Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?

This week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews, alongside other students of race, color or national origin on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. No comment). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

This is a debate even among Jews: Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? The question is particularly poignant because whatever Jews are, they keep popping up on the stage of history for over 3500 years.

There is a document that defines the essence of Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang we call Jews, if you will. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that this document originates from God explains the transcendent power and persistence of Jewish identity, even among Jews who reject it. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds. The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Jews are also so persistently reviled and persecuted among other nations. Continue reading “Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?”

The Two Floods, Double Rainbows, and the Cosmic Limitations of Engineering

On double rainbows in Noah

A few years ago, my daughter showed me a viral video of a stoned guy blissing out on a double rainbow in Yosemite. “It’s … it’s a double rainbow!” He moans. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d,” he repeats over and over, “It’s so bright.  Ohhhh, it’s so beautiful!” He breaks down in full-on sobbing, crying in a seizure of ecstasy. “What does it mean?” he asks, his mind blown.

I’m not sure, dude. But one thing you missed in your rapture is a curious phenomenon: look carefully and you can see that the colors of the second rainbow invert the usual order: VIBGYOR.

Double Rainbow
“Double Rainbow” by SlimJones123

As early as 1520 or so, the Jewish sage Sforno[i] noted that even by his time, the double rainbow was already a cliché.

“Scientists have already tired of trying to explain why the various colors of the second rainbow appear in the opposite order of the colors in the original rainbow.”[ii]

Nonetheless, he uses it to explain the rainbow following Noah’s flood. Since the ordinary rainbow already existed at the time of Creation, Sforno reasons, the actual rainbow displayed after the Flood must be this second rainbow, a much rarer and more startling sight (as our ecstatic friend saw in Yosemite). The reverse order of the colors are a warning:

 “When this rainbow appears it is high time to call people to order and to warn them of impending natural calamities unless they change their ways.”[iii]

Sforno’s insight made me think of another secret duality in Noah: there’s really not one but two floods in this weekly reading. I believe they’re connected. Continue reading “The Two Floods, Double Rainbows, and the Cosmic Limitations of Engineering”

Jacob and the Cosmic If

Esau’s Clever Pun

Genesis doesn’t have many witticisms. It has ironic laughter (“What? Am I going to get pregnant at the age of 90?”) and defensive sarcasm (“What? Am I my brother’s babysitter?”) and passive aggression (“What’s 400 shekels between old friends like us?”). But witty wordplay is rare.

So it’s surprising that one of the more brooding and athletic characters, Esau the bloody hunter, gives us a great instance of eloquent punning, and in a moment of high drama, too. Continue reading “Jacob and the Cosmic If”

Thanksgiving and the Jews

Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket, stuffing or kishkes?

As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.

Pilgrims as Jews
Is that a yarmulke he’s wearing? [“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth”, Jennie A. Brownscombe., 1914. Wikimedia Commons]
That may be because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for thanks (Judah). Or maybe because the first Thanksgiving might have had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). But it also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle (at least that’s the way we celebrated). I think the stakes were a penny a point. Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.

The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the Exodus from the Bible. The Puritans believed the Catholic Church had introduced too many impure practices and sought to return Christianity to its “purer” roots in the Jewish Bible. America in their narrative was the Promised Land. They were consciously imitating the Jews in trying to establish both a Holy Land and earthly utopia, free from tyranny. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were more attached to the Torah than the New Testament.

A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”

They also imbibed the message of the Torah: the souls of Jews are enslaved to no earthly power. As the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe said:

“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of (foreign) rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.

“We must say openly before all, that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the commandments and the customs of Israel, we Jews have no one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us.”

In this week’s reading of the Bible, Toldot, a powerful king of the Philistines/Palestinians in what is now Gaza (sound familiar?) has been harassing Isaac by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac continues to thrive and grow wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac” to ask for a peace treaty.

The lesson is clear, the stuff of Hollywood: The small and brave who stick to their mission will have the huge and powerful bow to their superiority. On this Thanksgiving, my personal thanks is that my soul still yearns to be free and in bondage to no physical, terrestrial power.

Except maybe my wife’s transcendent brisket.

Why Does the Epikoros Lose His Soul?

What’s an epikoros?

In the 1950s, you would think Crown Heights was populated by a gallery of rogues, scoundrels and losers with terrific names like shikker, shnook, shlepper, shmendrick, shnorrer, shlemazel, goniff, mamzer, or my favorite, vance.  One of the most chilling, because I wasn’t sure what it meant but it was always muttered darkly, was epikoros. My grandmother pronounced it with her thick Polish inflection, chapikoiyris, but you could also hear apikoros or apikorsis.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Hell for Epicureans: Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

Over time, I realized the word referred to Jews who actively flouted any Jewish observance, a heretic or at least someone who went off the path – the derech as they say in Hebrew – in a serious way. But the word had a long history before it hit the streets of Brooklyn.

