The world has suddenly been divided into two groups: the Blue and Blacks and the Red and Whites.
The BBs and the RWs are screaming at each other in shuls, in delis, and JCCs across the globe. The cause of the great debate? Hamantaschen.
Some say that the difference is only a matter of poor lighting, but I say that for Jews at Purim, there is always plenty of light, happiness and honor.
The world has suddenly been divided into two groups: the Blue and Blacks and the Red and Whites.
"The cherubs will stretch forth their wings on high, shielding the cover with their wings, and their faces looking at one another…"
"Jews must have two qualities. They must 'stretch forth their wings on high,' always striving upward toward higher levels, and they must have 'their faces looking at one another,' always seeing the distress of others and willing to help."
–Sadeh Margalit, quoted in Itturei Torah, 3:215
This has been a painful week, and a hopeful one. In Copenhagen this week, a gunman killed an innocent man at a "free speech" event that featured a cartoonist who had previously drawn a picture of the Muslim prophet Muhammed. He then went to a synagogue and killed another innocent man, a volunteer who stood guard to protect the Jewish community there.
In my own community of Rhode Island this week, someone vandalized a Muslim school by spray painting insults on the walls of the building. The primary victims in this case were the innocent children who attend a school that has been noted for its community spirit and kindness.
The spray paint on the facade of the Islamic School of Rhode Island already has been washed away, but the fear in the hearts of the school's children will stay within them for as long as they breathe. The life of Dan Uzan, the 37-year-old volunteer murdered in Copenhagen, is gone forever. The tears and heartache of his family and community also are etched on their souls for lifetimes.
These crimes were the product of hatred, a refusal to see another human being as anything but an enemy. In such eyes, even a child appears to be worthy of any pain that can be inflicted upon him or her. But this is not the Jewish way of seeing human beings.
At the center of the holiest place in the world, we learn in the book of Exodus, there is a throne upon which rests the Presence of the Blessed Holy One. Judaism does not countenance anything like a graven image to represent God, so what did the ancients Hebrews put in the place of the throne? In the Holy of Holies, they put a golden box containing words of Torah that taught them all human beings are created in the image of God.
On top of the box, they placed two golden cherubs with their wings outstretched and their faces looking at one another. This teaches us that we should always lift ourselves beyond the limitations we experience in life. It teaches us that we should always be willing to look into the face of others and see their humanity.
In response to the attack on the synagogue in Copenhagen, Muslims in the Norwegian city of Oslo this week are surrounding their community's synagogue on Shabbat in a gesture of protection. They are lifting themselves up from their fears and looking into the faces of Jews and seeing their own Norwegian brothers and sisters. Here in Rhode Island, a broad coalition of faith leaders from the Christian and Jewish communities came together the day after the vandalism of the Muslim school to vow their support and symbolic protection.
I know that there are people in the Muslim community and in the Jewish community who fear that supporting members of another faith will put them at risk. Those are reasonable fears. There are people who will question whether it is their role to support members of a different faith that has not always been so friendly to them. That is also reasonable. The higher truth, though, is that it is exactly at moments like this that we should spread out our wings and strive to be our best. We are at our best, as human beings, and as Jews, when we are willing to look into the face of another and to recognize the image of God.
This week in Alabama, there was a strange case of judicial disagreement in which the chief justice of the state Supreme Court tried to overrule a federal court judge on the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. That sort of thing is not supposed to happen in the American legal system. On questions of federal law and the Constitution, federal courts are supposed to trump state courts, even if the state court is the highest court in the state.
Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court stated this week that his state does not need to follow a ruling by a federal court that throws out Alabama's prohibition on same-sex marriage. Chief Justice Moore's decree seemed to fly in the face of an American judicial system that has clear rules about which courts have superior authority over others. His statement may even be seen as a threat to the integrity of the American judicial system.
Calling on people to ignore a court ruling is dangerous business. Courts are one of the institutions that keep our society functioning. Jewish tradition gives courts in a very honored status for just that reason.
