The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The I-Word

Shabbat Evening • July 8, 2011 • Parashat Balak

There once was a Jewish man who had three sons, and he was anxious to marry them off to nice Jewish girls.  The first son married a Catholic girl, so the father figured he had two more chances.  The second son married a Hindu girl, and the father started to worry.  
   The third son came home one day and said, "Dad, I've met the one, and we're getting married.  Her name is Goldberg..."
   "Goldberg!" said the father, optimistically.
   "Yes," his son said. "I'd like you to meet Whoopi..."

Intermarriage is our topic this evening.  Like with all challenging topics in Judaism, there are jokes about it.  It's certainly a hot topic today, and it's hard to talk about properly.  It cuts straight to the core of that age-old question who is a Jew.  And it divides Jews from each other and Jewish denominations from others.

Tonight I want to offer some thoughts on intermarriage, both from the Torah portion and from my experience and reflection.

The story we heard chanted (Numbers 25:6-8) offers one gruesome way to respond to intermarriage.  The background here is that the Moabite king, Balak, worried that the approaching Israelites presented a military threat.  So he enlisted the prophet-for-hire Bil'am to go and curse the Israelites.  But rather than curse -- at God's command -- Bil'am blessed the Israelites several times over.

Following this series of events, we learn that many Israelites were lured into Ba'al worship (idolatry) by the Moabite and Midianite women with whom they were "fraternizing."  God sends a plague as punishment and tens of thousands die.

At that moment, one Israelite named Zimri comes forward with a Midianite woman, in the eyes of Moses and the whole community of Israel.  Pinchas, a priest (and a grandson of Aaron), takes matters into his own hands.  He takes a spear, charges Zimri and his Midianite companion, and impales them both through the belly.  The plague ends, and Pinchas is shown divine favor for his action.

Our tradition, like most of us, cannot stomach Pinchas' behavior.  The rabbis conceive of at least four ways of tempering this episode (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a) that are worth considering.  First, they suggest that if Pinchas had asked before acting if it were proper to execute Zimri and Kozbi (the Midianite), the answer would have been a firm no.  Second, if Zimri had stepped away from the woman at any time, Pinchas would have had no right to kill him.  Third, and most interesting to me, if Zimri had turned on Pinchas and killed him, it would have been justifiable as a defensive killing.  Pinchas met the criteria for the legal category of rodef/pursuer, the preemptive killing of which is legal.  Fourth, and tangentially, the rabbis also mention a rule based on the Torah's description of Pinchas "getting up from the congregation" to go and executive the couple.  Therefore, they say, you may not enter the Beit Midrash (House of Study) with weapons.  The subtext seems to be: learning leads to doing, so we must use caution when learning about laws with such dire consequences.

A rabbinic midrash (also Sanhedrin 82a) goes even farther in reinterpreting this episode.  In that version, Zimri's men approach him as the leader of the tribe of Simeon with a grievance.  Moses is meting out capital punishment to all those who associated with Moabite and Midianite women, and they want Zimri to stand up for them!  As a representative of his men's outrage, Zimri takes Kozbi, a Midianite woman, before Moses and says: "Is this woman permitted to me?  And if you say no, then who permitted you Jethro's daughter?!?"  For Zimri remembers, as do the rabbis, that Moses himself is married to a Midianite woman, Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Jethro)!  Moses is stumped at this display, and the people weep at his inability to answer (as the Torah mentions, the people gathered at the Tent of Meeting are weeping).

But what if the midrash got it wrong, or didn't go far enough?

What if the command about the foreign women is not racial -- but rather about associating with people who lead us astray?

What if the congregation was gathered at the Ohel Moed, weeping because of the destruction and division within the community over the question of intermarriage?

What if Zimri brought his Midianite partner to Moses because Moses of all people might sympathize with one who had fallen in love with a Midianite woman?  What if Zimri was determined to bring her into the Israelite community, and what if she wanted to be a part of it?

What if, instead of letting the zealot have the last word -- a victory for exclusion -- Moses had stepped up and said, "No. She is welcome here.  They are welcome here."

Even within just a year here, I have observed non-Jewish spouses devoted to their children's becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I have seen non-Jewish spouses bring their children every month to our Tot Shabbat (often without the Jewish spouse...but that's a conversation for another time).  I am currently working with several couples toward their wedding in which one partner is not Jewish, and both partners are committed to a truly Jewish process of learning and preparation for a Jewish wedding ceremony. In many cases, it's the non-Jewish fiance/e who is guiding the Jewish partner back to Judaism!

Times are different today than when this story occurred.  Identities are not fixed like they were for the ancient Israelites and their neighbors.

What is called for today is neither the silent passivity of Moses, nor the zealous exclusion of Pinchas.  We need an open door, a non-judgmental stance, a genuine interest in each person's story, a source of care and support.  Sure, we should have a willingness to talk about conversion if and when the time is right, but always without pressure or assumptions.

As one of my teachers put it -- five years ago, so it's even more true now -- there are more Jewish households today with non-Jewish members than at any time or place in Jewish history.

This is new.  And we have just begun to realize what this means for Judaism in the next generation.

But all generations of Jews have faced a paradigm shift as dramatic as this one.  And somehow we've managed to survive.  Not by being silent, nor by being overzealous.

Our survival, then, is threatened not by intermarriage, but by whether we can rise to the task of our generation.

