even to censure. 

A few principles are useful to introduce this discussion.
1) There is a tradition of modesty, and “Lashon Nekia”, clean speech which means that some talk about these issues is constrained by euphemism such as “and the Man knew Eve his wife[1]”.2) On-going performance of this activity is legally discussed as an obligation from husband to wife[2] known as Ona, time. This is not limited to reproduction, as it applies beyond child bearing years.
3) The Talmud refers euphemistically to the sexual act as “Shalom Bayit”, peace in the home. Recognising the benefit to marriage and broadening its legitimacy beyond procreation.
4) The commandment to be holy[3] is understood as a call to restraint to sanctify yourself in that which is permitted to you[4].  
5) Denying oneself the pleasures God created requires atonement, as we see with the Nazirite who abstains from wine and must bring a sin offering[5] and if this is the case with abstaining from wine then “anyone who pains himself (by abstaining from) any thing or thing, how much more so[6]”.

The Torah reading cycle this week touches on issues of reproduction and human sexuality with a particular focus on  women. It begins with an unusual expression “A woman who will seed and she will give birth to a male[7]”. It proceeds to declare her ritually impure for seven days as a result of child birth. I find this puzzling as I would have thought the miracle of a new life would be a completely positive thing. We are also told that offerings of sheep or birds are to be brought to 'atone' for her[8]? Why does she  require atonement? What wider implications are there to all of this? 

The Talmud infers a very practical message about managing male desire. “If a woman “seeds” first she will give birth to a male[9]...this is only that they delay themselves (from “seeding[10]”) on the stomach so that their wife should “seed” first so that their children will be male...Rabba stated that one who wants sons should penetrate and then repeat (because from the desire of first penetration she will be “seeding”...prior to the second time). Let us put aside any questions about the biological accuracy of this form of gender selection or the implications about gender equality arising from male offspring being offered as a reward. I have always understood this to be more about the ethical obligations of men to concern themselves with female desire rather than just their own. As R. Bchai puts it, One who can conquer his (evil) inclination and delay himself so that she “seeds” first he receives his reward that she will give birth to a male child[11].   

One difficulty I had with this teaching is that to me there is something patronising in demanding moral discipline from men but nothing from women. I was happy to be proven wrong by the following; The righteousness of sons are mostly in the merit of the woman.  Indeed you will see, Jacob was thinking of Rachel (when he first slept with Leah) as the verse states “and it was in the morning and behold it is Leah” (Genesis?). If this is so then God forbid, Reuben was brought into existence with his father thinking about Rachel[12]. The same was true with Jesse (the father of King David) because he thought he came to his maidservant but it was in fact his wife and David was born from this. But, everything depends on the righteousness of the woman and the purity of her thoughts. Our mother Leah and the mother of David were meritorious in their thoughts and sanctified their thoughts in purity, therefore their sons were holy. [13].

It is not all praise either. This verse is linked to King David declaring that “in sin was I fashioned[14]” master of the worlds, nothing (in no way) did my father Yishai intend to stand me up (create me), is it not true that his intention was only for his pleasure. You will know that this is  the case because after they did their needs, this one turns his face this way and this one turns her face there... [15]”. A bit harsh, reflecting the spiritual hazards that Judaism seems to see in sensual pleasure, in fact the desire is seen as the root of sexual sins[16].

Yet desire is seen as a positive thing in another context. The basin used by the Kohanim (priests) to wash themselves in the temple was made from the mirrors that Hebrew slave women used in Egypt to attract their husbands attention[17]. “Moses despised the mirrors because they are made for the evil inclination, but The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, accept them as these are dearer to me than everything. It is through these (mirrors) that the women stood up many hosts in Egypt. When their husbands were exhausted from the back breaking work they would go and bring food and drink  and feed them, they would take the mirrors and each one would see herself and her husband in the mirror and she would coax him with words, saying “I am more pretty than you” and through this would bring their husbands to desire and they would attend to them and they would become pregnant and give birth[18].

It seems to me that desire is welcomed as necessary and useful but also as dangerous, with the accelerator needing to have breaks put on as well. 