Surely, you have noticed the high regard that laws and legality have in Jewish tradition. Our central sacred book, the Torah, is often called the "Written Law" in Jewish tradition (as opposed to the "Oral Law" of the Talmud and rabbinic teachings). Discussing and arguing about law is one of the central ways that Jews and Jewish tradition explore our relationship to God, our obligations to other people, and the meaning of our lives.
No wonder there are so many Jewish lawyers.
This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, includes several laws regarding the conduct of judges and the legal system. The Torah teaches:
You shall not curse (God / a judge) and you shall not speak an imprecation against a leader of your people… You shall not give false reports, and do not conspire with the wicked to be a malicious witness. Do not chase after the majority to do wrong, and do not give misleading evidence in a dispute to support the strong. Nor should you surgar-coat the position of the weak and poor in his dispute.
– Exodus 22:27, 23:1-3
This section of the Torah portion is clearly talking about courts, judges and legal systems. The law, says the Torah, must be respected, it must be fair, it must be treated with sanctity, and it must be just to all. That seeming clarity is what makes the ambiguity ("God / a judge") in the first verse so interesting.
The Hebrew word for the entity that must not be cursed is familiar and common in the Bible. The word, Elohim, is usually taken to mean "God." However, the great Torah commentator Rashi makes it clear that the word often has another meaning.
For example, earlier in this week's Torah portion, there is a law that says that if a slave wishes to stay with his master after his term of servitude has ended, "His master must take him to the Elohim." It could be that the slave is taken before God, but that doesn't really make sense in the context. What seems more likely is that that slave is brought before a panel of judges who must decide if the master has pressured the slave into remaining in servitude, or if he actually wants to stay a slave. The word "Elohim" as Rashi explains, sometimes means "judges."
If we return to the passage about not cursing Elohim, we see a delicious double meaning to the verse that Rashi noticed in the eleventh century. According to Rashi, the phrase, "You shall not curse Elohim," means two things simultaneously. Rashi says, "Behold, this is a prohibition regarding cursing God and a prohibition against cursing a judge." It works both ways. Why?
Rashi could have said that, in this context, the word Elohim should only be read to mean "judge" since the passage is all about judges and courts. But Rashi felt that both readings make sense because, in a way, treating God with respect is the same as treating a judge with respect.
In the Jewish legal system, laws come from God and they are interpreted and administered by human beings. The legal system depends upon the respect that human beings have for God's law, but it also depends upon respect for those people who have been charged with applying the laws to actual cases and disputes. Curse a judge, and you are cursing God. Curse God, and you are cursing those who serve as judges.
This is why the Talmud teaches, "Any judge who gives true judgement truthfully – even if it is for just a single hour – is regarded by Scripture as if he were a partner with the Holy Blessed One in the act of creating the world" (B. Shabbat 10a). Judges who do their job with integrity are God's partners, necessary for God's laws to enter the world and for God's plans for the world to work as they are intended.
Today it seems that the question of same-sex marriage in Alabama has been settled. Few courts and magistrates are heeding Chief Justice Moore's call to ignore the ruling of the federal court, and that is probably a good thing. When courts are cursed, God is cursed, and, perhaps, our entire society is cursed. When the rule of law is obeyed, when courts are respected and honored, we are all blessed. And God is blessed.
I spent an hour today in Israel – or, rather, at Israel's embassy to the United States in Washington, D.C. However, since there is a common belief that embassies are the sovereign territory of the nations they represent, I will prefer to think of it as a trip to a little piece of the Land of Israel, the spiritual home of the Jewish people.
(They certainly used an Israeli decorator to design the interior – complete with "Star of David" wall-to-wall carpeting and an emphasis on function over comfort. It felt just like being in a Jerusalem hotel lobby. The next best thing to being there.)
Today's visit was part of a trip to Washington of the Confirmation class I teach (10th graders). The students were treated to a briefing from an embassy staff member who talked to them about her work to build bridges of understanding, cooperation and mutual benefit between the American and Israeli people. My students (I am quite proud of them) asked excellent questions about the way that Israel is perceived by Americans and people around the world, about last summer's war with Hamas, and about the current issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions and Prime Minister Netanyahu's invitation to speak before Congress. I am quite grateful to Katharine Nasielski of the Embassy staff for answering their questions with forthright honesty and insight.
