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September 13, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Nitzavim

This coming week”s Torah portion mentions that there are secret things that are for God and not for the listeners (Deut. 29:28).  Scharfstein interprets this language as follows: “There are numerous secrets that [God] has not revealed to us because our minds are limited and will not be able to grasp the meaning of these secrets.”  Scharfstein seems to think that this language is meant to refer to things that will never be within the grasp of humanity.

But it seems to me that there is another possible interpretation.  In Scharfstein’s translation, the “secrets [are what] God has not told us.” Maybe “us” is the generation Moses is speaking to, and the scientific and moral advances of the past few centuries are “secrets” that premodern generations could not handle, but that we perhaps can- for example, evolution or the idea that slavery is actually a bad thing.

September 13, 2014 / conservadox

what? No meal discussion?

If you are wondering why I’m not blogging about food, its because I’ve gone to the Chabad shliach’s house two shabboses in a row, and all the food I was planning to eat for Shabbos dinner/lunch I eat at seudah shlichit (the “third meal” right before Shabbos ends) or during the week.  But I did have a couple of interesting meals in the latter category.

Last week, the Torah portion was all about not taking a mother bird away with her eggs.  So naturally I had eggs.  I was wondering whether fowl with eggs would be kind of trangressive (even if not a literal violation of the mitzvah) so I had turkey pastrami on a separate plate.

This week the portion kept mentioning milk and honey so I had bunuelo pancakes with same.  (Yes, you can have kosher bunuelos if you are in the right place – Goya’s Columbia-made bunuelos now have circle K certification!)

September 7, 2014 / conservadox


This morning I noticed that I had bought some gelcaps of a medication, and was wondering whether there was a kashrut problem.  Here’s a discussion of the issue (bottom line: its sort of OK but not ideal).

September 7, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tavo

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells the Jews to “set up large stones and coat them with plaster” (Deut. 27:2).  Scharfstein explains that the custom of inscribing laws on large stones was actually pretty common in the Near East; for example, the Code of Hammurabi is on a stone 7 feet high.  By plastering, Moses means whitewashing, which according to Scharfstein was a common Egyptian practice.  The stone was then “written on or painted on in black ink or other contrasting color.” Here is an example of what he is talking about. 

September 7, 2014 / conservadox

my third shabbat in mid-sized city

Finally, something resembling (though not quite identical to) a normal shabbat.  The good news is that the neighborhood Chabad rabbi opened his house for services.  The bad news was only one person besides myself showed up, so we all davened at our own pace. 

September 6, 2014 / conservadox

Life in the small city

Why no shabbos meal discussions?  Because I was out of town last weekend (basically just having a mackerel sandwich and some chocolate for dinner) and this weekend the Chabad near me finally opened for business- it turned out that it wasn’t much of a service, just me and one or two other people at the Chabad rabbi’s house and then a meal. 

September 2, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tetzei

“You must not plow with an ox and a donkey in the same team.” (Deut. 22:10).  Scharfstein has an interesting take on this: he reasons by analogy that people “should not be placed in situations, classrooms or teams in which they are outclassed either physically or intellectually.”

Interesting, but not totally persuasive.  Are children better off with children just like them, or with smarter children they can learn from?  There’s some expert opinion on the latter side. There are many American public schools full of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they consistently yield dismal results.   Some experts argue that in more socially diverse schools, children from disadvantaged backgrounds do better even if they are outclassed.  

But well-off parents have voted with their feet against this type of integration.  When poorer children move into a school, the school quickly gets a bad reputation, and middle-class parents leave.  This happened as early as the 1950s when white parents started to flee racially integrated schools.  More recently, black middle-class parents have been fleeing socially integrated all-black schools.  Liberal-minded academics may disagree with Scharfstein, but parents are not interested in their opinions.  So for all practical purposes Scharfstein has won the argument. 

August 24, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shofetim

This week’s portion includes the rules of war: when Hebrews besiege a city, they must first “propose a peaceful settlement” (Deut. 20:10).  If the city says no, the Hebrews shall take the city and kill all the adult males (20:14)- though as Scharfstein points out, “the Torah prescribes a ore humane conduct towards the women and children [who merely become slaves].”  Of course, most modern readers recoil at such passages- so how do we explain their presence in a Divine (or Divinely-inspired) document?

The most common answer I have heard is that people were just less civilized in those days.  But I think this is too easy; it seems to me that there are pragmatic reasons why genocidal warfare (or almost-genocidal warfare) made more sense 40 centuries ago than it did a century ago.

40 centuries ago, the difference between civilians and soldiers was pretty blurry; no one wore uniforms, and I can’t imagine swords were hard to get if the Hebrews were able to get them.  So if everyone (or at least every adult male) is a potential soldier, and your group wanted to take over city x, the best way to avoid future guerilla warfare from the residents of city x would be genocide.  So to me, the more interesting question is: what changed?  Why did genocide (mostly) go out of fashion?

