Saturday, October 30, 2010

Like a Good Neighbor...

Last Saturday at Beyond Om/Spiritual Practice, Rabbi London asked us to think about the meaning of this verse from Leviticus:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)

According to Rabbi Akiba, this verse is the most important one in the entire Torah. Maimonides dubbed it the most important of the 613 mitzvot.

My study partner and I agreed that if our neighbor was a good person we could get behind the idea. But what if she was a bad egg? Harder, if not impossible. She recalled two characters from one of the “Goodbye Columbus,” stories by Philip Roth. A Jewish businessman buys all the merchandise of another businessman whose business is failing. Is he despicable for putting the limping business out of its misery? Or has he done what good businessmen do, which is make good business decisions even if it has a negative effect on someone else?

I’ve been thinking about this all week. It’s the measurement that trips me up. How much love is meant by “loving our neighbor?” We think of this “loving” as all encompassing, like the unconditional love we have for our children or (certain) family members. But the verse doesn’t say this exactly. We can always find something to love about a “neighbor,” can’t we? And something entirely different to love in another neighbor. Perhaps the idea here is that a little bit of love is enough.

I recently gave a client a break in the cost of my services because he asked for it. Because he could not afford to pay the full fee. Not long after this, someone from whom I sought services gave me a break (without my asking.)

Can two small acts of love satisfy the appeal to “love thy neighbor?” Perhaps it all doesn’t have to go to one place. Isn't love is meant to be spread around?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Walk Like an Egyptian

In Saturday’s parsha (Genesis 21), Sarah says to Abraham,

“Drive out this slave woman with her son for the son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!”

That slave woman is Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden. You may remember that Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s son, Ishmael, well before Sarah delivered Isaac after years (and years and years) of infertility.

Sarah insists that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. The exact words, from my Stone Edition are that Sarah witnessed “the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, mocking.” But the text suggests that Sarah believes that Ishmael is corrupt and evil, a menace to the health and life of Isaac. Surely there are issues between the women – jealousy and resentment perhaps? But banishment? Of Abraham’s blood son?

Though the matter distresses Abraham, God assures him that a great nation will be made of Ishmael. And so Abraham abides.

Ultimately Ishmael is spared – because God hears Hagar’s cries (or is it Ishmael’s) and a water well appears, but the whole drama begins because Ishmael is an Egyptian and he mocked. Ishmael didn’t kill anyone. There was no blood. How different is “He’s an Egyptian” to “He’s an American” or “He’s an Israeli?” But exile? Deportation by demographics?

The Koran holds Ishmael in high regard because his descendants include Muhammad, the Patriarch of Islam. He is considered a prophet. We know he became an archer and married an Egyptian woman, but what do we (Jews) really know about the rest of his life? We understand Ishmael as menacing and then his storyline ends for us. I recently learned from a Muslim friend of mine that Hagar and Ishmael eventually settled in what we know of as Mecca. The seeds of Islam begin with the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael. God clearly had other plans for Ishmael. Muslims view the Abraham-Sarah-Hagar-Ishmael-Isaac story as full of blessings.

My sensitivity to certain sections of Torah is most likely the result of my interfaith activity over the past eight years. Among the many attractions for me at Beth Emet, has been our rabbis involvement Things Interfaith. It’s touchy, complicated stuff. But I like that all of them have given it a go. I’m proud that Beth Emet continues to be one of three host houses of worship for numerous interfaith events each year – one of which is taking place this Sunday, October 24th. At 2 pm in the Weiner Room, Muslim, Christian and Jewish women will reflect on the food of our faiths in an afternoon retreat titled, “Shared Food for the Faithful: Passover/Sukkot, Eucharist and Iftar.” (Sorry fellas, this is for women only.)

Last year we met at Beth Emet, a Morton Grove mosque and a Chicago church – to talk about women of courage, personal healing and the sacred arts. After Sunday’s event, during the next year we’ll look into how our faith impacts our work. and later, how our traditions view end-of-life passages.

In these gatherings, I hear what makes us similar and different. It may sound odd but I am pushed deeper into my Judaism, I think because these conversations ask me to articulate what I may have never put into words before.

And I’m clearly reading Torah differently, too.

