Thursday, August 19, 2010

Casting the First Stone

Like many of you, I’m sure, I read with great interest the story in the Times earlier this week about the Taliban’s revival of stoning in Afghanistan as the preferred method of execution. The details would be gruesome enough, but at the heart of the story was the detail that the “criminals” who were so executed were neither thieves nor murderers, but a young couple whose crime was that they had fallen in love. The story is simple enough. A young man of twenty-five named Khayyam fell in love with a nineteen-year-old named Siddiqa. The only problem was that Siddiqa had already been betrothed by her family to marry another (who, coincidentally, was a relative of Khayyam’s). Unable to convince Siddiqa’s family that she should be permitted to marry the man she loved, the couple eloped and fled to a province in eastern Afghanistan where they stayed for a while with some distant relatives. But then they were lured back to their home by people, including members of their own families, who told them that a new decision has been reached and that, as a result, they were going to be permitted to marry and live together as husband and wife after all. Fooled by these false reports, they returned home. Once they arrived, however, they were arrested by the Taliban, tried by a court of local mullahs, and sentenced to death.

The death sentence was carried out immediately. Khayyam, who already had a wife and two children (Afghan men are permitted to marry up to four wives), and Siddiqa were taken to the local bazaar, where they were encircled by about two hundred men who threw stones at them. Siddiqa died first, then Khayyam. The two hundred participants were supported by a large, enthusiastic crowd of supporters. A spokesman for the local body of Islamic clerics noted that stoning is the correct method of execution for people convicted of having engaged in illicit sexual relations. President Karzai deplored the whole incident, choosing to frame his remarks in terms of regret regarding the increased power of the Taliban rather than in terms of any specific sympathy for the executed couple. Otherwise, the world kept spinning. There was no follow-up story in the paper.

There are a thousand different reasons for this story to interest the American reading public. For me, however, the story was especially provocative because it reminded me—disconcertingly—of any number of passages I know from the Torah. In the Torah portion we will read tomorrow in shul, for example, the Torah decrees death by stoning for a woman who misrepresents herself as a virgin to a man who believes her and then, acting on that belief, marries her. Also in this week’s Torah portion is the law decreeing death, also by stoning, of an engaged woman who engages in sexual relations with a man other than her fiancé. (The woman, I should note, is given the benefit of the doubt. If the incident is shown to have taken place in the countryside where she can be presumed to have cried out for help, then only the man is to be stoned to death. Only if the incident took place in an urban setting where she would surely have been heard if she had called for help are they both to be stoned to death.)

Of course, Biblical law ordains capital punishment for many different offenses including sacrificing to alien gods, blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath laws, and sorcery. Nor are all who are found guilty of sexual crimes to be executed by stoning. The daughter of a kohen, for example, who is found to have behaved promiscuously is to be burnt to death. And there are also passages in which capital punishment is decreed for specific offenses, but in which the precise method of execution is not made clear. (Our oral tradition eventually worked out a precise list of which criminal ends up executed in which way. Adulterers, for example, are to be strangled.)

As horrible as the story from Afghanistan is, therefore, we are hardly in a position to throw the first stone. Or are we? Part of the test, I believe, of the vibrancy and spiritual worth of any religion is its ability to morph over the centuries into an ever-finer and ever-more-morally just version of itself. There is a reason most Jews would find the data in the preceding paragraph shocking, after all…and it is not because most Jews rarely if ever open a Chumash to peruse the weekly Torah portion. Perhaps even some of my readers who are regulars in shul and who hear the Torah read to them all the time responded by wondering if those facts could possibly be true and by asking themselves if this could really be part of Judaism, this kind of bloodthirsty willingness to punish people for sleeping with the wrong people or for making the kinds of decisions that Western society considers to be wholly reasonable for individuals to make for themselves without reference to the wishes of others.