Epikoros originates as a Jewish curse at least as far back as the Talmud. The sages single out the epikoros as one of the three kinds of heretics, Jews who lose their immortal souls, an eternal death sentence. But the word sticks out because it doesn’t sound like anything Hebrew and doesn’t have any precedent in Aramaic. It obviously seems to refer to the great Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). Continue reading “Why Does the Epikoros Lose His Soul?”

Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy

Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”

At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.

On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy,  a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram[1] in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view. Continue reading “Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy”

Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion

(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day. I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Kippah + American Flag
(From Jewish Boston, photo by selimaksan/iStock)

Through a wonderful coincidence, this weeks’ parsha and the Fourth of July fall on the same day. Korach tells the story of a Levite, a leader among the Hebrews wandering the desert, who arises and leads a democratic-style revolution against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Continue reading “Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion”

It can turn on a dime

My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.*  And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.

I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”

Destruction of Secomd Temple
“Destruction of the Temple” by Francesco Hayez, 1867.

Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945.  In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.

Continue reading “It can turn on a dime”

We Are All Esther: Prophecy in Exile

The Talmud re-reads Esther to teach Jews in exile how to deal with false gods and re-appropriate Jewish tradition from the ruling culture

War by word, not sword, in exile

The prophets talked to God. The ancients (Adam, Eve, Noah), the patriarchs and matriarchs, (Abraham, Sarah, etc.), and prophets (Moses, Miriam, Devorah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) had a direct line. They conversed with Him like an intimate.

There was a second way to talk to God. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, wore a mystical Breastplate of Judgment (the choshen or the Urim v’Thumim), an array of jewels that would light up, like a mystical computer, receiving coded transmissions directly from God.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 1.36.59 PM
A sketch of the Urim v’Tumim.

In 536 BCE, the Jews return to Israel from their exile in Babylon and eventually rebuild the Temple. But when the High Priest dons the urim v’thumim again, he finds that the line is cut (or a local call has become a long distance one). So the High Priest mostly wears it as a symbol of authority, aspiration, and perhaps nostalgia, hoping it will one day ring again. It never did.

When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, prophecy is completely lost. The Romans martyr the great rabbis horribly and scatter the Jews into another exile, worse than their first in Babylon. Fearing that the Jews will disintegrate in the Diaspora, Judah the Prince compiles the Mishnah, the tradition of laws and practices that defined Jewishness. Over the next 300 years, rabbis gather in academies in Babylon and what’s left of them in what is now called Palestine (the Romans renamed Israel after her enemies, the Philistines, to humiliate her). These sages elucidate the Mishnah in a long, hypertextual, and incredibly complex symposium. The thousands of pages recording their stories, debates, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries across centuries and countries is called the gemarah. Together, the mishnah and gemarah comprise the Talmud, which has been the foundation of Jewish life, thought and religion in the Diaspora, along with Zionism, the hope of returning to Israel.

The sages of the Talmud are prescient. They anticipate that the wait for the next reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is going to be a long one. So they transmute Judaism into something portable and vital, adaptable to alien environments. They transform the authority of the Temple, the physical home for God, into an enduring and expansive form of inquiry, discourse, and exegesis. Architecture becomes architexture, a sprawling text, a vine with many roots and branches sprouting, intertwining, and still spreading. One offshoot may die out but another springs up somewhere else. Burn it, eradicate the people attached to it, and still a single Jew (and a donkey or two) could transport the Talmud to revive the Jewish legacy.

In this milieu, a charismatic Jew might arise and declare he has a new vision of God’s instructions for us and pose a serious threat to the Jews, vulnerable because they are exiled from their spiritual and geographical home. By the time of the Talmud, this threat has become the problem. Christianity becomes ascendent throughout Palestine and the Roman Empire is transforming into the Holy Roman Empire. So the sages now have a dilemma. It is urgent to address the threat, but they obviously have to do so furtively. After all, they are living precariously as guests of idolators and Christians. They often have to speak about it in code. They remember how gruesomely the Romans martyred the rabbis and leaders of the Jews. They are witnessing Romans slaughter Christians around them, many of them former Jews. Although Judah the Prince may have enjoyed periods of peace under enlightened rulers like Marcus Aurelius and even been his personal friend (“Antoninus” in the Talmud), it could all turn on a dime (or rather, a denarum). Too much is at stake, and the people are slipping away. Now more than ever, in the face of Christianity, they must explain how to tell false prophecy from true. So they wage a war, not by sword but by word.