With your help, we can do that here.  I hope you will join us, and I look forward to what we can build together.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A 4th of July Sermon

Delivered at Aspen Jewish Congregation at Shabbat services 
on Friday, July 1 -- with pictures!

This Shabbat, in Parashat Chukkat, we find the Israelites still wandering in the desert. It's not -- to say the least -- their finest hour. Right before the text we'll explore tonight, they say to Moses:
"Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and our very souls hate this God-forsaken food!" (Numbers 21:5).

The pattern of complaining, even after their miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery, continues. It reminds me of an old joke about two elderly women at dinner at a Catskills mountain resort. Mrs. Feinberg said to Mrs. Moskowitz, "The food at this place is really terrible." To which Mrs. Moskowitz replied, "Yes, and such small portions!"

Woody Allen made this joke famous in Annie Hall, where he also gave it his own existential spin:
"That's essentially how I feel about life," he said. It's "full of loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness. And it's all over much too quickly."
Snakes on a Plain.
In response to the Israelites' ungrateful whining, God immediately sends a deadly plague of "seraph" serpents. (The Hebrew "seraph" might mean fiery or poisonous.) Many are bitten, and thousands die. The Israelites, realizing they've done wrong, beg Moses to intercede and end the plague.

A Curious Antidote.
Here's where it gets strange. In response to Moses' request to stop the plague, God says:
"Make a serpent and place it on a banner. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live." And Moses made a n'chash n'choshet and placed it on a banner. Whenever a snake bit someone, he looked at the n'chash n'choshet and lived. (Numbers 21:8-9)
I left n'chash n'choshet untranslated to clue you in to the Hebrew wordplay. Nachash means snake, and n'choshet means copper or bronze. So God was telling Moses to make a copper snake and display it prominently before the assembled Israelites. Some artists think it might have looked like this, this, or even the inspiration for this familiar symbol of healing.

Snakes on a Flag.
Since it is the 4th of July, perhaps this whole idea of a snake banner or snake flag rings some patriotic bells.  Coincidentally, the snake flag has a long history related to the founding of our nation.  There's this early version, which Ben Franklin designed in 1754 as a call for unity among the colonies in the French & Indian  War.

More famous still is this snake flag, known eventually as the Gadsden Flag.  It was first used in 1775-76 by the US Navy and Continental Army as a symbol of American resistance to British authority.

Benjamin Franklin, writing pseudonymously as "American Guesser" in the Pennsylvania Journal Dec. 1775 issue, defended the choice of the snake as representative of America.  He said:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids— She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage... she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.— Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?" 
...'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.
Symbol or Idol?
For Franklin, the snake was the ultimate symbol for America and her unique character.  Enough of his fellow countrymen shared this sentiment that the snake symbol was placed on a banner and flown as a flag with national pride.  This snake flag, the American flag, the Israelite copper snake -- they all raise a question about the line between symbols and idols.  When does honoring a symbol cross that line into worshiping an idol?

Blurring this line became such an issue for the Israelites and their descendants that we hear about the n'chash n'choshet -- the copper snake -- centuries later during the reign of King Hezekiah.  In the Book of II Kings (18:4), it's reported that King Hezekiah, a faithful king unlike his predecessors,
abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the n'chash n'choshet that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nechushtan.
The object God intended as a healing mechanism for the plague became so revered that it became an idol -- a false god. Is it any wonder that the Israelites held it in such high esteem, given its apparently miraculous healing powers?  The same challenge faces us when we consider our national flag.  What does it mean to salute the flag, to pledge allegiance to a flag?  How do we avoid blurring that line between symbol and idol?

The Rabbis' Fix.
As they often do, the Rabbis of the Talmud offer a solution to this problem, based on a creative reinterpretation of the copper serpent episode.  Where God said, "Make a serpent...When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall live" (Num 21:8), the Rabbis comment:
But was it the serpent that killed, or was it the serpent that kept alive?
Not so: what the text indicates is that so long as Israel turned their thoughts upward and submitted their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were healed. Otherwise, they rotted away. (Talmud Bavli RH 29a) 
In other words, don't think that the act of looking at the copper snake banner is what healed the bitten Israelites.  Rather, understand that as they directed their eyes up toward the snake, they actually looked above it or through it, toward God's ultimate healing power.

So it should be when we look at our nation's flag.  When we pledge allegiance to it, we are not casting our lot with a piece of fabric. Rather, we are committing ourselves to a set of values -- freedom, justice, equality of opportunity -- upon which this project we call the USA rests.  When we sing and cheer and salute our flag on July 4th, let us together reaffirm those values and ideals that make our flag worth saluting.

Happy Independence Day, and Shabbat Shalom.

I am indebted to Rabbi Stephanie Kolin who first made the connection between this parashah and the American history of snake flags.  Thanks, Stef!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

4th of July Music

This 4th of July, Cantor Rollin had the honor of singing the National Anthem not once but twice!  Both times were performed as a duet with Jeannie Walla.  First, they sang at the start of the Boogie's Buddies Fun Run at 8:00 AM.  Then they sang again at the start of the Aspen 4th of July Parade, from the balcony of the Hotel Jerome.  We got it on YouTube - enjoy!  And Happy Independence Day.

To experience more of Rollin's singing, join us this Thursday, July 14 at
Voices of the Ages: A Journey Through Jewish Song