Saturday, December 5, 2015

Inheriting Abraham, by Jon D. Levenson

Someone once said that the U.S. and the U.K. are two nations divided by a common language. We both speak English, but oh, the different ways we speak it!

This brilliant little book by Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, makes the same claim about Jewish, Christian, and Muslim conceptions of Abraham. Abraham is central to all of us, but in very different ways.

Abraham in Judaism

For Jews, broadly speaking, Abraham is the the first father of our people. In the Torah, God singled him out and commanded his allegiance, and Abraham proved worthy of God's trust through his actions. He circumcised himself and his sons Ishmael and Isaac, as God instructed. He didn't withhold his son Isaac when God told him to sacrifice Isaac (in the Akedah story). Abraham also argued with God about what justice required, so well that if only a few more righteous people lived in Sodom and Gomorrah, both cities would have been saved.

Some commentators go so far as to imagine that Abraham lived by the 613 commandments of the Torah even before they were given to Moses. The continuity between Abraham and the Jewish people is complete.

Jews are descendants of Abraham in a lineal way, but there are other biological descendants: the children of Ishmael. In the Torah, they are blessed with the promise of becoming great nations. Jews are blessed in the same way too, but we claim an additional legacy from Abraham. As a community, we inherit his commitment to God, and God to him. That is why converts to Judaism typically call themselves "son or daughter of Abraham" (and Sarah, in more liberal circles).
Converting to Judaism

Within the Jewish tradition, there are ways of recognizing Abraham's importance for people who are not descended from him in any way. This begins in the Torah: "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (Genesis 12:3) and continues in midrash that states that throughout their travels, Abraham and Sarah brought many people to an understanding of God. Judaism is not an either/or religion, however. Abraham can be a light unto the nations (as we are commanded to be, as a people) and still be specifically Avraham Avinu, Abraham our father.

Abraham in Christianity

Christianity, of course, originally sprang from Judaism. Beginning with Paul, however, Christians interpreted the figure of Abraham both as a foreshadowing of Jesus and as a proof that they--and not the Jews--were the proper descendants of Abraham.

This interpretation rested on two readings of Genesis that the Jewish tradition would not accept.
  1. Reading Genesis 12:3 not as "All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" but through you, instead. The Jewish reading had people saying, "May you be like Abraham!" The Christian reading had them saying "We are like Abraham, and the message that he brought flows through us."
  2. Making much of the fact that God chooses Abraham first and only later commands him to circumcise himself and his male children. In Paul's hands, this becomes proof that circumcision (and by extension, all the mitzvot, or commandments, of the Torah) are unnecessary. The nations of the world can become Christians without becoming Jews first.
For Christians, according to Levenson, Abraham's distinguishing feature was his faith in God. Since to many Christians, Jesus is God, their belief in Jesus makes them descendants of Abraham. 

From this perspective, people who do not put faith first, and people who do not believe in Jesus, are missing the point of Abraham and (in the case of Jews) spurning their inheritance. They are putting their salvation in peril. That is an unimaginable thing for a Christian to do, but not an issue that takes up much space in Judaism. Christians generally don't realize that Jews by and large leave questions of what happens after death up to God, and that Jews believe "The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come" (Pirkei Avot 1:1). So, what is the point to Christians is beside the point to Jews.

For Christians, the meaning of Abraham is that Jews should give up rabbinic teachings and "go back to Abraham"--meaning to the Abraham imagined by Christians, who cares only for God and his own soul, not the one in Genesis who is clearly exercised over which of his biological sons will inherit from him. So, for Jews and Christians, being "Abrahamic religions" is a stumbling block to interfaith understanding as much as it is a spur to achieve it.

Abraham in Islam

No god but God, and Abraham was his prophet
 In Islam, Abraham is not the ancestor of the Jews nor the prototype of Christian faith. Abraham is a "muslim" in the literal sense: a person who submits to God.

For followers of Islam, what is most important about Abraham is his strict monotheism. The Qur'an stresses that Abraham was not a pagan or a polytheist, at a time when the vast majority of people were. In this way, Abraham the prophet was just like Muhammad the prophet, and the latter came to restore and amplify on the teachings of the former. Being a descendant of Abraham in any sense doesn't matter. What matters is sharing his belief.

