Friday, January 11, 2013

Christian Medrashim

I’ve been reading James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible.” In it he goes through tanach and provides a basic introduction to biblical criticism, which he contrasts with the traditional interpretations. He’s a good writer, and manages to make what is an inherently dry subject, if not exactly exciting, at least very readable. I highly recommend it.

One thing that I found interesting is that, in addition to the traditional Jewish interpretations of the text, the midrashm and meforshim, here and there he also cites Christian exegesis, particularly how episodes in the Old Testament were interpreted to be foreshadowing Jesus.

Akeidas Yitzchak is seen as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus. Yitcahk is Avraham’s son, just as Jesus is God’s son. Yitzchak carries the wood for the korban on his back, just as Jesus carried his wooden cross. The ram was a substitute sacrifice for Yitzchak, just as Jesus was a substitute sacrifice for humanity. The ram’s head was caught in thorns, just as a crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head. All these similarities can’t be coincidences, right?!

When the Bnei Yisroel were fighting with Amalek, Moshe stood on a hill and lifted his arms. While his arms were outstretched, they were winning, but when his arms dropped, they began to lose. To keep his arms in the air, he had Aron and Chur help hold them up. This episode is explained by the midrashim as Moshe reminding the people to think of Hashem, which in turn made them victorious. But really, did they need the visual reminder? The Christian interpretation is better. Moshe wasn’t pointing to Heaven, he was making the sign of the cross with his outstretched arms. He even had a follower on each side, just like Jesus during the crucifixion. Moshe wasn’t reminding the Bnie Yisroel to think of God, but was invoking the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, which caused God  to help them win.

It’s fascinating is how plausible the Christian interpretations are. As much or more than many midrashim I’ve heard. Yet I have no doubt that if I had told these interpretations to my rabbeim way back when, they would have been dismissed as, at best, some clever people picking out a few things that they could twist to fit their agenda. But midrashim, those are all the Truth!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Did You Make a Bracha On Your Computer?

By the logic of the commonly-used reason for saying brachos, you probably should have.

My daughter had been learning about making brachos in school, and today she told me that eating without making a bracha is stealing from Hashem.

The idea behind this notion is that everything is Hashem’s, and we need to ask Him permission before eating His food. To do otherwise is to use His food without His permission, which is stealing. It makes sense, up to a point, but raises several problems.

1. If everything is Hashem’s, why single out food? Shouldn’t we need to ask His permission for everything we use? We do make a shechiyanu on significant things, like new expensive clothes, but who makes a bracha upon opening a new roll of paper towels, or before viewing a new photo album? It seems that we single out food because of a single comment by R’ Akiva in mesechtas Brachos, but there’s no logical reason given why food should be different. It’s just that the gemara happens to be discussing brachos on food, and R’ Akiva made his comment in that context.

2. The text of the brachos doesn’t say anything about permission. They don’t even say anything about thanking Hashem, which is another reason often given for making brachos. All they do is acknowledge God as a the One Who caused the food to grow.

3. It’s generally accepted that the custom of brachos were established in the time of Ezra. If eating without making brachos is stealing, that means that everyone before Ezra’s time was guilty of stealing from Hashem.

I know, big picture, it doesn’t matter, but like fans who get upset when an author violates the rules of his fantasy setting, I’d at like some internal consistency.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Infomercials for the Frum World

I was watching TV last night when this commercial came on:

It’s as ad for what’s essentially two frying pans hinged together so that you can flip pancakes or eggs by flipping the whole pan over. It’s actually not a bad idea. But, in true infomercial style, it first shows a bunch of incompetent people poking at their eggs with spatulas and making a mess of their pancakes and splattering batter all over the pan and the stove. It’s supposed to provide a contrast with how easy their product makes it to flip a pancake, but just left me wondering who these people were who had such trouble doing something as simple as making pancakes. You find this sort of thing in every infomercial.

