Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tough reading in the Torah and various threats.

Mattot Masei: The seduction around us

July 9, 2010

Temple Beth Jacob

Newburgh, NY

It is common when wishing to besmirch the good name of a religion that one goes to find the very worst example of some holy writ and use that as proof of the horror of the religion. Tonight, we read what must surely be among the worst examples of Israelite behavior as performed by those of us alive some three thousand years earlier.

The Midianites and Moabites had, a few chapters ago, seduced many of the Israelites into worshipping a foreign God. The nature of this seduction involved very specific sexual acts. It was not uncommon that sexual acts were used in the ancient world as a way to encourage the gods to do something, usually make the fields fertile with rain and such. The idea was that just as men might “fertilize” a woman through congress, so too were we asking God to fertilize the soil. That’s just one idea.

But suffice to say that the ancient world had all sorts of practices in their idol worship that were an anathema to the Israelites and distasteful to us moderns.

Among the Midianites and Moabites there was an incident with Baal Peor, the god of Peor, which involved some very graphic behavior all in the service of idol worship. One of the people involved was Bilaam, the same Bilaam that was famous and praised for his blessing of Israel with the famous mah tovu blessing.

But famous though he is and grateful we are that he blessed Israel, he did it because he could do nothing other than what God told him to do and, it seems, was more than happy to be involved with a rite that included orgiastic behaviors that might lure Israel away from God. As we discussed many times, one of the themes of the Torah is a fight against idol worship. It is the story of a, now large, tribe with a unique message and a completely unique God trying to keep its people focused on that God while living in a sea of temptation. It is a story of a tribe fighting off internal revolts and external temptation and fight they did. The theologically threatening were left behind in Egypt or slayed after the golden calf or, here, slaughtered mercilessly. In an age where we have more tolerance it is hard to understand but to the Israelites then, idol worship meant more than an alternative lifestyle. It meant the end of the Jewish people. Idol worship, seductive idol worship distracted Jews from their mission and at this time Judaism without worship of Adonai meant a short lived experiment.

And that is why Moses instructed his army to go and kill all the men of Midian including Bilaam. They took all the booty and women and children and brought it back to Moses quite pleased but Moses castigated them. Why are these women still alive? The women were part of the seduction. The women were as culpable as the men and so he ordered them executed. Only the girls were spared, those who knew nothing of the seduction.

It’s an awful sequence, a sad moment though a very clear moment. Survival is paramount. Terrible things happen in the world and we can’t be afraid to engage in them if the alternative is demise and destruction.

Of course, this is a sequence in Torah that liberal modern Jews would just assume skip over. We would rather highlight our peace seeking moments in Torah but it’s important that we read this as much as anything else. This is part of our heritage and we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. In a world where one is the minority trying to do something good, in a world where trying to mind one’s own business doesn’t help to avoid confrontation, there comes a time when force and violence is called upon. I don’t believe and I hope you will not take this story to be an instruction on how to deal with enemies. It is not. We are not Moses, we do not receive Divine mandates such as he received, there are no more Midianites and we aren’t entering the land of Israel and the worship of these idols has vanished so this command is a one-time only thing. But we do receive within this narrative an attitude, an approach. We are peace loving but not pacifists. We seek peace and pursue it but we aren’t going to lie down and die because, of course, we have a valuable reason for being here and we believe we must protect that purpose from threats to its existence.

Today, there are two threats. One is external, one is internal. The external threat is easy to see. While I’m sure that Islam as a whole is as peaceful as Judaism and that any number of Muslims are peaceful good friends of Jews –we have centuries of evidence that this was and is true by the way- I also know that some, many teachers of Islam and many Muslims speak frequently and forcefully of the desire to destroy Israel and by extension Jews. I hear it in their speeches, in their pronouncements in their videos and blogs, in their interviews. One does not need to search far to find unadulterated hate. It is sent directly to us every day over the web. We should seek out those Muslims who wish us well but we ought to be mindful of those who do not and we should be willing to identify them as such. These are not evil people who happen to be Muslim. These are Muslims who insist that Islam is the source of their motivation. They come to us with a religious mandate to eradicate us and we should be willing to label them in the same manner that they label themselves. We do not need to soft pedal what they scream. I remind you that this honesty veers into bigotry when we make assumptions about the nature of all Muslims and that is where we must not go but it is no bigotry to repeat what others claim. If some Muslims say their religion tells them to blow people up, then I will also say that their religion tells them to blow people up.

