Thursday, June 23, 2016

Did not make me a goy?! Sacred text, prejudice and Interpretation (Bahalotecha)

Bless you God for not making me a goy" (the word "goy" is often translated as a non-Jew 1, but it's meaning is highly contested). These words confronted me in a series of prayers that I have recited every morning since I was five. One morning I was in a meditative mode, fully present and intentional with every word I was saying. I paused. The most obvious inference in this prayer is that I am grateful for not being made an impliedly inferior type of person. But this makes no sense to me. There are many people I know personally who are not Jewish and whom I deeply respect and admire.  If I skipped the prayer, it would mean rejecting the theological/legal system that forms the basis of my Orthodox spiritual life.  So I reinterpret the prayer to mean that despite my acknowledgement of the various paths to personal and spiritual greatness of the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists/agnostics, traditionally spiritual Aboriginals and others whom I so admire, I still thank God for giving me my own cherished Jewish heritage and identity rather than any of those other profoundly beautiful other ways of being.  Afterwards I thought, whom am I kidding? Don’t words have a fixed meaning beyond their creative reinterpretations? Perhaps they do, but that is how I chose to deal with it. 
The blessing about not being a non-Jewish person  is followed by an expression of gratitude for not being a slave. I thought that the two prayers could be interpreted in similar ways. To be a "slave" has a certain appeal. As the CEO of a not for profit charity I carry the responsibility for a mission and a few persons’ livelihoods. It's often stressful. Like the Israelites in the desert, I'm tempted by the freedom from responsibility that comes with being an employee or, in the case of the Israelites, the lack of accountability to God they had as slaves of the Pharaohs. 2  Yet despite the attraction of "slavery" I choose to be grateful for the freedom to pursue my vision according to my own conscience and I am happy to pay the price.

The price of leadership can be high. In our Torah reading this week this theme can lead us back to the theme of prejudice. The Israelites in the desert complained and thereby challenged Moses and God. Moses was so frustrated that he would rather have died 3  than continue with his impossible mission of leadership unless God helped him. One group of people are highlighted as being at fault; these were the multitude among them [who] began to have strong cravings.” 4  The multitude was not of them 5” (the Jewish nation), but joined the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt and in this case the ethnic Jews are said to have followed the lead of the multitude and also rebelled.

But there is an opportunity for a strong anti-prejudice lesson in our Torah reading too. We read that Moses was married to a black woman, in fact as black as a raven 6 and that Moses’ siblings were rebuked for wrongly criticizing Moses on account of his black wife. I would assume that if his wife was black so was his non-ethnically Jewish, Midyanite father-in-law, Jethro. Shortly before Moses descended into despair he begged his father-in-law to stay in the desert. Please don’t abandon us…you have been like eyes for us 7” Moses pleaded.  Moses cherished his father-in-law’s advice. A few verses later we are told that Jethro did in fact leave Moses without his support, and that Moses cried out bitterly about the burdens of leadership.   As our sages taught us, there is wisdom among the nations.8  One of our greatest scholars would rise in honour of the accumulated life wisdom of elderly people who were not Jewish 9, while Maimonides happily incorporated ethical teachings from non-Jewish philosophers in his writing. 10

Yet, these highly plausible interpretations in the previous paragraph are far from unanimous. The words Kushite”/black that describe Moses’ wife are taken to mean that she was not black but undeniably beautiful 11 just as a black person is clearly black. Another commentary argues that in fact Moses didn’t really need his father-in-law’s advice at all and just pretended he needed it out of humility 12.  I suggest that when it comes to religion, especially mine, interpretation is almost everything. So thank you God for making me Jewish even thought I could have been gloriously wonderful in a somewhat different way, being someone else.

This is one demonstration of creative interpretation of a religious text that at first glance seems to say one thing but can actually mean something else.   

1. I object to words like “goy” or non-Jew as a noun. I think that a person should be defined by what they are and how they define themselves rather than how they are not like me. The literal meaning of the word "goy" is nation and can have a neutral meaning referring to a person from a nation other than the Jewish nation. The blessing traditionally is understood to reflect additional commandments that Jews are obligated in according to Judaism. 
2.  This comment is based on commentary to Numbers 11:5 when the Jews talked about free fish they age in Egypt, which is interpreted by Sifre, cited in Rashi, as being free from Mitzvot
3.  Numbers 11:10-15
4.  Numbers 11:4
5.  Ibn Ezra on 11:4
6.  Numbers 12:1-9 according to Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel
7.  Numbers 10:31
8.  Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13 מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
9.  Talmud 33:1
10.  Maimonides,
הרמב"ם בתחילת הקדמתו למסכת אבות ("שמונה פרקים") כותב: "ודע, כי הדברים אשר אומר אותם באלו הפרקים... הם עניינים מלוקטים מדברי החכמים (חכמי ישראל)... ומדברי הפילוסופים גם כן ומחיבורי הרבה בני אדם. ושמע האמת ממי שאמרה". על הפילוסוף היווני אריסטו כותב הרמב"ם: "הוא אשר לימד לבני אדם את דרכי ההוכחה וחוקיה ותנאיה" ("מורה הנבוכים" חלק ב פרק טו(.
cited in
11.  Sifre, Unkelous, Rashi, and Ralbag, see Ibn Kaspi’s (cited in Nechama Lebovitz) withering critique of these teachings that essentially take the verses to mean the opposite of what the plain text appears to be saying
12.  Ralbag

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