It occurred to me that there’s another place you find these sorts of characters: people who you’d never meet in the real world, people who behave in inexplicable and moronic ways in order to be contrasted with something superior in the second half of the story. We run into these characters all the times in the divrie torah floating around the frum world which contrast “us” with “them.” In these divrei torah we hear about “the goyim,” valueless, immoral people who sleep with a different person every night and indulge every whim. These people are then contrasted with the righteous, upstanding, holy people of the frum world, and we are shown how torah umitzvos makes us so much better than everyone else.

The immoral people described in the divrei torah do exist, just like there really are people so incompetent that they’d make a huge mess trying to make a pancake. But they are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority.

So why do these characters exist in infomercials and divrei torah? Because both are trying to sell us something. The infomercial is trying to sell us a product. The dvar torah is trying to sell us a lifestyle.

Caveat emptor

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Is Judaism the Easy Way Out?

It is often said that those who reject religion do so because it is the easier option. With the rejection of Judasim, it’s said, goes the obligation to daven three times a day, the obligation to learn, the obligation to dress in accordance with halacha, and many other obligations. (Even, it’s claimed, the obligation to be moral, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Something similar is said about ancient pagans. Pagans, it’s claimed, don’t have to worry about following rules or being moral, because whatever they may want to do, they can find a god that will approve. And just look at what awful, immoral things pagans did in the worship of their gods! Temple prostitutes, ecstatic orgies, human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of their own children! Pagans sound like horrible, immoral people looking for excuses to do whatever they please and engaging in the worst sort of behaviors while calling those behaviors holy.

Let’s look at it for a moment from the pagans’ point of view.

From the ancient pagans point of view, the point of view of all the evil ovdie avoda zara of tanach, it is Judaism that is the easier option. The pagan must worry every day about the wishes of the numerous gods in the local pantheon. He has to try to do what he can to strengthen his gods against the assaults and machinations of foreign gods. When doing business with foreigners, he has to be careful not to offend their gods, and has to learn the proper rituals so that those local gods might favor him with success. A Jewish person only has to worry about the wishes of a single god, and arrogantly declares that the gods of foreigners are merely figments of their imaginations to whom no respect needs to be paid.

The pagan was personally involved in the rituals of his worship, whether through spiritual journeys taken under the influence of hallucinogenics or through metaphor or sympathetic magic in sleeping with temple prostitutes to encourage the fertility of his fields and family. The Jew merely brings an animal to the Temple for the priests to process, or even worse, mumbles some words out of a book and calls it a day. Those are hardly the deeply personal, life-changing experiences of pagan worship.

Most significant, the pagan is called upon to sacrifice for the greater good that which is most dear to him. Even within the Jewish tradition, we see that the more valuable the sacrifice, the greater the favor it finds with God. The midrashim say that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected and Hevel’s accepted because Cain brought a sacrifice from the worst of his crops, while Hevel brought one of his best rams. What is more precious, more valuable than a child? Can there be any greater sacrifice than a parent giving up their child for the greater good of their people? For a parent, even sacrificing himself is nothing compared to sacrificing his child.

As horrific as child sacrifice is, we can appreciate the motivation behind it. Sacrifice was usually seen as a tit-for-tat exchange with the gods. If you give them something valuable, they will do something valuable for you. If you truly believe that a great sacrifice – the greatest sacrifice- is necessary to get the gods to bring rain, or bring back the sun, or to defeat your enemies, so that your entire people may survive  - something that is very, very valuable and requires a sacrifice of equal proportion – then, as awful as it is, sacrificing your child is what you must do. How selfish it would be to watch the world burn in order to save your child!

Yet here are your neighbors, the Jews, who have as part of their sacred literature a story about how God substituted a ram for a child sacrifice and admonishes against ever sacrificing children. Here is a religion that views child sacrifice not only as unnecessary, but paints this ultimate sacrifice as an evil act. Who wouldn’t want to worship a god who wants only animals, one who will never call on you to make a bitterly painful, heart-breaking sacrifice for the greater good?

Surely this is the easy way out.