One explanation for the idea of impurity is offered in the name of (the grandfather of the author of one commentator) the Rebbe of Kotzk who asked; “the key to birth is in the hands of God and has not been handed over to a messenger, how can impurity result from that? He answered that the impurity comes later. My father explained his words according to the holy Zohar about the reason for impurity relating to a dead person. (namely that) the place has been emptied of holiness, that is the soul of the person, therefore the forces of impurity seek to dwell there. The same is true with a woman giving birth. Because God himself was the one opening (the womb), and when the Divine presence the forces of impurity desire to attached themselves to her[19].

This leaves us with the problem of the sin offering brought for Kapara (usually translated as atonement).One justification is that in the time that she is crouching to give birth she jumps and swears that she will not be with her husband any more (sexually)[20]. Because she swears out of pain, the oath is not fit to be valid because she is already committed (lit. enslaved) to her husband, therefore she is required to being an offering to atone for a sin of thought. The problem with this explanation is that the requirement to bring the offering also applies if she did not swear[21].

Another explanation is that the offering is there to stimulate gratitude for surviving child birth[22]. This is rejected on the basis that “The word Kaparah is not used for anything other than for a sin...If the sacrifice was for the fact that she was saved from danger than she would bring a thanksgiving offering...[23]”. The commentary suggests an alternative sin requiring atonement.  “it can be explained that the sacrifice was not because of her own sin but because of her mother's sin (Eve) the mother of all the living. Because were it not for that sin, man  would cause birth with his wife not in the way of lust and desire but rather in a completely natural way just like the nature of the tree that brings forth its fruits every year without lust. This woman giving birth, (it can be said of her) like mother, like daughter in the act of sin. Because the branches are rotten with the rot of the root. Therefore she is required by the verse to bring an offering to atone for that primordial sin. ...[24]Not very gentle stuff. It seems to reflect those traditions seeking greater restraint of the passions and lusts.

Still another commentary suggests that the word “Kaparah” in this context is not related to sin at all but some kind of spiritual cleansing[25]. My father, drew my attention to Rashi's argument that sin offerings are not always brought for atonement[26]. Another sage states “but the truth is that we don't have the ability to understand the reasons of the Torah and the thoughts of God are very deep”[27]. I suspect that we are not meant to have absolute clarity about this murky area of life and that that is probably a good thing.

[1]    Genesis 4:1
[2]    Referred to in the marriage contract, the Ketuba and Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer, laws of Ishus, 25:2
[3]    Leviticus 19:2
[4]    Lekach Tov, also see Ramban who discusses the possibility of “degenerate with permission of Torah”, when a person indulges excessively in the permitted pleasures. Instead the Ramban understands the Torah as calling for moderation
[5]    Numbers 6:13-14
[6]    Talmud Taanis 11a
[7]  Leviticus 12:1
[8] Leviticus 12:6-7
[9]  Talmud, Nida 31a&b
[10]  Rashi
[11]  Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7
[12]  This issue was touched on in my post “” Based on Rashi on Beresheet 49:2, Beresheet Rabbah, Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 176a, cited by Rabbi Ari Kahn, .
[13] Chida, quoted in Greenberg, A. Y, (1996) Iturei Torah, p. 64 Yavneh, Tel Aviv
[14]  Psalms 51:7
[15] Midrash Rabba 14:5
[16]  Rashi on Psalms above
[17]  Exodus 38:8
[18]  Rashi on Exodus 38:8, the Shulchan Aruch also allows conversation for the purpose of arousing his desire “Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer, laws of Ishus, 25:2” along with discussion of the wife's emotional needs
[19] Shem Mishmuel, quoted in Greenberg, A. Y, (1996) Iturei Torah, p. 64 Yavneh, Tel Aviv
[20]  Talmud Nida 31a
[21]  Ran, Talmud Nedarim
[22]  Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 168
[23] Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7
[24]  Rabbenu Bchai, Tazria 12:7
[25]  Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot on Leviticus 12:8
[26]  Rashi Leviticus 10:17, beginning with words Laseat et Avon Haedah, two examples of a sin offering that were not for the purpose of atonement
[27]  Minchat Chinuch discussion relating to Mitzvah 168

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Loss Trivial and Tragic and Silence of the heart

The trivial in tragic times
I have been very blessed to be able to think about trivial losses. I cannot begin to imagine the recent devastating losses in Japan, New Zealand, Libya and Queensland and the holy land. Nor can I grasp the loss of Indigenous Australians who would hide their children when the Authorities came looking for them[1], echoing stories of Jewish children in Russia that were kidnapped for 25 years of enforced assimilation. But in my limited way I will try to shed some light on this, but may tread more lightly than the harsh times call for.

