The Trouble with Certainty

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When I was four, I announced that I wanted to be Jewish. When I was 19, I finally made it happen. This is as good an example as any for how I’ve lived my life thus far: set a goal and achieve it, whatever the odds and whomever the adversaries. I can be quite single-minded in attaining whatever heights I’ve decided are absolutely necessary. Some people call this “focus”; less charitable folks deem it “bull-headedness.” 

The upside of this way of moving through the world is that you become very accomplished. The walls of my childhood bedroom are lined with trophies, ribbons, and certificates celebrating my prowess in piano, singing, theater, and debate. (The “participation” trophies for soccer and softball are somewhat less impressive.) My high school transcript could be a guide to available Advanced Placement examinations, and my college résumé is a list of Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, and all sorts of other Very Impressive Foreign Word accolades. I won admission to some of the top law schools in the country, and when I decided that the rabbinate was where my future lay, I willed myself into school despite lacking the necessary Hebrew and Talmud credentials. I’m very persuasive in an interview.

There is, of course, a downside to this kind of focus: failure. When you are so convinced of your power to achieve any goal and meet any challenge, your failures are devastating. Everyone is disappointed when presented with failure, but a person like me is also shocked.

To suddenly be met with something immoveable, with a situation you cannot alter or a mind you cannot change, is an unfathomable thing for a person like me. And when you come to that place, meet that wall? Past experience tells you that you can scale it. You cannot get a toehold and tumble back down to earth. So you decide to be creative in your problem solving (such good skills you have!) and try to knock it down. You bruise your hands, you crack your skull. No? That didn’t work? Tunnel! You scratch at the ground until your fingers bleed and the dust chokes you. 

You’ll stay there for weeks, months, even years, staring at this place of your failure, unable to accept that there is something you cannot do. It is impossible to move on. This is called denial.

Sometime after denial comes acceptance, I hear. And yet, I think that acceptance is never quite possible for someone like me. We look back, we replay the moments, we analyze every move from every angle, and eventually, we find what we choose as the deciding moment. If only I hadn’t gone to that party…if only I hadn’t said that sentence…if only he had never met her…if only my mother hadn’t been sick…and it becomes something we could have controlled. To accept that the universe– and other people and circumstances– can have the power to make us fail is terrifying. It is unacceptable.

What I am coming– painfully– to understand about the world is that I cannot apply logic to all of its parts. For some reason, other people who see the same facts and understand my line of reasoning will not come to my conclusions. I am persuasive, I am eloquent, I am convincing, but they are unmovable. I will calmly explain, then anxiously defend, then pathetically plead my case, and though I am right (says my brain), they are unmoved. How does someone like me defend herself against something illogical, something random? 

I find myself asking this question throughout the Torah. Once God has laid out God’s laws, the message is pretty clear, and usually, punishments for transgressions follow the rules. But earlier? The God of Genesis loves Jacob but not Esau, favors Abel over Cain, and wants humans not to acquire knowledge in the Garden of Eden. How to please this God? How to anticipate the needs and desires of someone who does not tell you why this one is beloved and the other is not? Our rabbis have midrashim [stories and teachings] to explain this God, but the pshat [literal reading] of the text is clear: we are powerless. 

The easiest thing, of course, is to accept my failures as someone else’s. That is, if I fail to impress a potential employer, it is really his failure and his loss. This, though, is equally impossible. Instead, I stare at the wall.

 

“Knowing”—Biblically?

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I had an amazing conversation yesterday. I was explaining that I just wanted someone else to “understand” what I saw as “right”– not an uncommon situation, I think. We talk to a friend who can’t see that she’s ruining her life with alcohol, we argue with a relative whose political views run absolutely contrary to our own, we advocate for the merits of a film or album all the critics hate…and we fail. “No,” said my companion, “You don’t want him to understand that you’re right. You want him to feel it. And he should, actually. But as little as we can control how other people think, we have almost zero power to decide how they feel their truths.”

“Zero power.” Powerlessness may be the worst feeling in the world. We spend so much of our lives seeking to control our own destinies: we walk, then run away from our parents; we acquire skills and credentials to be able to build our careers; we choose our friends, our partners, our coworkers; we insist on the personal freedom to choose our styles of dress, our diets, our homes. And then…we connect with other people.

