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July 19, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mattei

Numbers 35:19 says that in cases of murder “after the trial, a relative of the victim is allowed to kill the murderer wherever he finds him.”

Scharfstein writes that entrusting execution “to a family member will ultimately lead to eradication of blood feuds.”  I suppose this might be true in the long run- but in the short run it seems like institutionalizing blood feuds by giving the victim’s family a shot at revenge.   On the other hand, this rule does at least create some neutral supervision, and is thus a step in the right direction. 

One interesting passage Scharfstein does not focus on is the phrase “wherever he finds him.” I would have thought that normally a murderer would be in some form of custody, so that the avenger would not have to “find” him.  Does this mean that the murderer somehow gets a head start? Or does this language just cover the unusual cases where the murderer is never apprehended and is tried in absentia?  I would guess the latter, but never noticed the ambiguity before.

By the way, this linguistic quirk is not limited to the Scharfstein translation; Hertz says the relative can kill the killer “when he meeteth him”- language that seems to me to have the same problem.

July 19, 2014 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This was a very unusual and small shabbos dinner- unusual because I was going to someone’s apt and the hostess was injured and had to go to the emergency room, causing her to cancel out about an hour and a half before candle lighting, and small because I’d had more coffee than I should have had in the afternoon which reduced my appetite (though oddly it didn’t affect my bedtime much).

So what do you do when you just want a light meal without much notice:

mustard greens (had just bought a can)


a fresh fig (found at Fairway)

blueback salmon with curry sauce (had lying around)

some almonds

marzipan (my intended hostess gift)

and that was that;.

July 14, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mattot

How do we treat religious texts that seem to endorse immoral behavior, for example Numbers 31:17 (in which Moses seems to command the killing of every non-virgin Midianite woman)?

We can either alter our ideas of morality (the route chosen by murderous fundamentalists), repudiate the texts, or choose the middle way of reading the texts charitably.

Scharfstein has an interesting take: he says “Moses was angry with the commanders who allowed the women to live whom Balaam organized to entice the Israelites to commit immoral sexual acts.”

In other words, when Moses says “every woman who has had sexual relations with a man”, Scharfstein reads “every woman who has had sexual relations with a Jewish man”?

Is this a plausible reading of the text? On the one hand, it certainly isn’t the plain meaning of the translation.  

On the other hand, Jews have never been addicted to literalism.  And in view of the purpose of Moses’s anger (to punish Midianites for seducing Jews) it might make more sense to only punish the truly guilty women*, as opposed to those who had ever been married to anyone.  So Scharfstein’s reading isn’t completely nuts (though it creates practical problems such as how to tell the innocent from the guilty).

*Though I still don’t think that sex with Jews should be a capital offense- but that’s another discussion.

July 14, 2014 / conservadox

the most austere shabbos meal yet

This weekend I was in the midwestern city I am moving to, looking for apartments. My new school was paying for a hotel room, which means I had to worry about electronic locks.  I decided to stay in the room until after mincha, so I could do the three shabbos meals without worrying about inadvertently locking myself out.

My dinner was not bad, except for one major hitch.  The challah rolls I brought with me turned out to have become moldy.  Yikes!

Fortunately, I had brought a focaccia from Pomegranate; I have learned from my neighborhood rabbi that although whole loaves are ideal for a Shabbos meal, cut-up bread is better than nothing.  So I treated the focaccia like a pull-apart challah, effectively making several pieces out of it, and said hamotzi on that.

I also had ready-to-eat ziti (don’t recommend- not terrible but not good enough for shabbos either), mackerel, dulce de leche rice cakes (OK but not as good as they sound), chocolate covered marzipan (quite good- I am developing a taste for marzipan).

For lunch I had more mackerel, more marzipan and chickpeas.  (My third meal was just the bread).

The next time I travel I will have to bring more food!


July 14, 2014 / conservadox

leaving NYC after two more shabboses

I regret to inform my readers (if I have more than one or two) that I am leaving NYC, though hopefully not permanently.  The school where I teach is a bit in the red, and to avoid being laid off I am talking a year off, teaching at a college in a mid-sized midwestern city whose Jewish community is not much bigger than the place I left to go to NYC.  

Next shabbos I sponsor the kiddush at my main school in Midtown, and then my last shabbos will be on the Lower East Side to say goodbye to a rabbi who is making aliyah.

July 7, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Pinchas

This week’s Torah portion contains the story of the daughters of Tzelafechad, who argue that they should get an inheritance from their father who left no sons (Numb. 27).  The story assumes, of course, that if the father did leaves sons, only the sons would inherit 

Why?  Scharfstein explains that in a traditional society, most girls married very early in life and were supported by their husbands- a reasonable explanation for what today seems like an irrational and sexist law.

Today, this issue is moot even among the most halachically observant Jews, since rabbis have created ways to account for the reality that young women are often unmarried or (even with a husband) are worse off than their brothers. (Here is a more detailed discussion of these work-arounds).

July 1, 2014 / conservadox

responding to tragedy

As everyone who has not been living in a cave knows, some Arab terrorists recently murdered three Israeli boys.  Many people are using this incident to reconfirm every preexisting prejudice they ever had. 

