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 of the Hebrews from Egypt. Puritans believed the Anglican Church had introduced too many impure practices. They sought to return Christianity to its roots in the Jewish Bible. America in their narrative was the Promised Land. They consciously imitated the Jews by trying to establish both a Holy Land and an earthly utopia, free from tyranny. In the New World. They called it the @New Eden” In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were at least as attached to the “Old Testament” as the New one.

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

They also imbibed the message of the Hebrew Bible: 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 the portion of the Bible called Toldot, (“Generations”), a powerful king of the Philistines (Palestinians), Avimelech, in what is now Gaza (sound familiar?) has been harassing Isaac and his small tribe by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac continues to open the wells and 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 the few and the just can still overcome the mighty and many, just as the movies promised me when I was a kid, and that my soul still yearns to be free and is in forced bondage to no physical, terrestrial thing.

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 four 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

The Talmud teaches us that simply reading the Book of Esther can be an act of courage in defense of the Jews

War by word, not sword, in exile

Jews, destroyed and exiled by Rome, may have enjoyed periods of peace. Their leaders at times may even have been personal friends like Judah the Prince and Marcus Aurelius. But it could all turn on a denarum. As the Roman Empire becomes the Holy Roman Empire, too much is at stake and the people are slipping away. Romans slaughtered Jews and then Christians. Now, Romans are becoming Christians. More than ever Jews must keep themselves together, retain their tradition, and know how to avoid further splintering. They need to be told how to distinguish false prophets from true ones. So the sages of the Talmud 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, one about disguises, furtiveness, veiled meanings, hidden identities, revelations and final triumph? As her people face an official final solution in Persia, Queen Esther the crypto-Jew realizes she is both the avatar and only hope for her people. She risks death by exposing herself to King Ahashveros, and her act saves the day. She deserves her own book of Scriptures, the Megillah, and that book deserves an entire volume of the Talmud commentary, also called tractate Megillah. The Purim drama deserves re-enactment every year in the Jews’ most unrestrained celebration. Indeed, as the Kabbalah tells us, the story is so joyous and potent, Purim will be the only holiday we will still observe after the Messiah comes; not Passover, not Yom Kippur, nor Simcha Torah, but Purim.  

After Esther saves the Jews and the storm is over, the Talmud tells us, Esther tries to call God again from the palace garden. But she has lost her super-power of prophecy. She is so heartbroken and forlorn, she cries out

‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.[1]

Now to the most shocking part of this. This cry is not found in the original Megillah. Instead, it seems that the sages have made a stunningly bold – or foolhardy – move by putting in Esther’s mouth the single most dramatic sentence from the other team’s story! By the time this part of the Talmud was written in the third century CE, everyone from Jerusalem to Rome would hear in Esther’s alleged cry a clear echo of perhaps the most dramatic moment in the most famous story of their time. The gospels of Mark and Matthew say Jesus cried out as he is about to die, crucified

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[2]

What were the sages thinking? How dare the rabbis borrowing from the gospels? And for what purpose?

Whose line is it?

To untangle the answer, we have to look at the timeline and intertextuality of the line.  When we do, we find a story in miniature of the battle between Judaism and Christianity over words and their provenance, and inside that story, a tale of how the sages of the Talmud were modeling the practices that would preserve Jews and Judaism in exile.

It goes without saying that Jesus is the ultimate false prophet for the Jews. He and his disciples were all Jews, as was Paul, the first convert. Followers of Jesus expertly re-tell all the stories of the Jewish Scriptures and re-purpose them as a prelude to the story of their hero. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is prefigurement of the crucifixion. Chosen by God, Jacob/Israel is a prototype of Jesus. The Passover Seder becomes Jesus’ Last Supper. The lamb of Pesach is a symbol of Jesus’ bloody sacrifice. As redeemer of the Jews, Moses is the archetype, even giving his name to the role: messiah. In short, the gospels deliver a radical re-interpretation of humanity’s relationship to God by appropriating all the relevant Jewish phrases, memes, characters, and tropes as foreshadowing, making the Jews’ Torah an honored but obsolete allegory, an “Old” Testament testifying to the “New” one.

So if this is a textual war, why would the sages steal signals from the opposing team, cite from a source they certainly saw as inimical to theirs, not to mention risk the outrage of their hosts?

On the surface at least, they are simply asserting the rightful Jewish claim to it. The original source of both is Psalms 22,[3] King David’s prophetic lamentation, a wonderful poem whose conceit is that God has forsaken David personally and by extension the nation of Israel:

Many bulls encompass me
strong bulls of Bashan surround me
they open wide their mouths at me
like a ravening and roaring lion

I am poured out like water
and all my bones are out of joint
my heart is like wax
it is melted within my breast
my strength is dried up like a potsherd
and my tongue sticks to my jaws
You lay me in the dust of death

for dogs encompass me
and evildoers surround me
they have pierced my hands and feet
I can count all my bones
they stare and gloat over me
they divide my garments among them
and for my clothing they cast lots[4]

The Gospels borrow this metaphorical, highly charged imagery for a literal description of the crucifixion. King David cries that the teeth of dogs and bulls pierce his hands and feet just, as nails did Jesus’. David imagines his spiritual defeat as if he is killed in war. Enemy soldiers gloat over his dying body and gamble by throwing lots, shooting craps, for his clothes as booty. In Matthew’s appropriation of this imagery, soldiers under the cross gamble for Jesus’ clothes.[5]

The imagery throughout Psalms 22, especially of this metaphor of gambling, evokes Esther’s story, so the Talmud brings it down as a passage missing from the Megillah,[6] a beautiful expression of the pain that Esther must have felt when she, too was abandoned by God at discovering her loss of prophetic power. But by boldly re-claiming the words of David that the disciples put into the mouth of Jesus and putting it into the mouth of Esther, are the rabbis simply asserting a copyright claim? Given the circumstances, as guests in exile to an often hostile host, they are taking quite a risk for the boasting rights.

