The double-portion of Tazria-Metzora (Lev 12:1 – 15:33) presents a series of ritual purity instructions for Israelite priests, starting with procedures for women who have recently given birth, and shifting to the rules priests must follow to identify, quarantine, inspect, and ultimately, readmit to the community people with an ancient skin disease called tzara’at. In my first years working with b’nai mitzvah students, I repeatedly
witnessed the disappointment of kids upon learning that Tazria-Metzora was their parashah. I would try to reassure them that, with help, they really would be able to find something relevant to their lives within these verses. The cultural distance, confusion, and even revulsion that many experience when encountering these parts of Leviticus are tough to overcome. And yet, with some cultural translation and an open mind, Leviticus can teach us a lot.
Our parashah offers us a good example in Leviticus 14, which describes the process by which priests would examine people to determine if they had tzara’at. If yes, then the afflicted person was placed outside the community in quarantine. Priests would then repeatedly visit to check on whether their skin was healing. When a priest verified a complete healing, he would then perform a purification ritual for the person involving two birds and a bowl of water – one of those bloody, non-rational Levitical rituals that often make us squirm. But if we can put our scientific Western mindset aside for a moment, we can explore the potential spiritual lessons for us in this part of Leviticus. Continue reading “Thou Shalt Not Write People Off (Tazria-Metzora 5778)”→
“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”
Good morning and thank you so much for offering me the honor of sharing some thoughts with you today, on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Though I have not served in our military, many of my family members have been soldiers, both here in the US and in other parts of the world where they’ve lived. My grandfather was a US Army infantryman in France during World War I. My father served during the Korean War, though he was never shipped overseas.
My mother’s family are Moroccan Jews who now mostly live in Israel. During World War II, my mom’s family lived in Casablanca, which was under German occupation. During the 1940s France had ruled Morocco as a colony, but the Nazis took it over not long after Paris fell. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Rosette, joined the French underground, and nobody knew much about what she did. She was gone for weeks at a time and then would suddenly show up for a few days. One time she showed up late at night at the home of one of her sisters with a small group of men. Her terrified sister let them in and, in later years, all she could say about the visit was that the men brought a whole bunch of weapons into the house, hid them in a back room, and Rosette told her to just say nothing and people would come by soon to get them.
Then there are my many, many aunts and uncles and cousins who have served and currently serve in the Israeli army. My mother’s brother, my Uncle Yossi, was the sole survivor of his army unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat had launched a very effective surprise attack and the army was scrambling to call up reservists. When Yossi’s unit’s call-up notice went out over the radio, he went to get his boots from their usual place, but couldn’t find them. Turned out his mother had been tidying and had moved them. By the time he found them and hustled to the base, his tank unit had already been sent to the front. The commanding officer placed him with a different departing unit. As it happened, all of the others in his intended unit were killed in an explosion. The misplaced boots saved his life.
Yossi is an interesting case in point. In addition to the trauma and survivor’s guilt he’s had to bear over that pair of boots, he also has told my mom about terrible recurring memories and dreams from his experience in combat. In particular, he is haunted by a flash moment in which he and an Egyptian soldier were suddenly face to face, a few meters apart. The two men shared a moment of horrified shock and recognition, and then both moved to fire. Yossi fired first, but for years struggled to cope with the image of the Egyptian young man’s body.
On this weekend when we contemplate those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in battle, we are drawn to personal memories of war, memories that become family stories that get passed through the generations. A lot of those stories give us insight into the meaning of friendship. In the Book of Proverbs, we find these words: “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.” And in Ecclesiastes, also on the theme of friendship, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toils: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”
I’d like to consider these two short, simple biblical passages in light of the themes that Memorial Day weekend evokes – themes of war, friendship, memory, and community. Some of what I have to share comes from people whose experiences with war have left them passionately opposed to war in all or most of its forms, and in sharing those thoughts I want to be clear that I honor in the deepest way the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers and the pain and loss of their families. We need to be able, in a house of God, to attempt to look at war through lenses of honesty and concern for the divine image that is present in every human being, though we also need to stand in solidarity and true friendship with all who are serving or have served, and with all who have given their lives for us in times of war. We need to do both, and doing both with sensitivity and candor honors the dead and the truth alike.