For me, making the visit to the Israeli Embassy was an important experience to give to my students. I want them to understand – and to be able to communicate to their peers – the realities of Israel. American Jews, and Americans in general, tend either to romanticize Israel as the spiritual center of the world, or to demonize it as a country of endless violence, war and hostility. Neither image is true.
Israel is a real place, with real problems, disputes, politics, competing interests, and people just trying to live their lives. I think today's visit helped the students understand that a bit better. They heard about how Israelis feel deeply emotionally connected to the land, even in times of war and violence. They heard about the conflicts between religious and secular Jews in Israel. They heard about how Israel struggles to build a single nation out of a society that has many religions, many ethnicities, and many cultural groups.
The real Israel is a much more interesting and much more fulfilling place than any of the romantic or vilified versions. Israel is a country with a lot of problems – as any Israeli will tell you – but it also is a country that is, on the whole, quite joyful. For all of their problems, Israelis are overwhelmingly committed to making the crazy experiment work. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Baha'i and none-of-the-above Israelis find ways to be part of a society that is a work in progress with a hopefulness about the future and a determination to survive and thrive despite all the threats they face.
That is what real joy is. It's not living a fantasy. Sometimes, it is living a difficult reality with courage and hope.
Of course, the best thing for my Confirmation students would be to go to the real Israel – not just an embassy of a few acres. To really know the place that has been the home of the Jewish people for more than three millennia – good people, bad people, real people – one really has to set foot in the Land of Israel itself.
As a congregational rabbi, I know that there is one prayer that will make people feel compelled to come to the synagogue. they won't come because they need to say the T'filah (also called the Amida or Sh'moneh Esrei). They don't come just to say Sh'ma. The prayer that consistently brings Jews to the synagogue is the Mourners Kaddish.
The people we love who have died remain a powerful force upon us. The things they said and did continue to matter to us, and they continue to shape the things we say and do, long after they are gone. We want them to be present to us and we use prayers like the Kaddish to remember them even when remembering hurts.
This week's Torah portion (Vayechi) includes the death of Jacob and Joseph, but there is much earlier death that hangs like a shadow over the story.
When Joseph learned that his father, Jacob, was on his deathbed, he brought his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to visit him. Jacob summoned his strength to sit up to give a blessing to the boys. But before he did, he told Joseph that he was adopting them as his own. He further explained that he was doing this because "when I arrived from Paddan, Rachel died by me while I was journeying in the land of Canaan ... and I buried her there on the road to Ephrat" (Genesis 48:7).
There is a mystery. Why did Jacob adopt Joseph's sons? What does it have to do with the death of Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife and Joseph's mother? Why does Jacob say that Rachel died "by me" or "upon me" (in Hebrew, עלי)?
It may be, as midrash teaches, that Jacob was responding to Joseph's desire to know for certain that his Egyptian-born children from an Egyptian mother would be included in the covenant of Abraham. It may be that Jacob sought to claim the boys as compensation for the many years he thought that Joseph was dead. It may be that he thought of Ephraim and Manasseh as the sons he would have had with Rachel if she had not died so young.
Ephraim and Manasseh were not just grandchildren to Jacob. They seem to have had deep symbolic meaning to him. They were, perhaps, reminders of the greatest grief and losses of his life. They were symbols he wanted to claim as his own, even as he approachedhis own death, to keep his lost love close in his memory and heart.
Jacob said that Rachel died "by me" or "upon me," and the seemingly superfluous word is the greatest mystery of all. It could mean that Rachel literally died at his side, that he was attending her at the moment when she succumbed during childbirth. It could be a statement of the depth of his sorrow -- as if he wanted to say how much the weight of grief was still "upon me." It could be an expression of guilt -- an acknowledgment that she may have died "on my account" because of the curse he unwittingly placed upon her (Genesis 31:32) when she stole her father's idols (Genesis 31:19).
So much happened between the time of Rachel's death and Jacob's blessing of Joseph's sons -- a passages of some 40 years or more. Joseph was sold into slavery and was presumed dead by his father. Joseph went from being the chief steward of a noble house, to being a forgotten prisoner in a dungeon, to being the second in command of all Egypt. A famine threatened the life of Jacob's entire family, forcing him to put the life of his favorite son at risk. The family was reunited and saved.
