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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where Were the Women?

I stretched the truth in my last blog post.  "Rashi reminds us that the Holy One counted the people one at a time, treasuring each and every number," I wrote.  In truth, only adult men were treasured.  Women and children were omitted from the census.

Levites were also omitted from the census of Numbers, and 40 years later both women and Levites were excluded from the Israelite count in a far more tangible way – they received no land rights.   כל העובר על הפקודים –– only citizens count, and land ownership has long been the mark of citizenship.  Think about more recent times -- with the founding of the United States who was initially given the right to vote?

In an agrarian society, land is the only material good of lasting value.  Israelite men, as landowners and heads of family, were the bedrock of biblical society.  Women, Levites and foreigners flowed like water around them; essential but transient.  Women passed from one family or tribe to another when they married.  Levites wandered the lands, in search of tithes to feed themselves and their families.  Deuteronomy refers to הלוי אשר בשעריך:  the Levite who is amongst you but not of you, and is in a class with widows, orphans, children, slaves and foreigners.  (See Deuteronomy 12:12-19,  14:27-29,  16:11-14,  18:6, and 26:11-13.)  

But wait, you might say, Levites were a privileged class.  They were chosen -- for their merits!  They were set aside for a life of singing and shlepping in God's own house.  

And you would be right to say so; the Levites were considered holier than the rest, and they were surely admired for their special role.  Of course, women were also admired by men, and all that admiration set both Levites and women as groups-apart.  As we Jews well know, “a group apart” from one perspective is a group of “outsiders” from another perspective.  Outsiders are always vulnerable.

In medieval Europe, the Jews as a whole became a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests.  In many ways European medieval Jews were a privileged class, like the Levites of old.  Literacy, for example, was exceptionally high among Jewish men and quite high among Jewish women, while Christian peasants were mostly illiterate.  Jews were simultaneously admired and hated by the Christian peasantry.  The royalty depended on Jews as bankers and tax-collectors, but through relentless expulsions they made their Jews transient and extremely vulnerable.  (For more on Jews as outsiders, I recommend the first chapter of Yuri Slezkine's book, The Jewish Century.)

Human nature does not change.  Like a dance, history simply shifts who stands in which position.  I try not to get angry at historical realities anymore.  Might as well be angry at a black widow for killing her mate -- you won't change the spider and you won't change history.   I do get angry at instances of sexism or antisemitism in our world today, but mostly I am thankful to live in a time and place where Jews and women are no longer outsiders to society.

Who are the outsiders in America today: essential to our functioning, but made to be transient?  Admired, perhaps -- for their rich culture, their music and dance and cuisine -- but also hated and certainly vulnerable?  I am haunted by the words of Woody Guthrie that seem as true today as they were 60 years ago when he wrote them:

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

(Click here to hear Woody’s song.)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Counting Out a Balance

"Stand up and be counted!"
"Your vote counts!"
"YOU count!"
"You're just a number."
"You're just a statistic."

A slight shift in perspective, and what it means to be counted has opposite meanings. 

Several times in the Torah, God orders a census of the Israelite men.   Says Rashi, one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time: "Because (the Israelites) are so beloved, (God) counts them all the time" (Rashi on Numbers 1:1.)   The Holy One apparently had something in common with my grandmother, of blessed memory, who loved to launch into recitations of the names and birth-dates of her children and grandchildren: "In March I have two birthdays, Debbe and Ari, in April I have Alan, in May I have two, your mother and Maynard, in June . . . "  

Rather suspiciously, the Torah twice describes censuses that came up with the same number: 603,550 Israelites.  This coincidence led the author of HaEmek Davar commentary to suggest a radically different motivation for the census.  A king cannot travel without a proper retinue, and the King of Kings requires a retinue of -- you guessed it! -- 603,550.  Before God and Israel began their travels through the desert, they required a counting.  But the count needed only reach 603,550, and they were good to go.  "From then on, even if many more boys came of age they were not counted -- unless someone died or left the camp for another reason, then they would fill the retinue with others."

Though Rashi and the author of HaEmek Davar lived eight centuries apart, their opinions are recorded on the same page of my Bible, and together their two perspectives fulfill a chasidic saying:  "A person should have two pockets.  In one (should be written) ‘The world was created for me (Sanhedrin 4:5).’  In the other (should be written) ‘I am dirt and ashes (Genesis 18:27).’"  Like Alice in Wonderland, we need always on hand a drink to sip in case we should grow too large, and a cake to nibble should we shrink too small. 

In the age of science, we need those pockets more than ever. 

I know more secrets of creation than even Moses himself could have known -- DNA, and electrons, and black holes.  In an instant I can call up on my computer screen the entire sequence of the human genome.  A few keystrokes, and Google maps can direct me to any point in the world.  A few hours on an airplane, and I find myself in places that Moses never knew existed.  When we feel this powerful, it is easy to forget that a few milligrams of cholesterol in the wrong location is all it would take (God forbid!) and I would be gone.  HaEmek Davar's commentary reminds us: my disappearance would matter little to God, so long as another person could fill out the numbers.  And with 6.8 billion people in the world, filling out the numbers should be no problem. . .

Six point eight billion people?!  Just counting to six billion, if I were to count one number at a time, with no break for sleeping or eating, would take 200 years. 

How could my life possibly matter to the Rock of the Universe?  Our galaxy alone contains 100 thousand million stars, and the universe contains millions upon millions of galaxies.  What matters one planet on one little star, let alone one life on that planet?   But Rashi reminds us that the Holy One counted the people one at a time, treasuring each and every number.   And who am I to claim a limit on how high the Infinite One can count?

The Psalmist asks:
 מה אנוש כי תזכרנו?                What is man, that You should remember him?   

And yet, affirms the same Psalmist, You do remember us,
וכבוד והדר תעטרהו                 And You crowned (humanity) with honor and beauty

 מה אדיר שמך בכל הארץ        How majestic is Your name in all the land!
(Psalms 8)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Faith Requires Imagination

Dr. Avivah Zornberg says, "Faith requires imagination."

Faith requires imagining an entity that you cannot see with your eye. 

In my mind, faith in a God who spoke words and created a world requires as much imagination as faith in bacteria that are too tiny to see but are able to kill you (להבדיל).  Developing a personal, complex theology that incorporates ideas from the past requires far more imagination, just as developing new scientific theories is imaginative work that builds on the imagination of others.

Now hold your horses!  I understand the difference between science and religion, I promise.  But don't try to tell me that successful scientists don't require imagination.  Creating new hypotheses to explain our data, and new experiments to test those hypotheses, is among the most imaginative work I know.

Successful scientists are also skeptical of their imagination.  I've seen the opposite, and its results -- scientist who fall so in love with their own theories they ignore the contradicting data.  The outcome is never good. 

My model of good faith shares both these aspects of science: imagination and skepticism.  We need imagination to dream of the Creator of worlds.  We need imagination to dream of improving this world.  But we need skepticism to see when our ideas about the Creator contradict our ideals for Her world.  And we need skepticism to see when our ideals contradict the reality of the world God created.  Just as a good scientist is not afraid to modify her hypotheses, a person of good faith should not be afraid to modify her faith when she finds her imagination has misled her.