Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Things We Do For Love

I was reading this past Shabbat, the first book in a series on “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices” by two friends, Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Louis Newman. The topic of this first book was Jewish attitudes about the body. The middle section of the book had a series of essays by different people about their Judaism and how it colors their decisions about their bodies. I wanted to have a quote from the book to show you here but I packed it up and put it away already so I will have to go with my memory (which I admit is not always so good since I forgot I wanted to quote a section before I packed up the book).

In the section on tattoos, there were a couple of essays about why Jews would decide to display their Judaism through body art. All were all quick to point out, correctly, that a Jew with a tattoo is still permitted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. What intrigued me, however, was the fact that each one noted that the Bible is clear and explicit that marking or cutting the body is forbidden (Lev. 18:28). One went so far as to note that this had been interpreted to mean that one had to do both, cut the body and leave a permanent mark in order for it to be a sin. (There is also one authority that insists that the only prohibition is not to tattoo on the body, the name of God. Everything else would be okay). In every case in the book, however, this biblical passage was not to be a deterrent to the author for getting a tattoo. Their love of the art, their love of their bodies and their love of the freedom to do what they wish, was too great to let this biblical passage deter them from decorating their bodies with Jewish and other symbols.

There are a number of points of discussion here. First, how is this different from the prohibitions of homosexuality that are just as explicit in Leviticus and which we feel can no longer apply because of the great hurt and discrimination they bring to the homosexual community? Is body art today fundamentally different than the reasons for tattoos in ancient times? What happens to Torah when we just ignore passages because they just don’t speak to us? Where does this leave us in relationship to adultery and illicit sexual relations? Is this a fine example of a “slippery slope”?

I find myself recalling a story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichiv, an early Hasidic master. On the eve of Pesach, he sent his Hasidim to bring him all the Turkish tobacco, all the Austrian silk handkerchiefs and all the hametz in Berdichiv. The Hasidim were puzzled. The first two items were often smuggled across the nearby border to avoid custom duties. The hametz, was forbidden to be in any Jewish home on the eve of Pesach. The Hasidim made their rounds and the Jews, unhappy with the Rabbi’s call, still parted with the contraband. Soon there were two tables filled with tobacco and handkerchiefs, but the hametz table was empty. “God in Heaven”, prayed Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, “the Austrian king passes many laws, and hires soldiers and custom agents to collect his taxes and you see how little the people fear his laws, but you, God, you have no soldiers and no custom agents only your law in the Torah, “You shall have no hametz in your homes, and see … see how the whole community keeps your laws! Why God have you not redeemed us?”

Why do we keep the laws of the Torah and the Rabbinic Laws as well? Is it because we fear the wrath of God? Certainly there are those who see the good that comes from our commitment to the values of Judaism and our commitment to Mitzvot. But why are we so quick to just ignore the laws that we are unhappy with? What is it that inspires us to follow God’s command even though we no longer fear divine punishment?

I would like to think the answer is love. If we love God, we follow what God requires. Much the same way we do all kinds of things for the ones we love; we listen to God because we love God and God loves us. I do lots of things for my wife, not because I find them fulfilling (like taking out the trash) but because I know it is a way I can show her that I love her. My children call home not because I require them to call, but because they love their parents and go out of their way to show their love. I found myself wondering if these proponents of tattoo art would continue to add tattoos if their beloved asked them to stop? It made me wonder how much their love of God limits the way they live their lives. I don’t want to declare all tattooed Jews as sinners; I want them to show their love of God by living their lives answering the call of God in the Bible.

Unlike homosexuality, this tattooing prohibition in Leviticus is not asking anyone to give up something that is part of the very essence of who they are as a human being. Domestic violence begins when a person makes unreasonable demands on their partner that escalates into a controlling nightmare. But here, with body art, it is not an issue of the essence of what it means to be human, it is a matter of art, style and taste. God asks us not to cut and mark our bodies. Do we love God enough to pay attention? God asks us also to live a moral and ethical life, something much harder than forgoing a tattoo. God asks us to limit the things we are permitted to eat and to refrain from working one day out of seven. These are serious matters that cut to the very essence of what it means to be a Jew. These are areas where we Jews show a deep and abiding love of God.

