Blessings and Curses: Outdated Theology?

August 23, 2013

The woman in the hospital bed looked at me with distress.  “Rabbi,” she asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”

“This,” was metastatic cancer, destined to take the young woman’s life.  Her spiritual distress was based in theology we heard from the Torah tonight.  We have all heard of, and many of us have read, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner.  Despite Rabbi Kushner’s title, the Torah suggests that bad things do not happen to good people, or at least not unless they have done something very bad.  We read that blessings will come to those who perform God’s commandments.  Curses will befall those who ignore the mitzvot.

That theology haunted the cancer patient.  She had no trouble enumerating her sins.  Even Moses had his failings, and she was no Moses.  Had she contracted this horrible disease because of her misdeeds?  Was her family suffering because of her wrongdoing?  Would her punishment go even beyond her death?  The Torah suggests that the answer to each of these wrenching questions is “yes.”

In the ancient world, this theology was comforting.  As people confronted tragedy and disaster, logic offered them two choices:  One possibility was that they lived in a world thoroughly out of control, with no order, with no God.  The other option was to believe that God, who created us, remains in charge of the universe.  Whatever happens is God’s will.

Ironically, people were comforted by the idea that they were the cause of their own suffering.  They were frightened by the notion of a random universe, with nobody in charge.  With God in control, even the most unspeakable tragedy could be re-branded:  Nothing that happens is actually bad.  If everything is God’s doing, and if God is good, then whatever happens must be good and just, even if we don’t understand the exact reason.

Many people in our modern world continue to embrace that biblical theology.  We all know about houses of worship where the message is clear:  Worship here, or else.  Believe as we do, or you will be consigned to eternal hellfire.  Repent, or face divine retribution.

Even some who reject such an oversimplified religion nevertheless cling to the notion that good will be somehow rewarded; and sin, punished.  If there is no ultimate reward for goodness, they ask, why should anybody do what is right?  If sinners do not suffer, and sin is fun – many sins are lots of fun, in the moment at least – why not ignore the mitzvot or any system of righteous behavior?

Jews have a harder time than most with this kind of theology, particularly after the Holocaust.  Do we believe that our people was led to slaughter by the millions because of wrongs they had committed, as a punishment for sin against God?

Before we imagine Jews too smart or too good for such an idea, let me tell you about the Satmar Rebbe.  The head of an ultra-Orthodox Hassidic sect, the Satmar Rebbe noted that the Holocaust began in Germany, the same place that Reform Judaism was founded.  He reasoned that the Holocaust was God’s punishment upon the whole Jewish people for the dreadful sin of reforming Judaism.

The Satmar Rebbe’s arrogance was overwhelming.  How dare he, or anyone, presume to know the ways of God?  The same is true for the televangelist or the extremist imam, speaking for God, consigning to the fiery furnace those they brand as heathens.

The theology of blessings and curses may be comforting to some.  If we reflect, though, we will acknowledge that this biblical belief system leads to blaming victims for their own fate.  If we are blessed or cursed, in this world or the next, for our righteousness or our sinfulness, then whatever befalls us is our own doing.  Carried to its logical extreme, this theology can lead a zealot to carry out what he or she arrogantly believes to be God’s will, like Major Nidal Hassan, the terrorist of Fort Hood.

So what’s the alternative?

Some would reject this week’s Torah reading and its theology altogether.  The potential for harm is great, they would say, and they aren’t wrong.  To be sure, some good actions do have positive results; and some sins are punished.  For example, if we eat right and exercise, we are more likely to live longer, healthier lives.  If we are unfaithful in marriage, we are likely to destroy our lives and our families.  But these rewards and punishments occur naturally.  They do not represent divine retribution or reward.  The same might be said of the positive and negative results of other people’s actions.  If one person drives drunk, an innocent person may be killed.  If a scientist discovers an effective treatment for a dreaded disease, lives may be saved.  The Holocaust is the quintessential example:  Hitler and his accomplices caused death and suffering.  Neither God nor the victims was at fault.

Rejecting the theology of blessings and curses also means accepting that some positive and negative events occur randomly, with no particular cause, or at least not one that can be attributed to a divine being, to righteousness or sinfulness.  That young woman with cancer was tragically unfortunate.  And the same would be true in reverse for those who escape her terrible fate.

This utter rejection of divine blessings and curses is tempting.  Modern.  Rational.

But Rabbi Kushner suggests a middle course.  When bad things happen to good people, and they do, Rabbi Kushner rejects the notion that God is the cause.  At the same time, he writes that God is not “exempt from the struggle.”