The Torah shows Abraham meeting with and worshiping with priests who called God by other names than he did, and it does not show Abraham saying that only one God exists--simply that he, Abraham, will follow only one. Unlike Christians and Jews, however, Muslims are not bound by the stories in the Torah. If those stories conflict with Qur'an or with belief, they are free to regard them as garbled in transmission. So once again, Jews and Muslims being "Abrahamic" is a source of tension between them as much as it is an opportunity for mutual understanding.

One Abraham or Three?

Jew and Christians both claim to be Abraham's descendants and heirs. Muslims don't.

Jews and Muslims both think Abraham's monotheism means God has no body and no separate "persons." Christians think God has both.

Christians and Muslims both think everyone must eventually accept the truth of their religion to be saved from hell. Jews don't.

Levenson is drawing all these distinctions partly because he is a careful scholar, but partly because he is convinced that relations between Jews, Muslims, and Christians must be based on mutual respect. Sweeping these differences under the rug only keeps us from doing the more important work of understanding one another. I fully agree.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

When I was a small boy, my father told me that it was important for a person to be able to laugh at himself. On my first day of school, the teacher gave us all name tags. On my tag, which she  pressed to my small chest, she spelled my name wrong. All during recess, I walked from child to child, pointing out the misspelling and laughing at my own name.

I couldn't understand why all the children running and shouting and playing dodge ball thought I was the weird one. I was doing what's important, after all.

Sheila, the viewpoint character in How Should a Person Be?, is in her twenties, but she's still trying to do what I did at age six: find out what's important to do and do it. Her rules don't include "Be able to laugh at yourself." If they did, perhaps this book would never have been written! Instead, she's trying to create something important, and she thinks that you judge how important a thing is by how intensely it makes you feel.

It takes a masochistic relationship with a man, the prospect of ruining her best friendship with a woman, and discarding mementos of her childhood to make her realize that there is no one way a person should be, and that she doesn't have to be a leader to be important. Each person is uniquely valuable, even Sheila.

I could sympathize with her desire to feel everything intensely, even if it hurts. That's what my early twenties were like too. And sometimes you have to cross boundaries and do ugly things just once, to find out what it's like. I also loved the way Sheila recognized people spewing theories as "just another man in the world who wanted to teach me something." It led to her realization that she had become that guy--like me on the playground, trying to show I could laugh at myself.

All through the book, however, as a feminist, every time I read about her wanting to be used by her sex partner, Israel, I wanted to shake her. Don't you know, I said in my head, that women and men already went through all that, so you don't have to? (And as a fellow Jew: what is up with naming the guy Israel when your Jewish identity shows up in the way you speak and the metaphors you use throughout the book? Seems like some unopened baggage there, still.)

So, I ended the book thinking that all the really interesting parts of Sheila's story begin when this book ends. I don't know whether that's a reflection on the book or on me. I'm glad I read it, just as I'm glad I lived my young adult life. And I would never want to do it again.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Social Issues and Torah: Torah Based Responses to Homosexuality

I am not an Orthodox Jew, so my approach to Torah and sexuality is very different, but I found this blog entirely worth reading.

Social Issues and Torah: Torah Based Responses to Homosexuality: As a person with a commitment to fight prejudice and committed to living my life based on an orthodox interpretation of the Torah this is a ...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Was there an exodus?

"The book of Exodus claims that the God of Israel overmastered Ramesses the Great by several orders of magnitude, effectively trouncing him at his own game." So says Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and at Shalem College in Israel,

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Welcome to My World: Wrestling with Rebels

The Torah portion that Noah Carton-Smith spoke about at his bar mitzvah today at Temple B'nai Brith has fascinated me for years. You can read five of my earlier posts about it at:

Welcome to My World: Wrestling with Rebels.

Two years ago, my bat mitzvah student Abby Kehoe (may her memory be a blessing) said:

"The rabbis often filled
in gaps in the text of the Torah by writing their commentary or stories known
as midrash. And so, I decided to write this midrash, trying to explain why
Korah revolted against Moses."

