Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s double Torah portion, Matot and Masei are the final chapters in the Book of Numbers and cover several topics: The making of promises or vows, the war with the Midianites, the borders of the Promised Land and the establishment of refuge cities where those who accidentally harm someone else can go to be safe from revenge.

That seems like a wide range of topics, and wondering what ties them together, I noticed that this is really the end of the Torah –the final book, Deuteronomy, is really an extended reiteration by Moses of everything that has happened since the Exodus from Egypt, so really the narrative of the Torah ends with Numbers. Given that, what we have here is the final establishment of how the people will settle in the Promised Land, both physically in terms of boundaries and the relationships between the tribes, politically in the decisive defeat of the Midianites, and ethically or socially in the emphasis on the importance of promises and the provision for refuge from vengeance.

A lot of this parshah is about boundaries – the boundaries of the land to be inherited, the two tribes that wanted to live outside the boundaries, etc. and that got me wondering why this was important. When God made the covenant with Abraham back in Genesis, he had Abraham walk the length of the land of Canaan to secure his descendants’ inheritance. Now that that inheritance is to be realized, God carefully details the boundaries. I wonder why.

Actually this was a major break with the prevailing culture. First of all, very few countries had set boundaries other than those set by geography, and secondly any area that was organized enough to be called a nation generally tried to claim as much territory as it could and to conquer its neighbors. Here we have the Hebrews, with an already-established culture of being chosen by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” – what Isaiah would later call “a light unto the nations” – why would God be so explicit about their boundaries?

I believe that God’s message here is that diversity is part of God’s plan. That the “choice” of the Jewish people is not because they have the “right” relationship with God or because everyone should be Jewish, but because we are to be responsible for one important aspect of God’s teaching for humanity – we are to maintain our identity and our integrity as a people, but not impose our way of life or our way of thinking on others – we can be an example, we can bring God’s message, but except where necessary to maintain ourselves, we are not to force it on anyone or persuade anyone. The Exodus ended around 1400 b.c.e. For several hundred years the Hebrews lived relatively quietly in Canaan, and, perhaps as a result of this extended period of peace and normalcy developed not only religiously and culturally but also nationally, producing prophets, sages, and judges and finally, a King, Saul. The period of the kingdom was a kind of Golden Age in which we have David the warrior and poet and Solomon the Wise Man, and under Solomon the first Temple, by tradition about 480 years after the end of the Exodus. From there the state begins to break down with invasions, corrupt kings, and ultimately the rise of the synagogue and the dispersion of the people around the world as the boundaries God set broke down.

At around the time of the kingdom we also know that Gautama Buddha began teaching in India and after the breakdown of the kingdom we have the advent of Christianity and some centuries later Islam. All teaching basically the same God, all teaching the same basic lessons, yet with clear boundaries establishing who belongs to what school of teaching. Why? Why, if God’s message is (a) universal and (b) pretty consistent no matter which teaching you receive it through, do we have boundaries and nations and philosophies and, ultimately the rigidification of God’s teachings into institutional religions that claim, as recently as this week, that theirs is the only true teaching, the only one with God’s personal seal of approval?

If the world is a reflection of God’s plan for humanity, then either God is a very poor planner or we are reading the plan wrong. As early as the 11th Chapter of Genesis we find the story of the Tower of Babel where it seems to me that God makes it very clear that a united humanity speaking with one voice is not part of God’s plan, yet our brother in Rome seems to want us to believe that everyone being Roman Catholic is what God is after and folks in the Middle East seem to think that he’s right about everything but the Catholic part and God’s plan will be realized when we are all subject to a Caliphate under Sharia law.

There has always been a strain of religious fundamentalism in the US, and there are those who believe that since the majority of people profess Christian faiths, America should be considered a “Christian Country,” whatever that means. They erroneously cite the Founders, many of whom such as Jefferson were avowedly non- or anti-religious, and conveniently ignore those such as Haym Salomon who were not Christians and who contributed to the founding as well. More importantly they ignore the Founders’ intent in making the anti-establishment clause the leading part of the leading amendment in the Bill of Rights.

Now Nevada Senator Harry Reid is a Mormon, and has while he does not wear his faith on his sleeve, he makes no secret of it either. Nonetheless, as Majority Leader of the US Senate, though, and as one of the two Senators from a state that is relatively diverse religiously, he takes the Constitution pretty seriously, so he invited Rajan Zed, a Hindu Chaplain and Director of Interfaith Relations at a Hindu Temple in Reno last Thursday to give the customary brief invocation that begins the Senate’s business every day. This was a first for a Hindu clergyman, but not for a clergyman who is not Christian – Rabbis, Imams and even Native American Shamans have given the prayer from time to time.

Here’s where it gets sticky: a fundamentalist Christian group, the Mississippi-based “American Family Association” urged its members to object to the prayer, and three protestors disrupted the invocation by shouting from the gallery. Here is what they objected to, in part: “We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.” Mr. Zed then closed with “Peace, peace, peace be unto all.” He said all this in English, by the way, and for this apparently the people in the gallery and the so-called “American Family Association” felt he should be shouted down and silenced.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and preferences, but the supreme law of this country, the Constitution, makes it very clear that freedom of religious expression is a core value, and that no religious expression is to be given preference over any other. As a Jew I have no objection when, 90+% of the time the invocation in the Senate is given by a Christian clergyperson. I also have no objection if it’s a Hindu, a Jain, a Muslim, or a Buddhist. As a person of faith, I think it’s good for our Senators to be reminded that they are working “under God,” whether every one of them believes that or not, and I don’t much care what name the invoker gives to God – Deity Supreme, Adonai, Allah, God, Father, are, in my view, different words for the same entity. If I call the thing I’m sitting on a chair, une chaise, ein Stuhl, una stilla, kisei, una sedia, or any of hundreds of other words, it remains what it is, so surely God does not change from one language to another.

We seem to be regressing in this regard. The curve of religious pluralism and attendant religious tolerance that seemed to have been increasing since the Enlightenment seems to have taken a downward turn. In addition to the shameful display in the Senate last week we had the Pope proclaiming that any Christians who did not acknowledge the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church were of a “wounded faith.”

I don’t think so. I just don’t think God has it that wrong or that the God who inspired such teachings as “don’t put a stumbling block in front of a blind person” has created a theological labyrinth that we are supposed to negotiate in order to find the right way. Rather, I’d like to propose a different theory. I think that at the creation all of God’s plan was invested in the whole of humanity. Each of us has access to all of it, but for the most part we can only access some part of the whole. If we could ever access the whole thing, God’s plan would be realized and we would move to whatever comes next, but that would require that we actually get together and pool our wisdom.

From time to time there have been people who saw a big enough picture that they realized this and pointed those who would listen to them in the direction of community. Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and others as well. Unfortunately there’s a paradox – in order to pool our points of view and see the whole, we have to be at least as interested in other points of view as we are in our own, and while most of us find our own point of view endlessly fascinating, we are not nearly as keen on others’ points of view. As a result we spend most of our time trying to get others to understand us and very little trying to understand them.

So good for Harry Reid and shame on those who see God as so small.

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