Sunday, June 29, 2014

I'm Here, I'm not Queer - but I support them!

Here's something I posted on my "Philo" Facebook account today (that's the account I use for "blogging" type material, as opposed to my regular FB account):


Earlier today, I wrote, here on Facebook: "Happy Pride Week to all my LGBT friends!". But I wrote it only on this account, my "blogging" Facebook account.

I'm hardly anonymous. My real name (David Staum) is right there next to "Philo" on my main page. But the whole reason I have 2 Facebook accounts is to have one for keeping in touch with family & friends, who range from very conservative to very liberal, very Jewish to very non-Jewish, etc, and another account, this one, for discussing my opinions on politics, social issues, religion, philosophy, etc.

So even though I would like to, I didn't write the same message about Pride Week on my "real" account. And I'm conflicted about that. It's not like most people don't know that I'm very liberal. But on that FB account, I have too many friends from deep inside the "frum" world who would decide to argue with me. And what was meant to simply be an encouraging message of support would degrade into an argumentative comment thread, replete with homophobia, emanating from people I like and care about. And I just don't have the energy for such useless arguments.

Still, I feel like a hypocrite. I feel like some of my gay friends on that account would be happy to see support from someone who is, at the least, associated with the Orthodox Jewish community. As it is, I content myself with oblique congratulations there when another state takes a stand for marriage equality.

I'm not sure what the purpose of this post is. I'm not asking for advice. I'm not going to start posting my opinions front-and-center on my other account. I just wish it didn't need to be this way. Mainly, I wish there wasn't such close-mindedness in the frum community. I wish people could just agree to disagree. But until that day, I don't need the rancor and unpleasantness.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Did anyone check the underside?

Why Shlomo didn't understand the Red Heifer

In Bamidbar Rabba, Chukat 3, it recounts instances of Shlomo's Hamelech's (King Solomon's) deep understanding of everything, reflecting his exceptional wisdom. But at the end of all this, it quotes Shlomo himself saying that despite all his attempts at studying it, he could not understand the nature of Para Aduma, the Red Heifer, which was burned to ash, after which the ashes were used for ritual purification (Bamidbar 19).

Which, of course, doesn't mean that Shlomo couldn't understand it. He presumably would have, as a king at a time when these laws were paramount. What the midrash really means is that they (the authors of Bamidbar Rabba), living 1,000 years later than Shlomo at the very least, and perhaps much later, were no longer comfortable with the idea.

The authors of the Midrash were certainly comfortable with the idea of korbanot (sacrifices) in general. But Parah Adumah is different. It's not really a korban in the sense we think of it:

It is entirely burned to ash. While the Korban Olah is also entirely burnt, there are several differences. The blood of the Olah was sprinkled on the corners of the mizbe'ach (the alter). And the valuable skin was saved and given to the kohanim (priests).

Furthermore, the Para Aduma was burnt OUTSIDE the camp, not on the mizbe'ach at all. The Torah tells us (Devarim/Deuteronomy 19:5) that it is to be burnt up entirely, “her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt.” (Though some blood is sprinkled in the direction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), in the previous verse).

The purpose of sacrifices, at least on the face of it, notwithstanding later Maimonidean interpretations, is to bring gifts to God, so He will enjoy the “re’ach nichoach”, the aromatic fragrance. But the Para Aduma is burnt up OUTSIDE of the Mishkan or Mikdash (Temple). Its only purpose is utilitarian, for the use of the ashes in purification rituals.

What I’d like to suggest is that the authors of the midrash contained in Bamidbar Rabba recognized this utilitarian nature. Regular korbanot? Those they could understand, even in a world where animal sacrifices were rare or nonexistent – they were analogous to prayer, and therefore the “pagan” feel was ameliorated by the fact that it was direct Avodat Hashem, worship of God.

Furthermore, all other animal sacrifices served in some way to feed or provide for human beings. Even the Olah resulted in valuable animal skins for the kohanim. This served an important role in providing sustenance to the nation in a time of centralized worship.