By evolving prophetic practice into textuality, Talmud preserves the Jews

The context for the message suggests its deeper purpose. In the same page of Talmud, the rabbis praise the power and importance of dedication to texts:

… Israel busy themselves with the Torah, the other nations do not busy themselves with the Torah —… these also reel through wine, and stagger through strong drink, they totter in judgment.[7]

Israel occupies itself with Torah. Every text, every verse, every word, every letter, even the flourishes on top of the letters, their ‘crowns’, can yield multiple interpretations as they did for R. Akiva. This intense polysemous interpretive practice leads to the multiplication, not the reduction of meaning. And this intense involvement in the text is exactly what Jesus attempts to overthrow in favor of a more simple, direct, accessible engagement with God through his own person. From the point of view of the Talmud this must have been the ultimate posture of the false Jewish prophet. The Christian texts appropriate the Jewish narrative to usurp it and along the way efface the glorious complexity and richness of the rabbinic discourse. They take the complex multiplication of interpretations, the parsing of every jot, the involved and sometimes fruitless debates, and reduce them all to a vast allegory with only one symbol, one interpretation: the life and sacrifice of their heroic figure. To resist it, the authors of the Talmud re-assert their faith: Jews are distinguished from other nations because God revealed the Torah to the collective nation on Sinai. Engaging that revelation, both the part transcribed into text and the part transmitted orally and now transcribed, is the one essential practice that preserves Jews, then and now.

The sages are clearly addressing and blocking the gospels’ attempt to steal the Purim story, appropriate it in order to erase its essence. They re-appropriate, they steal it back, with textual virtuosity, reminding everyone that this line belongs to the centuries-older Esther story and the words they put in her mouth comes from the yet centuries-older Davidic psalm. They send many intertwined and cryptic messages at once. For one, the whole intertextual turn makes us see the Jewish exile in Persia as an analog of 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 Jews will survive.

But the battle over the provenance of the line is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about the truth of prophecy by David and Esther, and how to resist false prophecy in exile when they have none of their own. Their answer is to make the connections and meanings among texts as an extension of the dialogue with God.  They are reading God’s Mind.

There is no more potent text than the story of Esther and no more powerful figure among the prophets on which to play and win this game. God may be nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet He is there everywhere at once behind it. His plan for history trumps Haman’s anarchic and hateful plan to drive Jewish destiny by mere chance. Haman is just another pathetic dog soldier gambling over the remnants of Jewish subjugation. God’s name never appears in the text of the Megillah, but His meaning is ubiquitous.

In a smaller act of courage, the sages of the Talmud re-enact the Megillah drama in an entire volume of the same name. They tell the textual truth of the matter, exposing a systematic plot, a more insidious and ultimately more successful gambit for utterly destroying a nation: to undermine and erase the Jews by re-telling their own story. Why bother with genocide when you can cancel a culture with words and symbols?

This small bit of storytelling in the Talmudic volume called Megillah is metonymy for the whole volume itself and we could say for the ongoing treatment of Talmudic textual practice as a holy act, an extension of Torah and sanctification. Judah the Prince, by writing down the Oral Law as Mishnah, was prescient. He anticipated that the wait for the next reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem was going to be a long one. In the meantime, the Temple’s portal to and connection with God had to be transmuted into something portable and vital, adaptable to alien environments. 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 keep the flame alive.

We are all Esther

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. The Purim story is a bulwark against our compromised historical condition.  Like Esther, 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 has 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, 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.

It’s a struggle to continue to believe in and act according to tradition in the absence of sustained proof and direct communication from God, but it’s the battle that has been granted us to fight, like Esther, and the one Jews have no choice but to join if we are to survive. Who knows but that we have been put into our positions for just this purpose? When I see my granddaughters in their masks and costumes and smiles on Purim, I also see little victories.

 Mountain View 2014. Revised, San Mateo, Purim, 5780 and 5781


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 withdrawal of prophecy and 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. As always, remaining errors and narishkeit are all my own.

[1] Tractate Megillah 15b2. “The Gemara returns to its explanation of the verses of the Megilla. The verse states with regard to Esther: “And she stood in the inner court of the king’s house” (Esther 5:1). Rabbi Levi said: Once she reached the chamber of the idols, which was in the inner court, the Divine Presence left her. She immediately said: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  R Levi lived at the time of R Yochanan, around 290-310 CE

[2]  Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46

[3] Psalms 22, certainly composed no later than the fifth century BCE but attributed to and possibly composed as early as the tenth century BCE uses the Hebrew ‘azvatani’ as it is in the Talmud’s quotation of Esther

אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי;

The Gospel’s version uses the word ‘Sabachthani’, but it is the Aramaic equivalent (from the Greek root ‘shebaq” = σαβαχ = סבאח.

[4] Psalms 22:12-18

[5]  Matthew 27:35-37

[6] Psalms here uses the word goral (גורל), not pur (פור). When parties had equal claims to spoils of war or booty or simple property, the goral was an official method of divvying them up by means of casting dice or lots, common throughout ancient civilizations, including Persia and Rome.  The Megillah, sure enough, equates them: v’hipil pur hu ha’goral – literally “and they cast the pur, which is the goral.” Esther, 3:7. These were also pagan methods of determining fate through sympathetic magic. If you believe the cosmos is simply a matter of circumstance, coincidence, happenstance, or chance, then casting dice or lots is a way of divining or determining the future as good as any other. The fact that Haman’s lottery falls on the date of Moses’ birthday is one of the secret ways the Megillah signals to us who is really in control of fate.

[7] Tractate Megillah 15 b2