At some point, armies became more professional; they started wearing armor and then uniforms, and then started to get specialized weaponry that really wasn’t that easy for civilians to get (such as tanks and bazookas).  As the soldier/civilian gap increased over the centuries, it became easier and easier for armies to hold territory without killing every single adult male on the other side.   The Nazi genocide is not really an exception to this rule; even though the Nazis killed Jews out of ideological fanaticism, they were able to hold western Europe without killing most non-Jewish civilians.  (Eastern Europe is more complicated; even though they did not kill every single civilian Pole, they were considerably more bloodthirsty towards Poles than French, again out of ideological fanaticism- they believed Poles were an inferior race too).

So if this dvar Torah had ended anytime before September 11, 2001, it would have a happy ending.  But technology now has moved in a very different direction; rockets, etc. are now so easy and cheap to get that non-uniformed groups like Hamas, ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc. can fight an army on relatively equal terms, which means that the boundary between civilian and soldier is becoming more blurry.  For example, when the USA tried to conquer Iraq, the Iraqi army melted away quickly, but civilians quickly created a terrorist underground that made Iraq ungovernable, and which later become ISIS.    Similarly, Israel does not want to conquer Gaza because (I suspect) of fears that if it tried to do so, Hamas would melt into the general population and make the place ungovernable.

So does this mean that armies will return to Deuteronomy-style tactics?  I doubt that the USA or Israel will do so, for obvious moral reasons.  But in the rest of the world, who knows?

August 24, 2014 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner- My first full shabbos in Mid-Sized City

I finally got my furniture, and am (mostly) unpacked.  And I rented a car Friday afternoon to visit the suburbs (since in Mid-Sized City the only supermarket with a really large kosher selection is 2 miles from the nearest bus stop, and the suburban buses there only run 9-5) to check out the kosher selection.  

Because last week’s Torah portion focused on the centralization of sacrifices in a main sanctuary, I thought this would be a good time for a meat meal (something that will be pretty rare over the next year, since (a) I have to drive out to the suburbs or join Costco if I want kosher beef)* and (b) chicken is easier to get but not worth the trouble in my opinion).   So I got plenty of meat!

There was a lot of prepackaged food which I couldn’t resist trying: tuna sushi with spicy mayo, spaghetti with meatballs, buffalo wings, Israeli salad (the latter was disappointingly bland, not what I’m used to – but then “bland” is kind of a midwestern stereotype).  

The Torah portion includes the meat/milk prohibition (14:21) so I had a kosher version of meat and milk, boiling beef kreplach in almond milk.  Actually, I made a stew of it by adding small tomatoes, which turned out quite well- the almond milk somehow boils the acidity out of the tomatoes.  

The portion says that if things go well, you shall consume tithes of grain, wine and oil (14:23) so I added a little more olive oil to the Israel salad, which made it a bit better.  I also added olive oil to my matzoh (because the portion refers to Pesach I had matzoh instead of challah rolls). 

For dessert: plums and chocolate coins (unimaginative but that’s the downside of a meat meal).

My Saturday was a little unusual.  My problem: the nearest synagogues (other than the Chabad which is only open one shabbos a month or so) are Reform.  But the Reform liturgy is so scaled-back I can’t really say the prayers that I have taken on there.  So I thought I would daven first at home and go to one of the two Reform synagogues.  I went to the closer one; it turns out that they don’t generally have Saturday services, just a study session.  So I went to the study session, which was mildly interesting- we talked about tithes (a portion of Re’eh I’d never really focused on before).  The main yearly tithe, if you take the Torah literally, requires Jews to go to the main shrine (in Shiloh, and later in Jerusalem) and use up 10 percent of their food.  Since no family could possibly do this on their own, it is basically disguised charity.  (Of course not everyone could travel… but that’s another discussion).   After all this, I went to the local art museum, which is gigantic and free; after five hours there I am still not finished with it. 


*In my new city, unlike NYC, kosher lamb or bison is simply not an option. 


August 19, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Reeh

In this week’s portion, God says to Moses that the Jews may not add or subtract rules from the Torah (Deut. 13:1).  Scharfstein writes that “The Torah in its original form has survived for 4,000 years without any additions or deletions.  The Torah that was read then was exactly the same document that the Jewish people are reading today.”

This statement is, I guess, fine for children.  But it is not quite right.  There are several tiny differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Torahs, mostly involving spacing or silent letters.  So perhaps one might say that the Torah we have is substantively the same as the Masoretic text created about 1200 years ago.   But before then the historical record is pretty ambiguous;   the Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly not identical to the Masoretic text, and even Talmud-era commentary occasionally suggests the existence of minor variations.  (For a detailed scholarly discussion of these issues go here) .  And we have no extant Torahs that precede the Talmudic sages, so we cannot know for sure how different the Torah of Hillel and Shammai was from today’s Torah.

Scharfstein also writes, in describing the dietary restrictions on milk and meat (Deut. 14:21) that “observant Jews wait six hours after eating meat before eating dairy food.”  This isn’t completely wrong, but it is an oversimplification; Jews from some countries have this custom, but in fact there are several other customs: German Jews wait three hours, Dutch Jews just one;. 

It seems to me that there is a broader issue of principle involved here: to what extent can we simplify the truth for an immature or general audience?  I’m not sure there’s any global solution to this question; I think that if Scharfstein had been writing a children’s book, his claims might have been appropriate.  But since this book is likely to be read by a broader audience, I think he may be crossing the line between simplifying and oversimplifying in the instances discussed above. 


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