Once, in the land of
Egypt, there was a young boy named Korah. 
He had the difficult life of an Israelite slave.  One hot, sunny day, he saw the taskmaster
beating a slave, which was not uncommon. 
Suddenly, a peculiar thing happened. 
While Korah watched from the shadows, a young man ran up to the slave
and the taskmaster, and killed the taskmaster. The young man happened to be

Korah was in awe.  If
only I had that power, that control,
thought.  Having no authority as a slave
made him fume.  After the Israelites
escaped Egypt, his hunger for power only grew stronger. He was seen as noble in
the community, but that wasn
t enough. He decided to
gather followers, and rebel against Moses and Aaron.  He blamed them for acting too holy.  Very soon after, he and the other rebels

Some said that slavery
made him bitter.  After the difficult
life of labor, he wanted some respect, some power.  Others said he was envious of Moses and Aaron
s authority.  But in one thing the community was
certain:  he wanted leadership.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

These Little Lights of Mine

How can a religious person be a scientist? How can a scientist be a religious person?

     In today's Torah portion, Be'haalotcha, there's a description of the menorah. Not the Chanukah menorah, with its eight branches: that came many hundreds of years after the biblical story. No, what we're talking about here is the menorah of the mishkan, the traveling sanctuary, and later of the Temple in Jerusalem. It had seven branches: three on each side, one in the middle.

     I was very interested to read the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation of the Torah that says:
...the six branches of the m'norah represent the several scientific and academic disciplines, whereas the center stalk represents the light of the Torah. Secular learning and faith are not rivals; each has its own concerns and addresses its own set of questions. They shed light on each other and and together they illumine our world.
     I was particularly interested that the source of this insight was given as Rabbi Isaac Luria, the founder of a major branch of Jewish mysticism (the Lurianic Kabbalah). If Luria, the mystic, could recognize the worth of secular science, it is amazing to me that any Jew could try to shut it out.

     So I was sad when I listened to the story of Shulem Deen, a former New Square Hasid, as told on the NPR podcast Reply All. He bought a computer back in the days when a free America Online disk came with the package. By going onto the internet, he learned things he never imagined--like how Reform Jews think, for a start! And he ended up being expelled by his Hasidic community, which saw him as a source of a freethinking contagion that might spread.

     To my mind, this attitude toward secularism is the flip side of the New Atheism, as expounded in the writings of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The ultra-Orthodox forbid the study of secular science. The New Atheists do a cursory study of religious texts to find apparent absurdities without making any attempt to understand religious teachings in context. Neither can abide the other, and both treat the other as a threat.

     If only all religious people could value science as much as Isaac Luria did! (And many of us do.) If only all scientists could understand the religious imagination and the scientific spirit of investigation as both answering the human need to seek meaning in the universe. (And many do.)

     The desire for meaning is like the shamash, the extra candle on the Chanukah menorah. It kindles our curiosity and our sense of wonder. It is the source of both science and religion, which are candles of different colors that belong together.


Monday, May 18, 2015

In Praise of the Library Shelf

books on shelves
I don't spend enough time in the library these days. Online requests have made it too easy to breeze in, pick up a book at the front desk, and walk out. But with that gain comes a loss: the loss of serendipity.

A shelf of books in a library is a serendipity engine: it brings books under my nose that I would never search out for myself. When I'm reading nonfiction, the good librarians have pre-sorted it by subject. Whether they use the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal system, they've done the equivalent of what Amazon now does with its "People who like this also liked that" algorithm. And they did it first, and better.

Even with fiction, which is often shelved by authors' last names, I have often found new authors through the sheer power of proximity. Lisa Scottoline is a best-selling author of mysteries. Sandra Scoppetone wrote a series of lesbian detective novels with punny titles like I’ll Be Leaving You Always  and Gonna Take A Homicidal Journey. They're side by side on the library bookshelf, and that's how I found the less read and (better written) series.  

So, I'll keep the convenience of the Minuteman Library Network and the assurance that anytime I hear of a good book, I can go online and order it. But here's to the physical shelves of the Somerville Public Library and the people who maintain them. Your subtle magic enlivens many lives.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What Did--and Didn't--Just Happen in Israel's Elections

Judging by what I see online, most Americans have no idea how Israeli elections actually work. Here's a short introduction.