God has created the world in such a way that we all experience the very greatest blessing.  We also encounter the most horrific tragedy.  Some of these we bring on ourselves, or are caused by the wrongdoing of others.  Therefore, in a this-worldly way, we may endorse the theology of blessings and curses.  Even still, we may protest that God’s creation includes evildoing.  And why, why, the random blows of nature?

As the High Holy Days approach, we are taught to make ourselves all too aware of the ways in which our negative actions do bring curse, upon ourselves and others, upon the Earth and upon God.

We are also aware that our goodness can bring blessing, and we are grateful to God that we have that power.

On other occasions, we look to God, not for an explanation, but for comfort.  Rabbi Kushner imagines that, when tragedy befalls us, God weeps with us.  Even if God does not cause the difficulties in our lives, God knows our distress.  God can help us turn some curses into blessing, or to create a blessing even in the midst of sadness.  And when tragedy strikes, and no good can come of it, God hears our prayers and even our protests.

Thankfully, we also experience blessing that rains down upon us from we know not where.  Let us be grateful for every blessing in our lives and thank God for creating the world in such a way that such gifts are possible.  Let those occasions multiply in the new year soon to begin. And let us ever celebrate those blessings, faithful that God rejoices with us.


What We Owe Our Fellow Animals

August 16, 2013

In 2006, the Sioux City Journal reported that state inspectors had found animal cruelty at the Agriprocessors kosher slaughter house in Postville, Iowa:  “[V]ideo taken at the plant in 2004 . . . shows steers thrashing and struggling to get up and walk after their throats had been slit.  . . . and that some appeared to be conscious as workers pulled out their tracheas to speed up bleeding.  Agriprocessors ‘did not appear to be doing anything to assess if an animal was still conscious after the rabbi had performed the ritual slaughter.’”

The charge was not that kosher slaughter is inherently cruel.  Instead, the claim was that Agriprocessors was not living up to the standards of Iowa law, let alone the “higher standard” touted in kosher hot dog ads.

Agriprocessors denied the charges, and indeed seemed indifferent.

This week’s Torah portion, on the other hand, suggests that we are commanded to pay attention to animals’ well-being: If one comes upon a birds’ nest, with eggs or fledglings, one is permitted to take the eggs or chicks for food, but must permit the mother to fly away.

At first blush, a logical explanation of that commandment is that it ensures propagation of the species.  Eggs will not hatch and fledglings will not survive if their mother is taken for food.  On the other hand, if we eat only the eggs or the young, the mother bird can still thrive and reproduce yet again.

Medieval rabbinic commentators though, assert that kindness to animals is the reason for this mitzvah.  Maimonides reminds us that Jewish law is replete with commandments intended to avoid animal suffering, a category of sin called tsar ba’alei chayim.  We take pity on the mother bird and are enjoined never to be cruel to animals.  We are permitted to eat meat but must not cause undue pain and suffering to animals in the process.

Nachmanides disagrees with Maimonides.  The Sephardic sage insists that pity for the bird herself is not the reason for the commandment.  Instead, he teaches that the commandment is intended for our own human moral development.  Nachmanides reminds us that “Butchers and slaughterers [can] become hardened to suffering by their occupation.”  Commandments that restrict which animals can be slaughtered are intended, he says, to “inculcate humanity in us.”  In other words, humans, not animals, are the ultimate targets of the commandment.

Indeed, modern social science has taught us of a remarkable correlation between cruelty to animals and violence toward other humans.  Not only on TV do serial killers begin their life of crime with cruelty to animals.

Agriprocessors, too, was as indifferent to humans as to animals.  Two years after it was investigated for animal cruelty, federal immigration authorities raided the same facility.  There, they found hundreds of immigrant workers without work visas.  Much more serious than any immigration crime, these workers had been badly abused by their employers.  The government ultimately fined Agriprocessors nearly $10 million for failing to pay workers and for such violations as deducting from workers’ pay to provide safety equipment.  Apparently, those who perpetrate animal cruelty are all too quick to disregard the pain of any fellow creatures, even other human beings.

Most of us would never find ourselves happening upon a bird’s nest, taking the mother or the young.  Most of us would never dream of being cruel to cats and dogs like a future serial killer.  And yet, if we eat meat, and I do, we risk participating in gross indifference to animal welfare.  Unlike our ancestors, we do not live amongst the cattle and sheep destined to become steak and lamb chops.  Most are raised inhumanely, far from our sight.

Yes, free range chickens to exist.  And some cattle really are grass-fed.  Nevertheless, most affordable American meat, dairy, and eggs are raised in industrial settings.  Cattle are fattened with corn, not their natural diet, on feed lots deep in their own excrement, their feet never touching the Earth.  Most chickens whose flesh or eggs graces our plates live their entire lives in small cages in dark hen houses.

