Thursday, June 21, 2007

Chukkat : is it rational?

Shall they go marchin' in? Or not? Maybe? Early evening event of a night of summer equinox, equity deals this week in Jerusalem, with the gay and lesbian pride or parade or demonstration, for others, provocation.

Our one-sex society makes males a bit too feminine and females a bit too masculine or "butch". It removes or adds hair of any color, waxing up skins, making-up faces, or reduces any difference in clothing, mostly pants here, in particular jeans and daily comfortable dress.

Unisex is also forbidden by the Jewish tradition and a woman should clearly be dressed or look different from a man, and vice versa. This is far from being obvious when you walk through the streets of Jerusalem. We can compare with any city in this country or even abroad, but there seems to be a problem with Jerusalem. The problem dealt with “Sanctity”.

True, the city is pious and has a lot of very religious (all faiths) inhabitants or passers-by, tourists, pilgrims. Some long hair male can be terribly effeminate, considering the fact that they might spend hours in combing their hair. Some yeshive bechurim or students would automatically curl their peyses/pe'ot (hair locks) with their index in a way that is "between" maleness and femininity: some ambiguous and equivocal swing of the hips. But the walk/gang has a spiritual meaning.

The same shows in traditional Churches where celibacy has been a rule for centuries. Curiously, Oriental nuns would retain a strong sense of womanhood while men often tend to some sort of effeminate behavior, just as shown at the present in all western societies.

The combat for equality and supposed equal rights has developed and continues to evolve in some sort of "androgynous" character that is rather pregnant in our generation. It is difficult to frankly distinguish some attitudes that swing between male and female acquired tendencies and the trends of daily new objects or products of consumption. As regards the gay and lesbian pride, it is banned by definition from our awareness. One can regret the absence of real and serious theological arguments that might not be even understood or accepted by those whoever they can be who protest against their pride. Is it a parade or a provocation?

We could also think in terms of a “farce”, a way to play the jester that curves up and down sexes and confuse them. Many a true word is spoken in jest as the clown could call to the king and mock him without being punished. Religions have too often played with the sex of the angels among the humans, or they have denaturized human beings and imposed illegal postures and situations. I always keep in mind that gays and lesbians were deported as such to the extermination camps and used as playmates by masochist gangsters.

This week, the parshat shavua or reading portion from the TaNaKh is “Chukkat = this is the ritual, non-rational commandment” in Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1- 22:1. To begin with, the reading portion deals with the red cow or “parah adumah – red heifer” that was bred and then slaughtered mixed with cedar tree branches, hyssop and crimson stuff (scarlet); its ashes were mixed in a huge cistern whose waters were precisely handled by young children who had never been in contact with death.

We do have our own way to separate young males from any danger of corruption. Judaism can be obsessed by any kind of sin, i.e. corruptibility through the contact with death. Now, this commandment regarding the red heifer has no rational basis or explanation. Contrary to all usual commandments that are explained by the rabbis in the Gemara, it is absent from any commentary.

The Mishna does include a very small tractate Parah (Cow, heifer) as a part of the larger tractate Taharot (purifications). It is evident that there is no rational basis to the fact that if some black hair would be found on this very sacrificial and penitential cow, she would become non-kosher. This tracks back to no explainable law. One, two black hairs and the cow could not be slaughtered to produce the ashes that could save the people from their sins.

This week, we face in the reading portion the problem of how waters spring out to be drunk by the congregation and their beasts. Then we read how anomalies can turn to save the sinful. In terms of biology, it is not normal and natural to get a “parah adumah – a red heifer”. The animal is a rarity and in some way a reverse of natural cow colors. Cows are cows: we love them in this country. Black and white, they are sweet milking beasts. Brown cows in some areas and other countries. Many restaurants show ensigns in shape of a red heifer. But the red cow was not edible. It was meant to purify, was slaughtered at the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and its blood sprinkled out in the direction of the West, i.e. to the world and the Temple. It is said in tractate Parah 2,1 that only eight red heifers might have be slain from the time of Moses till the destruction of the Temple. Other Jewish traditions would consider there were nine of them.

