Monday, January 30, 2012

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Us: Where Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow Meet

On Thursday, February 16th I will lead a day trip from the B’nai Shalom parking lot to the Discovery Museum in Times Square to see the Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times exhibit.  The exhibit features many items never before displayed. Some of them date back nearly 3000 years ago to the time of King Solomon; the youngest item in the exhibit dates from the Byzantine period, around 400 CE. Why?

Anyone who has ever visited the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem can attest to the incredible sight of the ancient parchment scrolls on display.  They raise as many questions as answers. Who wrote them? Why? What function did they serve?  How were they used? Are they personal devotional scrolls used prayer, as some scholars suggest? Could they have been for personal study? Are they something else entirely?

The answer to all these questions is surely “yes.” So many fragments, of such wide variety in style, age, and content represent a broad spectrum of ideas, hopes and purposes.  And like our Judaism today, the variations are endless, yet create a core truth which is not to be denied.

Judaism is best defined as a people, our texts, and God – meeting in the Land of Israel for all time.

On the bus in to the city (leaving promptly at 9:30 a.m.), we will study some of the texts that we will be viewing.  Once in the museum, we will compare them to the sacred versions we use in synagogue today.  What differences are there, and what similarities?

When we consider the enduring impact on Western civilization the words of our Tanakh have had, we can not help but be touched by the devotion that inspired ancient scribes to preserve these words for others to read and know.  We’ll marvel at the “non-Jewish” nature of many of them, and think about the legitimate limits of religious ideas. And we’ll sense the wonder at the deep love that subsequently stored them to last for the ages in a ceramic jar stashed in a cave high up on a cliff.  We will explore how those words united our ancient ancestors even long before the scribe in Qumran wrote them down then. And, hopefully, we will away with renewed appreciation for these immortal words, which have helped us survive the vagaries of historical homelessness for nearly two thousand years without the Land of Israel. Now that we have returned to our Land, we may also return to our Literature.

It is humbling to realize how much grandeur underlies these little scraps of parchment.  It makes me wonder: What are the acts of devotion that we produce in our day that will similarly inspire our descendants two thousand years from now?  Will it be the scholarship that we have produced? Will it be the beautiful artwork, or the inspiring literature?  Will it be something intangible?  While I do not have any absolute answers to my question, I doubt it will be any of the brick-and-mortar edifices that we have built.  Ultimately the message of these little scrolls is that their values endure.  May we be blessed to rise to the challenge they present to us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

May Religious Organizations Discriminate? Should We?

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled, in HOSANNA-TABOR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH AND SCHOOL v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION ET AL., that Religious Organizations may discriminate according to the dictates of their religion. 

They may.  But should we?

The United States Constitution’s first Amendment establishes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

For those of us in the work of religious organizations, this means that no law or government regulation can interject actively to support or inhibit the free faith actions of our organizations.  It is the essence of the open society and the healthy democracy.

As George Washington wrote to Moses Seixas, head of the Tuoro synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790, “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

The heart of the case is the principle that hiring and firing a religious leader requires no explanation or cause, as far as the power of the state is concerned.  There is no secular remedy for the religious leader in the courts.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote, The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.

Two clarifications are important for us, when it comes to our religious leaders.  First, the organization itself defines who is, and who is not a “minister.”  Second, the organization itself asserts that the firing is or is not due to a tenant or doctrine of the faith. The court can not subjectively review that claim.

Justice Alito, and (Jewish) Justice Elana Kagan also wrote, The “ministerial” exception should be tailored to this purpose. It should apply to any “employee” who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.  If a religious group believes that the ability of such an employee to perform these key functions has been compromised, then the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the group’s right to remove the employee from his or her position.

Furthermore they say, Religious autonomy means that religious authorities must be free to determine who is qualified to serve in positions of substantial religious importance.  Different religions will have different views on exactly what qualifies as an important religious position, but it is nonetheless possible to identify a general category of “employees” whose functions are essential to the independence of practically all religious groups. These include those who serve in positions of leadership, those who perform important functions in worship services and in the performance of religious ceremonies and rituals, and those who are entrusted with teaching and conveying the tenets of the faith to the next generation.

