Naso: Distanced by Hair

May 31, 2017 at 11:43 am | Posted in Naso | 1 Comment
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A man suspects his wife of adultery, and takes her to the temple to test her with a magic ritual.

A man or woman takes a vow to live as a holy ascetic and avoid wine.

What do the instructions for the sotah1 (the wife suspected of adultery) have in common with the instructions for the nazir (the holy ascetic)—besides that they appear in the same Torah portion, Naso (“Lift it”)? One answer is:  unbound hair.

The ordeal to establish the guilt or innocence of a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery begins with the priest unbinding the woman’s hair.

And the priest shall make the woman stand before God, and para the head of the woman. Then he shall place upon her palms the grain-offering of the reminding: it is the grain-offering of jealousies. And the water of the bitterness of the cursings shall be in the hand of the priest. (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:18)

para (פָּרַע) = let loose, remove from restraint, let go wild and uncontrolled. (For a head of hair, para = unbind, unbraid.)

The ordeal turns on what happens when wife drinks the magic water in the priest’s hand. (See my post Naso: Ordeal of Trust.) But the first step is to unbind the suspected woman’s hair. The Torah does not say whether married women before the time of the Second Temple bound their hair in cloth, or merely put up their hair in braids or pins. Either way, a wife was probably shamed if her hair came down in public.2

Loose hair marks the suspected wife as outside normal society, at least for the duration of the ordeal. In normal situations both men and women in the Torah restrain their hair in public. The only people who appear in public with unbound or uncovered hair are the mourner3, the metzora (someone afflicted with a certain disease) 4, the sotah, and the nazir.

Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Any man or woman who vows the extraordinary vow of a nazir, lehazir for God: From wine or alcohol yazir … (Numbers 6:2-3)

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone dedicated for a period of time to devotion to God through abstaining from the usual norms for hair, wine, and mourning. (Plural nezirim, נְזִרִים. From the root nazar, נזר = separated, consecrated.)

lehazir (לְהַזִּיר) = to separate oneself through abstention; to live as a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

yazir (יַזִּיר) = he shall abstain. (From the root nazar.)

Nezerim must abstain not only from drinking any form of alcohol, but also from consuming any grape products. They must avoid all contact with any corpses—even if a family member dies. But even as they restrain themselves from drinking or mourning, they must let their hair grow unrestrained.

All the days of his vow of nizro, no blade shall pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that yazir to God,  his big, pera head of hair will be holy to God.  (Numbers 6:5)

nizro (נִזְרוֹ) = his dedication to undertaking the abstentions of a nazir. (From the root nazar.)

pera (פֶּּרַע) = unbound, loose, unrestrained, wild and out of control. (From the verb para; see above.)

Nezirim choose to set themselves apart from normal society for a period of time, like ascetics in other cultures. (See my post Haftarat Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.) Israelite ascetics, unlike those in most cultures, do not leave their community or their family; but they do follow different rules regarding hair, wine, and corpses.

The unconventional hair of nezirim is a visible sign that they must be treated differently in society—perhaps with extra consideration for the thoughts that absorb them, as the Israelites in the Torah, and Jews today, treat people who are visibly mourning. Similarly, they are distanced from the rest of society by avoiding not only wine, but even grape juice (which might substitute for wine when their friends are drinking).  This social distance marks nezirim as holy, separated and dedicated to God.

When the period of their vow ends, nezirim shave their heads and put their hair on the altar fire, under the wholeness-offering, thus making their wild manes offerings to God.5

Israelite captives with tidy hair in Assyrian relief, 8th Century BCE

Hair is an indicator of a person’s relationship to the rest of society—in the Torah, and today. When I am getting ready to leave the house, I always “fix” my hair. Even today, an acceptable appearance in public includes hair that looks trimmed, combed, and arranged (sometimes in a carefully tousled style).  When someone appears in public with unkempt hair, it means that the person does not belong in normal society, for good reasons or bad.

In the Torah, the pera hair of mourners signals that their thoughts and feelings are so overwhelmed by the death in the family that they should not be expected to engage in normal social intercourse.

The pera hair of metzora-im signals that they are both ritually impure (and so excluded from communal worship) and socially impure (and so excluded from communal life).

The pera hair of the sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) is a sign of shame. Since she has behaved in a socially unacceptable way by being alone with a man other than her husband for even a short time, she is shamed even if it turns out she is not guilty of adultery. (There is no equivalent ordeal for a husband suspected of adultery, since in the Torah marital fidelity is not required of men.)

The pera hair of nezerim signals that their attention is on spiritual communion with God, rather than on social intercourse.

On the streets of my city, people whose hair is greasy and pera are often homeless and/or mentally ill.  Not wanting to be identified with these categories, I make sure my hair is clean and pulled back in a barrette when I go out.

But I have had times of mourning, and times when I am absorbed in questions about the meaning of my life and God.  At those times, when I go out in public for necessary errands, I wish I had a visible signal that would separate me from normal chatter and frivolity, while granting me the respect the Israelites granted to mourners and nezirim.

(An earlier version of this blog was published in May 2010.)

1  The noun sotah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, though in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, the verb satah is used three times to describe an adulterous woman. (Numbers 5:19, 5:20, 5:29)  The passage concludes: This is the teaching of the kena-ot, when tisteh, a wife, from under her husband, and she becomes impure. (Numbers 5:29)

tisteh (תִּשְׁטֶה) = she goes aside, goes astray. (Satah (שָׁטָה) = he went aside, went astray.)

2  The Babylonian Talmud, Ketuvot 22a, states that when a woman goes out with an uncovered head, she transgresses Jewish practice, and cites Numbers 5:18 as a proof text.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch explained: “…the uncovering of the woman’s hair is intended to expose the woman as immodest. The head covering that hides the woman’s hair is an external symbol of her marital fidelity.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 83.)

3  Mourners in the Torah let their hair hang loose and tear their clothing.  In Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 and 21:10, priests are instructed to refrain from mourning by not doing those two things.  It is still customary for Jews to make a small tear in a shirt or a symbolic ribbon at the funeral of a family member, and then refrain from cutting their hair or shaving their beards for 30 days.

4  A metzora is someone with the skin disease called tzara-at in the Torah. Until a priest declares them cured, metzora-im must be thoroughly segregated from the community, and therefore they must tear their clothing, para their hair, cover their upper lips, call out “Impure! Impure!” when they pass others, and live outside the town or camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)

5  Numbers 6:18.  According to 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch, this indicates that the purpose of living for a time as a nazir is self-improvement, so the nazir will rejoin society as a better member of the community—less vain, perhaps, or wiser because of the extra time for self-reflection. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Bemidbar, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2007, p. 116.)

 

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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.

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