Tattooing is nowhere near this crucial in Jewish Life. Is the art so important that we ignore the call of a loving God? God will not deny us divine love if we mark our bodies, but should we not show our love for our bodies and for God by leaving the “canvas” blank? Rather than decorate my body, I decorate my life with acts of kindness and with acts of love to my fellow human beings and to God.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ninety-Six Tears

Today is a day for crying.
Today is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha b’Av, the day when many tragedies befell our people. Today we commemorate so much death and destruction in Jewish History. Even if historically, not every tragedy fell on the ninth day of Av, we set this day aside, to cry, to fast and to remember that every day is not a day of celebration.

I know that sometimes is seems that every day is a day of tragedy in Jewish History. Isn’t that the joke on the Internet: “They attacked. We won. Let’s eat!” That is the essence of Hanukah, Purim, Yom HaShoa, Yom HaAtzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim and clearly, Tisha b’Av. Maybe Passover fits this model too. But all those other days are not fast days. Why is this day, the ninth of Av, called the “black fast” (in contrast to Yom Kippur, the “white fast”)?

At the study session I was at last night the Rabbi asked what I thought was a pretty interesting question. Today is the day that we commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages ask the question, “Why was the Temple destroyed?” Rabbi Ettedgui of Minneapolis last night asked us, “Why do we ask about the Temple? Why not ask why Jerusalem was destroyed or why was Israel destroyed or why were our people sent into exile? The easy answer is that the Temple was the heart and soul of the Jewish people at that time. Its destruction implies all the other tragedies of the day.

But if Tisha b’Av is all about the Temple alone, it would not have survived all the centuries as the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. We have moved on without the Temple. Service of the Heart (prayer) has replaced the sacrificial service of the Temple. It is very rare today to find Jews of any denomination really advocating the rebuilding of the Temple. Orthodox Jews are content to wait for God or the Messiah to rebuild it. For most of the other denominations, it is just a vestige in our prayers. We remember what our ancestors USED to do in the Temple, but we are not interested in doing it ourselves. For most Jews, Tisha b’Av is about the destruction of Jerusalem. It is about the end of Jewish independence for over 2000 years. It is about the hope that sustained our people that someday we would once again, be free in our own land.

Today we are free in that land. Today, there is a living state of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. The Midrash says that as the Temple burned, the ancient priests threw the keys to the city up in the air where a Divine hand grabbed them and took them up to heaven. In 1948, the British gave the keys to Zion gate into the hands of the Rabbis of the Old City, in the days before it fell to the Jordanians. Today, the entire city of Jerusalem is under control of the State of Israel. So what meaning should Tisha b’Av have for modern Jews?

I believe that there are two meanings to this day. First, it remains important to mark the many misfortunes that befell the Jewish People on this day. The Talmud indicates that this was the day the spies gave their evil report of the land and the people cried that they would not enter. For this lack of trust in God, the Holy One decreed that since they cried that night without reason, God would give them a reason to cry. That was the night they were all doomed to die in the desert and only their children would inherit the land. This was also the date of the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the day that Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba rebellion, was captured. It was also the day the Romans ploughed up the city of Jerusalem so that it would never be rebuilt. Later history includes many disasters on the ninth of Av. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492 and from Vienna in 1670. Three thousand Jews died in the Chmielnikcki massacres on this day. Even World War I began on Tisha b’Av, a war that made refugees of thousands of Jews. In 1942 the Nazis ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto under Nazi control.

But second, we need to acknowledge the different status of Jerusalem and the Jewish People in our modern time. We are now a free people living in our own land. In spite of all the problems, it remains not only a homeland for our dispersed people, but Israel is also the defender of Jews all over the world. From Iraq to Entebbe to Argentina, Israel has been there to see to it that Jews are not persecuted anymore in any corner of the globe. From the time that Israel came into existence, we were no longer a wandering, homeless people. Like it or not, as Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes, we Jews have our own platform on the world stage, a platform that we have missed for the 2000 years of our exile.

I believe therefore that the “black fast” of Tisha b’Av needs to be shortened. We should read Aicha (Lamentations) and Kinot (elegies) and the mandated readings from the Torah for this day. But when we are finished, after Mincha, after about 2 pm in most places, it is time to break our fast in recognition of how far we have come since those days of insecurity and upheaval. We acknowledge our past with our fast, and take note of our present by breaking our fast early. We have tradition and, in the face of our new situation we effect an appropriate change. We fast to commemorate the darkness, and break the fast so that we can dwell in the light.

There comes a time when our crying must end. There is still much to cry about on Tisha b’Av, but there is also a modern Israel in which we should find joy. Tisha b’Av should be about both.