It’s a good question, one I would normally hesitate to answer in public. But given the story about the Taliban that appeared on the front page last week, I feel emboldened to express myself on the issue directly.

By rabbinic times, our leaders had lost their taste for biblical legislation of this specific sort. Executions were almost never carried out. Rules were enacted that made it almost unimaginable that anyone could ever be executed…including for sins and crimes for which the Torah unambiguously decrees death. There must be witnesses to the act. That much must seem obvious, but there must also be witnesses who can attest in court that the individual or individuals involved were formally warned that the act in which they were about to engage is forbidden and could be punished by execution. And then the people involved have to make a formal declaration admitting that they know that and that they understand that and that they are going to proceed in the commission of their sin or their crime anyway. By the time our rabbis were done there was almost no possibility that anyone would ever face death by stoning for making what moderns would consider wholly private and personal decisions. And, indeed, by the time Maimonides created his magisterial compendium of Jewish law in the twelfth century, he could include a long section detailing the specific methods of execution ordained by Scripture for each specific sin or crime listed in the Torah secure in the knowledge that no one was actually ever to be put to death for any of them.

It would be easy to view this as a tragedy, of course, by noting that Jews lived by then under the rule of others, that there were no Jewish autonomous courts with the authority to put the Torah’s teachings into real practice. But that would only be one way to look at the situation and another would be to see the Jewish people clinging to their Torah as a tree of life not by slavishly insisting that its every rule must be followed literally, but by allowing us to focus legislation our tradition considers not merely sacred but divine through the prism of our own moral bearing, thus becoming true partners with God in the creation of a just society rooted in holy law yet ever-responsive to the evolving sense of right-and-wrong we bring to our spiritual lives.

The Taliban are literalists who don’t see why any practice ordained by traditional Muslim law should not be taken literally and acted upon as though it were ipso facto just merely by virtue of its appearance in a sacred book. And, of course, there are Jewish fundamentalists who argue the parallel version of that same argument with respect to Jewish law. Yet when the Jewish state was proclaimed in 1948, the great leaders of our people understood that not only would it have been impractical to take, say, Rambam’s code literally as the basis for the Israeli law, but that doing so would also have constituted a kind of betrayal of fundamental Jewish values: we are called upon to be partners with God not only in the ongoing work of sustaining the physical world, but also to be partners with God in the ongoing work of making divine revelation meaningful and responsive to an ever-evolving moral standard. I hope we are all in agreement that adultery is a bad thing, something that should be considered sinful by its very nature. But I believe that we need to take the lessons tradition teaches to heart…not by strangling adulterers but by understanding that the Bible uses that kind of violent language to express its sense that the betrayal of a spouse’s trust is not only wrong technically but a moral outrage that decent people should condemn loudly and clearly. (Does that sound obvious? When the governor of New York State publicly admitted upon coming to office that both he and his wife had previously committed adultery, he was widely praised for being forthright and frank about his and his wife’s past indiscretions.)

Like all of you I’m sure, I found it difficult even to read Khayyam and Siddiqa’s story to the end. Those of you who read Khaled Hosseini’s marvelous book, The Kite Runner, were exposed to a detailed description of how exactly execution by stoning is carried out in Afghanistan. (The book, if any of you haven’t read it, is wonderful and I recommend it highly. But there are passages in it that are so brutal that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the page without looking away.) Was this specific execution like the one in the book? I suppose it must have been, at least partially. But the point is not specifically to lament the horrific fate of this couple whose crime was to fall in love, but to wonder what it will take for people whose vision of Islam is so extreme and so violent to come to realize that the true test of fidelity to God’s word is not slavish obedience to the text as once written, but to the moral voice within as filtered through the medium of revelation. Like I said, we Jews have our own fanatics to deal with…but at least I can say with pride that the Jewish people as a whole has accepted the obligation to allow its faith to grow, generation by generation, into a new and finer version of itself. Will the members of other faiths join us in that particular way of understanding how religion should work in the world? I suppose that remains to be seen!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Elul in Argentina