Thus, it is considered as a “chok = non-rational commandment/mitzvah” that still has to be perpetually fulfilled, especially in regard with the Yom Kippur ritual of purity. Nobody can show any evidence as concerns the coherence of the commandment. It is the same chok that only has to be accepted and accomplished by faith and confidence (emunah shlemah) as the Sha’atnez (Lev. 19:19), the prohibition to mix wool and linen, except, for instance, in the girdle the High Priest (Yevamot 4b-5b). It is a very important and pending question at the present because, the people should be purified in case of building-up the Temple…

The principle of a “chok/chukka” corresponds to this: “I will leave to my sons a due share (a fixed living)” (Erubin 54a). These laws without reason are engraved, drawn like circles in order to remind God’s will: “He ordered a mark to be put on his (Abraham’s) flesh” (Shabbat 137b). In these quotations, as in a general stand, “a chok” is full of meaningfulness in God’s eyes and His decrees are totally founded. In our society, it seems that we are at times in a situation of absence of any coherence, as if we were shapeless.

There are also some trends to lead us to social or emotional lack of structural egos, destruction or lessening of consistency. Call it bozo for a while, there are times that lead people to reduce their reactions and spiritual forces. “Timtem” means this kind of tendency as in ‘troubles obstruct the heart, making a man dull (Pessahim 42a). Thus, “sin blunts the understanding of human beings (Yoma 39a), “till man become a shapeless mass” (Hallah 1c). The example of the dough is often used because bread be “kneaded” in various shapes that may make sense or not, without reason. Yiddish and the Jewish folklore tradition have considered that “timtum” are those without clear sexual orientation, not necessarily a condemnation of homosexuals as they can be today; they represent with the lesbians a growing identity group marketing group and target. The problem is rather a sort of grin at shapeless souls, which is indeed a lack of compassion.

God convoked Moses and Aaron and told them to give water from the rock to let the congregation and their beasts drink a lot of water. Moses took his rod and addressed the “morim/rebels” to get copious water. Okay, he stuck the rock twice and not only once as usual. And God said to Moses and Aaron that because they, personally, did not obey to God’s Commandments, they will not lead the congregation into the given land!!! At this point, today, any normal guy in this country would immediately rush to the Supreme Court and make a scandal!! And they would cc/forward a note to the chief rabbinates, the members of the Knesset and eventually contact The Hague and Geneva, if not the numerous “heretics”. This is the usual way we behave at the present towards God but we hardly can notice that because we are framed both as actors and mirrors.

At the mey Merivah/Meribah waters, the congregation did quarrel with the Lord as He affirmed His sanctity in and through them. Such a rebellion is not acceptable. God enough, so the rebels could die in the wilderness. We had seen that the “nassi: leader, ruler, head of the nation” will not be pardoned his sin like the other members of the congregation.. He must atone in a specific way in his quality of leader.

The chok seemingly extends as a law without reason that condemned Moses and Aaron not to enter the Land of Canaan. There is definitely no explanation in the Chumash (Five Books of Moses). In the reading portion of this week we only know about the death of Aaron. This would eventually be more understandable. The High priest shaped the golden calf to provide a deity to the congregation as Moses did not seem to come back from the mountain. He did commit the sin of idolatry. And now he apparently dies because of copious waters? After having served as priest all over the trip throughout the wilderness?

As for Moses who never quarreled with God. This is this interesting point. He also accepted God’s decisions. He would intercede for the others, never on his own behalf. Indeed, chokkim – laws without reason or rational basis- show that God naturally speaks to the heart of His servant and to those who do follow Him. It is an indisputable evidence.

This question has always been a terrible spiritual problem for the rabbinic leadership as for the leaders of all the Churches and Muslim guides. This is a horrible quest indeed for the monotheistic believers. Last Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI was in Assisi for the 800 years of the Franciscan Order. Saint Francis came to Rome with his followers as a consequence of a dream that the Church should be rebuilt, consolidated. The Besht Baal Shem Tov) or Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer certainly unwillingly launched the first Chassidic movement, singing around the marvels of God in his native Polish area.

We need men of conscience. It is not a matter of politics. Not even of morals and ethics. It is beyond that, an attitude that is so evident that is implemented as a commandment that does not appeal to understanding or judgment. Yes, people have the right to err. And they are free to do whatever would not harm or restrict their true own freedom. But as regards societal errors, the leadership – whenever religious or governmental – mostly lacks the close intimacy that existed between God and His obedient servants Moses and Aaron.

