by Kari Tuling

Does God reward good behavior?

When we read this week’s Torah portion, we encounter one of two sets of blessings and curses specifically related to the performance of the commandments.

First, if you do what is good and follow God’s commandments, then all will go well for you. But, if you reject God’s commandments, then a litany of curses will be upon your head. Many of them are quite graphic; they are intended to be frightening.

Specifically, the blessings are as follows:

  1. Fertility of the land (verses 4-5);
  2. Peace in the land (v. 6);
  3. Victory over external enemies (7-8);
  4. Divine individual providence, increase of the population, coupled with economic prosperity (9-10);
  5. The dwelling of the Shekhina in the midst of Israel.[1]

The Shekhina, by the way, is the indwelling presence of God, which during the wandering in the desert is represented by a pillar of fire or cloud. Though the Shekhina represents the spiritual realm, it is indeed a physical manifestation of God. The Israelites can see the Shekhina as it travels with them.

It could be said, in fact, that each of these blessings are a form of material reward.

And some of the commentators have had a genuine problem with that fact. It makes no sense to them. How can we gain material goods by doing what is right? How can it be that piety is rewarded with free stuff?

For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel (born in the 15th Century in Spain) asks the question directly:

“Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things…and omit spiritual perfection an the reward of the soul after death – the true and ultimate goal of [hu]man[kind]? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgment in the afterlife.”[2]

And he has a point. This issue has long been a point of attack by those who have sought to discredit Judaism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that Judaism is not properly a religion because the Jewish Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. In his view, only those traditions that promise a reward in the world to come can make a claim to being a true religion.

What are we to make of this? We have a couple of possibilities here.

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew le...

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew letters by Maimonides (12th century CE). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first possibility is that God really does reward us in our observance of the Torah. The great thinker Maimonides (who was born in the 12th century in Spain) takes this position:

“…These matters are to be understood as follows: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave us this law – a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come. According to the greatness of his deeds and abundance of his knowledge will be the measure in which he will attain that life.”

The more that you know, the greater your reward will be. Maimonides was, admittedly, an elitist. But he continues, arguing that you will reap material rewards as well:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, has further promised us in the Torah that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder us in its observance, such as sickness, war, famine, and other calamities; and will bestow upon us all the material benefits which will strength our ability to fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold.”[3]

In other words, following the Torah will indeed make things go better for you, both in the material world and in the world-to-come.

How can that be? From Maimonides’ perspective, the Torah is the product of God’s overflow, distilled into human language. Its purpose is to provide guidance in response to the daily decisions that arise in the ongoing challenge of ethical living.

The best choices, of course, are those that are founded on a true understanding of the world.  For Maimonides, the Torah is the source of that knowledge, for the structure of Jewish law corresponds exactly to the very structure of creation. So, that’s why it is true that if you follow the Torah, all will go well for you.

But the problem with this point of view is twofold.

First, if God’s providence could be counted on to rigidly assign suffering to those who had committed the most grievous sins, then perhaps problems like extreme poverty would not be a problem. Such suffering could be rationalized as deserved punishment for wrongdoing. But that is not how the world works.

We know of people who are deeply knowledgeable about Torah who have seen sickness, war, famine, and other calamities. We know righteous people who have suffered.

Second, we know of problems within the Torah text itself that have caused difficulties. For example, one of the precepts of this week’s double portion is the law of the jubilee year:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…”[4]

On the face of it, this suggestion sounds like a great idea. The jubilee year would prevent permanent debt and see to it that no one would lose his or her family’s ancestral home. However, in practice, the problem was that in the years leading up to the jubilee, loans to the poor stopped. Why make a loan if it will be forgiven shortly thereafter, without receiving payment?

And the problem with that approach is one we understand: if no one can get credit for activities such as buying and selling land, then even greater harm is caused to the poor. So the rabbis enacted a takanah – a fix – that would see to it that these kinds of problems would be avoided.

So let’s consider our second possibility: this series of blessings and curses is a kind of covenantal language. In the Ancient Near East, covenant agreements would be enacted with a series of ritual gestures. It is a way of guaranteeing that each side of the agreement – in this case, us (the descendants of the Israelites) and God – will follow it.

To give an example, when I was a teacher, I enacted an agreement with my students who had been facing a difficult situation. Their teacher had left midyear and I was asked to take over the classroom. They were unnerved by the changes and needed reassurance. So together we created a covenant that specified what they would do and what I would do. We identified witnesses to our covenant – in the case of the covenant with God and Israel, it is the heaven and the earth that serves as witnesses. In our case, it was the Principal and Vice-principal. And we had blessings and curses. They were really more like incentives and punishments, really. Good behavior was rewarded at the end of semester with cake (their suggestion) and bad behavior was punished with an extra assignment (my suggestion).