For Jews all over the world, the first days of the month of Elul have a strangely ominous feel to them. (The first of Elul was last Wednesday.) On the outside Rosh Hashanah is still a month away, Yom Kippur even further down the pike than that. There isn’t any real hint of fall in the air. School is still out. There are families in our midst who have not even left yet on their summer vacations, let alone returned. But on the inside—in shul, I mean, but also internally, in our hearts—things are slightly different. We’ve begun to sound the shofar every morning. No blessing, no elaborate liturgy, no big deal attends the ceremony….and yet, each single morning, that monitory blast of an ancient horn somehow reminds us that we are approaching that strange season of the year most of us somehow anticipate eagerly and also dread slightly, the season of family gatherings and divine judgment, the season of eating too much and drinking too much…and also of looking just a little too deeply for comfort into the mirror the Machzor holds up to us and invites us to peer into and say honestly what we think of whom we see looking back. And we’ve begun to recite the twenty-seventh psalm every morning and evening, that ancient poem that gently (but also not that gently) calls us to courage in the face of self-knowledge.

Many Jews have the custom of adopting some special exercise during Elul designed to help the process along slightly. Some undertake some special study project that they hope will make the process of honest introspection less painful to face. Others find some special kind of tzedakah that they hope will by its nature help weaken the natural inclination we all feel to look away when tradition calls upon us to look deeply and carefully at the men and women we have become….and to resolve to grow into finer versions of ourselves than we have attained to date. Still others undertake to discipline themselves by eating less or waking earlier or giving up some or another comfort to which they have become used, but which they now feel may be impeding their ability to stand before God in judgment without flinching or looking away or seeking dishonestly to self-justify with untruths. It’s a lovely time of year…but also a challenging one. I’ve always liked it very much.

Myself, I like to travel during Elul. I’m not sure where this came from. I’m sure I didn’t invent it. I’m not even sure I didn’t hear about the custom somewhere along the way and simply find it appealing enough to adopt. I haven’t always done it, of course. Some years it just wasn’t practical to get away. (When the kids were younger, there were always all those camp schedules to juggle towards the end of the summer.) But when I can…I find that in the weeks leading up to the holiday season there is nothing I can do to prepare myself more meaningfully for the chagim than finding the time to travel to some different place, to allow myself to exist outside my natural environment, to provide myself with a different, unfamiliar background against which to observe myself…and see myself clearly and without the distraction that a familiar setting paradoxically seems to introduce into the mix.

As many of you know, I came back Thursday morning from a week in Argentina. I went alone. Normally, Joan and I travel together on trips like this, but I was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at the winter convention of the Latin American region of the Rabbinical Assembly—August is mid-winter in the southern hemisphere—and Joan needed to be in Toronto to help celebrate her father’s eighty-fifth birthday, plus it seemed like a lot of money for us to pay for her to come along when I was going to be busy most of every day and she would have been on her own. (The tickets were also very expensive. Mine was covered, of course. But hers we would have had to pay for ourselves!) And so I went by myself on an Elul journey that was exactly what the doctor ordered. I had the best time! But it was also an important experience for me spiritually, even emotionally. And that’s what I want to tell you about this week.