Relationships mean the surrender of choice, and not (just) in the “but I want to sleep with anyone I want!” kind of way. In every relationship, whether academic, romantic, familial, or friendly, letting another person into your life means granting him power. You are saying, “I value your presence in my life, so you can have some power over it.” He can choose to act selflessly or be an egoist, he can elect to make your life easier or endlessly more difficult, and, most significantly, he can allow you to depend on him and then decide to be gone from your life. A friend moves away, a teacher leaves her job, a romantic partnership ends, or (God forbid) a death leaves you bereft, and what you are feeling, in addition to the loss and the hurt and the betrayal, is powerlessness. You cannot change this thing.

In moments of powerlessness or helplessness, some people turn to God. “Give it over to God” is something you hear often in a certain kind of evangelical church (and I heard it quite recently in a San Francisco synagogue, but that’s beside the point). Say, “It’s in God’s [metaphorical] hands and I just have to have faith,” and suddenly, your powerlessness isn’t unique. We are all powerless, and the common experience of this is somehow less painful.

Jews, though, don’t usually do that. A woman living with mental health issues came and spoke to a class of mine about how the “voice of God” comforts her, and most of my classmates asked if that “voice” was a symptom rather than a savior. Jews pray, at least in our words, for God to intercede in our lives, but do we really want that kind of power play? Do we want God to take our agency from us? Do we want to say that whatever our designs on earth, God will subvert them?

There’s certainly room for the belief that this is the case, even if it is not our desire. Plenty of philosophers will tell you that God laughs when (wo)men make plans. But “giving it over to God,” or even knowing that “God helps those who help themselves” makes us feel even less in control. Jewish ritual, in some ways, is a way of reclaiming that power. Yes, we are saying, God does have power over our lives, but we determine the nature of our relationship with God. We decide to light Shabbat candles, to pray, to have a chuppah [wedding canopy], to keep kosher.

There are many times I wish to “feel,” rather than to “know” that what I’m doing is the right thing, religiously and otherwise. Nine times out of ten, I am reasoning myself into my belief. I should keep kosher because I see the kind of community it creates, and that’s the community I want. I should pray because I feel better afterward. And sometimes I adopt observances to attain goals: I want to seem “rabbinical,” I want to qualify for this fellowship, I want to fit into this community.

But the ancient Israelites were, perhaps, the same way. In their desire for their relationship with God, they said, “We will do and we will hear.” There are times when only after doing can we hear that this is the right path for us. We don’t need to “know” anymore, because it’s so deeply ingrained that it’s unknowable. Is that power? The power to decide to do in order to understand? Or is it powerlessness to know that you cannot understand without doing what is asked of you?

Ask Not What Your Country…er…Shul Can Do for You?

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Do you ever find yourself questioning your own motives for the most basic things in your life? You think your actions are resting on well-reasoned arguments or at least solid assumptions, and then you realize there’s a fundamental flaw in the reasoning. 

Over the last few months, I have, over and over, run up against what I’ve been calling my Grand Theological Dilemma. I’ve discussed it with multiple clergy members in the field, several professors, countless peers, and others whose opinions I value. I would love to hear yours.

Here it is: as I see it, there are three modes of Jewish outreach and engagement. The first is what I’ll call the institutional model. This is the simplest, and perhaps most common, form of Jewish engagement: a synagogue or other institution (school, Jewish Community Center, etc.) offers programming aimed at achieving its goals, which may range from “pleasing God” to “preventing intermarriage.” The institution advertises these programs and encourages participation, but the mission is set and so is the programming.

The second concept is what I’ll call the Chabad model. [Chabad is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group most known for its outreach in far-flung locales and on college campuses.] The Chabad model is to meet people “where they’re at” (a grammatically questionable construction I’ll just go with for now) and encourage them to move forward in their observance in ways that are meaningful to them. The end goal, though, is always evident: to make the searcher more like the Chabadnik in order to please God.

