A Hanging Judge?

March 20, 2016 at 10:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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What do you say when someone dies?

Jewish tradition provides three answers. When you first hear of someone’s death, you say “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, usually translated as “Blessed is the true judge”.

When you speak to a mourner (someone close to the person who died), you say “Hamakom yenacham etkhem betokh avalai Tziyon viYrushalayim”, usually translated as “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”; or “Zikhrono/zikhronah livrakhah”, usually translated as “May his/her memory be for a blessing.” (I rephrase this as “May your memory of him/her be a blessing.”)

My father, William R. Backer, died on Friday, March 11, at age 88. I was fortunate to spend the last four days of his life with him, and I hope that someday, many years from now, I can die with similar grace and acceptance, noticing interesting things in the room and smiling when someone holds my hand.

I am glad to receive condolences like “May you be comforted” and “May his memory be a blessing”. But the initial statement at the news of a death, “Barukh dayan ha-emet”, has always irritated me.  I am still wrestling with it.

Barukh dayan ha-emet” (or sometimes Barukh dayan emet) is an excerpt from a longer blessing recited by mourners at a Jewish funeral, a blessing prescribed by Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, Berachot 46b. The long version includes other names for God according to the customary formula, but does not explain why we conclude by calling God dayan ha-emet.

Barukh (בָּרוּךְ) = blessed. In Jewish prayer, Barukh is the first word of a blessing recited to thank or praise God. After that first word of appreciation, we give one or more names of God, then state the act of God that we are appreciating. For example, before I eat a handful of blueberries, I say “Blessed are You, God…Creator of fruit of the tree.”

dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge; one who passes sentence. (From the root verb din (דִּין) = judged, made legal rulings.)

ha-emet (הָאֱמֶת) = the truth; honesty; what is confirmed; the quality of dependability, reliability, or consistency. (From the same root as amen (אָמֵן) = Yes indeed!)

The sentence Barukh dayan ha-emet implies an anthropomorphic god who judges individual people, decides when to sentence them to death, and always makes the true (correct, honest, dependable, consistent) decision—in other words, the right decision.

Yet we can all think of individuals who deserved to live longer, from innocent infants to adults who were still improving the lives of others. Why should God judge that these people deserve death, by fatal illness or by other means?

Barukh dayan ha-emet is an example of the classic Problem of Evil: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal, why is this world flawed?  Why do bad things happen to good people?

(And in case you are wondering if death is “bad”, let me add that Jews traditionally say Barukh dayan ha-emet upon first hearing of any tragedy, including a house burning down or a plague of locusts destroying a crop.)

The easy answer to the Problem of Evil is to say that “God works in mysterious ways” and does everything for a good reason. Every death and every misfortune has a meaning and a purpose, even if we will never understand it.

I reject that easy answer. I do not believe in an unresolvable paradox just because some religious authority tells me to. If an answer neither speaks to my inner heart nor makes sense to my faculty of reason, I look for another explanation.

Here are a few better ways to justify calling God “the true judge”:

* “…the blessing teaches us on some psychological level to acknowledge that the binary opposites of Creation, e.g., light and darkness, good and evil, suffering and prosperity—all serve a higher purpose and contribute toward the overall welfare of the world. Were it not for death, the world could not contain or sustain all of the world’s inhabitants…” (Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel)

Yes, we could not be fully human without the existence of both good and evil, and the world could not function without light and darkness, birth and death. But if everyone must die to make room for new human beings, then why can’t all decent people die painlessly at age 120?

* “…God has given and God has taken; may the name of God be blessed.” (Book of Job, 1:21)

Job’s pious statement is the source for many commentators who urge us to bless God for everything, good and bad. I can see that blessing God for everything is a useful reminder that we are not in control. But what kind of god are we blessing?

*  “Emet is one of the 105 metaphorical names for God in Judaism. …Dayan, ‘Judge,’ is another fitting name, as an anthropomorphic metaphor for how we feel—that a difficult verdict has entered our own lives—loss, death, the departure and ascent of a soul beyond our world of experience…” (Rabbi Goldie Milgram) (Also see her book Living Jewish Life Cycle.)

Rabbi Milgram continues by hinting that there are tasks for a soul after death.  While I cannot follow her there, I can at least relate to the idea that we assign anthropomorphic names to God in order to express our own feelings about something bigger than we are.

Why do we call God dayan? The Hebrew Bible frequently depicts God as judging both individuals and nations. When God’s judgment is favorable, God provides rain for crops, fertility, and protection from enemies. When God’s judgment is unfavorable, God sends a fatal disease or an enemy army. In the next millennium, the Talmud continued to accept an anthropomorphic god as the judge of the world, and many humans accept it today.