For this, they summon Esther, the queen of living precariously, and press her into service. What better story than hers? It is all about disguise, furtiveness, veiled meanings and hidden identities. Further, it marks the very moment that prophecy departs from the Jews. The chronicle of the events in Persia historically coincide with the return of the Jews to the Second Temple to discover that the choshen, the urim v’thumim  is broken. But finally, according to the sages, Esther experiences this disconnection from God, this loss of prophecy, as a personal tragedy, a heartrending loss. She is avatar and paradigm of the Jews.

And then, in a stunningly bold or perhaps foolhardy move, they put in Esther’s mouth the single most dramatic sentence from the other team’s story, a line the gospels say Jesus cries out while he is being crucified. What were they thinking?

To answer this question, we have to put it in context of the texts that bring these stories to us.

Esther gets and then loses her mojo

Purim is the story of how the Jews of Persia during their exile there survive a terrible threat. The villain Haman plots to kill all the Jews throughout Persia’s vast kingdom, and he has the ear of King Ahashveros. Esther is a Jew, but the King doesn’t know it. Now she’s in an awful existential dilemma. If she exposes herself, especially by coming to the King unbidden, she is pretty sure the King will kill her like he did her predecessor, Vashti. If she doesn’t, the Jews will be exterminated. Mordechai, who is either her beloved or her uncle – the Hebrew ‘dod’ (דוד) is a pun –  and a leader of the Jews, tells her, “Perhaps you have been put in this position for just this moment.” 

At this moment, the sages tells us, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, God speaks to Esther. This detail is missing in the Megillah’s original text, but the Talmud devotes an entire tractate, also called Megillah, to uncovering the hidden messages and elaborating the transcendent impact of the Purim story.  God gives her the courage to reveal herself to her King. Her intercession saves the Jews. Haman and his ten sons are executed, and the Jews throughout Persia celebrate. Jews til this day do, too, in the most festive day of the year.

When the storm is over, the Talmud tells us, Esther reaches for her personal line to God only to find that it was a one-night stand. She is completely forlorn. The sages tell us that she cries out:

The Divine Presence departed from her and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.

 Masechet Megillah (Talmud) 15b:

True and False ProphetsScreen Shot 2016-05-08 at 9.57.55 PM

Now to the most shocking part of this. What Jews in the marketplace of the time Rabbi Levi, the Talmud sage who teaches this around 225 CE, would hear in Esther’s cry is a clear echo of a line from the pop culture surrounding them. Rabbi Levi’s expansion of the Megillah is not a casual bit of tale-telling (aggadah), and their recruitment of Esther is not just a convenience. Rather, as we peel back the layers of references in Esther’s cry, they have waged a profound and complex and dangerously aggressive war with the text of Christian gospels.

According to the Gospels, Jesus cries out during his execution:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

  • Mark 15:34;  Matthew 27:46

In other words, Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross are virtually identical!

Mark and Matthew are among the earliest of the gospels, composed around 70- 90 CE, so they would have had both profound resonance and enough of a history to be widely known among the Jews. For a century after Jesus, his story and Judaism may even have been entangled in the minds of most average Jews. By 200 CE, the real threat of a “new covenant” replacing the Torah would have been quite clear, as an unknown number of Jews became Christians.

How could the sages be so bold to steal signals from the opposing team? Why would they cite from a source they certainly saw as inimical to theirs? What message are they sending? Obviously, the sages are deliberately contrasting Esther’s prophecy to Jesus’.

On second look, however, there is even more than meets the eye, like everything else in the Purim story. 

Intertextual re-appropriation

It goes without saying that the exemplar of the false prophet for the sages was Jesus. A Jew, he and his disciples expertly re-tell all the stories of the Jewish Scriptures (Tanach) and re-purpose it. The Seder becomes the Last Supper, Isaac is the sacrificed son and sacrificial lamb, Moses the archetype for the messiah, etc.. In short, the gospels craft a comfortingly familiar and accessible way to deliver a radical re-interpretation of humanity’s relationship to God. The Torah becomes the “Old” Testament, an honored but obsolete allegory of the “New” one, which is filled with echoes and cribbings and appropriations of the symbology of the Jews.

So it is not surprising that we find Jesus’ cry has its true source in the stunning opening line of Psalms 22, one of the soaring poems by King David (10th C BCE):

“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” Psalms 22:2

[אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי – Eli, eli lama azvata?]