Nobody votes for prime minister. Israeli voters cast their ballots for one of many political parties. The parties get a share of the 120 seats in the Knesset in rough proportion to the number of votes they actually got. (You have to get a few percent to get ANY seats at all.)

The party that gets the most seats in the Knesset is usually--but not always--the one that gets to try to form a coalition with some of the other parties that includes more than 60 votes out of the 120. If they do, the leader of that party becomes the prime minister. So, neither Netanyahu, Herzog, nor anybody else was elected as prime minister today.

No party is clearly ahead. Depending on which poll you trust, either the two biggest parties have 27 seats each or the Likud has 28 and the Zionist Union has 27. It's basically a draw.

Therefore, it's not clear who will be asked to form the next government. That's up to the President of Israel (not the Prime Minister), and he has stated a clear preference for a "government of national unity": that is, a government that includes BOTH the biggest parties and others besides.

Netanyahu's party, the Likud, may have an advantage. It's fairly easy to see how they would get to 60+ votes. If every right or center-right party supported them, they'd be in.

But maybe not. One of the center-right parties is a breakaway from the Likud, headed by a man who personally dislikes Netanyahu. That party might choose to ally with center-left Zionist Union instead...for the right price.

The biggest news is not who's #1 nor #2.  The third largest bloc in the Knesset is likely to be the Joint List of Arab parties and one Arab & Jewish party. That has never happened before. What it means for the future is unclear, but at the very least, they'll be in a position to lobby for better services to Israeli citizens who are Arabs.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Jewish Gospels, by Daniel Boyarin: a review

Boyarin argues that when Jesus claimed to be a divine being as well as the anointed king, he was saying something other Jews would understand and find normal. From Boyarin's perspective, the difference between Jesus' followers and other Jews was not that he claimed to be the unique Son of God but that most Jews didn't think he was that guy.

I'm not a biblical scholar. I'm a Jew, immersed in the Judaism of the 21st century CE. So, the challenge for me reading this book was to try to imagine myself in the 1st century, before most of what I know as Judaism had taken firm shape.

Unlike some of the other reviewers, I had no problem with the idea that Jesus kept kosher (the title of chapter three). It even made sense to me that he might have been aghast at the new ways of keeping kosher that the P'rushim (later called Pharisees by people who couldn't read Hebrew) introduced. These forerunners of the rabbinic movement had the radical idea that all Jews could live in a state of ritual purity--not just the priests--and that ordinary activities like cooking and eating could be made holy. On Boyarin's reading, Jesus was a conservative, saying "Don't add new rules to what the Torah already prescribes." I can't verify his reasons for saying that, but it seems plausible to me, perhaps because to my mind it makes the rabbis look as revolutionary as I think they were.

The idea that there were a lot of different ways of being Jewish at the time, and that Christianity was just one of them for centuries, also makes sense with what history I know.

Given that, there may even have been Jews who think what Boyarin thinks they thought: that the Messiah, son of David, would also be a divine figure. Boyarin uses ingenious readings of Jewish texts that are minor (Daniel) or totally obscure (First Enoch, Fourth Ezra) today, to back up this point.

According to his reading of these texts, "Son of Man" (ben adam, in the Hebrew) actually means a figure shaped like a man who sits on a throne at the right of God and then descends in the clouds to earth, to rule. "Son of God" actually means the divinely chosen ruler, who is a son of God the same way a bar mitzvah is literally a son of the commandment: he's under God's authority. (That is my comparison, not Boyarin's.) At some point, the two became identified.

Boyarin argues that these texts set up the expectation of a divine Messiah, that Jesus said he was that person, and that the Jews who rejected him understood what he was saying--it wasn't an innovation to them--but denied his claim to be The One.

This is completely intriguing, but I am dubious, for several reasons.

1. Boyarin cherry-picks the verses that support his argument.

2. When he comes across verses that seem to contradict his thesis, he writes them off as an editor trying to bring an unruly original text back into line. You can do anything with a text that way!

3. That picture of an orthodox editor implies that the view that the Messiah was NOT a divine figure was always the dominant one. The Christological idea that Boyarin says is "Jewish" may always have been as strange to most Jews as "Jews for Jesus" are to most Jews today.