Loss of privilege - in the town of Berry
I am on a flight to London. Travel is a gift of good fortune as much as technology. The privilege of travel that I often take for granted was taken from me yesterday. I expected to be home between 7 and 8 pm, travelling on reasonable roads between 60-110 km per hour. There is heavy rainfall, my friend Sheik Haisam behind the wheel, slows down slightly. Then the traffic stops. We wait, wait some more and some more. Nothing is moving. There are police ahead. The road is blocked, covered in water. No idea when it will reopen. Could be hours, the Sheik, a priest named Buzz and I might need to spend the night in the tiny town of Berry NSW (Population: 1934). The road behind us has also been blocked. The reality sinks in, there is no detour, no way to fix this.  

Relief in powerlessness and acceptance
A strange equanimity enveloped me. A bit like when we were kids and the bus broke down on camp, we were stuck in middle of nowhere and it was fun. So we got out of the car, wandered around the town in the light rain, pondered the ominous sign of the dingy on the roof of the local pub (Bar for Americans) and cracked corny jokes. It's what my father would have done, the jokes that is, not the corny bit.

My equanimity about spending the night with two friends in Berry is no great achievement[2]. A remarkable story about King David has him fasting and in absolute distress about his sick child, until he learns that the boy has died, when he arises and goes off to bathe and change. When he is questioned about this, he says “'While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said: Who knows whether the Lord will not be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? Can I bring him back again[3]”. It seems that in addition to loss, there is the additional distress of trying to prevent catastrophe, which is often as frustrating as it is futile.

Finding the silver lining in the downside of blessing
I found the following story illuminating,
The Master's[4] son had passed away. His disciples came to comfort him.
Disciple 1: Adam lost his son, yet he was comforted.
Master: Do I need to add Adam's tragedy to mine?...
R. Jose entered and sat before him.
R. Jose: My master, would you like me to say one thing?
Master: Say.
R. Jose: Aaron lost his two great sons, Nadav and Abihu[5] both of whom died in the same day, yet he accepted consolation.
Master: Do I need to add Aaron's tragedy to mine....
Finally one disciple told the master a parable.
A king entrusted a treasure to his servant, as long as he had the treasure he suffered because he was worried that something might happen to it. When the king retrieved the item he felt relieved . Upon hearing this, the master was comforted[6]. 
The responsibility the master had for raising this child to be a good person and servant of God had been completed and he was relieved of it.

Silence and Stillness of the spirit
The howling in pain sits alongside the stoic silence. In the case of Aaron the brother of Moses, we learn that his two sons were killed by God for an offence that is not entirely clear[7].  The Torah tells us “Vayidom Aaron”. This is translated by some “Aaron was silent”[8]. An alternative view argues that the choice of word, “Vayidom” rather than the common “Shtikah” is significant. Shtika is  about  not talking, crying or sighing. Words with the root “Dom”, indicate a silence of the heart, and an inner calmness of the spirit[9].  Jews pray everyday that “toward those who curse me, may my heart be still (or silent)[10]. Aaron justified the judgement upon himself[11], in a way that Jewish law still mandates today. The response to news of bereavement is “Blessed be the true judge”.

On the other end of the spectrum we have an interpretation that Aaron's “heart was broken out of the pain of his sons[12].

Meaningful suffering
This discussion cannot ignore Victor Frankel's concept that 'if one has a why, one can withstand any how[13]', in that if one can find meaning in his suffering s/he can bear it. This dynamic is also at work in Aaron's ordeal, when Moses states “this is what God has spoken, with my holy ones will I be sanctified and on the faces of all the nation will I be respected[14]”. This helps Aaron deal with his loss.