For Judaism this includes all religious school classroom employees, youth leaders, day school Judaics faculty, holiday specialists, adult education teachers, scholars-in-residence, torah readers, service leaders, social justice project leaders, and of course Rabbis and Cantors.  Any or all of these people may be hired or terminated regardless of the secular or religious reason of the hire/fire.

In order to be free, Justices Alito and Kagan conclude that a church must be free to appoint or dismiss in order to exercise the religious liberty that the First Amendment guarantees.

In hierarchical churches  the appointment of such roles is hereby a protected right of the central church.  In synagogues, where hire/fire of employees is ultimately an action of the board, it is the board alone whose discretion determines the religion when they engage or dismiss a religious leader.

The United Jewish Communities, however, actively lobbied congress in 2007 for the restoration of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In an advocacy letter circulated throughout the American Jewish Community, we said to our members of congress that

"Sacred texts from our diverse faith traditions agree upon the inherent value and sacredness of every human being, regardless of physical or mental ability. Our traditions teach us of our moral obligation to provide assistance to those in need, ensuring equal access for all people and helping facilitate the full participation of individuals with disabilities in our communities. We are committed to eradicating all forms of discrimination and intolerance, which alienate individuals and divide our society. We believe that the restoration of civil rights to the disabled community is of crucial importance to this struggle.

"The right to earn a livelihood is one that should be granted to all people, regardless of physical or mental disability. We urge you to show your support for equal rights by co-sponsoring and supporting the ADA Restoration Act of 2007."

Signatories on the letter included:

United Jewish Communities
Union for Reform Judaism
American Islamic Congress
American Jewish Committee
Catholic Charities Disabilities Services
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Disciples Justice Action Network (Disciples of Christ)
The Episcopal Church
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Hindu American Foundation
Islamic Society of North America
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Jewish Labor Committee 
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Muslim Public Affairs Council
National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
National Council of Jewish Women
NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office
The Salvation Army, United States
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

With all that said, I believe that Constitutionally this was an excellent decision.  But the dignity and equality of my religious leaders and teachers is also held as a religious value taught by Judaism.  We should hold ourselves up, as a matter of our religion, to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act regardless of our right to a lower moral rung on the ladder.  The court has asserted our legal right discriminate.  The Torah may not be so forgiving.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Moses' Converted Family

Moses’ father-in-law appears for the first time in this week’s parshah, Parshat Shemot

We read in the third aliyah, “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters.  They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock; but shepherds came and drove them off.  Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.  When they returned to their father Reuel, he said, ‘How is it that you have come back so soon today?’  They answered, ‘An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds; he even drew water for us and watered the flock.’”

Remarkably, to the Midianite women Moses seems entirely Egyptian.  After being raised in Pharoah’s house, presumably he is of assimilated appearance, language and demeanor.  Is this a case of “don’t judge a book by its cover,” or is Mosheh Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, still on a journey Jewishly?  Both interpretations are meaningful, and worthy of consideration.  But whatever his appearance or practice, Moses is Jewish through and through.

But what of “Reuel,” the father of these women?  We are clearly told that the women are the daughters of the Priest of Midian, that he invites Moses to come home with them, and that he gives Moses his daughter Tzipporah as a wife.  Moses marries a Midianite.

Yet we also read in the fourth aliyah, “Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Yitro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God…”

If “Yitro” is the father of Tzipporah, then why is he called “Reuel” in the third reading?

And to make matters even more confusing,  in Judges 4:11, we have “Hovav, father-in-law of Moses.”  In fact, Rashi (on 4:18) quotes him as having 7 different names:  Reuel, Yeter, Yitro, Kenite, Hovav, Hever, and Putiel!

An interesting solution to this quandary is the idea that Yitro converted to Judaism. Rashi, commenting on verse 2:16 says, “The Priest of Midian – that is, their chief.  But he had abandoned idolatry, and they had excommunicated him.” 

The idea here is that the name “Reuel” should be understand as a verb more than as a name.  “Re’u” means “They saw,” much as Jacob’s firstborn is named “Re’uven” or “they saw a son.”  In this case, “Reuel” would mean, “they saw God.”