Ibn Kaspi, a Separdic sage in medieval France, insists that Torah laws like the one we read tonight are intended to make us more humble, by reminding us of our kinship with our fellow animals.  According to this line of thinking, we understand why we mustn’t be cruel to one another.  By extending the prohibition against cruelty from humans to other animals, “The Torah wished to make us conscious of our own status, to remove pride and self-importance.”  Only an arrogant person, lacking in humility, who imagines him or herself of so much higher status, would inflict cruelty.  So Ibn Kaspi concludes:  “The Torah inculcates in us a sense of our modesty . . . that we should be ever cognizant of the fact that we are of the same stuff as the ass and the mule.”

Tonight, let us resolve to be humble, and let us be kind to the animals with whom we share planet Earth.  As we contemplate the laws of tonight’s portion, let us learn more about the animals we eat.  If we are able to afford beautiful clothes and fine wine, let us pay the extra dollars and cents for meat, dairy, and eggs that have been raised humanely.  As we are kind to the pets who bless our homes, let us resolve to remove animal cruelty from our land.  Then, let our treatment of our fellow animals be pleasing in the sight of the One who created us all.


Guilty Beyond Doubt: The Torah’s Standard

August 9, 2013

Today, in a Texas military courtroom, Maj. Nidal Hassan, an Army psychiatrist turned extremist Muslim terrorist, is on trial for his life. Nobody disputes that Hassan murdered thirteen people, and wounded dozens, at Fort Hood, where Army men and women were preparing to deploy to the Middle East. Countless eye-witnesses saw Hassan commit mass murder, facts the defendant does not dispute. Were Hassan to be put to death for his crimes, his execution would be the American military’s first in over sixty years.

Tonight, we read that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for a crime nowhere near the severity of Hassan’s. In the same selection, though, the Torah begins to lay out the rigorous measure of guilt required for a Jewish court to put a criminal to death. Jewish law does not merely require that a capital defendant be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, Torah, amplified by the Rabbis of the Talmud and their successors, insists that a person be known to be guilty beyond any doubt whatsoever before he or she may be put to death. Yes, the Torah and the rabbis would permit other punishments with a less stringent standard. The death penalty, though, is different –irreversible, the taking of human life –requiring more evidence.

The words of Torah demand at least two eye-witnesses to a capital crime. Explicitly, we are told that the testimony of one witness is insufficient to put a defendant to death. Implicitly, we are instructed that circumstantial evidence does not prove a capital crime, and the rabbis later make that explicit as well. Indeed, Torah informs us that the witnesses must be so certain that they are charged with casting the first stone to put the condemned person to death.

The rabbis later made these standards even more difficult to meet. For example, they taught that, even with as many as 100 eye witnesses, if only one of those witnesses offered conflicting testimony, even in the smallest detail, the accused could not be put to death. The rabbis opined that a court that would execute a single criminal in a seventy year period should be considered “blood-thirsty.”

What lies behind the teachings of the Torah and its amplification by our sages?

First, let us recognize that Judaism never repeals the death penalty. Some crimes are so despicable, and the evidence of the perpetrator’s guilt so clear, that the criminal has forfeited the right to continue living on Earth. We are taught, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” Were we to let the mass murderer get off with a punishment less than death, we may be said to harbor callous disregard for the lives criminally cut short.

But the victims’ lives are not the only ones we must understand to be sacred. The accused, too, is a human soul whose life is of inestimable value. The rabbis’ strict standards for carrying out capital punishment may be seen as careful protection of human life.

The military is not the only entity that has carried out the death penalty only sparingly in recent decades. The United States Federal Government has executed but one criminal in the modern era: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, whose callous act of terrorism took scores of lives, many of them innocent children in the Federal Building’s day care.

The State of Israel, too, has practiced restraint. But one criminal has been put to death in the 65 year history of the Jewish State: Adolph Eichmann, the architect and chief executioner of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

Some states have not been at all reluctant to carry out the death penalty. Chief among them, to my shame, has been my native Texas. Texas has executed over 500 men and women since the early 1980s, a period during which Arkansas has put to death 27.

In most recent years, DNA evidence has been brought to allege the innocence of prisoners on death row, and occasionally of those already put to death. I hasten to note that, during this period of enhanced focus on potential innocence of capital defendants, Arkansas has not executed a single convict since 2005, at a time when the death machine continues unabated in neighboring Texas.

