Archive for October, 2010

THE PSYCHOPATH AND THE FOOL

As a student of the Hebrew Bible, I’m embarrassed. But I call ‘em as I see ‘em. The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes (see: Andersen, Hans Christian). Samson is a psychopath.

A biblical hero known for his incredible strength, Samson, I’m convinced, had a screw loose. True, he isn’t the only vicious Israelite in the Bible. Amnon, David’s son and heir apparent, rapes his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13). David himself was no angel, although his redeeming qualities outweighed his faults.

But I just finished rereading the Samson story in Judges, and it got to me. A nazirite dedicated to God’s service from birth (nazirites leave their hair uncut as well as forego alcohol), Samson marries a Philistine woman. Okay, that distresses his parents, since the Philistines rule over the Israelites, but it’s not emblematic of psychopathic behavior. Besides, the attraction was God’s doing (Judges 14:4). Then the fun starts.

Samson poses an impossible riddle to thirty Philistine men sharing his pre-wedding feast. Frustrated, they threaten his bride and her father’s house. What does Samson do? He goes to Ashkelon and kills thirty of its men (Judges 14). No, the Philistines shouldn’t have threatened. But Samson shouldn’t have pushed their buttons.

It gets worse. Samson goes to see his wife. Her father, believing that Samson dislikes her, has married her to another man. Samson takes revenge. He attaches torches to the joined tails of 150 pairs of foxes. The Philistines’ grain and olive trees burn (Judges 15). But that’s nothing. Granting that “the spirit of the Lord gripped him” (Judges 15:14), Samson uses the jawbone of an ass to slay a thousand Philistines. Later, he sleeps with a whore (Judges 16). Well, he’s only a guy.

Then he meets Delilah. We all know that she cuts his hair, the source of his strength, enabling the Philistines to blind him—a punishment, according to the Talmud (Sotah 9b) for the lust in his eyes—and take him captive. When Samson’s hair grows back, he brings the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines’ heads—and his own. Now he’s a hero.

But that’s our mythos. Here’s part of our reality. On October 16, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, stated that non-Jews exist only to serve Jews. “Why are gentiles needed?” the ninety-year-old Yosef asked. “They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat.” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Oct. 16)

Responding to a comment by Ron Laupheimer on my last post, “The Ranting Right and Religions of Peace,” I wrote that Muslims should speak out against the threat posed by Islamists (as opposed to Islam) and that many do, although their words often go unreported. Jews also must speak out when our own religious right (Yosef is spiritual leader of Israel’s right-wing Shas party) offends decency and, in doing so, the Torah he claims to uphold.

It’s enough that we have Samson.

THE RANTING RIGHT AND RELIGIONS OF PEACE

Another email rant came my way. Its theme: “I’m tired.” It offered a litany of conservative complaints. Many possess a kernel of truth. That’s what enables the far right to sound believable. But the complaints were basically black and white, no grays.

One really got my attention: “I’m tired of Muslims saying Islam is a religion of peace.” Well, I’m tired of rants like that.

Disclaimer: After 9/11, I immediately grew tired of those saying no Muslim could have planned or implemented that terrible violence because Islam is a religion of peace. It calls to mind the old cop-out, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Jews can be violent. Christians can, too. Why not Muslims? To quote a darling of the right, “You betcha!” Present deeds count more than past words no matter how venerated. Still, I the majority of the world’s Muslims seek to live peacefully. I refuse to tar them all with the same brush.

Now let me ask: Would the email ranter claim that Christianity is a religion of peace? Even Jesus gets a little testy. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers (Matthew 21:12), although travelers to Jerusalem had to purchase animals and birds for offerings at the Temple. More to the point, Christians have slaughtered and enslaved millions in the name of God. Random example: The Thirty Years War (1618-48) in the German states pitted Protestants against Catholics. It may have taken upwards of six million lives. (For citations of deaths in wars, including religious wars, over the last two millennia, go to http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat0.htm – European. The Holocaust speaks for itself.) But the Christians I know would never raise their hands against others.

Closer to home, warfare and destruction abound in the Hebrew Bible. Yet few peoples have been more peaceable than Jews over the last 1,850 years. (Or been more adept at war for the last 60-plus.) As minorities often persecuted in the Christian and Muslim worlds, Jews lacked the power to harm others. Which leads me to conclude that power, not scriptural heritage, ultimately determines whether religious and political groups prefer peace or war at any given time.

Deuteronomy 20:17-18 offers a fascinating example of defining good and bad by actions rather than words. God instructs the Israelites to destroy the peoples of Canaan “lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before the Lord your God.” It’s not what these peoples believe that condemns them—polytheists though they may be—but what they do. Behavior trumps creed.

We’re better off foregoing cherry picking scriptural verses dating back fourteen to over twenty-five centuries when making claims about others’ intentions. Textual and historic perspective must be added. Interpretation of scripture and the actions that result define the true determinant of peaceful intent.

I suggest we follow my favorite new 11th Commandment (of which there are many, including “Never buy retail”): You shall cut each other some slack.

