Friday, August 28, 2015

Sermonette: Arguing with, and Appreciating, Deuteronomy 21.10-25.19 ("Ki Teitzei")

28 August 2015
Temple Ner Ami, Camarillo, CA
(1650 words, ca. 12 and a half minutes)

            So the child says to the rabbi, "Rabbi, why did the Holy One set the minyan at ten?" And the rabbi replies, "That is simple, my child. A minyan of ten guarantees that for every issue of importance to the congregation — and {shuddering to recall} many, many issues of no importance whatever! — there should be at least a dozen opinions."
            Okay, a lot of Jews, it is said, like to argue, and I grew up in Chicago: among another group of people who definitely like to argue.
            And not argue just with each other, at least not among Jews.
            One image of Israel's relationship with God is a loving betrothal, as in the final prayer when putting on tefillin, or in a mystic reading of the Song of Songs — or with greeting the Sabbath bride as we did with L'Cha Dodi. But marriages, especially after the first six hundred years or so, can get stormy, and another image of the Jewish relationship with God is the wrestling match: Jacob wrestles with the angel and is renamed "Israel": "He who struggles with God." Abraham dickers with God over the destruction of Sodom, and Job in the poem of Job is far from patient with God. In the long poem in the center of the book of Job, Job is ticked and accuses God of injustice. Ultimately vehemently, Job presents his indictment to a silent God — or silent to the climax of the poem — and the Book of Job as a whole suggests that without such an argument there may be no true encounter with God.
            Which brings me to the Torah reading for this Shabbat, Ki Teitzei — a substantial hunk of Deuteronomy — where most of us nowadays would have some questions — and one or two places where we should have objections. And it brings me, as someone ignorant of Hebrew, to what I can recite and talk about. Baruch ata Adonai natein haTorah: The often-repeated and expanded upon, "Blessed are You, Eternal, who gives the Torah."
            We bless God for giving us Torah, the Teaching: God's teachings, commandments, injunctions, laws.
            And I got thinking about that blessing for Torah.
            I don't think I'd bless the California State Assembly for giving us the California Revised Statutes, and I know I cursed them (quietly) for allowing photo-enforced traffic lights with two-second yellows. Still, even when being welcomed to Ventura County with $600 in fines and fees for my first moving violation since I was 18 — even then, I don't think I would have found anything in California law as, let's say, problematic as the "Rules for waging holy war" in Deuteronomy. Most of those rules are in last week's reading, but Ki Teitzei starts out with the rules for a victorious Israelite soldier seizing from "among the captives a beautiful woman" and appropriating her — seizing her — for a wife.
            Also, well … for 35 years I lived in a college town around the corner from a consolidated high school and occasionally fantasized dire punishments for teens who are "stubborn and rebellious" (and noisy) and for any over-age kid who's "a glutton and," way more so, "a drunkard." Still, having them stoned to death as Deuteronomy commands (21.21) seems excessive — and "a little bordering upon cruelty."
            When we bless God for "Torah and mitzvot," what should we be blessing God for?
            First off we should be thankful for the arguments within our Scriptures and beyond where it's a question of whether swords should be beaten into plowshares, as Isaiah says, and we "learn war no more," or the other way around. The prophet Joel tells us to "Hammer your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears" and rather than ceasing to learn war anymore, to "Train even your weaklings to be warriors" (3.10).
            Also there are — always — historical contexts and the need to be not so open-minded that our brains fall out, but humble not just before God but also with our ancestors, and honor their progress in compassion.
            For a famous example, Christians criticize the Law of "an eye for an eye." Well, back in the day of Hammurabi and Moses, that law served to limit violence. Somebody knocks out the eye of a guy in the ancient world (or our world), and he'd want to kill the offender. And American Christians might keep in mind that if the US had stuck to "an eye for an eye," we would have paused after killing four or five thousand Afghans in revenge for 9/11 — and see what, if anything could be done against al-Qaeda by law. "An eye for an eye" can be idealistic even today.
            More specific to today's reading, Ki Teitzei commands, "You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped […]; he shall dwell with you [… and]; you shall not oppress him" (23.15). The Code of Hammurabi, nearly four thousand years ago "decreed death as the penalty for sheltering a fugitive slave" (RSV 244 n.); and the laws of the American colonies and the United States required returning fugitive slaves until 1864.