Through all of that, they never forgot Rachel. Her memory, her love, the trauma of her death, and the guilt associated with it, all of these clung to Jacob and Joseph through the decades. It was impossible for the two men to inaugurate a new generation of the family without invoking her name.
And that is what I hear when Jews come to the synagogue to recite the Kaddish. They invoke the names of parents, siblings, spouses and (God forbid) children despite the pain. There are no simple and clear reasons why. There is memory and love, sorrow and duty. There is sometimes regret and guilt. To the core of our being, we know they are with us and shape us, even decades after they are gone.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Joseph couldn't take it anymore. The charade had to end.
He had been testing his brothers – and maybe also toying with them and tormenting them – for long enough. Hiding behind the mask of the viceroy of Egypt, he had been able to deceive his brothers. He had hidden items in their bags and then accused them of stealing. He had held them captive on trumped up charges. He had done things that we associate with the traits of corrupt power. And all for what?
If it was all a test to see if the brothers who once sold him into slavery had changed, Joseph must have seen that they passed the test. When Joseph's brother, Judah, stood up to the viceroy of Egypt and refused to allow their brother Benjamin to be imprisoned and enslaved, Joseph must have seen that these were no longer the same men who threw him into the pit. They had been changed by the guilt of what they did to Joseph. They had been changed by hearing their father's anguished cries of grief over losing his favorite son. They had been changed by having to maintain the secrets and lies for twenty years.
Joseph ripped off the mask and cried, "I am Joseph! Does my father still live?" (Genesis 45:3).
But the things Joseph did not say spoke just as loudly. He did not admit, justify or apologize for his cruelty to his brothers. He just said that it was all part of God's plan, as if that wiped away his cruel behavior.
Was it really necessary for Joseph to use his power as viceroy to lock up his brother Simeon and to threaten them all? Wasn't it also a bit of revenge? Wasn't Joseph motivated at least as much by his anger toward his older brothers as he was by an attempt to discern whether they had changed?
I think that when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he also was revealed to himself. "I am Joseph!" was as much an admission as a revelation. He admitted that he was still, in some ways, the arrogant and spoiled child who once harassed his brothers with Jacob's favoritism and his dreams of dominating them. Joseph ripped off the mask because he could not stand to perpetuate a game in which he toyed with his brothers. The time had come for him to admit his identity -- both the outer mask and his inner, unsavory truth.
The story of Joseph – indeed, the entire story of the book of Genesis – is the story of admitting what we are. The perfect God has made us imperfect, so it is our challenge and our duty to know ourselves, to confront our truth, and thereby transcend it.
What masks do you wear to hide your faults? When will you take them off and admit, after all, that you are human?
Other Posts on This Topic:
Learning about Jewish Prayer from Yoga
This past Wednesday night, I went to a nursing home to visit a member of the congregation I serve. The man's family had told me that he was under hospice care and was not expected to live more than another day or two.
Being with people near the end of life, offering them comfort, and supporting their families is part of what rabbis do. It is an honor. When I hold the hands of dying people – praying with them and sometimes quietly singing for them – I feel like I am doing something important. I feel like I am doing something that makes my own life matter in some small way. It is humbling.
Wednesday was the second night of Chanukah. While I sat with this man, I heard people in the hallway talking about Chanukah. I went out and saw a few men and women pushing nursing home residents in wheelchairs toward one of the small lounges in the facility. I guessed that they were the adult children of the residents they were escorting. I followed and saw that the lounge they entered was decorated with Chanukah banners and decorations. A small electric Chanukah menorah was set up on a counter. (Nursing homes have rules against open flames, so it had to be electric).
I sat down in one of the chairs and heard a man talking about the holiday. Even if he felt unsure about the story of Chanukah ("Was it the Greeks or the Romans that the Maccabees fought?"), he was so determined and so loving in his desire to give his elderly mother a real Chanukah experience. It was moving and beautiful to see. I felt blessed and privileged to be part of such a sacred lighting of the Chanukah lights of hope.