WHITE DEERSKIN/RED HEIFER: WE CAN ALL RELATE

I spent last weekend in Trinidad on the Humboldt County coast near Oregon. And I found out something very interesting—and instructive—from Don Verwayen, my cousin Bev’s husband. Don is an archaeologist helping area Indian tribes to protect their land, particularly sacred sites. Here’s what I learned.

The Karuk Indians maintain ancestral territory along the middle reaches of the Klamath River. Camp Creek, a 50‐acre plot, serves as one of three traditional dance grounds for performing the White Deerskin Dance. The dance, requiring a rare albino deerskin, seeks to purify the world after the breaking of taboos, which produces evil.

Another culture worlds apart from yours or mine? Let’s look deeper.

Karuk parallels to Israelite worship are striking. The White Deerskin dance must be performed by a priest/medicine man only at one of the three designated sites. In ancient Israel, offerings could only be brought to Jerusalem, site of the First and Second Temples. The Karuk dancer must wear a white deerskin. Israelite priests required purification from water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer or cow, an exceedingly rare animal. Ultra-religious Jews in Israel today are trying to breed one to enable a functioning priesthood for a third Temple, but that’s another story. The White Deerskin dance seeks world renewal. Kabbalah, the Jewish spiritual practice far beyond the simplifications that draw to it the likes of Madonna, seeks tikkun olam, healing of a fractured world.

I’m not suggesting that the Karuk descend from Israelites who fled Judea almost two thousand years ago following two disastrous rebellions against Rome or the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem five hundred years earlier. But it’s apparent that all human beings are bound together by universal questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Where are we going?

As it happens, this week’s Torah portion, Noach, establishes such a universalism. The Sages deduce from the Flood and its aftermath the seven Noahide Laws applicable to all humanity as descendants of Noah. These prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest/adultery, robbery and consuming the blood of a living animal. That’s six. The Sages add establishing courts to uphold these laws as the seventh.

Here’s the kicker: Any non-Jew who obeys the Noahide Laws merits the same reward in the World to Come—however it might be defined—as a Jew required to uphold all the 613 mitzvot or commandments (understanding that some mitzvot can only be performed by men, others by women, still others by the community as a whole, and many only in the Temple or in the Land of Israel).

Beyond adhering to monotheism—and you can define that in a number of ways, too—what counts is what we do, not what we think. Dogma means nothing, actions everything. Every human being can earn God’s approval and salvation. Karuk or Jew, Christian, or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, or anyone else, when it comes down to it, we’re all different just the same.

ADAM & EVE: A FASHIONISTA FABLE

Mysteries abound in B’reishit, the Book of Genesis and name for the Torah cycle’s first weekly portion. Where, for example, does Cain’s wife (4:17) come from? Midrash—a story or comment that fills in textual gaps—provides answers. Cain, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b) explains, marries his sister.

Okay, that’s cleared up. But questions remain. Like where did the water God uses to fashion the world (1:2) come from? The Sages take a pass. They have bigger fish to fry. But here’s one that puzzled me until recently: How do Adam and Eve respond to the garments of skins God fashions for them—founding the rag trade in the process—after they eat the forbidden fruit and find themselves naked (3:21)? Fortunately, I discovered a long-lost midrash.

Adam, it states, checks out his new clothes and offers the thumbs-up sign. “Cool, Lord. I can really kick back in these. Can you create beer now?”

Eve throws eye-darts at her contented husband. Of all the men in the world! At least, that could have been. “Lord,” she says, flipping her long, dark hair. (Blondes will come later.) “This outfit is very nice, but the color doesn’t do much for my eyes. And the hem… I know I have nothing to go on, but the length seems so last year. Not that I know what a year is.”

God shrugs. He hasn’t exactly anticipated this.

“And where,” Eve continues, “do I find shoes and a bag to match? And you don’t really expect me to wear the same outfit two days in a row!” She smiles. “The day-and-night thing. You’re so clever.” Her lips purse. Her eyes narrow. “It’s all about accessories. Lord, you have work to do.”

God’s face (the Garden of Eden scene presents an anthropomorphic Master of the Universe) reflects neither mirth nor bemusement. “Spare the rod,” He mutters. “Look, Eden isn’t the real world. There’s more to life than shopping. Or hoisting a cool one.”

“I was thinking,” Adam interrupts, “it would be nice to have a pocket. Something big enough to hold a brewski. Maybe two.” He looks away. “Is Eve putting on weight?”

“Don’t get me started about kids,” God counters. “Long story short… You want beer? I’ve given you barley, malt and hops. Plenty of clean water, too. You want a new outfit? Check out the sheep. I’d go wool this winter. Looks good and keeps you warm.” God comes closer. “I’m just saying, use your imagination and make good choices.”

“We’re empowered!” Eve responds. She glances past Adam scratching a now-private area and spots a pool of black shiny stuff near a date palm. “We can do anything, can’t we? Like learn chemistry and create plastic. Then discover money and use plastic.”

God rolls his figurative eyes and points eastward. “There. The real world. Go. Yala. Charge!”

And so they do. But that’s another story.