The last model is what I’ll call the DIY Judaism model. In this concept, the institution’s goal is the self-realization of the individual, and it creates programming and outreach to help individuals reach their goals, not the perceived goals of God or the synagogue. This is where you get the “multiplex” model of synagogues, with four different service styles, a yoga studio, an arts and crafts room, etc. In some ways, this is the model of the Limmud conferences.

So what’s the dilemma? Well, when I became Jewish, it didn’t have a lot to do with God. I felt most fulfilled in living a Jewish life, and as I became more observant along with my partner, it was still about me (or us). Observance guides my life and makes it more rewarding. It provides me with community. These are all human-based, even humanistic, goals. And for a very long time, I had no problem with other Jews choosing to live their Jewish lives in whatever way they chose, because if Judaism was about “living your best life now” (thanks, Oprah!), it only mattered that each individual practiced (or didn’t practice) in the way that was best for his or her life.

Now, though, as an emerging Jewish leader, this philosophy presents an issue. If Judaism is just another set of life practices and beliefs, like Buddhism or yoga or veganism, then I have to believe that it is the best one, that is has something absolutely unique to offer. Okay, assuming that I do– why should I be offering it specifically to Jews? The traditional answer is that the Jews own it, that it is their birthright…but what about those who don’t claim it, who don’t want it? And what about those who do claim it but are not considered Jewish? Why must they convert?

If the Jews have a special mission in the world, our tradition teaches us that it is to perform mitzvot [commandments]. It seems to me that I must either urge Jews toward that mode of Jewish self-realization (perhaps through “gateway observances” like Jewish yoga or Jewish social justice) or offer Judaism as a take-it-or-leave-it life practice for anyone, Jewish or not.

So that’s my Grand Theological Dilemma. Is Judaism about “What God Wants from Us” or “What We Want from Judaism”? Hoping to find more insight on this soon.

Descent

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I began today, as I mean to (but usually don’t) start most days, with Shacharit [the morning service]. I put on my tallit [prayer shawl], wrapping myself in the mitzvot [commandments]. I laid my tefillin [the Greek is “phylacteries,” but they’re basically leather straps and boxes that go on the head and upper arm] and felt both the weight of my sorrow and the lifting of a burden. I have missed this, the very physical act of getting ready to pray. I whispered to myself in Hebrew, “I betroth you to Me forever” and felt tears prick my eyes. I stood in the sanctuary, my head connected to my heart connected to my mouth by cloth and leather and words, and watched the sunlight stream in through the stained glass windows. 

The service itself is full of rise and descent. We “cry from the depths” to God. We ask God to lift us up, to grant us the desires of our hearts. We beg God to hear our voices and gives us that for which we ask. And then…we wait. Some of us take an aliyah [honor relating to the Torah service], a word that means “going up,” literally to the bimah [stage/altar area] but metaphysically to a higher spiritual plane.

We rise. We sit. We bow. And then…Tachanun [supplications]. Here was the most poignant part of my morning: leaning forward to rest my forehead on my arm, which balanced on the seat in front of me. We tell God that God is our help, that we cannot do this alone, whatever “this” is. I have often wished, in my moments of most needing to feel God (something that so rarely happens for me in any sure or concrete way), that Jews could kneel in the service. Tachanun hearkens back to the days when the priests prostrated themselves in the Temple. This High Holy Days, when I actually prostrate myself fully on the ground in front of the Ark holding the Torah, what will I feel? Lowered? Or elevated?

The Beit Midrash [House of Study] at my school is in the basement. It is windowless but bright, lined with books and full of tables. This morning, it was empty. My studies should be raising me up, bringing me closer to my lofty goals, but today, it feels like sitting in the basement staring in vain at a book I can’t stomach the idea of reading.

In Jewish tradition, one who moves to the land of Israel is said to be making “aliyah”– that “going up” word again. He or she is an “oleh” or an “olah.” Can binding myself ever more tightly to the people Israel and our traditions be a spiritually similar elevation? Or, by moving yet further away from mainstream culture, am I isolating myself? Am I condemning myself to an eternity without the most intimate of human relationships in my quest for Divine recognition and self-satisfaction? 

