This week we study Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9).
* I want to talk about the shattering experience of throwing out my back Thursday and contracting food poisoning Friday. I couldn’t keep down any liquid. I felt like I was dying. I was all alone in the hovel and I thought about, how did I get here? What decisions did I make that doomed me to suffer alone? I realized that all of my disinterested critics are right about me. My therapist is right about me. I aggrandize myself at the cost of personal connection. I’m not so moral. In many ways, I pretend to be an Orthodox Jew rather than really walking the walk.
I had a girlfriend who said I was wimp. That I couldn’t take much physical pain or discomfort. That I was a crybaby. Friday night, I wanted to go on Facebook and plea for some company. I get in this situation about every other year. I get a fit of vomiting. Can’t keep down any liquid for about eight hours. I feel like I’m dying. I wonder if I should go to the hospital. I pray for company. I end up just lying there and the problem eventually diminishes and I’m glad I didn’t do anything dramatic because I would not want to rush around to the sickbeds of my friends to comfort them, unless I really liked them or they really needed help.
I have the most painful moral and personal revelations when I get sick and the depth of the insights is equivalent to the depth of the pain. If I am not in pain, I tend to live in the fantasy that I am a great man and I am on the right track with my life. My dad used to tell me all the time in response to my stubborn ways, “You’ll only learn through pain.” I guess he was right.
I want to come out of my latest illness with a renewed determination to listen to people I respect more deeply and to reduce my layers of defense against what they say. I want to respond more deliberately, less reflexively.
I am responsible for my position in my life. I often feel very lonely in a crowd. That’s because I’ve chosen to act and write in unsociable ways.
* I want to talk about the role of the rebbitzen. It seems that many wives of Modern Orthodox rabbis do not want to be rebbitzens. The more traditional the couple, the more likely the spouse takes on the rebbitzen role. The more modern and left-wing, the less likely. What should a shul expect from a rebbitzen? Two laborers for the price of one?
* What does the Torah say about how we should blog and use social media such as Facebook? I took a Torah perspective on my Facebook page and was very disturbed. So much of the content on there seemed to mock Torah and holy living. Should a Torah Jew even be on Facebook? I hear it facilitates immorality between the sexes. This has not been my experience but I fear that is my fault. My star power has waned as my hair has thinned and my belly expanded and my back fallen out and my guts thrown up.
* The name of this week’s Torah portion is “Shoftim”, which means “judges.” As a Torah Jew, you have to continually judge whether something is kosher or not kosher. It’s easier to live your life surrounded by observant Jews. When you venture out of the Torah corral, life becomes much more challenging.
The modern mood is that you should not judge. This makes sense in many instances. It’s hard to judge somebody’s totality. If in total they are good or bad. You can’t know everything that is going on with somebody when they do something. Still, if you have values, you have to make distinctions and judgments. Instead of asking people not to judge you, stand on your own two feet, so that even if Rabbs declares you are a heretic, your sleep will not be troubled.
* This week’s Torah portion sets up a system of judges. The Torah has a realistic view of human nature. People get into disputes.
* What should you do if you think your rav is wrong? You should argue with him. You should give him sources that back up your position.
* The Torah gives the king only one real task — writing and studying the Torah. All of the king’s other powers are ceremonial. The Torah warns him against accumulating too many wives and horses and getting too proud. The Torah does not seem thrilled with the institution of monarchy. It’s like a shul with a dominating rabbi. His word is law. He forms the shul in his image. Or you can go to a shul where the board runs things. Or it is lay-led and people do what they like.
* How can you tell a false prophet from a real prophet? A really morally serious person struggles with his words at times because reality is complex. The glib are usually fake.
* The Torah has a bigger problem with accidental killing than we do. Here in California someone can kill someone with a car while texting and only get probation.
* No sanctuary in a shul for murderers.
* I remember a sermon that Rabbi Steven Weil delivered at Beth Jacob about the heifer that was slaughtered if a body was found in the country and nobody knew what had happened (Deut. 21). He said that shul has to be a safe place. He said he had asked several people to leave, mainly single men (who as a group tend to be more volatile and unpredictable than married men). He eventually asked me to leave.
* Jews have not won every war they’ve been in. God sent Israel’s enemies into Israel. What’s important is whether or not Israel is fighting on God’s command or if they are sinning.
* This week’s Torah portion helps to institute Israel’s system of justice. Any loon can take a Biblical text and give you an opinion, but the Jewish way is not just in text, but it is a system. You can’t just read the text and understand the system. You can’t just go along to shul without studying the text to know what is going on. Judaism is tough. You have to learn. You have to practice.
* Dealing with a woman you take captive in war. You have to let her mourn for 30 days. She cuts her hair and becomes less attractive. There’s no easy sex in Judaism. There’s no easy anything. Before you eat, you have to say a blessing. And then after you eat. After you go to the bathroom, you have to say a blessing. Every human activity is fenced in with rules.
* Lady Gaga showed up to the MTV video awards as her male alter-ego. She used the men’s restroom. There’s something disturbing about gender bending. If you can’t tell if someone is male or female, it bothers you, even if you are the most liberal Jew around.
Has Lady Gaga gone too far?
I never think of a gender bender as a happy person. As the Talmud says, the rich man is the one who is content with his lot.