The far Left is using this as an excuse to show that the Israelis are just as bad as the Arabs, because after all the Israelis do bad stuff too.

The nationalist/neocon Right is looking for excuses to blame Obama.

Personally, I think it is useful to think of some of the last few lines of the Amidah: “O Lord… to those who abuse me may I give no heed.”  Also, “as for those who may think evil against me, do thou frustrate their counsel and undo their designs.”

July 1, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Balak

This week’s Torah portion is about the paranoia of Balak, king of Moab.  The Torah says “he was terrified because of the great victory won by the Israelite soldiers” (Num. 22:2).  As a result, he asks the pagan prophet Balaam to curse the Jews.  As Scharfstein states, “they feared and distrusted the desert wanderers”.  Balak was trying to decide whether to leave the Jews alone in the hopes he would leave them alone, or to nip the Hebrew threat in the bud.  At first (as our portion shows) he tried the first strategy, without much success.  Since the historical record shows that Moab survived for seven or eight centuries after the Exodus, it appears that they eventually wised up and tried the second strategy.

It strikes me that the United States is in a somewhat similar situation to Balak.  We have heard about an army of desert wanderers (the Islamic State, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever you wanted to call them) having some surprising victories over the Iraqi and Syrian armies.  Because the Islamic State guys seem to be a spinoff of al-Qaeda, our leaders are naturally afraid that they might turn on the U.S and try to create another 9/11.  And because cursing doesn’t really work, a military response might be in order.  But it seems to me possible that this response might be as counterproductive as the Moabite/Midianite response.

There are two possible scenarios:

A.  ISIS wants to attack the U.S. as soon Iraq stabilizes.

B.  ISIS doesn’t like the U.S. much, but is really much more interested in ruling its own patch of land, and will not bother the U.S. unless the U.S. bothers ISIS.

If scenario A is correct, the U.S. should probably respond far more aggressively than it has, if it is actually possible to crush ISIS rather than merely causing its fighters to merely leave Iraq and scatter across the globe (thus massively increasing the risk of anti-American terrorism). 

If scenario B is correct, the U.S. might be well advised to mind its own business, because the more we fight ISIS, the more likely they are to become involved in anti-U.S. terrorism.  And since they have gotten quite a bit of wealth from plundering the Iraqi locals, they have the money to do a lot more damage than al-Qaeda.

I don’t have any idea which is correct, but I hope the President is devoting every waking second to the issue, rather than continuing to chase rainbows by trying to revitalize the Israeli/Palestinian peace process for the umpteenth time.  (In fact, I kind of wonder whether the U.S. would have been a little more focused on Iraq had they not spent the past few years chasing said rainbows).


*Scharfstein adds that the Moabaites “were aware that the Israelites would not attack their own kinsmen.”  But this is stupid.  The Israelites may have known that, but how would the Moabites know that?  Come to think of it, maybe they didn’t know the Israelites were their kinsmen.

July 1, 2014 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

Last shabbos I was in Washington, DC for a conference, but still managed to have a somewhat interesting dinner in the room where I was staying.

Moses is reproached by the Jews for not having brought the Jews to a land of figs and pomegranatesv(Num. 19:5)*.  So I had dried figs and a Kind fruit/nut bar with pomegranate etc.  I also had Meal Mart ravioli for a main course; it was better than most Meal-Mart prepackaged food, but it didn’t stay warm an hour after I microwaved it so it was kinda cold.  I also had cashews and sardines, just because I bought too much food. 

It is good to know how to shop for when you can’t cook.

*Also grapes- but I figured wine takes care of that, plus I don’t like grapes that much.

June 21, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chukkat

This week’s Torah portion features the famous “water from the rock” episode (Num. 19).  The people complain about the absence of water, and Moses gets miffed and hits a rock (which maybe he should have spoken to, though the medieval commentators are divided on how much this matters).

Why are people so upset in the first place?  After all, they have manna to eat, and they have domestic animals which means occasional milk and meat.   For one thing, the absence of water seems to be a recurrent problem.  Evidently, God doesn’t want them to get too comfortable, otherwise God would have provided water along with the manna (but then you’d have fewer complaints, thus making the story more boring I suppose).

Scharfstein reads in a couple of other problems that are not in the text, suggesting that “The hot sun baked them during the day and the cold desert froze them at night” while local tribes “stole their property and flocks.”  I don’t know where he gets this from, but regardless of the relationship to the text Scharfstein has a shrewd insight into human nature.

Having enough to eat* is important, but people really, really care about weather- which is one reason why the South and Southwest became more popular after air conditioning, since people could enjoy warm winters without experiencing scorching summers to the same degree.  People also care about bodily security, which is why flight from city to suburb was most rapid in the 1960s and 1970s; even though incomes were rapidly growing in those days (at least until the mid-70s energy crisis) crime rose most rapidly then. 


*Scharfstein also writes that the Jews “died of disease, hunger and thirst.”  Given the constant manna I don’t know where he gets this from.


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