The emergence of DNA evidence requires us to consider how the rabbis would write their rules today. The ikar, the essence, of the rabbis’ evidentiary requirement is certainty. Modern science has taught us to trust human memories, including eyewitnesses, less than the rabbis did. Perhaps, were they writing today, the rabbis would require evidence obtained from DNA and/or cameras. There can be no doubt who planted the bombs at the Boston Marathon, for example.

The sages would want to examine the claim that the death penalty deters murder. If it did, the rabbis might revisit their reluctance to execute. If putting criminals to death were proven to save innocent lives, the rabbis would likely support doing so, since the purpose of capital punishment in their eyes was to venerate the sanctity of life. However, the evidence does not seem to bear out such a claim. States that liberally apply the death penalty do not have lower murder rates than states where capital punishment is illegal.

To be sure, the rabbis would label a state blood-thirsty if its death machine so active that it refuses to consider evidence of innocence arising after trial, as is the case in Texas. All citizens of such a state have blood on their hands, and are obligated to advocate fiercely for more careful administration of capital punishment. The rabbis would abhor an entire aspect of the American legal system, namely that “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard of guilt required whether the penalty is death or a $100 fine. Equating a financial penalty with the taking of human life degrades the very sanctity of human life that the death penalty is intended to protect.

The case of Nidal Hassan seems to be exactly the kind of case for which the rabbis left capital punishment on the books. His apparent callous disregard for human life, and his conviction that he alone could best determine who should live and who should die, coupled with the indisputable evidence of his guilt, make Nidal Hassan, like Adolph Eichmann and Timothy McVeigh before him, the moral exception to a principled reluctance to carry out the death penalty.

This week’s portion, Parashat Shofetim, begins with the famous injunction, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” Even as we rightly demand justice for victims, so too may we assure that we as a society do not take additional innocent lives. Let our standard of justice ever be the very highest.



The View from Mount Nebo: Leaving in the Middle

May 31, 2013

A joke I’ve told before:  What’s the difference between God and a rabbi?  God doesn’t fantasize about being a rabbi.

Feigning humility, though, we rabbis are more likely to compare ourselves to Moses.  The rabbis of old called him Mosheh rabbeinu, “Moses our rabbi,” the model for all who would follow.

And wouldn’t all rabbis like to stay in the same congregation, like Moses, for 40 years?  My own goal was only slightly more modest:  36 years of service at Temple Beth-El would have taken me to retirement at 65.  dayyeinu.  It would have been enough.  But that was not meant to be.  And tonight I would like to ask you to consider that the 21 years we had together were in many ways dayyeinu, a blessing we can celebrate together.

Even Moses wanted even more than the four decades of leadership that he was granted.  God ended Moses’s tenure before fulfillment of his stated mission.  Children of Israel would enter the Promised Land under a new leader.

Moses, like all of us, leaves in the middle.

In some way, large or small, we all share that experience of leaving with so much more to see or to do.

Let me share a personal recollection:  When I graduated high school, I felt a sentimental sadness at having to leave TOFTY, our Texas-Oklahoma regional youth group.  The officers who followed my classmates and me were friends of mine, too; and I was distressed that I would not be there to enjoy and participate in their senior year.

More significantly, we have all lost loved ones – some too early, of course, but right now I’m focusing on those who died at the end of long, full, happy, good and productive lives.  Even after all those years and decades, we are left wanting more.  We still wish they were present at moments large and small, even long past any reasonable human lifespan.

Whether leaving high school or life on Earth, a job or a community, we all move on, aware that others will continue without us.  We will all leave in the middle

Only if we are truly blessed will we have the good fortune Moses experiences at the end of his life.  God brings Moses to Mt. Nebo, permitting him to look out from its heights and survey the entire Land of Israel below to the west.  Moses leaves with a sense of where the Children of Israel have come under his leadership; he knows that he leaves them in a good place.  In fact, the rabbis teach in midrash that Moses’ job is complete.  He has led the people out of slavery and prepared the congregation of Israel to enter their Promised Land.

Today, I mark a full year from the day I ended my active tenure as your Senior Rabbi.  In this last year, many of us have continued to share sacred moments.  We have all had a chance to get used to the reality that I’m leaving.  And I’ve had a good long look from my own version of Mt. Nebo, a vista I would like to share with you now.

Unlike Moses, I am able to look in two directions.  One of them is forward, to the new challenges and opportunities that await me at Congregation B’nai Israel, to the new home and the new friends already embracing Toni, Robert, Daniel, and me in Little Rock.  But tonight, our focus is on the other view, into the past, into what we have accomplished together, the blessing that remains even after leaving in the middle.  I am boundlessly grateful that we have journeyed to this place, you and I, together.  And, like Moses at Mt. Nebo, I am confident that you will journey into a promised land, with a new leader, in the years to come.