“We have reached the stage of being led by people without any self-respect, leaders who attempt to save themselves at the expense of the sins, omissions and errors made by those under them, who acted under their leadership. This is unlike the faithful shepherd that the Jewish people had, who, when the people died as a result of their sins, died with them, even though there was no sin on his part”, wrote, in 1986, Rav Y. Leibowitz (Yoke of heaven, p. 148). It was courageous. Curiously, he then wrote a sort of Jewish and somehow Christian-like statement about Moses.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sherut/im: various services

Summertime begins within a few days - in fact, locally we have already entered the Kaytz/end of time heat for quite a while. People have a summer look with sunglasses, light dress, relaxed, comfy. Indeed - this is absolutely not known abroad - there is a strong feeling of security due to a lot of checking, and preventive actions, intelligence connections.

Still, we are in a society in war and there are moments when some inhabitants feel afraid to go out of their quarter. This is not the basic Israeli reaction. Individuals are less prudent than they used to be, but we feel relaxed and secure. Of course this is not the case at the moment in Sderot, as it happened for years in Kiryat Shmona. Kibbutz Netivah, that officially became Israeli in 1952, is located on the Lebanese border. It was normal until very recently for the Lebanese shepherds to enter the place in and out, hello and bye.

This relaxing or easygoing atmosphere is not known abroad where the media give a very poor description of how a society evolves. There are points of fragility and it is evident that constant exposure to danger develops anxiety, in particular among the youth. But let’s say that trust is trust. Nonetheless, this rather full relaxed atmosphere under self-control is, on some significant occasions, submitted to restricting phenomena. For instance, the poor number of free and open accessible places to restrooms and toilets, i.e. sherutim.
The matter is definitely relevant, even if would not sound very spiritual to begin with. The Oriental civilizations are often very raw, rough and hard-nosed. As stated in the Talmud: “Those who mock the words of the Sages are like boiling excrements” (Gittin 56a). We are humans and we want to keep Jerusalem (and all other cities, towns…) clean. In any shop, any place, not only restaurants and coffee-shops, people are shaking the cleaning product bottle. They wash and wash again and again. There might be some defects still persistent in many places, or a sort of strange combination between cleanness and dirt. The Arabs are definitely very clean and can spend their days washing their cars, table, walls, whatever. It may be due to the climate and sand and an usual attitude.

So let’s go out of the closet. It is sometimes very funny to see the reaction of people looking for some restroom, bathroom, 00. Local workers may have concluded a deal or gotten to some kind of agreement with the security to let them go into malls where they are known. But the thing is intriguing in some areas. There is one restaurant – the only one, well who knows? – where half the street, mainly women, enters the place and, without a word or anything , not even hello, go directly to have a rest. Having relaxed, the bizarre aspect is that many of these individuals leave the restaurant with a cup of kafe hafuch / cappuccino. In the meantime, the clientele is panicked at the idea to go to the toilets and almost ask the permission of the manager and waiters. We can wear the last model of sunglasses on our foreheads; still we are very shy with privacy, normal stuff what! And there is also the water to wash the hands before meal.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, there is always a sort of wild rush to some restrooms. This is also quite fascinating. The whole country comes to the Old City. Workers, local tourists, i.e. Israelis of all origins, Arabs, foreigners come and tour to visit the various historical and religious quarters and their specific traditions. East Jerusalem is special and the Old City is peculiar. There is the way to the Kotel, or to the Shuk/bazaar, the Holy Sepulcher or the Mosques. Restrooms can be found everywhere as public spaces, from Damascus Gate or Lions’ Gate down to the Wall, or on the way to the Jewish Quarter, inside the shuk as on the way to the First Temple walls.

On the other hand, the major entrance to the Old City, Jaffa Gate, has one place on the way to the fortification walls that is rather unknown. So people enter, as a permanent march, the unique restaurant that seems likely to welcome them and looks nice. The restaurant only serves food and does not sell any typical souvenirs. The owner is Christian Orthodox Arab. The stream is incredible. Say, a good day (end of the week-Sunday) 30 people per hour… Not clients, passersby with arrogance, what a cheek! Interestingly, the owner will never rebuke pious Jewish schoolgirls in emergency or similar cases, thus not usual.
In fact, sherutim in Hebrew implies that the restrooms are a place of services, given to the public at their convenience. It is usual for many people to spit in the street. Physical decency requires special treatments and care. In this respect, the Jewish tradition can be driven to obscenity and crude words. On the contrary, it can be very prude and restrained.