The advantage of the covenant model is not that we can predict how life will unfold for us if we follow the commandments. Rather, the purpose of this structure is to remind us that the world does make sense, at the core of it, even in the midst of chaos.

Shabbat Shalom.

Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh and an adjunct instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She will receive her PhD from Hebrew Union College in June.

[1] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Behukotai II” (Jerusalem, Haomanim Press), p. 580.

[2] Ibid., “Behukotai I,” p. 572.

[3] From Hilkhot Teshuvah 9, 1, translated by Isadore Twersky, as quoted in Leibowitz., pp. 577-8.

[4] JPS translation.

Be happy and Shout out its Adar!

Be Happy its Adar!  Happy Rosh Hodesh Adar!

This month is considered one of the happiest months of the Hebrew Calendar.  It is said:  Those who welcome Adar increase joy and happiness in the world!  For it is in this month we celebrate the survival of Judaism despite another attempt by someone, this case Haman (may his name be erased) to annihilate us.   Fortunately, Haman did not succeed and we are here to celebrate and boo his name when we hear it during the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim, which this year we celebrate on February 23 & 24.  When I read the Book of Esther I try to remember how amazing it is that we have a whole book of the Hebrew Bible named for and featuring one woman, a rare but not exclusive situation.  Ruth exists as well.  It is easy to look at this book and dismiss Esther’s role in the story as that of a patriarchal stereotypic view of a woman especially because it was her physical attributes that got her to a place where the males in her life directed her behavior.  I personally was always more drawn to Vashti than Esther because it seemed that Vashti had more spunk, drive and courage.  I have always been amused that the authors of this text saw Vashti’s refusal to do what she was told as a threat to the very structure of their society and their place in it. They worried that other women would hear of her refusal and would make “their husbands contemptible in their eyes”  Esther 1:13-22.  But Esther can be viewed in another way, the ultimate insider who could have ignored all issues around her while living her life in the relative ease she has obtained.  But instead Esther risked it all to do what she had to do.  She recognized the power she possessed and used it to save her people.  We can admire her resolve and especially her patience in getting the King warmed up before she pressed for his support in saving her people.  Her story gives us much to admire, her book gives us great insight into the workings of the minds of our ancient authors and yes, it gives us a fun wondrous holiday to celebrate.  But I know that we cannot always use her methodology to press for things we believe in today.

 As I write this post today nine women were detained for committing the crime of trying to pray as a group covered in their prayer shawls at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  There are many who think that their act of civil disobedience is distracting from more major issues confronting Israeli society.  There are those who think that they are involved in a struggle that does not resonate with Israeli society because the Kotel is just not so important.  There are those who think that this is only a “Diaspora” issue, not a “real” Jewish issue.  There are those who don’t want to be identified with these “fringe” women because they want to stay solidly in the mainstream.  But those who wish to belittle this struggle are missing the point that it is not just a struggle about a place to pray, rather it is a struggle about the strength of women’s voices and presence in Israeli and Western society.  This is a struggle about whether the world will truly support a woman’s right to be an equal participant in society.  This is a struggle about a woman’s right to express a strong opinion and not be labeled as “confrontational” or “bitchy”.  This is a struggle for all people who are on the fringes of society having a right to still express themselves in the mainstream.  Yes women could pray as a group in other less public sections of the Old City of Jerusalem by why should they have to?  Why should only one type of religious authority be recognized?  Why is it that accommodations can only be made for the religious extremists of one type?   Today the Israeli police waited until men (including members of the paratroopers who liberated the Kotel in 1967)  who were supporting the Women of the Kotel left before  they grabbed nine women and detained them.  In prior confrontations the police were physically rough with the women they detained.   This action against the Women of the Kotel is an affront to women and is an attack on women’s rights and not only at the Kotel.  If this struggle for a woman’s right to pray with her peers at the Kotel is lost, it will be easier to chip away at other women’s rights issues.   It will be easier for religious authorities to continue to control marriage laws in Israel.  It will be easier for religious authorities to pressure women to conform to stricter religious standards of dress, where they should sit on buses, the number s of children they must have, the streets they can walk on and they marriages they must stay in.   It will be easier for people outside of Israel to reverse decades of progress for women in other areas as well.  This “small” issue has big ramifications for the status of women in society as a whole. 

As we rejoice in this month of Adar, may we remember all of our sisters and brothers who are crying out to have an equal voice in our world and may we help give voice to their struggle.  May the month of Adar bring joy and gladness and peace to us and to our world.    