Eventually, the time came to light the candles and the man professed his embarrassment that he was not good at reading Hebrew. I quietly volunteered to help, and the man quickly handed me the laminated sheet with the blessings and asked me to lead them, which I did.
I sang the blessings looking into the eyes of men and women in their fifties and sixties who were in a nursing home to take care of their sick parents in their eighties and nineties. I saw how they wanted to give their parents at least one more night of Chanukah. I thought about all the childhood memories that must be swirling around the room – memories of Chanukahs from long ago when the parents were able and strong and the children were small and filled with wonder, looking into the candle lights.
I sang a blessing that talked about how God did miracles "in those days at this season," and felt like I was experiencing a night of miracles right then and there. Humbling. Unexpected. The man who had explained the holiday told his mother that it was a blessing that there just happened to be a rabbi there to lead them that night. I told him that he and the others were the blessing for me.
The congregant I sat with on Wednesday night was 99 years old, so, his death the next morning was not unexpected. Today, I met with his family to help them to prepare for Monday's funeral. That, too, is a humbling and powerful experience. It is hard to see the people you love grow frail and fail. Letting go is hard. We want so much to hold on to the moment, and to see in it the miracle and blessing of love that lasts beyond our lifetimes.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Making Known the Miracle
The Shamash is the Tall One in the Middle
There probably is no holiday on the Jewish calendar that has been redefined more than Chanukah. In each age, this holiday has been transformed to suit the issues and concerns of its time.
Originally, Chanukah was a nationalistic celebration of the Maccabees military victory over the armies of King Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire. It celebrated Israel's return to sovereignty under the rule of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
The rabbis of Talmud were the first to redefine Chanukah. They downplayed the story of military victory and promoted Chanukah as a celebration of God's power (not the power of the cruel Hasmoneans, whom they hated). They promoted a story about a miracle – one involving a cruse of oil – that occurred when the Temple was rededicated at the end of the Maccabees' war.
The transformation of Chanukah has not stopped since that time. As we prepare to enter the Festival of Lights, we would do well to separate fact from fiction. Here, then are three lies we tell about Chanukah and three truths that we ought to tell:
• Chanukah is about fighting the threat of cultural assimilation. It is such a seductive storyline. The villainous Seleucid Empire tried to force their evil Greek ways upon the innocent Israelites until brave Judah Maccabee vanquished the Hellenizers and purified the Israelites from idolatry. It just happens not to be true. The book of Maccabees says that the Israelites celebrated their triumph with garlands made of ivy – a Greek symbol of celebration that is identified with the god Dionysus. That says a lot. The Maccabees' fight was not about assimilation – the Maccabees themselves were assimilated – their fight was about nationalism and power, not cultural identity.
• Judah Maccabee was a crusader for freedom of religion. That statement is true only if you add two words to the end of the sentence: "…for himself." The Maccabees today would be regarded as religious zealots. As much as they fought a military war, they also fought a war for religious domination. "Freedom of religion" to the Maccabees meant freedom to kill Jews who adopted Greek worship.
• Chanukah is the Jewish answer to Christmas. The funny thing is, not even the Christians are sure they want Christmas. Why should we? Already in the 18th century, Puritan Christians wanted to ban the observance of Christmas because it was too materialistic. Most of my Christian clergy friends today bemoan the way that Christmas has been transformed into a shopping frenzy. Far from a time for families to come together and enjoy the simple virtues of peace and love, Christmas has turned into a whole month that teaches children some very un-Christian values – like avarice and greed. Rather than trying to create a Jewish Christmas, we should be happy not to have one in the first place.
• During the eight days of Chanukah we add light to some of the darkest days of the year. Across the world, many cultures have rituals in which they light up the night around the time of the Winter Solstice. Chanukah is one of these rituals. During these days, we remember that, even in the darkest times, there is the hope and promise of light. We celebrate Chanukah with our families as a ritual of remembering to hope even in times of despair.