Va’yinafash

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I’m both glad and saddened to read that my last post resonated with so many people; I hope we all find healing. For my part, there are some doors that have opened since I composed that piece. I am still in pain, and there is still an enormous sense of loss, but, not unlike Pandora’s box, there’s some hope in the bottom of it. I hope to come back to you in a few months with good news, but until then, I appreciate your thoughts, your prayers, and your company. Thank you.

This separation has really forced me to think very critically about the path that has led me to where I am in my Judaism. When my partner and I started dating two years ago, we were each minimally observant. I was a vegetarian, but I didn’t keep kosher; he ate everything but pork and shellfish (but had tried both). He went to services occasionally, but mostly for social interaction and he was not Shabbat-observant. I was an officer in my Jewish Law Students Association, but my regular observance was down to attendance at synagogue for holidays. 

Once we found each other, our love for each other helped to make room for our love of Judaism. Supporting each other, we took on more and more mitzvot [commandments], eventually attending morning services on a near-daily basis. He gave up non-kosher meat and started separating meat and dairy; I began to look forward to having a kosher kitchen when I moved out of my current housing. We studied Torah together. We prayed together. Judaism is not a religion primarily based on faith, but on deeds, and our shared observance meant the creation of thousands of new memories, cementing us to Jewish ritual and to each other in one fell swoop.

That’s why this Shabbat was so difficult for me. Not only have I never lived here, in this neighborhood or this apartment, without my partner– I have also never been this kind of Jewish without him. It makes me miss him intensely: his presence at my side during services, his company on the walk to shul [synagogue], his voice chanting the kiddush [blessing over wine]. Havdalah [the ceremony separating Shabbat from the rest of the week] brought me to tears, because it was always the moment at which I felt closest to him, our voices mingling as we stood in the light of the braided candle, harmonizing the ancient words.

Judaism is so much about association. As a convert, I have had to build every association I have. Bagels and lox for me is not what I ate with my grandparents at a cousin’s bris [ritual circumcision]; it’s what my college Hillel handed out on Tuesdays. Brisket isn’t my mother’s recipe; it’s me trying to match my partner’s tastes. I don’t have years of Shabbat memories as a child, whiling away the hours and pining for the television. I will never have the kind of Jewish memory people describe as being so indelible, passed down from generation to generation, l’dor va’dor.

Many young Jews fall out of observance when they leave the family nest. Without the structure and support of parents and siblings, it is easy to fall into the popular culture. Judaism is nearly impossible in isolation. It is so communal, from the minyan [prayer quorum] to the Shabbat meals to the incredible loneliness of celebrating a holiday by oneself. I have celebrated so many holidays alone, or as an unfamiliar guest at an acquaintance’s table. It is heartbreaking. And today, my heart broke again. I realized that, just as my last ex ruined for me (at least temporarily) The West Wing, Jackson Browne, and  sushi, so may the end of this relationship jeopardize my connections to Judaism. My associations, once so joyful, are now filled with pain.

I now understand a little better what causes those who lose a parent or a sibling to fall away from Judaism. I always thought it must have something to do with anger at God, but I realize now that to stand in synagogue, hearing the same tunes you heard your loved one chant, is the epitome of pain. My partner is luckier: his associations stretch back into childhood, so challah [braided egg bread] can mean dinner with his mother, not just what I bake on Friday morning; setting the light timers is an age-old ritual, not just what I remind him to do right before I light the candles. 

I am trying now to regain my old associations. I was not observant before this man, but I was a Jew. I have no doubt this will rub salt in every wound I have, but somehow, I don’t think the impulse to run away and join a convent would serve me any better.

In synagogue this week, we read parshat [Torah portion] Ki Tissa. It’s a biggie, in which Moses breaks the tablets (Ten Commandments) at the sight of the golden calf. It’s also when God establishes Shabbat, and we hear for first time one of the most familiar Jewish prayers, V’shamru. A translation: 

And the Children of Israel will observe the Sabbath,
to make the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant.
Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever,
that in six days did HASHEM make the heaven and the earth,
and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

“Refreshed” is “va’yinafash,” from the Hebrew word “nefesh.” “Nefesh” means soul. God promises the people Israel that by observing Shabbat, we will be renewed in our souls, even though such a process is rooted in Divine, not human experience. I am praying now that soon this will be true for me again, that Shabbat can be a joyful rebirth of my soul and not the agent of sharpening my sorrow. I hope you all had a beautiful Shabbat. Shavua tov [a good week] to you all.