But Para Aduma, although necessary for the functioning of priestly ritual, served no direct higher purpose like the other korbanot. Instead, it was just used for its “magical” properties. And it didn’t provide any food or other tangible benefits like the other korbanot.

So the authors of the midrash, trying to understand a sacrifice that was not a sacrifice, and which provided none of the traditional benefits to the people, wrote their feelings into a story about how the wisest man of them all, the legendary Shlomo, who could even talk to the animals, nevertheless could not puzzle out the rationale for Para Aduma.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Will the real Mey Merivah please stand up?

In this week's parsha, we have the story of "Mey Merivah", where Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it.

As a little kid, I got very confused, experiencing deja vu when learning Chumash. For example: Avimelech of Gerar wanted Yitzchak's wife? So Yitzchak told the king that Rivka was his sister? Wait - didn't that happen with Avraham? Or did I confuse Avraham and Yitzchak?

And of course, Moshe and the rock. Studying Parshat Chukat in class as a kid: Wait, didn't I study this before? Why do I remember it as Hashem TELLING Moshe to hit the rock? He was supposed to speak to it? I'm so confused!

Of course, as a got a little older, I paid attention to my teachers, who explained to me that there were NOT the same incident. Similar events occurred, but they happened twice. In the case of Mey Merivah, the 2 incidents happened 40 years apart. And the fact that the two places had the same name was just coincidence. Or Bnei Yisrael, having experienced a similar event, gave the two places the same name.

As I got even older, several decades older, I realized that I was actually right as a kid. They WERE the same incident, told twice in the Torah by different authors. Then the question becomes, who were those authors?

It's pretty widely accepted in the academic world that the Merivah story in Shemot is by E and the one in Bamidbar is by P. But who were E & P?

In Who Wrote The Bible, Richard Elliot Friedman suggests that E were the kohanim of Shilo, who had been disenfranchised. They ended up in the northern kingdom of Israel, but were sidelined by King Yeravam ben Nevat. So they were priests without a job. And they had a family tradition that they were descended from Moshe. At that point there was little distiction between the Levi'im and Kohanim. All of Shevet Levi were Kohanim. The demotion of some to Levi'im is a later development.

Meanwhile, who did King Rechavam set up as the kohanim in Jerusalem, in the Beit Hamikdash? Those who had a tradition of descent from Aharon. And, according to Friedman, they are the authors of P, at a later point than the writing of E.

If the kohanim of Shilo were writing E, they naturally wanted to make their ancestor, Moshe, look good. So in their version, he was told to strike the rock, and he struck the rock. The miracle occurred.

But P, wanting their ancestor Aharon to look better, had a desire to make Moshe less than perfect. So they, reacting to the already extant combined JE text, rewrote the story slightly. In their version, in Bamidbar, they add Aharon into the story, and they have Moshe commit a sin. This time, he was told to TALK to the rock, but he instead struck the rock. They couldn't rewrite the already known text to omit the miracle, but they could rewrite Moshe's role to make him look less perfect.

All this is a nice theory. And it's very neatly put together. P was a priest in Jerusalem in the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech. E was sometime earlier, in Shilo. This is an identification of who "the author" might be.

But I have trouble with this neat package. Texts in the ancient world were rarely written by the author onto a scroll, which then became the authoriative edition. Instead, like in all ancient cultures, there was a deep tradition of oral narratives. It's really hard to know who "wrote" what. Kernels of narratives started, often built around older songs. These stories may have diverged, converged, and diverged numerous times. People repeated the stories to one another. Local biases crept in. And, like in the mind of the confused child I was, two versions would become one in people's minds. And when they were scattered, voluntarily or not, they would carry the stories to their new homes and new neighbors. There were likely numerous versions.

Friedman himself is not a fan of discussing oral narratives. In one lecture I heard, he dismissed a question from the audience about the oral traditions, asserting that it was not something that could be analyzed or tracked in any way, so was irrelevant to the equation. Like cosmologists who see anything before the big bang as unknowable, Friedman seems to feel that there is no point to such speculation.