• Chanukah is more a celebration of the future than it is of the past. In the Talmud, the rabbis argued about whether one should light eight lights on the first night and reduce them to one on the last night, or if one should start with one light on the first night and increase them to eight on the last night. (I don't need to tell you which side won.) Those who wanted to light eight lights on the first night used history as their argument. They said that, when the Temple stood, it had been the practice to sacrifice thirteen oxen on the first day of Sukkot and to reduce them each day for the eight festive days; the Chanukah lights, they argued, should follow historical precedent.The rabbis who wanted to start with one light and increase each day based their argument on the idea that holiness only increases over time and never decreases. The future is always brighter than the past. Chanukah is about looking forward, not looking back.
• Chanukah is not about presents; it's about the presence of spirituality in our lives. The rabbis chose a special haftarah to be read on the Shabbat that falls on during Chanukah. The passage is from the prophet Zechariah and it includes his vision of the golden Menorah that stood in the ancient Temple. In the passage, an angel tells the prophet, "'Not by might of soldiers, nor by brute force, but only with My spirit,' says Adonai of Hosts." At this time of year, when everything around us is so focussed on sales and spending, it is profoundly comforting to remember that the real truth of our lives has little to do with how many things we have or how much power we have accumulated. The real measure of our lives is in remembering the spirit that lies within us and connects us to each other and to the sacred.
Other Posts on This Topic:
What is Chanukah?
The Miracle of the First Day of Chanukah
This is the sermon I am giving tonight at Temple Sinai in Cranston, Rhode Island.
This Sunday and Monday nights, the Lifetime Channel is airing a made-for-TV movie based on the novel The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The book and the movie are a retelling of a very minor story in the book of Genesis that, I guarantee, you did not learn about as a child in Religious School. Either by design or coincidence, that story is also in this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach).
The story is about a character named Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, the youngest child of Jacob’s first wife, Leah. In the Torah’s telling, Dinah has no lines, she does not speak. All that we know about her from the biblical text is that a terrible thing happened to her.
Jacob, Dinah’s father, had just arrived in the land of Canaan and had purchased land to pitch his tent and graze his sheep from the king of a nearby city. The king’s name was Hamor and he had a son named Shechem. Shechem saw Dinah and was smitten.
The Hebrew text describes what happened in a series of short phrases: “Vayikach otah, vayishkav otah, vayane’ah,” “He took her, he lay with her, and he rendered her helpless.” That last phrase, which I am translating as “rendered her helpless,” is also used a few times in the Hebrew Bible as an idiom for something sexual that men can do to women, similar to the English idiom, “had his way with her.” It might mean rape.
The text continues: “[Shechem’s] soul became attached to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the maiden, and he spoke to the maiden’s heart. Shechem said to Hamor his father, ‘Get that girl for me as a wife!’”
Shechem had his way with Dinah and he fell in love with her. He wanted to marry her. Did he use force to “have his way with her”? How did Dinah feel about Shechem? Did she love him, too? To our frustration, the text does not say.
Why? Why do we not know any of the important details of this story from Dinah’s point of view? Maybe it is part of the way the narrative keeps up our interest – the Bible keeps the reader guessing about what is going on in the mind of each character. Why did Shechem take advantage of Dinah? How is Hamor going to deal with his son who has put him in an awkward position? How will Jacob react when he finds out what has happened to his daughter? How does Dinah feel about the man who “speaks to her heart” and who has asked his father to arrange a marriage to her?
I would like to think that the Bible wants us to wonder about what is going on in Dinah’s head. I really want that to be true. However, I have a strong suspicion that it is not the case. I think the more likely reason for Dinah’s silence in this story is that her point of view just doesn’t matter to the story’s author or to the story’s original audience.
For the most part, the Bible does not care much about what women think. It especially does not care what they think when it comes to love, sex and marriage. In the Bible, when a man desires a woman, the normal thing for him to do is to arrange for marriage through the woman’s father, perhaps with the man’s father negotiating on his behalf. That is what happened when Abraham sought a wife for his son Isaac. That is what Jacob did when he wanted to marry Rachel. It seems that it is also what Shechem should have done. From the Bible’s perspective, it seems, Shechem’s biggest mistake was having sex with Dinah before those arrangements were made, man-to-man. The preferences of women had very little to do with it.
