Friday, July 22, 2011

Balak (Individual & Community)

“A People That Dwells Apart”: Thoughts About Inclusion and Exclusion

This week’s portion, uniquely, portrays the Israelite/Jewish people from outside, through the eyes of Bil’am, the Midianite seer hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the menacing newcomers to the region; instead, he ends up blessing them. The very first phrase in the first of his three blessings emphasizes Israel’s apartness: “I see them from the top of mountain crags, and from hills I behold them; they are a people who dwell alone, and are not reckoned among the nations” (Num 23:9). The later blessings likewise describe the distinctiveness of Israel, culminating in the blessing, after Bil’am completely abandons his magical techniques, when he sees Israel “dwelling by its tribes” (24:2) and, in a Divinely inspired vision, says: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (24:5). And indeed, the apartness of the Jewish people in relation to other nations is a frequent leitmotif in the midrash, one both borne out by historical experience and reinforced by Jewish self-perception. It is a truism to note that the Jewish people has had a very painful history, leading to suspicion of the Other, at times verging on paranoia (but, as the old joke has it, “Even a paranoiac can have real enemies”).

Somewhat over a month ago, following Parshat Bamidbar, my friend Rabbi David Greenstein, addressed me with a comment cum question about Rashi on Lev 24:10. That verse, as will be remembered, describes the nokev hashem—the person who, in the heat of argument with his fellow, blasphemed God’s name; Moses, after inquiring of God what to do, sentences him to the death penalty. Interestingly, this man is described as the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman, Shlomit bat Divri. (A well-known passage in Midrash Tanhuma says that his Egyptian taskmaster–father raped his mother while her husband was working in the field by pretending to be the latter; later, when the cuckolded man realized what had happened, he was beat harshly by the Egyptian and Moses, who saw what was happening, smote him and killed him, as related in Exod 2:11-12.) Rashi on our verse quotes a midrash (Torat Kohanim 14.1; Tanhuma 23) that cites, among other reasons for him cursing God’s name, that he was denied a place to encamp among the tribes because he did not have a Jewish father, the camps being assigned on the patrilineal principle—איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם (“each man by his banner and sign by their fathers’ houses”: Num 2:2).

In light of all this, David asked a simple question: Where ought he to have gone? Or was he simply excluded from inheriting among the people (also in the later division of the Land)?

… If he should not have camped with Dan [his matrilineal tribe], where exactly should he properly have camped? It seems he needed to be, literally, mi-hutz la-mahaneh, “outside of the camp.” We have reference to this domain regarding lepers and other issues of ritual impurity, but I have never seen any discussion of exactly how “outside-of-the-camp” related—geographically or otherwise—to the camp itself. (The blasphemer story is particularly sad given that Dan is supposed to be the me'assef le-kol ha-mahanot, “he who gathered up all the camps”—which, I want to assume, would also include picking up any stragglers who had to be outside the camp for reasons of purity).

A follow-up on this question - the midrash would have it that the blasphemer could not encamp in the tribal area. Yet, once Israel enters the Promised Land and the tribal lands are allotted, there is no prohibition against a stranger (ger toshav) living in those allotted areas. Why the apparent difference here? …

We are inclined to see the mahaneh as an idealized paradigm of our community. But it seems that the paradigm does not cover all possible members of the community… . This question has been staring me (us) in the face for millennia, but we have been blind to it. Furthermore, I myself, who only came to ask the question a couple of years ago, realize that I was only awakened to the issue because it involved the son of a Jewish mother, perhaps because this was someone who, by today’s standards, would be considered by most to be a full Jew. But the question has existed with regard to others as well (the leper, etc.) ... Yet I was blind to the question until recently. Partly this can be attributed to the hypnotic attraction exerted by the “perfect image” of the Israelite community, as delineated by the Torah. (This “perfect image” is also the message of Bilaam’s Mah tovu ohalekha Ya`aqov...") Such an image tends to put blinders on our eyes so that we do not even look mi-hutz la-mahaneh.

It seems to me that how one responds to this newly heard/seen challenge of the “other” is a major moral challenge for us today. The Orthodox community has expressed a narrow range of responses that all try to preserve the “perfect image” as much as possible, even at the risk of defiling that very image (see, e.g., the ban on conversion among Syrian Jews [and in Brazil, etc.-YC]). The non-Orthodox world is all over the place on this issue. Once some concession has been made to any new claims for inclusion, no one (myself included) has been able to establish solid footing for their position vis-a-vis the rest.

I know of no answer to this question, on the textual level, in any of the obvious places—the major Bible commentators and midrashic collections. But far more important is what David says in his final paragraph—i.e., reading this case as a metaphor for the issue of exclusion or inclusion today, how we deal with the “Other” in contemporary Jewish life. To what extent are we willing to include the “Other” in our community? (Emanuel Levinas makes the attitude to the Other the linchpin of his philosophy of Judaism.) How high or low, how flexible or rigid, are the boundaries of community, and what ought they to be?