I’d be curious to hear what this stirs in you.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Brothers and Others

A topical muse, Mr. Kaufman, as just last week in Rabbi London’s Friday morning Torah class there was much discussion about Potiphar’s role in Pharoah’s house (Genesis 39.) Was he a courtier, chief steward or chamberlain? And what did these mean? And did it make a difference?

In daily life, some of us are more sensitive to words than others. But Torah study seems to make us all word-sensitive, which, from where I sit, is never a bad thing.

On the other hand, it's easy to get bogged down in words. So, just for fun (and because this blog program makes it so easy) I underwent a short experiment. I found images of brothers, partners, comrades and a pair. I wondered what lining them up together would look like? Would the essence of the words filter through? What else would we see?

So with thanks to Google images and apologies for the

inartful layout, I offer them here. Can you match the photo with the words? What connects these images?




A Pair


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Brothers, Lost in Translation

In the book of Genesis, which we are currently reading on Shabbat, we have stories about the brothers Cain and Abel, about Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and of course about Joseph and his brothers. (In the rest of the Torah, the only brothers playing major roles will be Moses and Aaron.) Thus I was particularly sensitized to brothers a few months ago when our Torah study class read Jacob’s dying exhortation to his sons. I was particularly struck by the efforts of several Biblical translators to avoid translating achim as brothers.

Rabbi London, along with many in the class, was using the Women’s Torah Commentary, while others followed along in the revised Plaut Commentary, both of which present Chaim Stern’s translation of Genesis. Since I have a particular fascination with what the translator brings to, or lays on, the text, my book was the Orthodox Art Scroll Stone Chumash, rendered into English by Nosson Scherman.

The line we were talking about reads, in the Hebrew, Shimon v’Levi achim, klei chamass m’cheirotaichem. Left to my own devices, and aided by my own desk dictionary, I would render this Simeon and Levi are brothers; their weapons are instruments of violence. (My Ben-Yehuda-Weinstein Pocket Dictionary also offers kinsman or countryman as possible ach translations, but neither of these figure in the translations of Genesis I consulted.)

Seeing achim, I was startled to hear Rabbi London read Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. And my surprise was only enhanced when I looked at the translation I had in front of me: Simeon and Levi are comrades; their weaponry is a stolen craft.

Encountering these two different translations, or non-translations, of the same word, I did some further homework, and found that the 1995 Jewish Publication Society translation makes Simeon and Levi a pair. The 1917 JPS, following the King James, has brethren, which I see as old-fashioned but accurate. Robert Alter translates the phrase under scrutiny as Simeon and Levi, the brothers, although there is no the in the Hebrew. Everett Fox chooses Simeon and Levi – such brothers – no such in the Hebrew either. (There are also further variations in the translation of klei chamass m’cheirotaichem, but they’re not germane to the main thrust of this discussion.)

Now, in defense of the eccentric renderings, their contrivers were obviously trying to get into Jacob’s mind, and to convey what he was trying to convey. We know that Simeon and Levi are brothers, two among the twelve; and they are also brothers to Dinah, in whose defense they earned the scorn their father is expressing. But, if we know Hebrew, we also know that if Jacob had wanted to say Simeon and Levi were partners, he could have called them shutafim; if he had wanted to call them comrades, he could have said chaverim; if he had wanted to identify them as a pair, he could have used zug. But the text reads achim – brothers.

As I have recounted before,, I once overheard a business colleague scolding his secretary. “You shouldn’t have done what I said, you should have done what I meant.” From opposite ends of the religious spectrum, Rabbis Scherman (Orthodox), the comrades man, and Stern (Reform), the partners man, agree that brothers alone is not good enough for helping us understand what Jacob meant, it’s important to convey that they’re two of a kind.

This leads to the core question: what IS the job of the translator? Is it to tell us what the original language says, or what it means? Rabbi Amy Memis-Foler introduced me to the idea that any translation is a commentary; and in a different spin on the difficulty of going from one language to another, the Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik is credited with the simile that reading poetry in translation is like kissing the bride through her veil. Going even further into the perils of translation, an Italian proverb equates translation with treason.