            More generally, we have to use our imaginations and think about what evolving Torah meant to our ancestors.
            A nice Jewish boy, if secular, Steven Pinker, wrote in 2011 a long and fascinating and controversial book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. "What? — Violence declined?!?", you will say — which is why Pinker needed to write a big book. "Don't we live in peculiarly violent times of existential threat!?"
            Well, no, not really. There are existential threats to the human species from asteroids and comets and thermonuclear war. And the last period of global warming back in the Middle Ages was great for the Vikings but horrible for people living in hot, dry places like, well, like around here, and our current round of global warming will produce, in many places, like around here, very tough times.
            Still, nothing going on nowadays compares with the bloodbaths of the two world wars of the 20th century, and my students in a course called just "Massacres" came up with the scary statistic that those two world wars and some 80 million dead were barely a blip on the graph in the increase in human population. World War II was an existential threat to Jews and Roma and did (thank God) destroy the Third Reich; but the 20th-century World Wars were a spasmodic exception to a general trend of improvement.
            "Genocide" is a modern word, but large-scale massacres are ancient, and we find it hard to believe that Violence Has Declined because we can barely imagine how violent a world our ancestors lived in during the anarchy that preceded civilization and the violence and oppression under early kings and empires.
            Scribes in really ancient, ancient Mesopotamia wrote of kingship coming down from heaven as a gift from the gods. Well, yeah; having a king meant that now all you had to fear in the lethal violence category was the king and his thugs from the capital and not the local free-lance thugs. Early civilization was less violent and brutal than what preceded it, but that still leaves a lot of room for violence and brutality. Our ancestors got a taste of civilized life in Egypt, and my ancient history book says the Hebrews weren't treated much differently from Pharaoh's other subjects — and our ancestors in Egypt thought they were treated like slaves. And when our later ancestors demanded a king, the Prophet Samuel described in gory detail how even an Israelite king will tax them and draft them "and you shall be his slaves" (1 Samuel 8.10-18). Oppressive kings were better than constant clan warfare and small-group violence, but they were bad and could be very bad. So, Blessed be the Eternal, who gave the yoke of the law to restrain and guide individuals and (on balance, eventually) curb violence and oppression.
            And blessed be the Eternal for Torah not just as Law but as Teaching and a Way of life: for giving us a creation myth where God looks upon all the work of of Creation on the 6th Day and finds in "very good" (Genesis 1.31) — a phrase a great teacher of comparative religion says "gives a lilt to the whole attitude toward nature" and life in Torah, and makes Torah the ground of "This beautiful tree, the tree of life." <>
            And, indeed, the weirder rules in Deuteronomy in the reading for today repeat the kind of Rule of Separations in the Book of Leviticus — and these also make sense.
            Torah teaches that in the beginning God brought order out of chaos; and the rules to keep fabrics all of one material and farm fields of one crop, the rigid rules on sex and gender and age status — these are bad ideas today but long served as walls against chaos.
            We need "New Rules!" about now, and Reform Judaism helps provide them, but the impulse behind the old rules was necessary. Back when humans were beginning to get the world organized in our minds and cultures, we needed strong categories for animals and crops and fabrics, even for men's clothing and women's clothing; we needed at least regulation of the violence of frequent wars and constant slavery — and rules to keep in check royal egomaniacs.
            And many of the rules really are good ideas: expanding our circles of empathy, sympathy, of feeling and concern. In the Torah reading for today, in the midst of a bunch of rigid regulations on punishments and inheritance and "Levirate" marriage. In the midst of lawyerly details comes the rule, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain" (25.4). Even an ox deserves reward for his labor, a standard of justice and compassion that we have not met today.

            Blessed is the Eternal, who's given the Torah to Israel.

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