A Statement from our Women’s Rabbinic Network Director on the arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall

The Women’s Rabbinic Network deplores the recent actions of the Israeli police, Israeli government, and the religious and administrative powers of the Western Wall, in the detainment, arrest, and imprisonment of Anat Hoffman, on Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, this past week, for wearing a tallit and praying the “Shema.”  She was accompanied by hundreds of women participating in the 100th anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

Women of the Wall’s efforts over the past 25 years, to create a gathering place for prayer for women of all denominations and beliefs, is a singular one in the Jewish world.  The arrest, imprisonment, and cruel treatment of Anat Hoffman, a founder and organizer of Women of the Wall, and director of the Israel Religious Action Center, is an affront to Jews everywhere. It is a condemnation of the values of religious freedom and tolerance. The Western Wall is not, as some believe, an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. It is a symbol of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty, a Jewish home that must be open to all people, a religious site that must protect the religious rights of anyone who wants to pray there.

For the past 3 years, since the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel on Rosh Hodesh Kislev 5770, November 18th, 2009, police and governmental response to the presence of Women of the Wall’s prayer service has increased. Police now routinely remove women from the prayer service, bring them to the local police station, detain them, fingerprint them.  These actions are deplorable anywhere, especially in the State of Israel. Women must not be treated as second class citizens.  Any efforts to silence women at the Wall, to discourage our attendance on Rosh Hodesh, will be met with continuous resistance and renewed commitment to participation in prayer services at the Wall, out loud and with great strength.

We will never submit to the efforts of the authorities of the Western Wall to silence the voices of women.  On this occasion of Hadassah’s centenary celebration, in which the efforts of women to build the Jewish state are highlighted, it is a crime to see a woman arrested for a behavior which so many women take for granted everywhere except in the Jewish homeland.  The Reform movement and the Women’s Rabbinic Network support the efforts of Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center to challenge the status quo at the Western Wall.  The most meaningful response to this offense is to renew our commitment to women’s services at the Western Wall. As it is states in Isaiah 62:1:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch.

We recommit to our efforts to make Israel, Jerusalem, and the Western Wall a place of safety and security.  We will continue to fight to have an Israel that is truly an embodiment of our hope for a Jewish homeland that stands for freedom, justice, and peace, a true democracy that values the participation and religious commitment of all Jews.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Director, Women’s Rabbinic Network


Mar Cheshvan, indeed!

Anat Hoffman

by Rabbi Ruth Adar

I just got word via the Women’s Rabbinic Network that Anat Hoffman was arrested again last night at the Kotel, the Western Wall, when she was there with a group from Women of the Wall and another group from Hadassah. Since I can’t find any more information on Ha’aretz to corroborate the details I’m not going to say more than that.  She’s been arrested, again. I wish I were surprised.

Anat Hoffman is the Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. She is also the chair of Nashot HaKotel, the Women of the Wall.  She was elected to the Jerusalem City Council and served on it for fourteen years. She has been tireless in her efforts to seek fairness and justice for all in Israel.

In the recent past, women have been arrested at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh for wearing a too-traditional tallit, for wearing a tallit in a manner too much like a man, and for similar ridiculousness. If this is a place that belongs to the whole Jewish people, why are women not allowed to pray as they are accustomed? Why must women be silent and meek at the Kotel? Why is only one expression of Judaism acceptable at the Kotel?

Some will say that this is an unimportant matter.  Who cares what the haredim do at the Kotel? What about Iran? What about security? What about the Situation with the Palestinians? What about the Arab Spring?

But you see, this is not really an issue about women praying at a wall or women wearing shawls.  This is really a question of the humanity of women. Women’s images are disappearing from public view in Israel, because one group of Jews sees all women’s images, faces, voices, and presence as immodest.  A group of men spat upon a young Orthodox girl, walking home from school, because her (very modest) clothing did not meet their standards of modesty. As with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, buses have become a battleground: do women have to sit in the back? may they ride at all?

So it is not a trivial matter that a group of women are insisting on their right to pray at the most famous holy site in the Jewish world. This is not about the Wall. It is not about shawls. It is about women’s right to be visible without molestation or repression.

The facts are not all in regarding this latest arrest. I hope that Anat is all right. She is in my prayers tonight. But not just in my prayers: I am joining other members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network in sending a donation to the Women of the Wall in honor of her, and to help cover the legal expenses of this work.

If you would like to join me (please join me!) you can donate funds to either of these organizations.  Just click on the link, and it will take you to the donations page.

Women of the Wall

Israel Religious Action Center

The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar”Cheshvan, Bitter Cheshvan, because there are no holidays or rejoicing in it. I am sorry to say that Anat’s arrest and the continuing assaults on women’s rights in Israel make this Cheshvan bitter indeed.  Let us hope that the time is coming when women can again stand at the Wall and pray, as we have done for centuries. Let us hope that some future Cheshvan is sweet.