That bothers us, and it really should bother us. We don’t live in the world of this story and we do not want to. The story of Dinah is troubling to us on many levels, but all of it boils down to this – we cannot abide a world in which women have no say, in which their feelings, thoughts and desires are not only ignored, they are treated as inconsequential.
And I haven’t even gotten to the most troubling part of the story yet.
Hamor and Shechem went to see Jacob, who had heard that his daughter had been rendered “impure” by Shechem. Jacob’s sons were furious about the treatment of their sister. However, they felt powerless to oppose the king (who, after all, had a walled city filled with armed men nearby). So, Jacob and his sons played for time.
Hamor asked Jacob’s permission for Shechem to marry Dinah. He further proposed that Jacob’s family become a part of the family of his city. Perhaps noticing that Jacob had eleven unwed sons, Hamor proposed that Jacob’s family could intermarry with his people. Jacob’s sons replied that it would only be possible for Dinah to marry Shechem – and it would only be possible for them to intermarry with the people of Hamor’s city – if all the men of the city agreed to be circumcised.
Hamor took this message to the people of his city. He told them about the wealth of Jacob and his sons. Why should a little foreskin stand in the way of acquiring all those flocks and cattle? The men of Hamor’s city were circumcised. Once they were incapacitated by the pain of the surgery, Simon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, entered the city with swords and killed every man there, including Hamor and Shechem. They took Dinah from Hamor’s palace and brought her home, while the other brothers plundered the city.
Happy ending? Not so much. Just deserts for the abduction of Dinah? It does not seem very just to us. Does the Bible condemn what Simon and Levi did? No, but it does not condone it, either. After Simon and Levi murdered the men of the city, Jacob complained that their actions would only bring trouble to him and his family.
When other cities find out what you boys have done, he said in effect, they will take revenge against us and we will be defenseless. Later, on his deathbed, Jacob told Simon and Levi that their anger was fierce and cruel. He chastised them, but his words were hardly those of a moral exemplar. He never said that their actions were evil and wrong.
In fact, Simon and Levi are the only characters in the story who offer any moral interpretation of what has happened, albeit their interpretation is a troubling one. “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” they told Jacob to justify their actions.
What are we supposed to make of Jacob’s passivity, his lack of moral outrage, and his self-centered response? What shall we say for the mute Dinah – the woman who is the center of the story’s action, whose perspective is entirely ignored? Why is this bloody, gruesome story even in the Bible? What are we supposed to learn from it?
The biblical story, I believe is primarily about Jacob and his relationship with his sons. Jacob – the third patriarch, the son of the awestruck Isaac and the grandson of the ever-faithful Abraham – is never portrayed as a man of pure ideals in Genesis. He is a person, like all of us, who is a series of compromises. He is faithful and grateful to God, but he also relies on his abilities to decide and do things for himself without outside help. He faces life’s tough challenges with thoughtfulness and intelligence, but he is also willing to use his smarts to take advantage of others. He is always “looking out for number one,” and it is sometimes hard to tell who is Jacob’s number one: God or himself.
Jacob represents a relationship with God for the real world. The story of his daughter who is abducted by a rich man’s son is just one more challenge he must face with intelligence and guile. It is a story in which he has to manage sons who are less thoughtful than he is – sons who are more captives of their anger and fear than he is.
The story of Dinah, as it is told in the Bible, is a story about making imperfect decisions in an imperfect world and dealing with people who are prone to act out of anger and hatred when caution and restraint would be better. We can all relate to that experience in some way.
But it is not enough for us. We need to be able look at this story and see more. The Bible may not care about what women think, but we sure do. We need to be able to say ‘No’ to the way that human lives are treated so cheaply in this story. We need to be able to say ‘No’ to the way that women’s lives, experiences, desires, sexuality, thoughts and feelings are ignored in this story. We need to plumb more deeply into the depths of the story and find other meanings.
That is what Anita Diamant did with her novel The Red Tent. The book, published in 1997, hit the New York Times best seller list because it gave a voice and a life to women who had previously been ignored in the Bible and in our society. The book hit a chord and sent out a message that millions of people were waiting to hear.
