Elul 5770: Fundamentalism Versus Sailing
After my hiatus of the the last few weeks, This week i’m not going to give a portion of the week, but do a little catch up instead. There is a theme in much of Deuteronomy I have been thinking about during my recent vacation and activities this summer. Several passage in the text suggest something which bothers me In parshat Re’eh we read the following:
1. What ever I command you, take care to do it; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it. All this word which I command you, that you shall observe to do; you shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. [Deut 13:1]
It is not only in this passage we hear such words. Throughout Deuteronomy there is such statements, obeying the commandments explicitly. Another example from this week’s portion is the following:
12 And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul;
From parshat V’ethanan we have this passage:
29. You shall take care to do it therefore as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 30. You shall go in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess. [Deuteronomy 5]
What strikes me about these passages is their tendency to support fundamentalism. Here are passages which takes the literal meaning literally. In the last few weeks, a lot of things have me thinking about fundamentalism, not only in the the world in general, but in Judaism specifically. I’ve been studying Torah lately in a way I did not realize at the time. I was learning to sail, and in doing so learning the answer to the question of fundamentalism.
Strangely, it starts with something that most fundamentalists take very literally, but miss something critical. If asked what was the first thing created, one most likely would say “light.” But that very possibly would be wrong.
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters.[Genesis 1]
Some translations will translate Ruach Elohim, the “wind of God” as the equally valid “spirit of God.” Unless wind and water is unthinkably external to God, wind and water were some of the first things in creation. Sweetie and I were joking recently that God was a sailor, and on that water sailed on those holy winds. But it was too dark to sail,
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. 4. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
While the metaphor of a God of desert people being a sailor may be a stretch, I think it is a critical lesson, since any journey is best described not by the Straight Path, but by the Sailor’s Tack. It is very rare for a sailor in a boat to move on a straight line, because the wind is never in the straight line you want to go, and one is dependent on the wind to move.
Most of the time one wants to move against the wind, and that, rather intuitively seems very difficult. Indeed, directly into the wind a sailboat completely stops. Yet, what is not so intuitive is that if you are slightly off being against the wind to being in a cross wind, a boat actually moves well. Often traveling against the wind will get you to your destination. Yet in order to get to a point upwind you will have to tack, move back and forth against the wind. You do not stay on the path, but move starboard and port, right and left, against the wind repeatedly.
The fundamentalist can go whatever straight direction the wind takes them, but that is all. To go against the wind never occurs to them. It’s a bit scary to think about to them. They are always afraid of getting into Irons, being directly against the wind and unable to move by directly going against the word of God and the wind, or spirit of God. While they might make advances, more often than not they retreat from the destination. There is little freedom to go where they want, or even where God really wants us to go.
I truly believe that God wants us to tack, to move slightly to the starboard, then to port, over and over again. To go against the wind is to head towards the source of the wind. While it is a lot of work to go through repeated tacks, it does makes a boat move fast. Not to mention it’s a lot of fun. I believe the Rabbis of the Talmud understood this. There are gaps in the text, places where the rules are not clear. To follow literally the biblical text is bound to cause problems. The Rabbis came up with constructs which made variations on these themes in order to understand them. To understand “Do not boil a Kid in its mothers Milk” has the Rabbis asking a lot of questions. The literal is simple. yet to get to a complete exposition which requires separate dishes for milk and meat or milk and poultry, and possibly even another set for fish presents a lot of questions and tacking around the literal meaning of the negative mitzvah. Here is a set of questions that the rabbis did ask, mostly found in the Talmudic tractate Hullin:
• Is it only a young goat? Could it be an adult goat in its mother’s milk?
• Is it only a goat or any of the small cattle like Sheep? Could it be bigger mammals like Cows?
• All but a few of the permitted meats like venison(12:22, 14:5), are also the meats used in temple sacrifice. We are told that we are to prepare venison like beef or lamb. Is any read meat the follows the preparation process not to be boiled with milk?
• Since poultry doesn’t produce milk, can it be boiled in milk? Since poultry is prepared almost identical to beef, can it be boiled in milk?
• Is it just boiled in milk? Can it be eaten with milk?
• Can it be eaten with milk products?
Can small amounts on a dish be considered enough to mix milk and meat?
Can the udder of the cow be eaten?
These questions give answers that set precedents and halachah about mixing meat and dairy. Why the rabbis answers those questions they way they did is another discussion, but they did stray to port and starboard from the literal interpretation. On many of the death penalty cases, their response to the questions of a running a court case with a death penalty made it near impossible to invoke the death penalty, though Torah invokes it frequently.
I am not yet a good sailor. I need a lot of practice. Yet I understand the idea of sailing and can handle the tiller and main sheet okay, and sometimes as a team with Sweetie. I find all too often it’s best to tack, and in many ways it’s fun to tack. Such is true of Torah as well. Some have tacked on the sea of Torah over centuries. Some we do now so routinely,we do not even question. Yet, there are a lot of things we do need to question and answer differently than we did centuries or even decades ago. Fundamentalism, even when based on someone else’s tacking, ends up refusing to tack. It can only go in one direction, failing to make the destination if the winds change. It is clear to me that the winds do change, and to get to the destination, the source of that wind, requires a lot of work and not just going to the left or the the right, but going ahead by going back and forth, moving port and starboard.