A parable is given to explain the sanctification of God through the death of Aaron's sons.
A king hears that one of the people of the palace sat in his thrown room and put the kings crown on his head. He thinks that if it becomes known that this happened and he got away with it, no one will respect the king. So he has the offender beheaded and this way everyone takes the king seriously[15].

I find the parable jarring, especially when I think about recent events in Libya, yet in1300 BC this kind of reasoning would have helped Aaron find meaning and be still or silent in the face of a terrible loss.

Responding to the suffering of others
Silence is also useful for those seeking to support the bereaved according to Jewish teachings. Dutch Rabbi Vorst, in his outstanding honest and valuable book “Why” talks of his own struggle to deal with the loss of his child. He expresses intense frustration with well intentioned people who visited him and tried to distract him with small talk. He did not want to be distracted, he wanted to be present with his loss[16]. Jewish law guides “comforters” to be silent and follow the cues of the bereaved. I think this is beautifully illustrated in the description of R. Jose's behaviour in the story above, where he sits first, then asks permission.

In spite of all of the above, one of the teachings I find most useful is the statements that “it is not in our hands to grasp (the reasons for) the tranquillity of the wicked nor the ordeals of the righteous,[17]”. The mystery of loss can at times be responded to with acceptance which can be less distressing than trying to control the uncontrollable. Finding meaning or thinking differently about loss has also helped some people. We dare not judge people in how they deal with distress. Each person will respond differently and if we are in a position to try to support them, taking cues from the sufferer is useful, as is silence. I conclude with a prayer, that it be the will of the almighty that real suffering and loss come to an end and that more people be in a position to think about problems like whether or not they will have to spend a few hours in the lovely town of Berry NSW. 

[1]    Heard from Lex Dadd, a Darug man at Maroubra, NSW Australia on 22/03/2011
[2]    Although it did involved cancelling my commitments for the next day and some risk that I would not be on the plane  to London.
[3]  Samuel II, 12:22-23
[4]    Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai
[5]    Leviticus 10:2
[6]    Talmud, Avod D'Rabbi Nathan
[7]    The Torah says they brought a fire or offering that God had not commanded them. Interpretations vary about what this actually means, they include the suggestion that they were drunk during the service among others.
[8]    Rashi, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[9]    Shem Olam, cited in Kasher, M. (1978), Torah Shlaima, Vol 28. p.10, note 24
[10]  The Amida prayer, “Vlimkalily, Nafshi Tidom”
[11]  Menorat Hamaor, part 3, p146 cited in Kasher, ibid, also in Shem Olam. Kasher also includes a version of Unkelus' translation that renders the verse as “Aaron praised”.
[12]  Toldot Adam also cited in Kasher, note 25
[13]  Frankel, V., Man's Search for Meaning
[14]  Leviticus 10:4
[15]  Midrash Hagadol cited in cited in Kasher, M. (1978), Torah Shlaima, Vol 28. p.8
[16]  Vorst, Rabbi Y,(1991) Why? Reflections on the Loss of a Loved One
[17] Pirkey Avot, (Ethics of the fathers)  4:11

Friday, March 18, 2011

Guilt, Pride, Rats and thoughts for my friend the next premier of NSW

While the state of NSW prepares for an election where the next premier will be certainly be an Irish Catholic[i] "friend" of mine, Jews continue to read about sacrifices in the yearly Torah reading cycle. Among the varied purposes of sacrifices, one is to make sinners more aware of the seriousness of their sin, particularly accidental sins[ii]. In a society that sees guilt as a very bad thing, this post seeks to explore what guidance Torah offers on this issue for all of us and particularly political leaders.

The case against wallowing in guilt can be based on it's consequences. If people sees themselves as wicked they will either feel depressed and be prevented from serving God with joy, or if they remain cheerful in spite despite their perceived wickedness they will come to callousness[iii]. While some would think that religion wants people to be miserable, Hasidim say that feeling depressed is not a sin, but it can be more damaging than any sin. R. Shneur Zalman likens the spiritual struggle of life to a wrestling match. If one of the fighters is sluggish and miserable, he will easily be overpowered by his opponent. He argues that one must seek ideas to rid oneself of sadness relating to shortcomings in spiritual matters, except in certain set times[iv].  