The issue takes different forms in Israel and in the Diaspora. In today’s Diasporas, certainly in those places where Jews enjoy the benefits of a free, open, democratic, and liberal society, there is widespread assimilation and intermarriage, which many strategists of Jewish public policy see as a grave threat to Jewish survival, “killing us with love,” so to speak. One response, that of strict Orthodoxy, is to build high albeit invisible walls around the community, to raise children to view the broader society in an instrumental manner, as a place where one can earn a living, but to live one’s “real” life—family, cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life—within the Jewish community. There is room for “outsiders” or “newcomers”— ba’alei teshuvah and gerei tzedek—but only insofar as they fully accept the rules of strict mitzvah observance, so that they or their children eventually become insiders. This solution has met with no small success, demographically and in attracting a certain number of serious religious seekers.

But as soon as one turns away from strict Orthodoxy (and even within more liberal sectors of Orthodoxy) there are no simple answers. How ought one relate to the non-Jewish world? The mainstream of American Jewry, including the Rabbinic leadership of the non-Orthodox movements (even those who, e.g., do not personally perform intermarriages), has reached a certain modus vivendi with intermarriage, based on the down-to-earth sense that it is a concrete reality one must accept, that one cannot tilt at windmills forever, and must make the best of it. And indeed, there are intermarried families in which the Jewish element is predominant and the non-Jewish partner supports his/her spouse in giving the children a Jewish upbringing (I have seen this among people I know personally, and find it to be genuine, not just lip service). One possible attitude of committed Jews might be acceptance on the human level, while preserving a theoretical, ideological opposition to intermarriage as a phenomenon. (Incidentally, I find myself adopting a similar attitude towards homosexuality: as I have written here, I accept the halakhic proscription against homosexual acts, while accepting individual homosexuals as friends, enjoying their company, appreciating their positive human traits, inviting them to my home for Shabbat, etc. Is this a contradiction? Perhaps. But if so, such contradiction is part of being human.)

A few nights ago, I had an interesting conversation with an old friend whom I met at a wedding. He suggested that Judaism in America is in a position similar to that it held during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE in the Greco-Roman world, when the pagan gods were “dying” and there was intense cultural and spiritual ferment, with many people looking for meaning in life. Judaism served as one option—hence, there was a certain movement towards either conversion to Judaism or at least the adoption of its belief in the One God by those known as yirei Ha-Shem. Nascent Christianity and some of the Gnostic mystery religions were other options in this cultural “stew.”

Our world today is equally confused and confusing, if not more so. On the one hand: atheism, secularism, “post-modernism” with its almost free-for-all approach to ethical and behavioral norms, signal the breakdown of the old norms of Western culture. On the other hand, the growth of “New Age” eclectic spirituality, the interest in Far Eastern religions, the revival of emotionally intense form of Christianity—Evangelism, Pentecostalism, even Roman Catholicism—suggest a spiritual hunger, in which Judaism may prove attractive to some. As my friend put it: “If Judaism ‘markets’ itself correctly, it may serve as a real option for many people.”

In Israel, these problems assume a different form. As a Jewish state, with an established Rabbinate, the issue of conversion to Judaism and the monopoly of a very conservative Chief Rabbinate is a painful and divisive one. On the other hand, in many ways it is a very open, cosmopolitan society, perhaps like that envisioned by Herzl in his Altneuland. In the major cities of Israel, one can see people from all over the world, and the issue of then limits of how accepting we are to be towards, e.g., foreign workers or refugees from beleaguered neighboring countries is a controversial one. Alongside the liberal pull, there are strong inward–turning impulses, reinforced by the ongoing sense of threat from the Arab world and the unresolved Palestinian issue, as well as by the often unfair condemnation of Israel by the “liberal” world.

But the issue of “inclusion vs. exclusion” is not only a Jewish problem, but one of the issues in human community generally. It is almost a law of community that, if one includes some, one must if necessity exclude others. Those with the greatness of soul to accept all fellow humans are few and far between. There is a tendency within small, tight-knit communities, both in small towns and ingrown religious communities, to develop certain negative attitudes towards “the Other.” This is also true of intentional communities, which in accepting certain individuals as members reject others. Thus, alongside the positive values of community—its function as a system of mutual help and support among its members, the sense of responsibility it inculcates, the overcoming of alienation, working together towards a common goal and shared values, its taking the individual outside of preoccupation with his own self—there are very real dangers involved as well. There is a tendency towards gossip, pressures for conformity, for people to become overly obsessed with the smallest quirks of others, at times a quashing of all expression of individuality. Here in Israel, for example, many of those who left kibbutzim over the years complained of the lack of privacy, the sense of intrusion of the collective into the smallest, most petty details of individual life. In ideological movements, community may express itself in the form of “group-think,” of collective thinking, and of censuring or marginalizing those that think differently—again, this may be true of revolutionary Marxists, dogmatic feminists, hyper-nationalist Zionists, ultra–Orthodox Jews, and many other kinds of group.

Perhaps I ought to conclude with a personal experience. In my early 20s, I applied for membership in a certain new, intentional community which was doing exciting things Jewishly. I was subjected to a series of lengthy interviews with members of the entrance committees, in which I was asked a series of rather bizarre questions about how I would respond in certain hypothetical situations. As I think about it even now, more than forty years later, I remember keenly the feelings of anxiety, anguish and pain elicited by the whole procedure.

I’m not sure what lesson to draw from all this, except to say that my immediate feeling is more towards inclusion and acceptance of the “Other,” rather than rigid ideological positions which reject others. My hope is that, if children are raised from an early age with an acceptance of the diversity and difference of our human species, they will end up as more generous and loving adults.


Post a Comment

<< Home