Ha-emet is merely a noun form of emet. Calling God ha-emet is declaring that God is  honest, dependable, and/or consistent.  These are all desirable traits in a deity, but they do not mitigate God’s role as one who passes death sentences—especially when so many deaths seem arbitrary.

It’s about time we give up on the paradox called the Problem of Evil, and define the word “God” a different way. If calling God a reliable judge is an anthropomorphism, so is calling God omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and personal.  After all, power, knowledge, benevolence, and personal attention are all human qualities. How tempting it is to project these qualities onto a big screen and attribute them to God!

My father was lucky that he lived to age 88, and that his final illness was relatively brief. I am grateful for that, though I cannot direct my gratitude toward an outsized, humanoid god.

If I am emet (honest), I cannot say that God is either a dayan (judge and executioner) or emet (reliable and consistent rather than arbitrary).

So I have decided I will no longer say Barukh dayan ha-emet. The next time I hear that someone has died, I will stick to “May his/her memory be a blessing” and “May God comfort you”. Because comfort can come from a non-anthropomorphic God.

Stories from Eve’s Tree

March 10, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A story as old as the Talmud says that when Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt, and Abraham suddenly noticed his wife was beautiful, he hid her in a casket and tried to smuggle her across the border.

What happened next? Five women who were certified last year as maggidot (“tellers” of Jewish stories and Torah) have put our own spin on the ancient tale. We’ll present it this Saturday, March 16, in a show called “Stories from Eve’s Tree”. In between scenes about the dubious border crossing, we’ll tell other tales about how the lives of women are hidden and revealed—-traditional stories, personal stories, and stories about characters in the Torah as we imagine them. For this show, I wrote a story about about Lot and his wife when they imitate Abraham and Sarah, with hilarious results.

If you can be in Portland, Oregon, this Saturday night, come to “Stories from Eve’s Tree” at 7:30 p.m. Here’s the poster: SFET flyer

And here’s the link to our website: www.storiesfromevestree.com

If you can’t be in Portland on March 16, stay tuned! We are forming a troupe and taking this show on the road.

Becoming a Maggid

January 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I am preparing for my certification on January 29 as a maggid (or maggidah, the feminine form in Hebrew).  So I decided to look up what a maggid does in the Torah.  The word first shows up when Pharaoh tells Joseph his two dreams:  one about seven scrawny cows eating up seven fat cows, and one about seven withered ears of grain eating up seven fat ears of grain.

And I spoke to the soothsayers, but none of them was a maggid for me.  (Genesis/Bereishit 41.24)

maggid = telling; an announcer, reporter, explainer, interpreter (from the root verb naggid = to tell)

Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams rings true for Pharoah, so he is a good maggid.

The word maggid does not appear again until the book of Judges, when Samson poses a riddle to 30 guests at his wedding party.  If they guess the answer to the riddle by the end of the seven-day party, he will give them 30 suits of clothing, but if they fail, they will give Samson 30 suits of clothing.  The guests learn the answer by cheating, and Samson, in a rage, kills 30 men in another town and strips off their clothing to give the wedding guests.

… and he took their clothes and he gave the sets of clothing to the tellers (maggidai) of the riddle.  (Judges/Shoftim 14:19)

In this reference, as in the story of Joseph, a maggid is someone who interprets a mystery.  But we get another meaning of the word maggid  in the second book of Samuel, which refers several times to messengers describing events to King David.  A young Amelekite maggid brings David the crown of King Saul, and gives his eye-witness account of how Saul was fatally wounded in battle, and asked someone to finish him off.  The maggid claims he himself did the deed—a mistake, since David responded by having the maggid killed.  Later David explains that the maggid thought he was bringing good news, but David did not see it that way.  This is a good reminder to me that the same story will be received differently by every listener.

Someone bringing news is called a maggid twice during the struggle between David and his son Absalom for the kingship.  One maggid reports to David that the hearts of the Israelite men are turning toward Absalom; David takes this bit of interpretation seriously and flees Jerusalem.  Another maggid reports to David’s general Joab, describing how he encountered Absalom riding a mule, and when Absalom ‘s long hair was caught in some tangled tree branches, his mule kept on going, leaving Absalom hanging by the hair.  Joab takes this comic story seriously, finds Absalom hanging by the hair, and stabs him to death.

The book of Jeremiah also uses the word maggid to mean a messenger who tells the news orally.  But the word  acquires more  gravity in the book of Isaiah, where God calls Itself a maggid.

