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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. 

August 18, 2014 / conservadox

More on Ekev

In this week’s rather long Torah portion, one of the things Moses does is discuss some of the great things God has done for the Hebrews- for example, God “brought you water from a solid rock” (Deut. 8:15).

Scharfstein has an interesting scientific explanation of the “water from the rock” miracles.  He states that rain water trickles into soil, going down until it uncovers impermeable rocks.  At times, gravity causes the water to go below the rocks.  Scharfstein concludes by suggesting that where such rocks are “near the surface, water can be drawn by breaking or cracking the rock to release the water.”

In other words, its not literally true that rocks contain water; rather, the water is right below the rock, and when the rock is struck or cracked, the water that was always there becomes visible.

August 11, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ekev

This week’s Torah portion mentions that Israel is overflowing with grapes, pomegranates, wheat, barley etc (Deut. 8:8).  Why are these particular foods so important? 

Scharfstein focuses on wine and pomegranates. Wine is important because water was often scarce in the more arid parts of the land, and wine can be used as a substitute for water or be mixed with water.  Scharstein suggests that wine could also be used for pickling vegetables (though I’m not sure how) and that both wine and pomegranates can be used as folk remedies for various ailments.  


August 6, 2014 / conservadox

My crazy Tisha’b’Av

In Manhattan, I would take the subway to shul X for Tisha’b’Av night and then take the subway to shul Y for Tisha’b’Av day.  But in my suburbanized new city, everything has to be a hassle- especially if you don’t have a car and don’t want to rent one for the whole period (which I thought about doing and then unwisely decided was unnecessary).

Monday night I didn’t think I needed to rent a car and go to suburbia.  In my city there are only three congregations in the city limits (and thus covered by the city’s bus lines, since here in the outback the suburbs have their own transit which stops running after rush hour): Chabad and two Reform or Reform-leaning congregations.  Chabad and the more classical Reform congregation aren’t doing anything- I guess the Chabad rabbi wanted to go to the suburbs where there are more people.  I saw on the more traditional Reform congregation’s website that they were doing something at the rabbi’s house (which was mentioned on the website).  (I didn’t even now Reform congregations acknowledged Tisha’b’Av but this is on the traditional side of Reform).    It turned out that (1) the website had the time wrong and (2) I got slightly lost and walked around for half an hour trying to find the rabbi’s house so that I would have been half an hour late even had I gotten the time right so (3) I missed everything but some conversation which had nothing to do with Tisha’b’Av.  So I did eicha at home – not remembering the melody so I had to kind of guess.  (Maybe next year I’ll ask a rabbi if the custom of not listening to music applies to Eicha on Youtube).  If I had to do it again I probably would have rented a car and gone to the suburbs.

Tuesday was not perfect but much better. I took the suburban bus to the region’s major Orthodox congregation; I knew that I wasn’t going to get there in time for the morning minyan, but figured they’d be doing kinot till noon or so.  Wrong!  I got there at 8:45 and they were done with everything.  Fortunately they didn’t lock up completely; the beit midrash was open and they had a OU video feed about kinot in the rabbi’s office so I could stay awhile.  I read kinot for half an hour or so, then watched the video feed for awhile.  Then I walked to the nearest public library (about a 30 minute walk) and read a book and a half- I usually read a lot of Jewish history related to Tisha’b’Av (i.e. about oppression of the Jews in some way) during Tisha’b’Av and the weeks prior.  I spent most of the afternoon there, then walked back to shul for mincha and maariv.  After the fast was over I walked for an hour or so and then took a cab home (a surprisingly reasonable $15 including tip for a six mile ride!)

Tisha’b’Av is not supposed to be easy- and this time it was definitely comfortable for me than usual- not just because of logistics but also physically, since I decided to take my chances with the heat and walk around a bit.  But much to my surprise, I was able to handle it.  As usual, the first few hours of the fast were actually the hardest- I didn’t feel much hunger during the day (though I did have a slight headache for some of the early afternoon, not sure why).  I guess I learned that my body is capable of more than I thought it was. 

Is that particularly relevant to Tisha’b’Av?  Not in an abstract spiritual sense, but I suppose in the sense that the events surrounding the destruction of the Temples involved physical deprivation. 

August 3, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vaetchanan

This coming week’s Torah portion contains part of the Shema, including the requirement to love God (Deut. 6:5).  It is of course not clear what this means; it is hard to love an invisible Deity, and I think the JPS Commentary suggests that the Torah means loyalty rather than what we think of as “love.”

Scharfstein has an unusual take on this verse, suggesting that “loving God” means going beyond the letter of the law to “observe the spirit of the law.” This certainly seems like a nice thing to do in the abstract, but also seems a bit vague.

How do we observe the spirit of laws that don’t seem very moral (e.g. the occasional references to genocide, stoning homosexuals etc).  Or do we limit this concept to the more obviously moral laws?

Also, the Talmud and later generations of rabbis expanded halacha in ways that arguably implement the spirit of the law (e.g. various fences around the Torah, laws designed to make us remember the Temple etc).  Does that mean that by following the halacha of rabbinic Judaism, we’ve satisfied Deut. 6:5?

I don’t have an answer to either question; I just thought they were interesting questions.

August 3, 2014 / conservadox

shabbos dinner- first outside NYC

Because I arrived in my new city on Friday morning I didn’t have much time to be creative (even though I did a tiny bit of shopping along the way in Chicago, I was pretty limited by the necessity to avoid perishables).

Meal Mart pre-cooked ravioli

smoked salmon (easy to get even in places with a weak Jewish community)

sweet peas w/bbq sauce

dried lychee (got in NYC before leaving)

dark chocolate with orange peel (not as good as it sounds)

Edy’s caramel ice cream

Also had my first shul experience- walked 4 miles to Conservative shul (Orthodox shuls are even further- I live in highly suburbanized metro area, and since I’m there for only a year and plan to spend many shabboses out of town I am not going to torture myself in other ways to live in what passes for a Jewish neighborhood here).  It was so-so- people nice, rabbi’s sermon (summary: Hamas is bad) was pretty blah.  More people under 60 than I would expect from C shul.

July 27, 2014 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Devarim

In this week’s portion, Moses tells the Jews not to fight with Edomites (Deut. 2:5) and tells them that they will trade with the Edomites (2:6).   Schafstein writes that Rashbam notes that the Edomites in question “were friendly and allowed the Israelites to pass through their land” unlike Edomites in the western part of Israel were more hostile and kept the Jews from going through their land (Num. 20:18). 

Maybe the Torah is telling something broader.  There are certainly statements in the Torah that might sound racist to modern eyes.  But here, the Torah is telling us that not all Edomites are the same- some tribes of Edomites are hostile, others not so much.

Speaking of which, this is my last weekend in NYC.  Tuesday I leave for a city in the midwest where I plan to spend my coming academic year; hopefully the tribes there will be friendly (though unlike the Israelites I am moving to a less Jewish place- not a small town where there is nothing, but a mid-sized city where there is one or two of each denomination).

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.


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