What You’ve Lost

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I’m taking an amazing class this semester called “Behavioral Health Issues for Clergy,” in which people struggling with mental health and/or behavioral issues like addiction come in and tell their stories and we, the aspiring clergy, learn how we can and cannot be part of the process of outreach, treatment, and recovery. One of the first things we learned this semester is that one cannot move on from tragedy without taking an inventory of things lost.

I lost a lot of things this week. I lost my sense of permanence, a huge source of joy in my life, and the future toward which I thought I was moving. It’s highly personal, incredibly painful, and I can only hope (but not quite believe) that it’s for the best in the long run. I have serious misgivings about putting this out into the gaping maw of the Internet, but here it is.

These losses were born of losing my boyfriend. I hate the word “boyfriend,” by the way, when referring to him. After two years, two shared apartments, a bank account, a dog, and uncountable numbers of experiences huge and tiny, we have been so much more than “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” We were friends, yes, but we were also lovers, partners, community, compatriots, and home. We defined the term “helpmate,” making each other’s goals more possible. I stayed up all night editing his grad school papers; he stayed up all night kashering the oven. We were each other’s solid center. I wish we had been married– not for the usual reasons, but so people could better understand me if I were to describe our split as a divorce.

No matter how badly a relationship has deteriorated, you can’t give this much of yourself to someone and come out of it whole. I can’t yet figure out if it’s better or worse that our relationship didn’t deteriorate. We love each other. We like each other. We enjoy each other’s company, we share the same dreams, and we have the perfect mix of differing interests and personality and absolute compatibility. We are a great team. Every partnership has its ups and downs, but ours stayed functional and loving. It is just…intangibly not right. It does not seem to have the future in it that both of us want for ourselves. And so, with many tears and a careful avoidance of causing unnecessary trauma, we are separating our books, picking out our respective socks from the drawers, and telling ourselves we can start over and be happier apart.

I used to say that I saw Divine work in human relationships, that they were how I best experienced God. Today, that’s not untrue, but it’s not quite on the mark. God could never hurt me this way. There is something so deeply human about love, and perhaps more human about heartbreak. Together, this man and I discovered the joys of Jewish observance and grew into stronger people, the whole of us greater than the sum of our individual parts. We completed more than each other’s sentences– we completed each other’s souls and hearts. We built each other up. And now we have to tear it all down. It echoes Divinity, perhaps, in that the Biblical God is also sometimes random and illogical, not capable of making sense to rational brains. Why did God create a world of imperfect beings and expect perfection? Why can we, two perfect-on-paper people, not make our love translate into the life we wanted together?

I want to honor this relationship because it has meant more to me than any words could ever convey. I am not whole tonight. I will not be whole for a long time. But for a two-year period of whirlwind romance, absolute surety, shared bodies and beds, and companionship that spanned the continent and globe, I was whole, and so was he. May we both be again.

The Beginning (on a Larger Scale)

It’s been far too long since I’ve blogged, but now that the month-long string of chagim (Jewish holidays) is finally over and fall is nipping the air (and Shabbat– the Jewish sabbath– is starting earlier and earlier on Friday afternoons), we’ve come to an exciting time: the beginning of the Torah.

For those who don’t know, the Torah are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Tanakh, which is a Hebrew acronym for Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Khetuvim (Writings)), and their authorship is traditionally attributed to Moses…or, rather, to God, who used Moses as a conduit/scribe/whatever. That’s a topic for another time, but Jews read a different portion (called a “parshah” in Hebrew) of the Torah every week, and it takes a year for us to finish the whole thing. Some congregations actually read a third of each parshah every week, and it takes them three years to finish the entire book; this is called a “triennial cycle” and actually has very ancient roots in the Middle East. The festival of Simchat Torah (“Joy of the Torah”) celebrates each year’s completion of the full Torah scroll…and then we start all over again.

