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.

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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]

 

The Four-Room House: Another bit of evidence for the entry of Jews to Israel in 1200 BCE and the historical accuracy of the Bible

In honor of my grandfather, Shlomo Zalman Porush, Z”L, whose yahrzeit is today. May his memory be for a blessing.

According to the Torah, the Jews exit Egypt in 1313 BCE. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments and writes the Book of the Covenant (the Torah itself) at Sinai seven weeks later. They wander the desert for forty more years, and then under the leadership of Joshua begin a campaign to take control of the Promised Land in 1273 BCE. By around 1060 BCE they have succeeded enough to elect a king, Saul, who is followed by David (1040-970 BCE) and then Solomon (1000-931 BCE).

Archeologists have debated for a couple of centuries whether these legendary figures actually existed and these events occurred, and if they did, how closely they hew to the traditional Jewish timeline. Yet, we keep discovering more and more convincing archeological evidence that the Torah is stunningly accurate both in the particulars of its account and  the fit between its timeline and history. Continue reading “The Four-Room House: Another bit of evidence for the entry of Jews to Israel in 1200 BCE and the historical accuracy of the Bible”

 The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment


NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“God is the source not only of order but also novelty.” – John Haught, God after Darwin (Boulder: Westview, 2000) p. 182

The Five Books of Moses often shows surprising literary coherence that is so subtle, it belies the notion that it was written across a millenium by many different authors. 

Some connections across the whole text are so well-hidden it seems improbable that an author deliberately placed them there for later discovery, although we could always argue they are the result of gazing at the text too long and over-interpreting it like obsessive graduate students. The traditional approach by Jews to reading the Bible even promotes it. Assume nothing is there by accident because its author is Divine and utterly intentional. Every word, every letter, the cuts between words, the rhymes and puns and cross-allusions, even the decorative marks on individual letters, carry meaning. Also the Torah is frugal. If something seems weird or extraneous, it’s up to us to figure out why. So when we discover hidden meanings and parade them as proof of a divine Author, a skeptic would argue it’s tautological: of course you did because you assumed they’re there.

However, there are some allusions and connections that are provably impossible. They couldn’t have been intentional because their meaning only become clear when we make new discoveries about the world much later than even the latest possible composition of the Bible. Some of these are archeological, like Merenptah’s Stelae describing the plundering of Canaan and of Israel that wasn’t discovered until the late 19th century. [1]

One of these is hidden in an apparently extraneous comment about a breeder of mules, tucked into an otherwise boilerplate genealogy at the end of a later chapter of Genesis, Vayishlach. As we understand it through modern evolutionary theory, it actually ripples out to embrace a theme that plays throughout the Bible. Continue reading ” The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment”

“The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3

Torah and Darwin share a mule problem. Continue reading ““The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.”

The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
joseph_and_potiphars_wife_1
׳Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ by Guido Reni (1631)

Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to make meaning. It creates skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired poetry.

Continue reading “The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word”

Torah as Blast: Did the original have spaces between words?

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One Torah, without spaces?

The default assumption of Judaism is that there is only one Torah. It is eternal and immutable because God is its Author. Yet slowly revealing and understanding the meaning of what God told Moses on Sinai is also the essence of Judaism. Clearly, our understanding of the Torah evolves over time, dancing with the God of Becoming Who constantly creates the universe. Along the way, thousands of years of commentary, without challenging the integrity of a God-given Torah, worry the bone of precisely who composed the Torah at which point. How and when did Moses transcribe God’s words?  How did it look? How were its chapters, verses, words, and letters laid out on the page? Did the layout change?

Here, without challenging the Torah’s authority as the immutable Word of God, I would like to entertain only one small, seemingly ridiculous question about the layout of the Written Torah: Did Moses write the original Torah without inserting the spaces between words that we see today? Continue reading “Torah as Blast: Did the original have spaces between words?”

Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time

“Therefore thou shalt speak all these words unto them; but they will not hearken to thee: thou shalt also call unto them; but they will not answer thee.” – Jeremiah 7:27
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:9-10

I was the first person on Earth to predict the Trump presidency and explain why he was going to win in my blogs of March, June and July of 2016. My friends are still in awe at my 127.3% accuracy prophesying current events, up 12.6% in the last fiscal quarter. In fact, just this morning (October 8, 2018 at 9.07 am), I collected the downpayment on my Tesla ($20.25) from the bets my classmates made with me last Wednesday (Oct 3 at 10.34 am). Even though Senators Flake, Collins and Murkowski looked like they were going to vote against his nomination to the Supreme Court and the FBI was in the middle of its investigation, I still confidently assured them Judge Kavanaugh absolutely would be confirmed. I could have gotten really good odds at the time, but that would have been taking candy from a baby and anyway, I’m forbidden to benefit from my gift. No Tesla. It’s part of the deal I made with the same Divine force that granted me my power.

In a moment, I’m going to tell you what else is going to happen. In fact, I’m going to lay out a complete prophecy describing the future of the Trump imperial reign and its impact on centuries to come. But first let me tell you how I knew the outcome of the Kavanaugh Kerfluffle. Prophets and magicians shouldn’t reveal their secret methods, but I don’t mind because you’re not going to believe me anyway. At best, you’re going to dismiss me as a formerly smart person who went whacko, or a religious nutball, or a paranoiac, or as my sore loser buddies did this morning, just someone who keeps getting lucky. Continue reading “Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time”