When the Talmud tells us Esther says the same thing, far from plagiarizing the gospels, they are loudly taking back the Jewish narrative and calling out the original act of plagiarism.

But this opens a whole new textual terrain to scan for what the sages are after, because the Talmud is surely pursuing something less trivial than a copyright claim, and so we peel back yet another layer in this intertextual war.

Psalms 22 has the aura of a general prophetic lamentation: God has forsaken Israel. He has put her at the mercy of animals and scavengers, symbols in the Talmud of the pagan nations who will mock Israel if she falls:

“For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evil-doers have inclosed me; like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet. I may count all my bones; they look and gloat over me. They part my garments among them, and for my vesture do they cast lots (‘goral’ – גורל).” – Psalms 22:17-18

Matthew also borrow this image. According to Matthew 27:35-37, just a few lines before the lament he echoes from Psalms, Roman soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes right beneath where he is hung to die.  Now this gambling for spoils had ancient legal status in Jewish and pagan traditions: when two parties have equal claims to booty of war, the goral was an official method of divvying them up. But the soldiers’ craps game also invokes the image of the whole empire of Rome despoiling Israel.

In case we think it’s a coincidence, remember Purim is named after the casting of lots. Haman casts lots to choose the date on which to execute the Jews. Yes, it’s a completely different word –  פור (‘pur’), not גורל’ (‘goral’). But, when we look at Megillat Esther, sure enough, the text uses both words:

“And [Haman] had cast the pur, which is the goral.” – Megillat Esther 9:24

We could have called Purim Goralim! 

Prophecy in Exile?

The sages are clearly addressing and blocking the gospels’ attempt to steal the Purim story, to appropriate it for what the sages would certainly find deeply offensive: the ruling culture that committed near genocide and sent them into exile now adds insult to injury. Their oppressors have taken the Jewish story of narrow escape from genocide and put it in the mouth of their hero. By connecting to the centuries-older Esther story and connecting hers to the yet centuries-older Davidic psalm, they also show off their Jewish interpretive (exegetical) prowess by sending many intertwined and cryptic messages at once. They reflect on Jewish exile in Persia as an analog their own in Rome. Dogs and scavengers gamble over the remnants of Jewish glory after prophecy has departed from usIsrael is defeated and exiled.

But finally, the furtive battle against Christianity is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about how to resist false prophecy in exile when they have none of their own.

Although the Name of God never appears in Megillat Esther, God’s role in the story is invisible but ubiquitous and omnipotent. He may be nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet He is everywhere at once behind it. And His plan for history trumps Haman’s anarchic and hateful plan to drive Jewish destiny by mere chance. Haman’s just another pathetic dog soldier gambling over the remnants of Jewish subjugation.

To prove the point, what day does the lot fall on? A day, like everything else in the Megillah, of doubled and paradoxical symbolism: Haman exults because the lottery has chosen the day of Moses’ death. But he doesn’t know it’s also the day of Moses’ birth! Doom seems imminent, but redemption will triumph.

After the drama is over, God withdraws from Esther, and she doesn’t know when He’s coming back, if ever.  Purim, the Talmud tells us, is about this loss of prophetic power. Esther’s struggle, like ours in our diaspora, is to continue to believe in God’s ubiquity, omnipotence, and attention, however heartbreaking that loss. The sages thus erect the Purim story as bulwark against their – and our – compromised historical condition.  Like Esther, they and we inhabit a foreign domain, unsure when and if prophecy will return at any time, consigned to trying to read His mind as best we can from what He has left behind, always fighting the temptation to assimilate to false prophets and strange worship.

In other words, we are all Esthers today. Prophecy may have withdrawn, lamentably. However much we yearn for it, and however much we shape our actions to deserve it, and however much we are seized by inspiration – to the point we want to convince everyone we are right – nonetheless, Talmud tells us, legitimate prophecy doesn’t come to us now.  But instead of hopelessness, Purim tells us that the Finger of God continues to stir the pot, that His will in our affairs acts invisibly and ubiquitously behind the scenes, and there is an unfolding plan for our fates that is cosmically better conceived than a mere casting of lots.


Original draft, Mountain View 2014. Revised, San Mateo – Purim, 5780

ENDNOTES
Thanks to Rabbi Yossi Marcos of Chabad NP (San Mateo) whose new edition of Megillat Esther includes  the chasidus underlying my insights.
Thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha for teaching me about the status of the Urim v’Thumim in the Second Temple.
Thanks to my many friends and erstwhile editors, including Ron Kardos, Marcos Frid, Yael Esther and Eddy Berenfus]