First of all, I have to say that I could not have been received any more warmly or graciously. I spent Shabbos in Buenos Aires and loved every minute. I went to the NCI-Emanuel synagogue on Friday night and found about 350 people gathered for a service that featured incredible singing and ruach, plus a real sense of intense fellowship and warmth. (I brought back two CDs of the music they use and I can’t wait to share them with our community here.) And I had a similar experience the following morning at the Amijai synagogue, where I was invited to teach a class in the weekly Torah portion following services. (These synagogues seem to attract their largest crowds on Friday evening, but that also has to do with the whole Argentine custom of having dinner in the middle of the night. We left shul after ten on Friday night, went to the home of the president of the community, sat down to a full-course, elegant Shabbos dinner at 11 and by the time I got back to my hotel it was after 1:30 in the morning. And even then the streets were filled with people.) And then on Sunday we travelled to Rosario, Argentina, the country’s third largest city located about 200 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. The whole experience was wonderful. I stayed in a lovely hotel, spoke four times in the course of the convention (since I don’t speak Spanish, I delivered my remarks in Hebrew), was treated not merely as a guest, but as a truly welcome participant in the convention. I was even a guest at a real Argentinian barbecue held at the Jewish Community Center in Rosario, which was just great. (Did I really eat that much? I surprised even myself…but it was worth it! And it’s completely true that in addition to being a nation of late-night diners Argentina is a nation of inveterate carnivores.) And Rosario itself is a lovely place. I had a few free hours to wander along the lovely, traffic-free, pedestrian streets in the center of the city, to do a bit of shopping, to take some pictures, enjoy the feel of the place. Really, I couldn’t have had a more relaxing, pleasant visit. And then I came home…to summer instead of winter, to a mountain of e-mail and real mail and voice mail and bills and appointments, to real life. I happy to be back! But I’m also very happy to have gone on this unexpected journey to a very far-off place. (Buenos Aires is almost exactly the same distance from New York as Tel Aviv. It’s an eleven hour flight. Argentina is not around the corner.)

But the details of my stay—the exceptional graciousness with which I was received and the fun I had getting to know my colleagues from Latin America—are not precisely what I want to tell you about. I did learn a lot about Argentina in the course of my travels, of course. But, keeping to the spirit of these Elul journeys, there was also a lot I learned about myself on this trip. Seeing myself against a new backdrop, hearing myself speaking to a room of people I’d never met before (and with whom therefore I had no history at all), challenging myself not to rely on what people who have known me for years know of me but to present myself not as a work-in-progress but as the man I have grown to become at this specific moment in my life…that was an Elul experience of great worth. I allowed myself to see myself not as I prefer to think of myself as being, but as I truly am, as I look not to people who know me well but to people specifically who do not know me at all, to people who are meeting me with no prior considerations of any sort, who don’t think highly or negatively of me at all because all they know of me is what they can see at the specific moment in my life in which they are encountering me. It’s not that easy to put into words how this all feels. A little, it’s unnerving. (How often do we rely on our friends to ignore what we have just said and somehow to know what we must have meant?) And a little it’s also disconcerting, something like having the tailor measure you and tell you what size suit you actually need (as opposed to what size you tell yourself you “really” wear). But it was also exciting, even thrilling, to measure myself against the shadow I actually cast, against the image I actually project, against the man that others see when they look at me without prejudice and without any prior inclination to evaluate me one way or the other. Speaking in Hebrew was healthy for me too…since speaking in any language other than your native tongue requires you to weigh your words and consider carefully what you are saying in a way that it’s all too easy to skip when you’re speaking in a language you know so well you barely have to think about what you’re saying at all. And being in a totally alien environment was also a good thing, since nothing encourages you to float along on automatic pilot more than finding yourself in a framework where you know how everything works and what role everybody plays…and thus specifically not to feel even remotely obligated to ask yourself if the role you are playing is reflective of the person you truly are or merely of the role you have self-assigned yourself to play in the world.

So the short version is that Argentina was great. The food was great. The coffee—man, these people drink a lot of coffee, including long after midnight—the coffee was excellent. The fellowship I encountered at the convention was marvelous and very satisfying. (I made a lot of new friends!) It was a long trip, but completely worth it…and not only in terms of what I learned about a different country and its ways, but far more to the point in terms of what I learned about myself. I feel ready for the holidays now in a way I didn’t even just a week ago before I left. And all I had to do was undertake a journey of slightly more than 10,000 miles to feel that way. It was a long trip, but now I feel ready for Elul…and for what lies beyond.