“Sherut – service” designates the service of the Temple as the function to “to sing the Name of the Lord while attending the sacrifices” (Arakhin 11a). This is even why, curiously, Modern Hebrew is the only language that directly connects the “sherut leumi – national (military) service” with a deeply religious-rooted tradition, tracking back the Temple. This may sound a bit peculiar, but it is often considered as a possible and non-aggressive participation in the collectivity.
The root “sharah” has different meanings: “to dissolve, soak”. “Man is made out of earth, when you put a drop of water on it, it is at once dissolved, but women is made of a bone which is not dissolved, even if you let it tie in water for many days” (Taanit 1,64b). A second radical “sharah, shara in Aramaic” means “to loosen, untie”. In the Jewish tradition it is rather connected to the presence of the Shechinah that rested upon the Tabernacle (Sanhedrin 11a). It also means that there is a move of transition from outside to inside and then back again from inside to outside; this deals with spiritual connections but mainly with food. It happens quite often in the Talmud that latrine quarrels show up as regards the service in the Temple. How, why, is it permitted for a high priest to build his own latrine.

Yiddish makes use of a lot of crude or obscene words, just as Aramaic in the Talmud. Hebrew is firstly rather “innocent.” “Oto makom – this place” is a very neutral expression to speak of female genitals and traces back to the Temple. This is far from being evident in daily speech. Now, this has nothing to do with colloquial modern slang and obscene words.
Our body is some dwelling of the Shechinah which is stated in the Mishna and by Paul of Tarsus (1 Corinthians 3:16). “Eat up to the third of the capacity of your stomach, drink also a third measure and let another third “empty” (Gittin 70a) or “Eat till you are hungry, drink till you are thirsty” (Berachot 62b) also show the importance of feeding, that in ancient times, could be rather frugal for the poor: “bread and salt”(Berachot 2b). This means that we swallow or eat up food and have to reject them. It is meaningful that, in Russian “zhivot = stomach, belly” means “life” (Church Slavonic).

The Book of Eycha (Lamentations), read on the Ninth of Av in commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples, has violent phrases showing the suffering of the people. The same is expressed in Prophet Isaiah and the final redemption of the nation.
Each time Jerusalem was besieged, life conditions became inhuman, with mothers eating their babies (Lam. 2:20), filth is on the city’s skirt (Lam. 1:9), excrements profaning the place that should be dedicated to bridge holiness and purity with the inhabitants. The deportation to Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem and the various persecutions strongly imprinted the Jewish memory about the absence of physical respect to the body. This is a general stand that also proves how far torture used as a tool for “intelligence” or to exercise might. And thus ordinary and honest people can change to brainless beasts. We see at the present – but it seems it has always existed – how armies using the most sophisticated weapons (soon you will be able to just nuke up your best enemy with a disposable self-destroyable mini-lighter).

At the same time, abject tortures are committed dealing with obscenity, utilizing feces inter alia. It is in tragic memory of the concentration camp social life where there was no privacy and the point was for the inmates to remain human in their attitude to each other. Psalm 22 is rather special in the series of these first psalms. It states: “Veanochi tola’at velo ish / but I am a worm, less than a man – cherpat adam uvzuy am / scorned by men, despised by people” (v.7-8). The point is that he is mocked because he believes in the Lord. But the heart of verse is the description of despise, “being less than a man” and the subsequent feelings: “My life pours like water, all my bones are disjointed / my heart is like wax melting within me, my vigor dries up like a shard” (Ps. 22:15-16).
Such can be the feelings of many people: either because of humiliation imposed in jail by a role game of power between the police and the prisoners. This is also very frequent in hospitals after heavy operations when individuals are totally dependent on the constant (often remarkable) assistance of nurses and helpers. This can be worse in elderly homes: strange there, people are sitting or laying in bed moaning-groaning as if they never had existed: their actions, personal lives, emotions seem to have vanished in speechless hours and days and permanent pampering.

Psalm 22 is famous because of the first verse: “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me” uttered by Jesus of Nazareth on the Cross. It is even quoted in Aramaic in the Gospel (Matthew 27:46). The Christian tradition considers that Jesus’ cry is not limited to that verse. It presupposes that all the verses of the psalm should be read, thus also the above-mentioned ones showing the absence of respect toward human nature.
It is rather curious indeed that we might measure a society at the level of its attitude toward human dignity… and its “latrine system”. It is not possible to pretend to glorify the living God Who created us in His likeness and let people in filth and dirt. Or there is something wrong. Quoting the Sages, Jesus said: “Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine. But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles: evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly” (Mark 7:19-20).

From latrine gossip to elevation of the thoughts and proper reflection, it is strange how some thrones bring us back to good old ethics and sometime real places of meditation.