So a mighty chieften, Yitro the Priest of Midian, had a vision or experience of the One true God, and as such became distant from his people.  Marginalized, he lived yet on the outskirts of his society, in the Sinai, with his daughters who had to endure the abuse of the other natives daily at the well. Without power these women followed their father in adopting a pure belief in Adonai. 

Ramban adds another idea, teaching (on 2:16) that, “after Yitro converted to Judaism he was called Hovav… For it is the way of converts to call themselves by a different name when they become Jews.”

Further support for this idea comes from the meaning of “Hovav,” a Hebrew root word meaning “Loves.”  After all, conversion is essentially an act of Love for God, Torah and Israel.

It is interesting that such effort was made to prove the Jewishness of Yitro.  Yet the family unity which ensues can not be understated.  After all, it is Tzipporah who circumcises their son in 4:24-26, thereby saving Moses’ life.  And it is Yitro who meets the children of Israel on their way to Mt. Sinai and aids Moses in his leadership of the people in 18:17-27.  Moses’ success is in part made possible by their having joined him on the Jewish Journey.

In fact, in the beginning of this story neither the Jewishness of Moses nor that of Yitro is by any means clear.  But by the end of the week’s parshah all is as it should be.

In our day, the question of welcoming converts has become political beyond belief.  I believe, as shown in the Torah, that all are welcome on this Jewish Journey, and that we will be only better for having them with us.

To Work and Guard the Earth

The Jewish celebration of trees, nature and the Land, Tu BiShevat, is just around the corner (Feb. 8).  What is our teaching regarding the proper care for the Earth?

According to Hebrew Bible, Genesis 2:15, God's primary purpose in creating the human was to work and guard the Earth.  In an age of ubiquitous development, how is a Jew to understand this command?

Chapter 2 of Genesis marks a second kind of creation story.  Rather than focusing on the cosmos, the sun and moon and stars, and the order of the days of creation, this chapter is decidedly different.  "When the Lord God made earth and heaven - When no shrub of the field was yet on the earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth - the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth.  He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." [Gen. 2:4b-7]

Unlike the first chapter of Genesis, this creation posits a bare world into which God places the human.  Only then is the Garden of Eden created in verse 8, and the human placed into the garden.  And trees immediately follow.  Rivers and Rules are presented, and in verse 15 we read "The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it  (לעבדה ולשמרה )."

 From this first text it is crystal clear that our relationship with the Earth has three components:  (1) We belong on the Earth as part of the divine purpose of the Universe, (2) We are to "till" or "work" the Earth, and (3) we are to "tend" or to "keep/guard" the Earth.

Another core Biblical value is בל תשחית - to not destroy useful things.  This is derived from Deuteronomy 20:19 - When, in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its [fruit] trees, wielding the ax against them.  You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.  Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?! Sustaining the productivity of the land trumps your need for firewood, arrows or wood for siege engines. The Rabbinic system over the last 2,000 years has applied this law to any act of senseless destruction or wasteful use.

Judaism's view of humanity is that of the faithful steward, using the natural world for our benefit is a manner which keeps it healthy and well.  It would not be in keeping with Judaism to cut down entire forests for hardwood or development.  But it would definitely be within Jewish values to support widespread logging in forests that are being managed as renewable resources.  Ultimately we are responsible for the Earth, but only God is in charge of it.  We are the project managers for the Boss.

In West Orange, NJ, this month, our wonderful local Essex County Park "South Mountain Reservation" is implementing a "deer management program," which is a common controlled hunt to thin the wild herds to manageable levels.  While in Judaism we do not hunt, we can nonetheless support this program.  Its purpose is the healthy herd, and healthy land management.  Take a walk through the trails of South Mountain, which are well maintained and marked.  You will see in certain areas large fenced enclosures.  These areas keep deer out, allowing native plant species to recover and spread their seeds.  Excessive deer, who have no other predators since humans drove away the wolves, destroy forests.  The ecosystem itself is in danger of collapse without human stewardship.  We are both the cause and the solution to the problem.

Land management, and the wise protection of our natural resources and ecosystem are the hallmarks of Judaism when it comes to the environment.

Enjoy the Earth, as you work it and guard it for you, for your children's children, and for God.