Modern Israeli poet Nava Semel wrote a haunting poem that warns us of religion and community at its worse. It is in your service folder, […]
Modern Israeli poet Nava Semel wrote a haunting poem that warns us of religion and community at its worse. It is in your service folder, but you need a little background. It is based on the biblical character Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite – traditionally seen as one of the sworn enemies of our people. During famine in Israel, a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons went to Moab for food – and the boys married Moabite women – Ruth and Orpah. The boys tragically died, and Naomi decides to return to the land of Israel. Her daughters in law want to go with her, but she tells them not to. Ultimately Ruth insists on going, saying the famous line: “Where you go, I will go, where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God?
Ruth chooses love – her relationship with her mother in law – over familiarity and convention. She goes to an uncertain future because of loyalty and friendship. It is a beautiful book and Ruth is seen as the first convert – who becomes the great grandmother of King David. It is a powerful message of labels – the evil Moabites – being wrong. The Moabites are not our enemies and our greatest king descends from a foreigner.
The poem is a Midrash on why Naomi told her not to come. It is haunting because she exposes pieces of religious community that can be uncomfortable to look at. Now let’s read it:
Don’t go with me Ruth,
By myself I’ll cross the border.
Alone I will go
Let us part now, before it’s too late
I must leave, but you can sill regret.
On the other side a foreign land awaits
There – they’ll point their fingers,
Call you by names
Wherever you walk
You’ll be tarnished by shame.
A stranger in my land
I’m worried and scared
It’s hard to forget and forgive
On you wall, they will write
“Here a Foreign Woman lives”.
Do not join me, Ruth
You are a widow, no bride anymore
My people are engulfed in their fears
Banging their doors.
There – Sara banished her rival Hagar
There – they do not welcome those who come from afar.
When you walk on the street
You will always be marked
“The Other” – that’s what they’ll call you
From morning to dark.
Thought they call themselves “The Chosen People”
They are suspicious, hostile and hard
Out of fear of the unknown
Go back, Ruth, stay with your own.
Night falls, Ruth
Moabite sky is old
My people are not yours
Nor is my Lord!
Turn around, wife of my son
My beloved daughter-in-law,
Stay were your own sun shines
From my home is not yours
Nor yours mine.
The poem lifts up how closed and judgmental community can be to those who are different. It boldly confronts realities of our time – harsh treatment of those who may be of a different faith or place of origin. It exposes a truth about religion and nationalism that we must face – that they can be narrow and hurtful to people who are different – those seen as “Other.” In his book Putting God Second How to Save Religion From Itself, Rabbi Donniel Hartman argues that as monotheism developed, it was often accompanied by the belief that the one God could be truly represented or correctly understood by only one faith community. This results in self-aggrandizing tendencies and moral mediocrity captured in the poem by Naomi Semel.
He points out phenomena he calls God Intoxication and God Manipulation. The God Intoxicated person believes that devotion to God demands an all-consuming attention – and that exhausts one’s ability to see the needs of other human beings. God manipulation is a passionate yearning to be loved by God where the believer unconsciously manipulates human self-interest as being Divine desires. Hartman writes: “Within this way of thinking, we may embrace the obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, while redefining neighbors to include not those among whom we live but rater the much smaller circle of those who share our particular set of religious beliefs. God Manipulation extends a blanket exemption from truly seeing anyone outside our religious community.” (p. 46)
I can think of no greater story of God Intoxication and God Manipulation that the disturbing story at the end of the portion, Leviticus 24:10-14. (p. 732) “There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between the half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ’Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.”
And they do. What a terrible story!
This is God Intoxication –there is no hesitation, no discussion of circumstance, no judicial process beyond pronouncement of punishment by God. Where is the human voice asking God if it is just – as Abraham asked God at Sodom? The intoxication with the divine eclipses all human concern. This is God Manipulation – God’s name is readily used to prompt stoning someone who violates the communal norm. The community becomes blind to a barbaric act clothed in the guise of God’s word.
How do we respond to the reality of religion as expressed in the poem by Nava Semel and the story of the blasphemer? We read every story and condition every response through the lens of ethical sensitivity to fellow human. That is the power of our tradition – the loud voice of caring for all humanity. And when the text reflects something different – our commentary and interpretation lead us back to the ethical imperative that defines us – sometimes turning the original story on its head!
What does commentary do with this story? It fills in the human element, it gives us backstory that had it been considered, might have changed the outcome.
Listen to the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 32:3) “Where was he going, when he ‘went out into the camp?’ He was coming from a hearing before Moses. What had been the case? This man had pitched his tent with the tribe of Dan (his mother’s tribe). The other Dan-ites came to him and demands: ‘What right do you have to be here?’ He said, ‘I am from the daughters of Dan!’ But they would not let him camp with them, saying: ‘The children of Israel will encamp with each man according to the tribe of his father!’ (Numbers 2:2). He entered Moses’ court to find out where he could live, and was told:’ Nowhere.” Then, he cursed God.”
As we re-tell the story through the eyes of this Midrash, we learn the ethical lessons: people react with anger when they are rejected, we deny people their homes based upon strict interpretation of the law. Religious communities exclude and cause hurt! Listen again to two lines in Nava Semel’s poem: “On your, wall, they will write “Here a Foreign Woman lives” “When you walk on the street you will always be marked “The Other” that’s what they will call you. We read stories through the lens of Midrash to confront our propensity to use God Manipulation and God Intoxication. This type of reading returns us to the moral dimension of life. And we create new Midrash – to continue to grow in our understanding of our humanity and what the ethical imperative of our times demand.
As we fill in the story, it does not exonerate the man’s actions, but it causes us to wonder whether we as a society and community can do better. Midrash demands that we ask questions! Are there places where our use of law causes others to not find a home? Are there instances where people feel marginalized because of attitudes help by the majority? Are we quick to pick up stones when we should be extending hands?
Mixed together with the realities of God Intoxication and God Manipulation are inspiring commandments to love all, to extend a hand to those in need, to embrace with love. Amidst the list of holidays in this portion is the reminder to leave the corners of fields and the gleanings that have fallen for the poor. We have to acknowledge the danger inherent in religion and present in our stories so that we can build a religious tradition around the primacy of kindness, compassion, humanity and moral responsibility. God does not want us to stone – God wants us to care. Let’s build a world where that God’s words lead us to moral greatness. Shabbat Shalom.