I told of the first things, and they came to be; now I am a maggid of new things, before they sprout up, I announce.  (Isaiah/Yeshayahu 42:9)

I am God, speaking rightly; a maggid of  uprightness.  (Isaiah 45:19)

I am a maggid from the beginning to the end, and from the origin of things that had not happened.  (Isaiah 46:10)

So in the Hebrew bible, a maggid interprets dreams and riddles; tells eyewitness stories of real events; and (when God is a maggid) foretells the future—or speaks the future into reality.

In the Talmud, a maggid told stories (aggadah, an Aramaic word from the same Hebrew root word as maggid) to communicate subtle truths, while a darshan explained religious laws and technical points in the Torah.  The book that Jews still read at Passover is the haggadah (also from the same root as maggid) and everyone at the table who helps to to tell the story of the Exodus is a maggid.

By the Middle Ages, a maggid was an itinerant preacher who quoted from the Torah and offered his own interpretations, and also told other Jewish stories, in order to inspire uneducated Jews to become more devout.  A darshan gave the equivalent of a sermon at Jewish services, speaking about the weekly Torah portion and finding an inspiring message for the congregation.

The work of the maggid reached its greatest glory in Eastern Europe during the 17th through 19th centuries, when the chassidic movement fostered leaders who combined the jobs of maggid, darshan, and rabbi.

The old Eastern European model of the maggid faded away during the 20th century.  But now a new interest in the maggidic calling is rising, and I know of at least two formal programs to train maggids.  I am one of seven women who are completing the first two-year training program offered by Rabbi David Zaslow and professional storyteller Devorah Zaslow.

In some ways I have already been serving as a maggid.  This blog, now in its third year, is a series of
drashot (or “drashes”,  in colloquial American Jewish parlance):  commentary on Torah portions that explores meanings we can consider today.  I have also been a darshan (one of many!) for my congregation, P’nai Or of Portland, for many years.  And my Torah monologues are a creative form of drashot.  The only part of a maggid’s job that I used to lack was Jewish storytelling.  During the last two years, while I have been studying with David and Devorah Zaslow, my drashot have become deeper, and I have learned how tell traditional Jewish stories.  (I always rewrite the stories to make them more interesting or meaningful to me and my audience—but that, too, is part of the Jewish storytelling tradition!)

This January 27-29, in Portland, Oregon,  the seven of us graduating from the maggid program will lead both Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services, using both traditional liturgy and  some creative approaches to prayers, and giving seven drashot on different pieces of the Torah portion for that week, Bo (Come!).  That Saturday evening we’ll tell Jewish stories in a storytelling concert, and on Sunday we’ll have our graduation ceremony.

Because I need to spend all my spare time the next two weeks preparing for the big graduation weekend, I will not be posting any blogs on the first two Torah portions of the book of Exodus/Shemot.  If you would like to read my previous blogs on the Torah portions Shemot and Va-Eira, go to http://www.mtorah.com and click on the tab “Blogs by Torah Portion”.

And for my next blog?  Part of my preparation will be writing a four-minute drash on one of the inner meanings of the  locust plague in Bo.  Look for it in blog form at the end of the month!

Meanwhile, I have become more aware that human beings not only need to tell stories, but we need to hear and read stories to help us interpret our own inner stories, to help us interpret our dreams and our mysterious yearnings and the personal histories we are continually rewriting for ourselves.  Ultimately, maybe good stories have the same purpose as good religion and good psychology:  the discovery of meaning in our lives.

Rebirth of Torah Sparks and Torah Monologues

April 18, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This is my new site for my blogs on the Torah portion of the week, “Torah Sparks”, and my website for my Torah Monologues and creative midrash workshops.

I’ve been working on this new site for more than a month now, while outside sprouts slowly push out of their seeds or bulbs and up through the dirt, until finally they reach the open air and the sun turns them green.

And my dear and computer-savvy husband, Will, transferred “www.mtorah.com” to this new site just before Passover (Pesach in Hebrew).  How delightfully appropriate!  Not only is Passover a spring holiday, but it celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from their old life of slavery in Egypt, and how they (and everyone else who decided to join them as they left Egypt) began to learn a new way of life on the other side of the Reed Sea.  In their new life, they were all to become priests and priestesses, a holy nation.  And that takes a lot of learning and a lot of practice.

I’ll address what “holy” means in my next regular blog, on the Torah portion named Kedoshim (Holiness).

I hope this new site will make it easier for you to find sparks of inspiration, and easier for me to continue the “holy” work I’ve taken on.

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