On the other side of this argument, we learn that regret about past misdeeds is critical to addressing   them and personal redemption. One difference between a completely wicked person and a “Wicked person with some good[v]” is that (some of)  “the wicked are filled with regrets”. King David speaks movingly about his regret about the incident with Bat-Sheba when he says “my sin is always before me[vi]”.

Two of the types of sacrifices offered in the temple related to sin, the Chatat and Asham. The Zohar talks about the verse “the sacrifices of God, are the broken spirit[vii]”.  “I heard from the holy luminary, that when a person comes to be defiled in his sins he brings the spirit of impurity upon himself…when the temple stood, a person brought a sacrifice and his atonement was left hanging until he becomes regretful and breaks the spirit from the spirit of impurity. If the spirit of impurity is not broken the sacrifice is nothing and it is given away to the dogs[viii]”.

It can be argued that personal failings might be an asset to a leader, perhaps helping her/him understand the challenges of the people they seek to lead[ix]. The Talmud seems to be suggesting just that when it asks “Why did the Kingdom of the house of Saul the son of Kish, not continue? Because he had no “taint” or reproach[x]”. This is contrasted with David who had some type of skeleton in his closet. The Talmud asserts that we do not appoint an administrator of the community  unless he has a box of rodents hanging on his back[xi]”.This is so that if he became arrogant he can be told to turn around.

The theme of humility seems to compete with messages of Kings or leaders asserting themselves.  We have the commandment that a King must write a Torah scroll for himself so that his heart is not elevated above his brothers. On the other hand, we are taught “every scholar who does not take revenge and holds grudges like a snake is not a scholar”[xii]. This surprising teaching is challenged by the commandment “do not take revenge and do not hold a grudge[xiii]”. And the teaching that “those who are embarrassed but don't embarrass others and do not reply, acts out of love and rejoice in suffering, it is about them that the verse states “those he loves like when the sun comes out in it's strength[xiv]the conclusion is that depends on whether the scholar is appeased, and if the offender asked for forgiveness[xv]. This offers an interesting mix of advice to our leaders, with some thoughts our next premier might want to consider.

Cynics might question the sincerity of the politicians’ friendship I referred to. After all, we are taught, “Be careful with the ruling authorities, as they don't bring a person close except for their own purpose, they seem like loving friends at the time when it is for their benefit, but do not stand by a man in his time of pressure[xvi]”. I trust that be it Barry or Kristina, they will defy the trend to the best of their ability. My prayers are with them to navigate the challenges of the coming days and weeks.

[i] Observation by NSW Premier Kristina Keneally at St. Patricks day celebration that with two candidates one named Keneally and the other O'Farrel the winner of the election will be Irish. I have had several friendly conversations with the present premier and the opposition leader and consider them friends in the broad sense of the word.
[ii] Rema, Torat HaOla, chapter 1, cited in Torah Shlaima, volume 25, p265, ”that a person should be careful to avoid accidental sins, because he will see that he will be punished with his money because of his accidental sin, because also one who sins accidentally is called a sinner because a person is always a Muad (completely responsible, as opposed to the owner of a goring ox, whose ox is declared a “Tam”, and must only pay ½ the cost of damages caused the first three times before it's problematic nature is established).
[iii] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya chapter 1
[iv] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya chapter 26
[v] As reflected in the concept of Rashah Vra Lo, vs Rasha Vtov Lo.
[vi]  Psalm 51
[vii]  Psalm 51
[viii]  Zohar Pinchas 203, in Torah Shlaima vol.25, p 275
[ix] R. Itamar B. Yisroel, Mishmeret Itamar, Beshalach, cited in Weiss, S. (1990), Insights A Talmudic Treasury, Feldheim, Jerusalem, Israel  p.32
[x]     Talmud Yoma 22b following translation by Jastrow, M. (1989), A Dictionary, Judaica Press New York
[xi]    Talmud Yoma 22b
[xii]   Talmud Yoma 23a
[xiii]  Leviticus 19:18
[xiv] Judges 5, Talmud Shabbat 88b
[xv]  Rashi on Yoma 23a
[xvi] Pirkey Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 2:3