I’d like to start with the words of Vera Brittain. She served as an English army nurse during
World War I, and wrote one of the most widely read memoirs of the war, Testament of Youth. In it she describes her years as a female student at Oxford – at a time when few
women went to university – and the beginnings of her romance with a brilliant fellow student named Roland. She includes many of the letters the two lovers sent one another after Roland quit school to enlist. Roland’s early letters describe his enthusiasm for getting into battle, and his later letters from the battlefield become increasingly disillusioned and numb. Of course, like so many European young men of that generation, Roland never made it home.
I created this 18 minute video for a Melton course I taught a couple years ago, and I think it’s pretty good. If I were to re-do it, I would change a couple things, but overall I think this is a decent resource of its kind. If you think it could be useful, please do share it.
Now for the promotional part: I would love to come to your congregation & offer a teaching, or work with communities looking for the development of new online education resources, on a contractual basis. Please let me know if you’d like to talk about it!
I’m closing in on finishing up my third book. It’s working title is The (Book) of Joshua, and the publisher is Cascade Books, the same folks who published my previous two books. The book focuses in on the story of an ancient rabbi who played a key role in giving us the kind of Judaism we recognize today. Below are descriptions of 3 different kinds of programs I’m available to offer at synagogues, JCCs, or in interfaith learning settings.
D’var Torah (Sermon): Introducing Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah – the First Century Sage Who Gave Us the Judaism We Know
How did Judaism get its love of debate? Its openness to multiple viewpoints and its questioning nature, including questioning God? There were many ancient rabbis who wanted Judaism to be more doctrinal and less open to debate, more intolerant of other faiths, more internally hierarchical, and more focused on the afterlife than on this life. What caused Judaism to take the shape it took?
There were many rabbis who helped shape these attributes of Judaism. And yet, about 1900 years ago, there was one rabbi in particular whose decisions and teachings may very well have created the “tipping point” that set Judaism on its course to become the decentralized, multi-opinionated, exile-surviving, other-religion-respecting, pragmatic-yet-altruistic, wounded-yet-hopeful religion that we recognize in our time. Strangely, the vast majority of Jews today have never heard of him. And outside the Jewish world he is utterly unknown. His name was Joshua ben Hananiah, and this talk is about him.
Text study with discussion: Birthing the Judaism of Debate and Sacred Doubt: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
One of the best known stories in the Talmud depicts a debate pitting Rabbi Joshua and a
bunch of his colleagues taking sides against the most brilliant rabbi of their era, Rabbi Eliezer the Great. The story is sometimes referred to as “Akhnai’s Oven,” because the dispute centered on a question regarding whether or not a particular communal oven was ritually “pure.” Eliezer musters every conceivable argument but fails to persuade his colleagues, who vote him down on the ruling. In the frustration known only to geniuses who clearly see what everyone else can’t, Eliezer loses his cool and summons divine miracles to demonstrate that God thinks he is right. The miracles all manifest, but one by one Rabbi Joshua leads the rabbinic majority in refusing to consider the miracles as valid arguments. In the end, a divine voice from the heavens announces to all of them that Eliezer is right, but in a classic act of Jewish chutzpah directed towards God, Joshua rejects God’s attempt to intervene in the rabbinic process of debate and majority rule.
We’ll work through a new translation of this classic rabbinic text in order to gain an understanding of how this story has shaped Judaism’s embrace of sacred debate and even sacred doubt. We’ll also look at the tensions and ambivalences the narrative expresses about its own conclusions. Even though this story appears to reject Rabbi Eliezer’s absolutism, certainty, and authoritarian impulses, it also critiques the way Joshua and the other rabbis treat Eliezer in the aftermath of the debate. “Akhnai’s Oven” offer us a distant mirror as we grapple with our own social struggles over questions of authority, democracy, multiple perspectives on truth, and the legitimate or illegitimate sources of power.