Anita Diamant’s Dinah is not just a victim. Diamant follows hints in the text of the biblical story to find that Dinah was not raped. She heard the sweet words that Shechem spoke to her heart. She chose to depart from the ways of her father and brothers to find love and meaning in her life in a way that suited her, not as it might suit her male relatives. After Shechem was murdered by her brothers, according to Diamant, Dinah ran away and made a life for herself as a midwife, a woman whose life was spent moving among other women, giving voice to their stories as well as her own. It is a wonderful novel and I recommend it to everyone who wants to discover that the Hebrew Bible is still speaking to us, if we are willing to listen to new interpretations and to find our own.
In Anita Diamant’s own words, the tree of Jewish tradition is made up of roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Who is to say that the deepest roots have more legitimacy than this year’s new growth? The book is a celebration that our tradition continues to grow and there are new truths and meanings yet to be discovered.
I will be watching the Lifetime Channel’s version of the story on Sunday and Monday nights. My expectations, I admit, are not very high. It is, after all, a movie made for television. But I am hopeful to see some new growth on that tree that is still growing.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Vayishlach: Let's Get Small
Vayishlach: The Closest We Can Get to the Face of God
The challenges and contradictions of being a Jew in America are never more obvious than in the month of December. Christmas is unavoidable from before Thanksgiving until well after New Year's. Every year, I wonder how much I should participate in the hoopla. There are holiday parties and holiday shopping all around. The streets are decorated for the "season" and my kids are encouraged to share in the "cheer" in their public schools. At what point does ignoring it or intentionally removing myself from it become more bother than it is worth? At what point does giving in to it become assimilationism – the first step toward losing our Jewish identity?
Years ago, I remember walking with my daughter, then six years old, on a downtown street in a small New England town. She was wearing a red knit hat and a stranger mistook it for a piece of Christmas apparel. "What is Santa bringing you, little girl?" he asked. I was so shocked that I didn't know how to respond. "We don't celebrate Christmas," is what I heard myself say. The kind stranger was obviously embarrassed, and I felt a bit embarrassed, too, for his confusion, and my own.
No, it is not easy being a committed Jew in a society that so obviously and confidently assumes that everyone loves Christmas. Even the current "politically correct" habit of wishing people "Happy holidays" does not really make things any easier. Chanukah is often treated as an ersatz Jewish Christmas, the only difference being the substitution of blue and white wrapping paper for red and green. It some ways, it only makes the issue more confusing for both Jews and non-Jews.
I don't have all the answers to the dilemma, but here are a few that have worked for me and my family over the years:
• Avoid the temptation to use Chanukah as a substitute Christmas. Chanukah is a minor holiday that is best observed by lighting candles, giving modest and cherishable gifts to our children, eating too many latkes, and singing Ma'oz Tzur, Oh Chanukah, Mi Y'maleil and I Have a Little Dreidel. The moment, though, that we turn Chanukah into the shopping spree that is Christmas, we will have lost more than we have gained.
• Feel free to support non-Jewish family members in the celebration of their holiday. From a fairly young age, children can discern the difference between the holidays they call their own, and those that belong to the non-Jewish people they love. Enjoy the rewards of living in a pluralistic society.
• Establish your own Chanukah traditions as a family. Many people have come up with different themes for each of the eight nights, for example, one night could be for playing dreidel, one night for singing Chanukah songs, one night for inviting neighbors, one night for a tzedakah project to help people in need, etc. Give this minor holiday a distinct foundation that makes it your own.
• It's better to speak up than to feel guilty or ashamed. If you feel that the pressure to conform to other people's holiday expectations is too much, say something. I once had a congregant who told me that he was expected to wear a Santa hat at his company Christmas party. It felt wrong to him, but he was afraid to jeopardize his job. Know where your boundaries are and be willing to maintain them.
Finally, try to remember what matters most at this time of year. A few thousand years ago, a bunch of Jews decided that being Jewish was important enough to take some risks. Even when things looked at their darkest, they were willing to light a small flame of hope and watch it increase day by day. That is the way it should always be.
Other Posts on This Topic:
How Does a Joyful Jew Respond to "Merry Christmas"?
What Is this "Christmas" of which You Speak?