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May 29, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah-Bechukotai

This week’s Torah portion creates a variety of blessings and curses, nearly all of which are more physical than material.  Why not promise spiritual rewards instead?

Arama responds by dividing people into three groups: 1) atheists; 2) theists who believe in other religions and 3) Jews.  He writes that if “had Torah promised survival of the soul, they [the first group] would have ridiculed such a promise.” But Arama overlooks the fact that atheists also ridicule the Torah’s promise of material rewards, since there is no evidence that such rewards actually happened other than the words of the prophets which the atheists also do not believe.  So color me unpersuaded.

As to the other two groups, Arama doesn’t think they would have a problem with spiritual rewards; in fact, he suggests they wonder why the Torah would remain silent about life after death.  Arama argues that the Torah promises this by implication- for example, referring to the karet penalty (being cut off from one’s people) which to him implies the absence of the afterlife.  But I’m not persuaded by this either; why couldn’t the Torah be more explicit?  (The secular-scholar explanation is that the idea of postmortem reward and punishment evolved gradually between the birth of the Torah and the rabbinic era).


May 25, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behar

This week’s portion emphasizes that “the land shall not be sold permanently” (Lev. 25:23), and adds that if someone becomes destitute his relatives shall redeem his land, and failing that, that land should revert to its original owners during the Jubilee year (Lev. 25:25-28).

Why?  Arama writes that “To the extent that material possessions free man from being totally preoccupied with his spiritual survival in this world, they afford him the opportunity to try and acquire spiritual values.. [thus] Torah and all it stands for cannot flourish unless there is a sound economic foundation.”  Thus, “Cleaving to one’s piece of land as a basis for one’s financial service, therefore, became very important.”

In other words, the redistributive legislation of the Torah is not based purely on humanitarianism; rather, it is based on the premise that without food, etc., a Jew cannot focus on Torah.

May 17, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Emor

This week’s portion discusses numerous Jewish holidays.  Arama asks: why does the Torah place Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot in the fall?  He explains that the fall is (in an agricultural economy) harvest time, a time when “man considers himself most independent and he is at the height of his self-reliance.  It is at this time that he needs to be reminded that he is still in need of God’s protection.”  He goes on to explain that the shofar is a physical manifestation of this need.

By contrast, during the spring a farmer knows life is precarious- that’s when he begins to plant stuff, and so there is still a risk throughout the spring and summer of drought.  Maybe this fact explains why the omer period is a mourning period- one’s crops still might go bad.

May 11, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Kedoshim

If a man lies carnally with a woman, and she is a handmaid designated for a man, and she had not been [fully] redeemed nor had her document of emancipation been granted her, there shall be an investigation; they shall not be put to death, because she had not been [completely] freed. – Lev. 19:20

This statement doesn’t state directly that it is not OK for a man to lie with a handmaid (presumably a slave or indentured servitude) but the statement “they shall not be put to death” implies that it is still not quite kosher, at least if she is “designated for a man.”

Arama points out that this law is right after the rules prohibiting cross-breeding of seeds and livestock (19:19).  So what?  He writes that “if one is to avoid mixing different seed… it is obvious that the sexual pairing of freemen and slaves constitutes an even greater breach of such a rule.  These people are not compatible, do not even share the need to observe the Torah laws in the same manner.”  He thinks the Torah is telling us to consider compatibility in all fields (pun intended).

This is relevant to my life because I visited NYC to have two dates.  One of them was at the right edge of modern Orthodox; she talked about how she didn’t eat broccoli at home because of the bug issue.  (I don’t either, but I just hate broccoli).  Not a big thing at all, but just one tiny bit of information (not the only one) suggesting that we are kind of from different worlds.  I am not ruling her out of course, but am wondering whether she is a long run prospect for me.

May 6, 2016 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

Because the Torah portion talks about the yom Kippur scapegoat i wanted goat cheese. And as next week is yom haatzmut i wanted something Israeli. So.. Bourekas with goat cheese added. Also I added mackerel to a couple of bourekas for no good reason. And osem falafel (Israel made) and Israeli chocolate.


May 2, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Acharei Mot

This week’s Torah portion reminds us not to eat blood (Lev. 17:12) and yet blood is constantly being sprinkled around during sacrifices.  So its not that blood is completely impure- so what’s really going on here?

Arama writes that blood represents an animal’s personality, and so by pouring out blood on the altar, a Jew was dedicating the animal’s personality, and thus his or her own personality, to God.  Of course, this all makes sense only if you buy his assumption that blood = personality, which seems a bit arbitrary.

Having said that, the blood restriction seems to be a part of a pattern.  Jews are prohibited from using wool and linen together, but the priests’ uniforms combine wool and linen.  As with the blood prohibition, something generally prohibited is allowed for sacred use.  Maybe the broader idea here is to have some sort of distinction between the sacred and the mundane, whether the sacred item be animal blood or wool/linen mixtures.

April 28, 2016 / conservadox

An easy Pesach

In some ways, this has been an easy Pesach.  I probably will end it without preparing a single Yom Tov meal: I was at my brother’s for the seders, and have been invited to every single meal for the second Yom Tov.  For the first day of chol hamoed (Monday) i mostly ate chicken left over from the seders (I was mostly in transit from brother’s in Atlanta to home in Pittsburgh).  The past few days I mostly ate canned mackerel and veggie/sweet potato Terra chips for lunch, Pesach pizza and blintzes for dinner – though here I am being redundant, since pesach Pizza is really just potato blintzes with a token amount of cheese (which is why it is much better than I thought it would be!).  Thank God for potatoes!

April 16, 2016 / conservadox

shul visit update

I finally made it to a couple of the below-the-radar minyans (i.e. no signage or web page), Kesser Torah and the Chabad Naamat weekday minyan.  Details here.

April 16, 2016 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

Because last week’s parsha discussed green and red impurities in a house, I decided to have some green and red food: a stew made out of cucumbers and tomatoes as well as fish with bbq sauce (this time pike).

Also, because Pesach was coming up I felt the need to have a little extra chametz: a cheese pretzel and garlic rolls from Milky Way (Pittsburgh’s only real kosher restaurant, unless you count the koshesr Dunkin Donuts)

And also blueberry ice from Rita’s.

April 10, 2016 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Metzora

The Arama commentary only has three pages on this coming week’s Torah portion.  Since the plain meaning of the portion (about skin diseases) is pretty dry, the Talmud created midrashim suggesting that these skin diseases were due to lashon hara (gossip) which of course gives Arama a reason to go on and on about the abuses of speech.

He notes that when a victim of these diseases is purified. he/she must offer sacrifice two birds.  Arama writes that “The reason that two birds have to be offered is because speech is basically welcome only for two purposes: (a) to study and teach Torah, b) to earn one livelihood”- a farfetched midrash on a farfetched midrash.

And like many farfetched ideas, this seems a bit unhinged from reality.  We build relationships by talking, and not just about work or abstract intellectual topics.


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