One indication of the importance of a text written in a language other than the reader’s own vernacular is the availability of multiple translations. Why do we need more than one? One reason is that, even though the source text is static, language in general is dynamic, so while one generation’s translation may combine fidelity and fluency, a few generations later, the fluency may have disappeared. A concept like the familiar form in the second person singular (thy and thine) doesn’t exist in Hebrew nor in contemporary English – so a locution that combined fidelity and fluency in the era of King James would provide neither today. But we leave it alone in Shakespeare (this above all, to thine own self be true) while we change it in liturgy (All the world shall come to serve Thee/You).

Since my obsession with translation surfaces especially in the context of Torah study (and to a lesser extent, in the context of liturgy), my first impulse is to want the translator(s) to be as faithful as possible to the inherent meaning of the words. The commentary can then suggest how those words might be understood. Even in a Bible edition without commentary, the explanation can be handled in a footnote.

If I owned the printing presses, I would follow the rabbinic PaRDeS tradition. Pardes, as a word, is translated orchard, but as an acronym it encapsulates p’shat, remez, drash, and sod. In this updated PaRDeS approach, the p‘shat is the simple translation, remez is the context, drash is the interpretive explanation, and sod (for which the p’shat is secret) is the lesson to be derived., In such a case, the p’shat would be achim. The translator’s “reading,” like partners or comrades, would be the remez. The back story – Simeon and Levi’s actions in defense of their sister – would be the drash, interpreting why Jacob has paired these two sons in this way. The sod here would be contained not in the word achim itself, but in its amplification as their mutual commitment to violence.

But I don’t own the printing presses, and I continue to brood about the variations on the achim theme: partners, comrades, a pair. They all seem to suggest that brothers (at least these brothers) have a bond beyond common parentage. As a corollary, we find words like brotherhood and fraternity (from the Latin frater, brother) that extend a brotherly bond to closely linked men without common parentage. It’s interesting that when the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods changed its name to Men of Reform Judaism, it left the name of its magazine unchanged: Achim. Brothers. When we sing Hinei ma tov u ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad, we think, or at least I think, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity. Think, too, about Schiller’s Ode to Joy, typically sung to Beethoven’s music. Wouldn’t you translate Alle Menschen werden BrĂ¼der as All men become brothers?

No, if you’re part of the gender-sensitive Reform movement, or the politically- correct Beth Emet community, you’d probably translate it as All people become siblings. Sometimes it’s the meaning, and sometimes it’s the poetry, that gets lost in translation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Talkin' 'bout my Generation

My friend is in the midst of returning a 1920s German family scrapbook, discovered in her mother’s belongings after her death, to the descendants.

Before she packed and sent the album, we paged through the vacation photographs captioned with pen and ink remarks, hand-drawn sketches of nature scenes, ticket stubs from concerts and notes from visiting friends. We talked about how so few people hang on to anything in paper anymore. How rare it will be for future generations to get this close to handwritten thank-you notes and black and white vacation photographs. Here was evidence of fully lived lives, a few generations back.

I had this in mind as I read the Torah portions for last week and the one to come. How easy it is to stay unconscious about our descendants unless we have evidence - or as we see in the parashas - a list.

If my reading of the Beth Emet Torah Portion chart is correct (and please, someone, let me know if I am not!), last week’s parasha, (Genesis 5:1-24) includes the naming of the every male descendant connecting Adam to Noah. We aren’t given any more than that they lived and how long. But that they lived is important enough to be included in our Torah.

…when Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, he begot in his likeness and his image and he named him Seth…. Seth lived one hundred and five years and begot Enosh …Enosh lived ninety years and begot Kenan.

The generations between Noah and Abraham are also laid out in this week’s (October 9) portion (Genesis 11:1- 32).

Shem was one hundred years old when he begot Arpachshad, two years after the Flood. And Shem lived five hundred years after begetting Arphachshad and he begot sons and daughters. Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years when he got Shelah…

A confession: These are parts of Torah that I usually skip. Who cares about who begets whom?

But I noticed that in both of these portions, the distance between generation is ten. Ten generations of fully, very fully, lived lives. Can you imagine combing through artifacts of blood relatives going back that far?

Our children’s children and those beyond may not get that chance. Hence the value of The List.

Could there be other reasons that ten generations are listed, name by name?

How far back can you go in naming your descendants?