A text will be provided in English: Rabbi Harris’ new translation of Bava Metzia 58a – 59b
Workshop: Illness, Trauma, and the “Wounded Storyteller”: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
Rabbi Joshua and his contemporaries survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and in the years immediately following that national catastrophe they struggled to make sense of their situation and the purpose of their lives. Rabbi Joshua emerged as a crucial voice encouraging the other survivors to develop what we, in modern times, might call a healthy, honest, and adaptive process of grieving and meaning-making.
During this workshop we’ll look at an ancient text describing how Rabbi Joshua advises a group of young rabbis who are coping with the aftermath of the Roman devastation by turning to a life of severe asceticism. Instead of asceticism, Rabbi Joshua urges that they embrace the possibility of becoming what the contemporary writer, Arthur W. Frank, describes as wounded storytellers. We’ll bring the text and its ideas into a conversation with Frank’s ideas and our own personal thoughts and feelings about the challenges of integrating loss, illness, and woundedness in our lives.
Texts will be provided in English: Tosefta Sotah 15: 11 – 15 and excerpts from Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
If you think these sound like fun adult ed programs that people at your congregation would enjoy, contact me! I’m at mauricedharris (at) gmail (dot) com. Even if you’re located far from me in Eugene, Oregon, I do travel to different parts of the country from time to time for various reasons, and I’m always interested in finding ways to do some teaching when I’m out of town.
Thanks to my kids, I’m a 40-something dad who hears a lot of pop music (and, because of my daughter’s love of it, country music too). Most of it isn’t my cup of tea.
But some songs pop out for me, often if they do innovative and twisty things with influences from earlier rock / folk / funk / pop music (that I happen to like.) Creating new religious/spiritual/literary/homiletical/linguistic art from earlier rabbinic and biblical texts is the basis of midrash, and engaging in that activity is sometimes called “drashing.” I like the way a lot of songs today drash on earlier music.
Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s. I hear echoes of Nancy Sinatra, Cyndi Lauper, Melissa Ethridge, and even her contemporaries, Adele and Amy Winehouse – both of whose music serves as midrash on a variety of earlier styles.
Cee Lo Green is doing it for me too:
I’m hearing so much wonderful early 70’s Motown, or maybe 60’s – I’m not an expert on this stuff. Al Green. James Brown. My wife even says a bit of Marvin Gaye.
Neko Case, drawing on vintage country and folk, as well as some 90’s REM sensibilities, mixed with some torch worthy of K. D. Lang, released Hold On, Hold On in 2009:
As we enter into the part of the year in which we read the Exodus story in our synagogues, here’s an excerpt from a chapter from my recent book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, that I hope you’ll enjoy. The book is a terrific resource for clergy of all faiths, especially those looking for good stuff for sermons, and it’s also a really accessible and usable scholarly work on Moses. What follows is part of Chapter 10, “Moses” – the quotation marks are intentional, as in someone making air quotation marks as they say the name Moses.
Since 1985, a group of Christian Bible scholars have worked on what has been known as the Jesus Seminar. Their web site states, “. . . the Seminar was organized to discover and report a scholarly consensus on the historical authenticity of the sayings . . . and events . . . attributed to Jesus in the gospels.”
Even though their work involves questioning the historical accuracy of how the New Testament presents Jesus, many of the Jesus Seminar professors are also Christian pastors invested in a living Christian faith. By closely analyzing the New Testament texts and reviewing other available historical information, these scholars have sought to develop theories about who the actual, historical Jesus may have been, and which sayings and actions attributed to him are most likely to be authentic.
In part, what they seek to do is better understand how their religion evolved in its first two centuries of being. They want to better
understand the various early Christian groups that produced the different gospels, for instance, and how each of them may have shaped or added to the teachings attributed to Jesus over the years.
It’s important to bear in mind that in the ancient world, the common practice was for disciples of a great master to add to his (or occasionally, her) sayings and teachings. When faithful disciples would add to their master’s sayings, they would often attribute the new sayings to him, out of respect and loyalty to the school of thought that he had founded. Disciples and students were not eager to claim personal authorship of new ideas for themselves, nor did they have the need modern Westerners often have for historical accuracy.