Not a single one of these blessings is of my own making.  You have bestowed magnificent staff partners upon me, and together we have been enriched by the extraordinary attention lavished upon this Temple by lay leadership at every level, and by every congregant who have supported this holy Temple.  I cannot say enough about my staff colleagues, my dear friends, with whom I’ve been privileged to share this sacred work, or about the elected Temple leaders – the Presidents, above all – who have shared the vision and the burden.

There is a temptation to enumerate every one of our achievements together, from a magnificently preserved and reinvigorated Temple facility to a revived Brotherhood, from full inclusion of a diverse array of congregants and families of every kind to the meaningful social justice investment we have made in our immediate neighborhood.  And we have maintained and grown strengths of Temple Beth-El that long preceded my tenure here:  an unparalleled commitment to our youth, here and at Greene Family Camp; and uncommon participation in San Antonio’s faith community, Jewish and beyond.  All will continue to bless Temple Beth-El into the future; none depends on me.

The same is true of the development on which I would like to concentrate tonight, the single accomplishment of which I am most proud as I look back with you tonight, the blessing we celebrate here every week at this hour:  Friday nights at Temple Beth-El.  You and I have nurtured a congregation that is warm and welcoming and embracing of diversity rare in American religious life.  We doubled Friday night attendance in the last decade, in part due to a thoughtfully evolving worship pattern.  Even more, though, the tremendous weekly gathering here is testament that Temple Beth-El is your community, your synagogue home.  You come here on Friday night, knowing that you will find people who care about you, and people whose well-being really matters to you.  Whether you will be led by Rabbi and Cantor or by volunteer shlihei tzibbur and musicians, you come here confident that the music will take you where you need to go spiritually, that the Torah reading will challenge you, and that the sermon or D’var Torah will energize and inspire you.

More than anything we have done together, though, is the feeling I have for you, the members of Temple Beth-El.  The rabbis teach that there is no love like the love of one’s youth.  Temple Beth-El is not the last congregation with which I will fall in love, but you will always have been the first.  We have shared so many special moments, one-on-one and collectively – the most saddening losses, yes, but also the greatest simchas.  Being your rabbi these 21 years, I have eulogized dear friends, honoring men and women at the end of their lives after having shared a goodly portion of those lives.  More happily, I have officiated at countless B’nai, Mitzvah of young people I named and blessed, and at more than a few weddings of kids I taught in Confirmation.  I had looked forward to so much more; losing those blessings is the hardest part of leaving.  But that would have been true at retirement, too.  No matter when I left, I would have left in the middle.

Decades before Moses ascends Mt. Nebo, he commissions spies, charged to examine the Promised Land and bring back a report.  The story is in this week’s Torah portion.  Unanimously, the spies agree that the land flows with milk and honey.  But there’s a problem:  Other people are there.  They are strong, and their fortifications appear impenetrable.  Ten of the twelve spies fear defeat, and the Israelites follow them into despair.

Friends, I’m sure that we too are unanimous:  Temple Beth-El flows with Torah and activism, music and community, heritage and excellence.  But we also know there is much to overcome.

I ask you to look forward with the faith of this portion’s heroes, Joshua and Caleb.  They are not in denial about the challenges that lie ahead, nor should you be.  And yet, Caleb hushes the Israelites’ despair, proclaiming that, with God’s help, the Children of Israel will surely prevail.  And Joshua leads the Children of Israel into their future.

Do not despair.  The future of Temple Beth-El is a land of promise.

My journey with you ends here.  I will not be part of charting the next direction.  Nor will I be returning to officiate a Bar Mitzvah or a funeral, to consecrate a wedding or to name that baby.  As much as it may pain me, I will not call to follow up after you are discharged from the hospital.  No, I will not stop caring.  Toni, Robert, Daniel and I will always have friends here, and we have family.  But I will no longer be a rabbi of Temple Beth-El.

Recently, I ordered more personal stationery.  I expect to write lots of notes, destination San Antonio.  I pray that more will be congratulations than condolences.

And so I leave you in the capable, caring hands of Cantor Berlin, Rabbi Crystal, and Rabbi Koppel.  And I leave them and all of my staff colleagues and friends in your capable and caring hands.

And I charge you as Moses beseeched Joshua:  Hazak v’ematz!  Be strong and of good courage.  Partner with your new rabbi to face the challenges together, with God’s help.  When despair rises, hush it like Caleb before you.  Together, may you march with faith into a new promised land, under your dome, and reaching beyond.

Amen.  And Amen.