Making sense of our world –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 12, 2013

We have just finished reading the story of Joseph and his brothers.  In it Joseph’s brothers experience confusion, despondency, and powerlessness as their brother secretively manipulates them, falsely accusing them of being spies and thieves.  One can imagine being in their shoes and asking: Why?  Why are all these terrible things happening?  Ultimately their worst nightmare comes true, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin hostage. 

 

We, the readers, see both sides of the story.   We see Yosef pulling the strings orchestrating the entire situation.  But for the brothers, for the Jewish people of the time, it is one inexplicable tragedy after another.   They search their deeds and ask: Why is this happening to us?  They blame themselves.  Ultimately they engage in self scrutiny, in repentance, in self sacrifice and as people and Jews development themselves from those who sold their brother to those to suffer to save a brother.

 

With one climactic sentence all the times of pain and confusion collapse into focus:  “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”   This might not remove all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, and the self blame, but it does, in one fell swoop, make sense of the seemingly nonsensical series of episodes through which they have lived and suffered.  

 

The Rabbis tell us that Yosef and his brothers go down to Egypt to, “pave the way” for the Jewish people’s exile and ultimate redemption; an exile of much darkness and confusion ultimately culminating in exodus, and perhaps, in hindsight, making some meaning of the years of darkness.  Perhaps this is one reason the story of Yosef and his brothers is told just before the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, for in it the Jewish people are like Joseph’s brothers.

 

This all feels a lot like our world.   We are Yosef’s brothers too.  We live lives that are anything but simple and clear, anything but controllable.  Perhaps the lesson is to have hope and faith that ultimately those six words will be spoken, “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive,” and things will come into focus, things will make sense.  And through it all not to give in but to utilize the experience as a catalyst for self reflection, and as the brothers and especially Yehudah do, for personal, interpersonal, and religious growth.   If we find meaning in the darkness and care for others in it then perhaps we can avoid the strife that led the brothers down to Egypt in the first place.  Though redemption is not a solution or an erasing of the exilic past, perhaps it is a making of meaning from the past, and ultimately, through it, we can hear, speedily in our days, the six words of explanation that bring all into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”

 

 


On Modesty and Misogyny by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 23, 2011

The sexual assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week brought me to think a bit about the role of modesty in religious countries.   Egypt is a country in which most women are religiously required or encouraged to cover themselves completely.  Yet paradoxically it is also a country in which women on the street, even those who are covered, are constantly at risk of being sexually harassed by men.

The following paragraph is from the Canadian government’s travel advisory on Egypt:

“Women, particularly foreign women, are frequently subject to unpleasant male attention, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse. This often takes the form of staring, inappropriate remarks, catcalls, and touching.”

Trying to make sense of this dichotomy the author of a recent Associated Press article reacting to the Lara Logan case hypothesized the following:

“Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game.” If this is so it paints the picture of a perverse and one sided take on the idea of modesty.

It seems to me the role of modesty in religion is two fold.  Firstly, to be modest before God.  Flaunting the body is a kind of haughtiness because it shows we wish to be desired, respected, and approved of, not for who we are essentially (a being made in God’s image according to the Bible) but for something external.  This is the quintessence of hubris, to be lauded for what one has rather than what one does.   The same is true of flaunting one’s car, one’s money, or one’s house.

Secondly, modesty keeps sexual desire in its place.   Spiritual paths all seem to understand that sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and that, if utilized correctly in specific contexts, that power can produce the holiest of things: the creation of new human beings with divine souls, and the deepest of human connections between two willing people.

While the Associated Press theory above may be correct, it bespeaks a one sided sense of modesty gone awry.   Formulating modesty as something that focuses on women and not upon men leads to only half the population cultivating the important values that modesty should teach, and seems to actually result in an overall lack of modesty.   Delineating a modest society or religion by how its women dress and not by how its men act leads to a bizarre double standard such as that in Egypt: women in extremely modest dress being sexually harassed by men who supposedly buy into the same religious value of modesty, but practice it not at all.

A double standard of modesty is sometimes depicted, (admittedly with out the same violent results) in a county close to my heart, Israel.  There are very religious Jewish sections of Jerusalem where upon entering one sees signs warning women to dress modestly, yet there are no signs warning men to watch what they look at, though there is much written in Judaism’s books of religious law about this very issue.   In fact if one looks in the Talmud, Judaism’s most basic source of tradition and law, or even in later codes of Jewish law one finds almost nothing prescribing  female dress, but much about the care men must exercise in guarding their eyes and speech.

Unless we see modesty as more than just how women dress but also as how we all act then we have facilitated hypocrisy rather than religious humility before God.  As the prophet Micha (6:8) said so long ago, “What does God ask of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”