Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ethics of Psaq, Policy and Pain

Rabbis, teachers, and other types of communal leaders and authority figures frequently have to make decisions. These decisions affect people's lives. For example, if you are a rabbi, you may be asked for pesaq, for a halakhic decision. People may bring you shaalas and you will be expected to answer them. Or you may have to create rules, procedures, or boundaries for your community — things not necessitated by strict Halakha, but needed to preserve communal values or norms. Or you may have the responsibility of giving someone tokhahha (rebuke), and tell them that they're doing something wrong that could endanger themself or others.

The most basic thing to remember, though — the thing that shows whether you're actually a worthy leader for your people or not — is that you need to understand that there are human consequences to your decisions. It may be unassailable halakha; it may be the right decision for your community; you may be 100% correct in the choices you are making — but you may still cause someone pain. And if you cause someone pain — even if it was justified for the greater good, even if they're wrong and you're right — you need to apologize.

Pain exists distinct from logic and truth. It does not correspond to the abstract reality of what's right and what's wrong. And therefore it doesn't matter if you're right. If you hurt someone, you apologize. You don't need to apologize for the decision, if it was the correct one, the necessary answer for what was asked of you. But if it hurts someone, you do have to apologize for that.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bad For The Jews News

This morning, I happened to glance at the stack of free METRO newspapers as I exited the subway, and what do I see but this picture:

Some idiotic Jewish t-shirt designer, wearing his inflammatory controversial t-shirt, and a big frikkin' Jewish star. What the Hell on God's Green Earth and Gray Concrete do you think you're doing, "Apollo Braun"?!

Read the whole embarrassing shanda story here.

Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu stupidity...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Because Adultery Jokes Are Oh-So-Tasteful

What do you call it when they carbonate the מי המרים המאררים?


In the Midwest, however, as I was informed by a former coworker, they call it...

Sota Pop.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What A Warlock Wants:
A Balaq ShulDrasha

אפילו כלפי שמיא
Chutzpah —
audacity —
is effective
even against Heaven.
So says רב נחמן
in מסכת סנהדרין
of the Babylonian Talmud.

He learns this from בלעם,
in our פרשה;
for בלעם was told by God
to ignore the summons
of בלק, king of מואב —
the summons
to come curse בני־ישראל —
but בלעם
through sheer stubbornness,
through chutzpah,
got permission from God to go anyway.

According to רמב"ם, Maimonides,
in דלאלהׂׄ אלחאיٔרין
his Guide for the Perplexed,
to be a prophet
one first needs to be perfect
in learning
in wisdom
and in ethical behavior.

This does not sound at all
like the foreign prophet בלעם
in this week's פרשה.
(who, for example, beat his donkey for turning away from the road)

our Sages tell us
that בלעם was not a prophet at all.
In fact,
even though בלעם receives messages from God,
at no point
does the תורה
call him a prophet, a נביא, either.
Instead, he's called a קוסם —
an enchanter, or warlock.

בלעם was not a prophet —
a prophet's job
is to represent God on Earth;
to bring messages
of hope or warning
from On High.

was not
what he was known for.
בלק sent messengers multiple times
to summon בלעם
from hundreds of miles away —
not to teach God's will
to human beings;
and not to ask God for help
on their behalf —
but to curse.

Because that's
what בלעם was known for —
the use
of supernatural powers
for destructive purposes.

The 19th-century Italian commentator שד"ל,
,ר' שמואל דוד לוצאטו
wrote at great length
to prove that בלעם was not a prophet.
Even though he spoke with God,
he did not speak for God —
and very likely
did not even fully understand
to Whom he was speaking.

Even though he spoke with God,
he did not speak on behalf of God.
בלעם treated the Creator of Worlds
like a magic trick;
like some kind of paranormal mechanism.

He thought
that he could manipulate God
as he manipulated בלק's messengers
into offering him silver and gold.

we are told in פרקי אבות,
was grudging and greedy.
He was full of himself.
He wanted power,
and he believed
that he had the power
to bless and to curse,
to separate God from God's people
through magical means.

He thought
that his many sacrifices
would draw God
away from the Israelites,
leaving them undefended
from natural or supernatural attack.

Until God showed him
who's really in charge.
God took בלעם
this קוסם, this warlock
whose words dropped curses
like bombs —
and turned him into
a true prophet
whose words wove visions
of divine destiny.

And בלעם learned
that while he could not control God,
God could most certainly
control him.

בלעם wanted power
and he wanted glory;
he wanted the nations
of מואב and מדין
to shower him with riches
for cursing בני־ישראל.

And instead, God gave him power —
the power of true prophecy.

And hundreds of years later,
we gave him honor,
by opening our prayers with בלעם's own praise —
מַה טֹּבֿוּ אֹהָלֶיךָֿ יַעֲקֹבֿ מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶֿיךָֿ יִשְׂרָאֵל
“How good are your tents, Jacob;
your dwellings, Israel.”

And whereas
we call this week's Torah portion, בלעם's story,
by the name of פרשת בלק — after the king —
the Talmud in בבא־בתרא calls it
פרשת בלעם, or ספר בלעם;
and describes it
as its own independent book of scripture —
a book that משה wrote
along with, but separate from,
the תורה.

welcomed בלק's messengers into his home
wishing for honor.

He traveled with them
wishing for wealth.

And he sacrificed on the mountaintops
wishing for power.

But then
changed —
even if just for a short time —
from a warlock and a charlatan
to a true prophet of God.
He abandoned his נחשים,
his magic tricks and incantations,
and opened himself up
to experience God
and bring God's message
down to Earth.

There are two lessons
we can learn from בלעם.

Number one is:
Be careful
what you wish for.
You just might get it.

בלעם wished for power,
and God gave him power — of a completely different kind.

And number two is:
When you do get it,
and it's not what you were expecting —
lift up your eyes, like בלעם did,
and look out upon the wilderness,
the place of revelation;
and accept God's challenge
on God's own terms.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Ultimate Appropriation

From Bar-Ilan University's Weekly Page on the weekly parsha, #764, parashat Balaq 5768, by Dr. ‘Amos Bar-Deia‘ of the Life Sciences faculty:

In discussing the figure of Bil‘am and his legacy in Jewish literature, Prof. Bar-Deia‘ says...

דמותו של בלעם נהפכת לאנטיכריסט הישראלי ומזוהה עם ישו ואף עם מוחמד.

The character of Balaam turned into the Israelite Antichrist, identified with Jesus and even with Muḥammad.

Talk about appropriating someone else's terminology and using it against them!