When rival groups of disciples of the same master would interpret the master’s life and teachings differently, they would be sure to develop additional sayings in his name that reflected their varying ideological perspectives. In this way, a master’s teachings would sometimes develop over time along different ideological lines, in some cases evolving beyond what the master himself would have condoned or even imagined. This was a practice that was so normal that it was not noteworthy in the ancient world. (The Islamic studies professor, Omid Safi, commenting about similar processes that have played out in Islam, writes: “There might have been one historical Muhammad, but there have been many memories of Muhammad.”) – from his book, Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters
In Jewish tradition, scholars see the same pattern having played out among the early rabbis. There are many teachings and sayings attributed in the Talmud to great sages like Hillel or Rabbi Akiva, for example. Both men had many disciples and developed popular schools of thought. It is likely that over time, sayings accrued to them that they never actually uttered. Sometimes different groups within a developing religious tradition would join together to consolidate and canonize an official version of their sacred texts. This usually involved discussion and compromise, as the different groups would each want their own texts and traditions included in the canon. In the ancient Middle East, the canonizers of sacred texts were not operating within the framework of modern Western writing, and therefore they were quite comfortable putting multiple and even contradictory written traditions alongside each other as part of the finalized sacred canon.
The canonizers of the New Testament, like the redactors of the Torah that I discussed in chapter 6, were not threatened by presenting their contemporary readers with a Bible designed as a composite text that includes multiple accounts of the same story, complete with contradictions and logical or narrative conflicts. This is why there are four gospels in the New Testament, not just one. The New Testament even presents two gospels that have conflicting genealogies of Jesus’s ancestry (see Matthew and Luke).
As the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar have continued their work, they have offered a new way of looking at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament. They see Jesus as a literary composite figure, a combination of some of his own authentic teachings as well as the varying and sometimes conflicting teachings of others who came after him. Some of these scholars have even started writing about the difference between “Jesus” and Jesus. “Jesus” is the composite literary character we find when we take the entire New Testament as a whole that is made up of many component parts: different writings from different communities with different agendas, writings that were joined together by editors and canonizers. Jesus – without quotes – is the historical person who lived, taught, inspired large numbers of people, and died about 2,000 years ago in Roman occupied Judea.
Needless to say, the written use of “Jesus” as a way of making a distinction that is important to the Jesus Seminar scholars was bound to upset some Christian religious traditionalists. One of the most common criticisms of the Jesus Seminar from some Christian conservatives is that their entire endeavor is heresy. Once they deconstruct traditional Christian belief to the point that Jesus becomes “Jesus,” the conservatives argue, they’ve left the fold. Many liberal Christians, on the other hand, disagree, and don’t see a threat to their tradition through this kind of historical inquiry.
In rabbinical school we were required to take a course on Christianity taught by a local Methodist minister . . . who is also a Jesus Seminar scholar. Rev. Dr. Hal Taussig shared how the research he has done into who the historical Jesus might have been has deepened his appreciation for the best aspects of his religion. In addition to the interest he expressed in discovering which sayings and teachings are most likely to have been authentic to the historical Jesus, Dr. Taussig also has found great value in identifying the sayings that were most likely attributed to Jesus by others during the decades following his death. This information reveals insight into how spiritual life developed in early Christian communities under different circumstances. What Dr. Taussig modeled was a way of relating to one’s own religion with an attitude of excitement and curiosity about what kinds of truth and beauty one might see if one is willing to look behind the curtain of the myth, letting go of dogma and approaching the past with a sense of curiosity and adventure. It’s in this same spirit that I have chosen to write this last chapter not on Moses, but rather on “Moses.”
I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.
D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004
By Rabbi Maurice Harris
This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis. It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph. Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim. The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.
You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.
When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt. Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather. Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons. In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.
Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons. Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried. Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela. After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery. They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him. The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.