Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Desperate for role models?

Have you ever been sitting in school or at work and it's a colleague's turn to speak and you can tell they haven't prepared? Maybe they've been caught off guard, maybe they didn't study, or maybe their brain just decided to go on vacation. When this happens things usually go one of two ways: either they resort to the ancient art of bullshitting (I have been told on several occasions I am quite good at this, thanks to my ability to keep a straight face whether discussing finer points of Jewish history or pretending I have any idea what the defining traits of a sonnet are), or they start grasping at straws.

I really feel for those latter people, folks who for whatever reason weren't born with the BS gene and who panic when they must speak and share what they're supposed to know with the rest of the class. You can tell they genuinely find it terrifying, and you always hope whoever is making them speak up will pick up on their lack of preparedness and let them off easy.

That said, it's one thing to be asked to speak in a meeting or a classroom. It's another when you're writing a column.

Case in point: Rabbi Judah Dardik's most recent article on the weekly Parsha, which reads as if he remembered he needed to write it 30 minutes before submission time and was scrambling for a theme.

The portion is Parshat Balak, which describes the Israelites cavorting with Midianites and worshipping B'aal Peor. Moses doesn't know what to do and the nation is at a cross-roads.

this week’s Torah reading indicates that indeed it happened that Moshe was at a loss. There came a question that Moshe could not recall, and in his stead it was Pinchas who knew the answer. 
The final narrative in the text speaks of a moment of communal crisis in which Jewish men were openly carrying on sexual relationships with Midianite women. As the nation looked to Moshe for guidance, he sat crying. Rashi quotes the Midrash in explanation that Moshe’s tears were a response to the realization that he at one point had known what to do, and simply could not remember at this time. He was pained that at other moments of need (such as the Golden Calf) he knew the answer, but in this case mental weakness got the better of him. How could it be that Pinchas would know, and Moshe would not? 
...The Tanchuma explains that this was actually a set up, as Moshe was caused to forget “in order that Pinchas should come and take that which suited him.” What does this mean? What suited him? Most simply, I believe that this is an observation that it was time for a new and younger generation to step up into leadership of the People.
Um, ok, but Rabbi Dardik is glossing over a pretty important point, namely, that Pinchas' "moment of clarity" leads him to impale a dude with a spear.
Pinchas was born to a family of leaders, and is cited by Maimonides as one of the top younger Torah scholars of his day. But Moshe was such a towering intellectual figure that he cast a long shadow; as long as he was around, no one would turn to another for guidance. Thus, HaShem effectively neutralized Moshe in order that others should have the opportunity to step into the fray. Otherwise, there would be no one to direct and guide the Children of Israel after Moshe passed away.
I'm sorry Rabbi, but you can't just ignore the fact that Pinchas used his "leadership opportunity" to turn Zimri and his lady into human pincushions. I'm not sure you really want to use Pinchas as a prime example of the "innovative paradigms" that the youth can come up with if the elders don't stifle their creativity.

Yet apparently that is exactly where R. Dardik goes with this:

With this in mind, I was interested to learn of the results of the recent East Bay Jewish population survey. An article in j. noted that in the survey of thousands East Bay residents, “72 percent of respondents said being Jewish is very important or somewhat important to them personally … and two-thirds agree or somewhat agreed that they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” This seemed to me a very encouraging set of statistically backed statements that support the future of our Jewish community. 
And then I got to the next segment: “Thirty percent currently provide their children with a formal Jewish education, but 48 percent said they were not too interested or not interested at all in providing a formal Jewish education.” We are blessed with wonderful and visionary leaders in our community, but each generation eventually gives way to the one that follows it. This is the way of the world. Yet think about it: If only 30 percent actually receive any formal Jewish education and nearly half of parents do not have interest in offering one, how diminished are our prospects of future leadership? 
The continued “winning streak” of the Jewish people has already passed the 3,600 year mark. Back in Moshe’s day, the issue was whether people would recognize Pinchas when he arose to take charge. Now I pray that we will indeed raise children in our day who will be able to step up when our current best and brightest no longer have the capacity to stand at the helm.
Geez, this is what you were leading up to with this? Make sure you send your kids to Hebrew school? And, "fingers crossed we'll have future leaders as visionary as Pinchas"??

Seriously-- Pinchas is not a good role model. He reads as a crazy hothead who slaughters two people, in coitus no less (honor, what's that?), as opposed to trying to find another solution, say, by mobilizing the people loyal to Moses to ostracize the idolators or split off from them. Instead, like various other schisms before (Golden Calf, Korach, etc), it ends with the defectors dead. Given that R. Dardik is trying to promote Pinchas as innovator, it's pretty interesting that his solution is pretty much the same as Moses' and God's before him-- just kill the sucker. (I suppose he gets bonus points for catching them unaware without any chance of defending themselves. So yeah, go team on that one.)

Pinchas' legacy is actually rather creepy, as he has been used to bolster support for both racism and vigilantism. In Jewish circles his status as a "zealot" has been cited over the years to justify violence against people seen as acting against God or the Jewish people. In America Pinchas' story was read as condemning race-mixing, not idolatry (which is funny given that Moses married a Midianite) and was used to justify anti-miscegenation laws and other racist measures. Further down the crazy hole you have white separatists and people from the Christian Identity movement who explicitly model themselves on Pinchas, some even dubbing themselves the "Phineas Priesthood." Nice.

This whole thing just reads as bizarre, especially since most of Balak is not about Pinchas at all; it's about  Balaam. If R. Dardik wanted to write about how important education and leadership are, he'd be better off talking about Balaam and his bad decisions which never come out how he wants them. He could even have included a great tag-line like, "Yes folks, God does turn curses into blessings, but he also helps those who help themselves. Send Jr. to Hebrew school." Instead he elevates Pinchas as a hero, even asking in his title, "Minus a modern-day Pinchas, is Judaism's future in Jeopardy?"

Yes, Jewish education and identity is important. But let's all hope that none of our kids turn out-- or aspire to be-- a Pinchas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I adore Rabbi Dardik. He is a true mensch. (Congregation Beth Jacob, Oakland) Please forward a copy of your comments to him- it might be a great opportunity for both of you to speak , to learn and grow (dang, i've been in California way too long)