Still, even if we can't track oral traditions, I think it helps fill in the picture to consider what role they might have played. And all of this is not to say that the broad strokes of Friedman's theories are wrong. But instead of being in the hands of specific authors, it seems more likely to me that oral narratives arouse in new variations over the years in an organic way.

So P's version of Merivah may have been a reaction to E's story, but with a less deliberate agenda. Saying that P wrote it to play up Aharon and put down Moshe seems callous and false. Friedman writes that the author of P "could not deny Moses' singular place as Israel's greatest leader and prophet, but he still sought to lower the image of Moses somewhat".

However, imagine this instead:

It is during the reign of Chizkiyahu Hamelech. The Assyrians have destroyed the northern kingdom, and refugees are flooding south, to Jerusalem. As they settle in and begin mixing with the population, they tell their stories, E's stories. It doesn't take generations for stories to change. Just look at urban legends today, with their thousands of variations.

So even in very short order, a story like Mey Merivah is repeated and organically changed. As it is repeated, local biases creep in, inserting Aharon. Let's say two versions begin to circulate. In one, Moshe talked to the rock. In another, Moshe hits the rock. The version of Moshe talking to the rock might even have been invented by those who wanted to elevate Moshe. After all, what's a bigger miracle, talking to or hitting the rock?

And as these stories are repeated, again and again, the native residents of Judea, who have a natural affinity to Aharon, combine the stories in a way that makes sense to them, not deliberately, not with malice or an agenda, but just their organic interpretation of how the events being told fit with their prior perception of Moshe. So their version results in Moshe sinning.

Meanwhile, in a counter-reaction to the natives of Judea, the immigrants, who favor Moshe, abandon the "talking to the rock" narrative, since that has become associated with the sin. Instead, they revert to Moshe being told to hit the rock, and then obediently hitting the rock, preserving his righteousness.

There’s no evidence for any of the above. It's all speculation. Friedman's correct about the inability to know what role oral narratives played. But there's still a role for speculation, because otherwise we're stuck with a rigid picture of 4 authors, a picture that may be not as false as the rigid traditional picture of one author, but false nonetheless.

Monday, June 16, 2014


In the wake of the kidnapping of the 3 young men in Israel, I've read a lot of lofty sentiment, how we are all united, all Jews seeing themselves as parents or siblings of these boys.
And that's a beautiful idea. It really is. If nothing else, it must help their families, knowing that everyone is praying and hoping with them, as they deal with this nightmare situation.
If only people left it there.
But apparently "achdut" also means making your particular political point. It means hatred spewed at anyone who doesn't agree with your exact interpretation of events. It means a chance to bash, in ugly terms, politicians, journalists, and leaders who don't jump on a jingoistic bandwagon that apparently is deeply integral to the search for these three young men. It means blatantly misrepresenting facts with no shame. It means a chance to spew racism and xenophobia. It means contempt for fellow Jews whose only crime is not to sign on to your personal crusade.
Yes, I'm so glad we are all united.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What if Rome had become Jewish?

A historical "what if" question.

Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. But in prior centuries, Judaism was a massively proselytizing religion, in Rome and beyond. And though the historicity of this is doubtful, according to the Talmud the emperor "Antoninus" (identification uncertain) actually did embrace Judaism.

So here's the question. What if, instead of converting to Christianity, the Roman Empire had become Jewish?

What would the world look like today?

Would Judaism and Islam have been the great historical rivals, instead of Christianity and Islam? Would Islam even have existed?

What would Judaism look like?

Would a Jewish Rome have rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem? Or would they have shifted the centrality of the religion to Rome itself?

Would Judaism still be a religion of shuls and Torah learning? Or would it look very much like the Catholic Church, with grandiose Cathedrals and a pope-like figure in Rome, but with some version of halacha and a different dogma?

Would Hebrew still be out Lashon Kodesh? Or would it be Latin?

It's impossible to know any of this, of course. But it's a fascinating thought experiment.