It’s strange to come to a time of beginnings when the natural world seems to be starting its annual march toward death and hibernation. For me, though, still trying to keep my head above water in my classes and adjust to yet another city and lifestyle, it’s a perfectly fitting time to be getting a fresh start. I’m sure anyone still using freshly sharpened pencils and breaking in their school shoes will feel the same– more on the school journey later.

That brings me to Breishit– the first parshah of the year, and probably one of the most familiar to people of all Abrahamic faiths. (Parshiyot– plural of parshah– are named after the first significant word that appears in them, and “breishit” essentially means “at the beginning.”) THIS WEEK IN GOD, we see the creation of the world in six days, including all its inhabitants, and the world’s very first Shabbat, observed by none other than God Godself.

Unfortunately, time is short for me this week, but I’d love to share some thoughts I had on this parshah while writing about it for my class on Jewish environmental ethics. It’s posted below, but in case you’re a tl;dr kind of person, here’s the gist: using Breishit as the basis for a modern environmental ethic is pretty questionable, since God essentially gives people unqualified dominion over the animal world.

Shabbat shalom!

Born to Rule

         In Stephen Schwartz’s off-Broadway musical Children of Eden, the Biblical stories of the world’s creation and the flood are retold, drawing parallels between the families of Adam and Noah and exploring the nature of obedience and betrayal. In Act II, Noah sings to the assembled animals waiting to board the ark, “God made you our charges;/we made you our victims. Now that we’re starting anew, / can we give Eden back to you?” This lyric is but one simple, modern example of the way that man’s stewardship over the earth and its inhabitants has become embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sources used to support the man-as-caretaker position abound in Biblical and rabbinic texts, beginning with the creation story as told in Genesis 1. It is perhaps unwise, however, to offer the creation story as a divine commandment to foster a concern for the earth’s welfare, especially given that its language of mastery over the animals provides no conditions requiring benevolence.

Neither God nor any of the Bible’s compilers or editors provides the reader with a roadmap of God’s plan for creating the world; rather, the narrative is straightforward in relating God’s sequential actions, giving no rationale for either the order or the choice of steps, though rationales may be inferred, as will be addressed later. Darkness, water, and God’s “wind” or “spirit” are already extant (and, as is revealed on day three, there is land under the water), and God separates the light from the darkness, creating the concepts of night, evening, morning, and day—the first day. On the second day, the sky is created and separated from the water; day three sees the drawing back of the water to reveal dry land (and the naming of Earth and Sea) and the advent of vegetation; day four contains the birth of “signs for the set times” to illuminate the day and night (i.e. the sun and the moon).

When, on the fifth day, God creates both sea creatures and flying animals, the order of the created elements begins to make sense; that is, sea creatures could not survive without the sea, and the vegetable base of the food chain is already in place (though God has not yet explicitly given the animals permission to partake of the vegetation). Likewise, the land animals and insects created on the sixth day could hardly survive without the dry land revealed on the third day.

The sixth day is also, of course, when God creates humans, but the process is, for the first time, different. God announces God’s intention to create human life, saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1.26) (a proclamation whose plural form deserves its own paper). Moreover, God says that “[man] shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth” (Gen 1.26). Then, for the first time, God makes a creature “in the image of God,” and, unlike with the animals, sex is also given recognition, for “male and female [God] created them.”

It is once man is created, though, that the full force of the destiny God intends for humanity is revealed: that is, not only does God repeat the earlier language of mastery, but also addresses man directly, indicating a significant difference in the relationship God has with man from that God has with any other creature. In addition to the “mastery” over the earth which God has given man, God also orders humans to “be fertile and increase” and addresses the practical consideration of food, saying that humans may eat all seed-bearing plants and fruits (Gen. 1.28-9). Interestingly, God also now provides food for the animals, which God failed to do upon creating them, saying “and to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food” (Gen 1.30).

From this bestowal of “mastery” come several divergent ideas of man’s place in the natural world, including one concept of Jewish environmental ethics. Since God ordered humans to “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth,” Jewish environmentalists often claim, it is incumbent upon humans to act as benevolent rulers, providing protection in return for submission (Gen. 1.28). It is this ethic that is cited in the quotation from Children of Eden at the beginning of this paper—the idea that God made the animals “our charges.”