4. Boyarin gives no evidence that Daniel (which was eventually included in the Jewish canon, or Tanach, but has no role in the liturgy) was widely read at the time. (A stray part of me wonders if Boyarin wants "Daniel" to be important because it's his first name.) Some of the other books he cites are only extant in the literature of the Ethiopian Jews. It may be just my ignorance, but I have no way of knowing whether those books were circulating in first-century Palestine or not--and Boyarin doesn't tell me. So is he making an argument that people in that time and place would find recognizable?

Finally, let's say for the sake of argument that Boyarin is right in every respect. I can understand why that would be important to a historian. But why in the world would it be important to the rest of us?

Judaism and Christianity may have parted ways later and over different issues than we used to think--but they did part. They have been separate religions for at least 1800 years now. Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Jews have been persecuted in the name of Christianity. (I hasten to say that there have also been individual Christians who were great friends of Jews, even putting themselves at risk to do so.)

Harking back to a time when followers of Jesus were a recognized but minor Jewish sect does nothing to bring us closer together. Understanding where we are and how we differ today is a more productive path for Jews, Christians, and (I would add) the other children of Abraham, the Muslims, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Davening the Lord's Prayer

My parents used to sing us to sleep every night.  One of the songs that took a regular turn in the repertory was The Lord's Prayer, the Perry Como version, I think. And this could have been strange. We were a Jewish household, holding onto our identity in a nearly all-Christian suburb of Pittsburgh. The song is based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seemed perfectly natural and in tune with what we believed.

Ten pages of The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine, explain my childhood experience to me. Those are the pages where she shows, phrase by phrase, that the "Lord's Prayer" is made up of concepts that are entirely Jewish. In fact, she suggests that Christians would understand the prayer better if they knew more about its historical context. Follow this with me.

"Our father in heaven": Jews in the first century used the term Abba ("father") regularly, and even today Avinu (our father) is a common term in the Jewish prayerbook. Back then, it was also a political statement: a rejection of the Roman Caesar's claim to be the father of all his subjects.

"Hallowed be your name": every Jewish prayer service includes repetition of the Kaddish prayer, which begins "Magnified and sanctified be [God's] great name." And name in Hebrew is not just a word or a sound but the expression of God's active energy in our lives.

"Your kingdom come": this expresses the Jewish wish for the olam ha-ba, the "world to come," which is not an afterlife but the kingdom of God during the Messianic period. Again, this is a bold rejection of Rome's claim to be the ultimate sovereign.

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven": because the kingdom of God will create a world of justice and peace, here, where we live, and not exclusively in a spiritual realm.

"Give us this day our daily bread": Levine argues persuasively that this translation, in its redundancy, is missing the point. She would translate it "Give us tomorrow's bread today." Tomorrow's bread, for which we hunger, is precisely the Messianic age.

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors":  This is a Jewish idea as well. We help those who are in economic distress, which would have been the only reason to take on debt in an agricultural economy. We believe that God will help us in our distress and keep us from paying all that we owe for our actions, whether they are sins ("trespasses") or just falling short of the mark.

Levine says, "The Greek phrase usually translate as 'Lead us not into temptation' is better rendered 'Do not bring us to the test.'" If the Roman empire would persecute you for practicing your religion and give you a good job if you would renounce your people and your traditions, that is a test that no one should have to face. Jesus knew that, and ultimately had to face that inhuman trial himself.

"But deliver us from evil": better, "the evil one." Satan in the Jewish tradition was the prosecuting angel when we were put to the test, always arguing that we had failed. For first-century Jews facing the trials of the Roman empire, it must have felt like an evil enemy pursuing them at every turn.

So, what I learn from Levine is that we could understand the "Lord's Prayer" this way:

Avinu malkeinu, our father in heaven, the way that you use your power in our lives is holy. Bring about the world to come, the Messianic age, so that what you have commanded us will be our actual everyday lives. Let us taste that world now. Don't hold our wrongdoings against us. Be merciful as you have told us to be merciful. Especially, don't let worldly powers put us in a position where we have to pay a terrible price for doing the right thing. Release us from their justice which is no justice. You are our only God and ruler.
If Jesus were alive today and prayed this prayer, as a Jew I would respond, "Amen!"