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Now the Presence of the L"rd appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain..."
Twenty-five years ago today the shuttle Challenger became a consuming fire. It's seven crew members went inside the cloud and ascended-never to return.
Ronald McNair was one of the seven who lost their lives that day. Ronald wasn't the first African-American astronaut to go into space-that was Guion Bluford in 1983-but he was the second, in 1984. Ronald was a physicist with expertise in lasers. He'd come a long way from his childhood in South Carolina when he was consumed in that fire on January 28, 1986.
On NPR this morning there was a StoryCorps excerpt in which Ronald's older brother Carl told a powerful story about Ronald's visit to a library where he wanted to check out some books on science and was told by the librarian that "this library is not for coloreds." Ronald stood his ground. The police and his mother were called. At the suggestion of one of the officers, the librarian reluctantly allowed Ronald to check out the books, whereupon his mother reminded him to say "thank you," which he did.
This story was racing around in my head as I was reading and study parashat Mishpatim this morning. It's a powerful reminder that America's legacy of African-American slavery and discrimination cannot be ignored. This parasha contains a number of laws pertaining to slaves. When people remark about how troubling it is that the Torah seems to endorse slavery, we are reminded by scholars and experts that the Torah seems to have great concern for the fair treatment of slaves. Still, they were slaves. How could we, the people freed from slavery in Egypt, ourselves be slaveholders? "That's just the way the world was back in those days." Slavery back then was really more a form of indentured slavery, a way for people to repay debts through physical service.
It appears (at least according to the rabbinic interpretation) that slaves who were foreigners were treated somewhat differently than slaves who were Israelites-as Israelites could never be considered to be the property of another Israelite. As Israelites, they were part of the covenant, and the rules of the Sabbatical year and Jubilee always applied as well.
In the Etz Chayim commentary, Sarna explains that it is significant that this list of laws starts with laws regarding slavery, and is a reflection of he desire of the newly liberated Israelites to see that slaves are fairly treated. Why would it not be the desire of the newly liberated Israelites to see slavery abolished, to make it a prohibited practice for them? Future generations certainly relied on the Torah's failure to abolish slavery to bolster their own support for the abhorrent institution. In the U.S. there were Jews on both sides of that argument.
Thus I am left with the unfortunate belief that what we have here is a whitewash. That the Torah insists on displaying a certain sensitivity to slaves is all well and good, but that's not enough for me now, and I don't think it should have been enough back then. Maybe it's time for us to stop rushing to the defense of the Torah, but to let everyone see and react to her, warts and all. That there are pieces of text in the Torah for which we continue to create apologetics tells me that there are pieces of text in the Torah with which we remain profoundly uncomfortable, but with which we still refuse to deal with head on.
So I'll say it - for it's failure to abolish human slavery, the Torah is wrong. It matters not whence the source of Torah - human or Divine (or Divinely inspired or anything in between.) That the Torah is wrong here (in my opinion) does not give me license to reject the whole of Torah, but it does give me license to also call into questions other troubling pieces of text. Slavery is not the only thing we still whitewash in the Torah. There's the lex talionis, the "eye for an eye" concept. We're told it is metaphorical. Can we really be certain of that? Why not state plainly in the Torah that redress and remedies for wrong acts should be in direct and fair proportion to the act and its wrongness?
That the Torah is replete with so many problematic things troubles me. That the Torah is replete with so many wise and fair things pleases me. How do I reconcile these two viewpoints? I don't. I am slowly reaching a new understanding of Torah, different from that which I have ever held before. Like humans, the Torah has a yetzer tov and a yetzer hara. While the Torah strongly urges humans to hone their yetzer tov in the hopes that it might dominate the yezter hara, it does not provide clear and concise instructions on how to do so. It certainly offers lots of hints and advice. Yet, because the Torah itself is subject to these same conflicting tendencies, it is of necessity inconsistent.
This understanding, for me, excludes the possibility of any form of strict adherence to the Torah (or any of the rabbinic interpretations-for they, too are subject to the conflict between good and evil inclinations.) For me, I feel it gives me to the freedom to be inconsistent in my practice, observance, belief, and actions. It does not give me the freedom to simply ignore Torah and tradition. If anything, its contrarian nature is what gives me impetus to remain continually engaged with Torah and tradition.
Torah teases me (and us) when it says, much later, the oft quoted "lo bashamyim hi" - that the Torah is not in heaven, it is not too baffling for us, that it is in our minds and hearts. Consider that this could be a deliberately misleading premise. Sort of puts a whole new perspective on things, doesn;t it. This could be the Torah's yetzer hara coming through, challenging us with what it knows to be an impossible task.
This is a whole new level of approaching life for me. I don't need to know the meaning of life. I don't need to know all the answers to all the questions. I don't need to fully comprehend Torah, and I do not need to reconcile all the conflicting things in Torah. I need merely remain engaged. I can accept the things I understand, question the things I do not understand, and explore those things I have not yet encountered.
Sending humans into space may or may not be the best way to advance our knowledge of the universe. As strong an advocate as I am of space exploration, I, too, have begun to question the need to risk human lives in this endeavor. We have the technology to do much of that exploring without the physical presence of humans. There will certainly be situations in which there is no substitute for an actual human explorer on site, just as there will be places when human to human contact is preferable to our newly emerging world of virtual and electronic connecting. Yet there is room for both, and we should spend a lot of time thinking about when and where virtual reality and physical reality are appropriate and necessary. (How much of the desire for actual human presence in space is driven by yezter hara and how much by yezter tov? It's an interesting question. Our tradition certainly teaches us that we need both inclinations.
Twenty-five years ago today 7 human beings gave their lives in a noble cause. To help insure their sacrifice was not in vain, I continue to dedicate myself to searching, seeking, inquiring, exploring. Reaching any sort of endpoint or goal in that searching seems so much less important now. Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning...
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on this parasha
Mishpatim 5770 - Divine
Mishpatim 5769 - Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 - Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 - Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence
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