Monthly Archives: April 2014

Kedoshim 5774: Love Your Neighbors–Plants and Animals Included

I’m sad to say it, but apocalypse was on my mind over Pesah. Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, took me through a few hundred million years of natural history, during which the earth has experienced five “extinction events” when a large portion of the biosphere died off. The most famous and most recent of these was the strike of a bolide (asteroid) near the Yucatan Peninsula to end the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago. This event wiped out 75% of animal and plant life on earth, including all non-avian dinosaurs, and it was rapid. Yet the current rate of extinction in what some scientists have come to call the “Anthropocene” era of human manipulation of the environment is faster yet. As the atmosphere warms and the oceans acidify, humanity is rapidly displacing other species and reducing the remarkably diverse species of plants and animals on our planet. The swift pace of extinction means that many species do not have time to adapt to their new circumstances. Doubtless, new forms of life will develop and even thrive in the next era, but it is not evident that humanity will be one of them. As my teacher Stephen J. Gould once said, “the earth is not in trouble; people are in trouble.”

Adirondack Stream 2013Kolbert’s book is fascinating, edifying and deeply disturbing. I highly recommend it! On a less scholarly level, I went to see Darren Aranofsky’s film, Noah, which brought his vision of apocalypse into vivid focus. As a reader of Bible and Midrash, I was puzzled by many of Aranofsky’s decisions. The film’s main drama derives from a Midrash of his own invention, namely Noah’s decision to end the human story by excluding wives for his sons, with the exception of Emma Watson, who plays Shem’s partner, a girl assumed to be infertile. Noah’s plan to doom not only his human contemporaries, but even his own descendants, is not popular with his family, and runs counter to the explicit narrative of the Torah, where God commands Noah to pack his sons and their wives onto the boat, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. But Aranofsky is less interested in fidelity to the original text than in creating a new morality tale in which humanity probably doesn’t deserve to survive. Humans are corrupt, and their habit of eating meat is a sign of their demonic and destructive nature.

Against these grim depictions of human depravity, Parashat Kedoshim arrives with a message of hope. True, the portion has its own vision of apocalypse, with the Land itself prepared to vomit out its inhabitants if Israel were to abandon its God and the path of holiness. Still, the opening line, Kedoshim tihy’u, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy,” is more optimistic . It may be read either as a command—here’s a goal for you; or as a prediction—you can do it! Reish Lakish has a saying, quoted often in the Talmud, that “one who wishes to become pure, others help him out” בא לטהר – מסייעין אותו (b. Yoma 38b; AZ 55a; Menahot 28a), and there is a long Jewish history of viewing humanity’s chances of achieving purity with optimism.  Continue reading

Shabbat HaGadol 5774: Got Your Goat?

ROA GoatOne kid, just one kid-חד גדיא, חד גדיא. Goats are the key connection between Parshat Aharei Mot and Shabbat HaGadol. Our portion features two goats that are the most visible signs of dedication and atonement of the Yom Kippur ritual, and it also offers a cryptic reference to Israel’s past history of goat worship. In Chapter 16 we read of the Yom Kippur ritual in which the high priest collects two goats from the people (the sages see a redundancy in the language, indicating they must be equal), and by lottery learns that one is “for the Lord” and the other is to be sent “to Azazel.” The primary rabbinic tradition sees all of this as symbolic of Israelite history. In Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, the two goats are symbols of Jacob, who followed his mother Rebecca’s instructions to prepare two “good kids” as part of the deception of Isaac—they will be good for you, since you will receive your father’s blessing, and good for your descendants, who will be purified by the Yom Kippur ritual of the goats.

Still, there is that strange verse in 17:7 that Israel will “no longer sacrifice to the goats.” What is the deal with that? Rashi relates that the goats are actually the visible form of demons, and Ibn Ezra expands on this, saying that those who see them are driven mad (playing on the word for goat, se’ir). Ramban goes into occult territory, connecting this verse to the Yom Kippur ritual at 16:8. I won’t try to explain his entire comment (he claims to be promiscuous in revealing what his teacher had hidden, but then he also hides his words). The gist seems to be that God has other servants, angels, demons, whatever, that Israel is forbidden to worship, but who still depend on God’s support, in which we are implicated. For this reason the priest is not allowed to dedicate the goat to Azazel—rather, it is a divine lottery. It is important that Israel not worship the demons, but God has God’s reasons to support them in some way. (the Zohar develops this concept of needing to feed the “other side” lest it become aroused; see Tetsaveh, II:182a, v.6, p.18 in Daniel Matt’s translation and commentary). Something truly strange is going on here—there is power in the divine realm which eludes human grasp, and sometimes the role of Israel is simply to follow God’s orders. There is a persistent temptation to divert one’s yearning for the divine into other, easier, stranger pathways. This story seems to be the exception that proves the rule; no more may Israel worship demons or other divinities.  Continue reading

Shabbat Metzora 5774: Magic or Morality?

Bird in GardenRitual is essential to religious life, but what does it actually accomplish? Is our elaborate system of gestures and taboos purely symbolic, or does it effect some sort of spiritual shift in reality? In our portion, we are told that the priest purifies a person or a home that has been afflicted with tzara’at by taking two birds, slaughtering one so that its blood blends with fresh water, then dipping a living bird together with scarlet thread and branches of cedar and hyssop into the liquid; finally, the priest sprinkles the wet bird bundle seven times onto the person or building, before releasing it to fly across the field. I have never witnessed voodoo, but I imagine it looks something like this. So nu, does it work? The signs of contamination are physical, and the Torah employs diagnostic precision to identify them. First there must be physical healing; what then is the force of this rite? Is there some sort of curse which is lifted by this ritual, or is it more a matter of psychological healing?  Continue reading