It is arguably, however, too far a leap to take the “ruling” or “dominion” or “mastery” God grants humans and transform it into true stewardship using only the Biblical text. God gives no explicit instructions to the humans regarding how they are to treat the animals over which they rule, nor does God address the animals directly or appear to be overly concerned with their welfare. In fact, God’s failure to mention a food source for the animals until well after the creation of the swimming and flying creatures, and only then after specifying a food source for the humans, could imply that the entirety of creation is for man’s benefit. This reading of the text is supported by the later creation story in Genesis 2, when the animals are, in fact, created to solve the problem of man’s loneliness (Gen. 2.18). God does not order humans to be benevolent rulers, and does not threaten either consequence or punishment should his latest creations destroy his earlier ones.

This mastery, however, does have at least one limit; man is not (yet) permitted to eat the animals in his charge. (Interestingly, animals are also denied the right to be carnivorous.) This will change in the aftermath of the flood, later in Genesis, but it would appear that the ban on eating animals does not extend to a ban on killing them. Though God does not explicitly grant permission to do so, nor does God request this from the humans, animal sacrifices follow closely upon man’s expulsion from the garden, first with Abel’s offering of the firstlings of his flocks (Gen. 4.3), and later with Noah’s thanksgiving offering for safe passage through the flood (Gen. 8.20). (Abel’s offering is not specified as a burnt offering, so it is possible that the animals he separated for God were alive, but it hardly seems likely, and Noah’s sacrifice was certainly of slaughtered animals). God is also pleased with both of these offerings, “giving heed” to Abel’s and responding to Noah’s by promising never again to destroy the earth (Gen. 4.4 and 8.21). Given that this is slaughter in worship of God, it is certainly not a wanton use of power over the animals, but it does point to the fact that, even without God’s explicit permission to do so, humans may exercise the ultimate authority over the other creatures on earth.

As a human, it is tempting to read this creation story with an almost teleological bias, seeing God’s creation of the entire world as a process whose culmination is in the arrival of man, arguably the main character of the rest of the Bible. Indeed, assuming the participation of humans at any point in the production of the Biblical narrative makes it entirely plausible to read the story as having been intentionally presented in such a way. The text itself, though, is somewhat more ambiguous, saying neither that the earth was created for man nor man for the earth and relating the entire saga from the perspective of a dispassionate narrator. All good rulers, whether of a Machiavellian persuasion or not, know (or quickly learn) that it is to their benefit to protect the lives and well-being of their subjects, lest they no longer have anything to rule. Man, however, is not exhorted in Genesis to be a “good” ruler—only to rule.

The Tziporah Monologues: The Beginning

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Welcome! I won’t lie– I’m new to blogging, and I’ll probably look back at this post in a year or two (or, like, a week) and be utterly humiliated by my rank amateurism. I’ll get past it then; I hope you can get past it now.

For now, let’s get some basic introductions out of the way. On this blog, I’ll go by Tziporah. It’s part of my Hebrew name, but lest you think my parents saddled me with a name like “Tziporah” in the secular world, rest assured– I have a “normal” American name, too.

Speaking of my parents saddling with me anything Jewish…not so much. I converted to Judaism under Conservative auspices in April 2007. Later this month, in August 2012, I’m beginning the loooong process toward receiving smicha (ordination as a rabbi). This blog, like me, will probably be a little all over the place, but its purpose is to document this process of dedicating myself to a life of spirituality and service. I’ll also delve a bit into what led me here.

My main concern is that no one will read this blog, but not because I want the attention. Rather, I really like talking about Judaism. And Jews. And Jewish issues. And Jewish values. And Jewish food…you get the picture.

What I want, though, is not to ramble in cyberspace– I actually want the blog’s title to be ironic. This shouldn’t be a monologue. Make it a dialogue. I promise to respond to every comment and question, no matter how random or off topic. Give me your tired, you poor, your…okay, I’m getting a little high-and-mighty with delusions of grandeur here.

But seriously. Let’s talk.