This external threat usually speaks to our fear of being hurt or killed and that is why it is easy to understand. The other threat is subtler and requires more work to address.

The internal threat we face is a loss of focus, a loss of purpose. The threat is being seduced away from the values we stand for. We believe that our heritage teaches values that are important to us and valuable for the whole world. Our role as Jews is to make ourselves better people and make the world a better place. More than ethnic moments we must celebrate the Judaism that speaks to our whole lives and not just moments here and there. We have to teach and teach again that what we are doing helps a person live a fuller, richer life on every level, ethically and spiritually. Jews don’t know a bigger threat today than us forgetting and simply walking away from who we are. We don’t need the women of Peor; we seduce ourselves right out the door. But amidst our own walking out the door, there are Jews that can be drawn back in, often by Chabad.

We are all worried about Chabad coming here and we should be but we also should take this as an opportunity. Why is Chabad so attractive to some? It is not just the cost because if I’m not interested in Judaism, then free doesn’t matter. Chabad is successful because they bring a message that Jewish living, that Torah helps a person live a fuller, richer life on every level, ethically and spiritually. Reform Judaism created an amazing expression of post war Judaism and we succeeded beyond belief in the new emerging suburbs but then we spent many a decade simply recreating that experience while the people and the culture changed. But the Reform Movement has adapted in and has gotten better at bringing richness to Jews and non-Jews, welcoming all into Jewish life. The threat of Jews walking away has always been there but now with Chabad we are reminded that while some walk away, many Jews will walk towards something. We now have an opportunity, and a need, to look deeply at who we are, what we offer, why we believe we matter and should matter in the lives of Jews and Jewish families in our area. We need to be sure we are giving our people a deep spirituality, unapologetic yiddishkeit, that warm and fuzzy ethnic feel, and a sense of belonging. I guarantee you, go visit and Chabad will make you feel like a million Jewish bucks. They will give you a sense of greatness and pride in belonging to the Jewish people and they will be happy doing it and you will be happy too until you realize that you have no inclination to adopt a Lubavitch lifestyle. I’m not sure what they do with intermarried families but if the mother is Jewish then they will be happy and proud to give the children all the Jewishness they can manage.

But we do that, too. Our tashlich time on the Hudson gets bigger and bigger. Our hike on Rosh Hashana gets more popular. Purim is getting bigger and bigger, Simchat Torah is better attended every year. Our confirmation class has grown. We are revitalizing Beth Jacob as a place where Jews and non-Jews can feel holiness and celebrate sacred moments together. We create moments of yiddishkeit, we celebrate our ethnicity, we teach Torah and we do it in a way more open and more inclusive then they do. Coming next fall, a return to family Shabbat services and we’ll bring back community Shabbat dinner. We can do everything Chabad can do and we have a better chance of making it stick because we speak the language of the people we serve. But we have to be ready to think of ourselves as creative and innovative and most importantly, as reaching out and welcoming. Chabad doesn’t wait around for people to walk in. Chabad will call every Jew they can find to invite them to Simchat Torah and then have a band and whiskey. I love those paper flags that are 70 years old but a staid march around the room isn’t compelling for newcomers or seekers or even many members. The good news is that we are on the right path. The cantor is getting the band together, we have the cool factor of unrolling a whole Torah and there always seems to be some kind of alcohol nearby so we’re good there. Now, will members help me make phone calls to every Jewish family they know?

The threat of Baal Peor called for an ugly response but it was a response to protect the values of Torah and the ethics we live. The threats we face today do not require ugliness. To those who want to kill us, we show strength. To those who want to leave us, we show love and to those who are seeking, we will show meaning. That is our greatest challenge, to promote a message of meaning and value. We have great things here. We have a stronger program than Chabad ever could have. We just have to refine the message and get the word out. That is our response to the seductions that are all around us.