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May 23, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bamidbar

In this week’s portion, the tribes are numbered and gather around their encampments.  Each man stays with his tribe (Numb. 1:52).  Miller writes that Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote: “Just as there were four divisions then, contemporary [i.e. 16th c.] is divided into four main groups: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Catalonian, and Italian.  They must all remain loyal to their ‘divisions’, to their own unique customs, which are holy and precious.”

What’s interesting to me is that Jews seemed to have ignored this advice; two of these groups (Catalonian and Italian) have diminished or disappeared over time.  Catalonians have, I would guess, merged into Sephardim generally.  Italians are a pretty small part of the Jewish world, so I don’t know if they have any unique customs.  In their place, other divisions have arisen: Western Sephardi vs. Mizrahi, Hasidim vs. non-Hasidim, and of course more significant ideological divisions (Orthodox/Conservative/Reform).  Even among Jews who are kept their identity, people have become pretty flexible over the generations in their intra-Jewish identity.

May 22, 2017 / conservadox

shul site updated

My Manhattan shul site now includes a review of Chabad of Midtown Manhattan- probably one of the best shuls in town for late sleepers (starts a bit after 10 AM).  I’m not really a late sleeper on Saturday so less ideal for me- wine puts me to sleep.

May 19, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

After weeks of trying out restaurants and visiting friends, I am having a home-made,stay-at-home Shabbos dinner (mainly because I was too busy grading papers to take the subway all over town to restaurants).  Today I am going Israeli with:

a) home made falafel (more like chickpea pancakes really- I haven’t gotten the chickpea/flour balance right for real falafel)

b) hummus

c) shakshuka

  • also chickpeas, pierogies, an attempt at from scratch-cake that really is more like bread with some milk and candy with it, cheese blintzes
May 15, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behar

This week’s Torah portion contains various verses related to care for the poor (such as Lev. 25:25 , referring to redemption of a poor relative’s land).  Rabbi Miller notes: “Never be tempted to find fault in the poor who ask for your help.  Our moral duty to the less fortunate is to help them, not to judge them.”

This sentiment seems very different from the attitude of many Americans (including many if not most modern* Orthodox Jews) towards the non-Jewish poor.  There is a widespread attitude (primarily among people who think of themselves as political conservatives) that if you are poor, it is your own fault because you are lazy and/or dependent on welfare.

I am much less sympathetic to this view than I was a couple of decades ago, for three reasons.  First, being exposed to the Torah may have affected my views.  Second, the economy doesn’t produce low-skill jobs to the extent it did 50 years ago.  Third, the welfare state isn’t what it used to be; the 1996 welfare reform  turned the midcentury American welfare system into block grants to states, who need not use the money for cash payments to the needy.

 

*I say “modern” because I am not as familiar with haredim.  But to the extent not-so-modern Orthodox Jews share these views this applies to them as well.

May 8, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Emor

This week’s portion emphasizes that sacrifices should be unblemished (Lev. 22:21).  Playing off this, Miller asks “How do you give your best to God?”  Some people do it through decoration; I don’t have much of an instinct for that.

But if you are among the tiny group of people who read this blog, you notice that sometimes I describe my Shabbos dinners; to make Shabbos special, I sometimes like to have “theme dinners” based on the portion.  Now that I am in NYC where there are lots of kosher restaurants; I do this less- instead I get food from a kosher restaurant I haven’t been to in awhile (last week it was Soy Sauce in Queens which alas was only so-so – a couple of weeks before that, Marani in Queens which I liked much more).  Either way, I like to think that by making Shabbos unusual, I am “giving my best to God.”

May 1, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah-Acharei Mot

“Mine ordinances shall ye do, and My statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God.”  (Lev. 18:4)

What’s the difference between an “ordinance” and a “statute”? Miller interprets this passage as a separation between rational laws (e.g. no stealing) and not-so-rational laws (e.g. don’t eat insects)- which in turn leads to a common question I get from secularists: why observe religious law instead of just being a good person?

Miller (citing Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an early Hasidic rabbi) argues that rational laws and suprarational ones are interrelated: people who observe the suprarational laws refine themselves and are more likely to be scrupulous in observing rational laws.

But is this rule?  Are religious Jews more ethical than other people?  yes and no.  Obviously there are plenty of religious Jews who do odious things.  On the other hand, it seems reasonable to suspect that religious Jews are on balance less likely to (for example) be criminals than the rest of the population.  So maybe.

April 25, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Tazria (really a double portion but I’m focusing on the first one)

This week’s Torah portion is all about various diseases that render one ritually impure.  One of the first passages refer to someone who has a white “blotch, a creamy blotch, or a spot” (Lev. 13:2).

Miller says that one way of looking at these diseases is as variations on an inflated ego.  A blotch is “a swelling underneath the skin… the veiled ego which other persons do not notice.” The “creamy blotch” is a more moderate “form of ego [that] will make you feel superior to other people, but not over those who exceed you in wisdom or stature.”

In other words, Miller is setting a pretty high ethical bar, suggesting that we should not feel superior even to those who do not “exceed you in wisdom or stature.”  But this begs the question: why not?

On the one hand, people who are below me in wisdom or stature might have suffered from disadvantages that I don’t (e.g. poverty, a poor home environment in other ways).

On the other, shouldn’t I feel superior to Himmler?

April 19, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shemini

Pesach is over; the second half was very nice in its own way.  I spent chol hamoed being a tourist (visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens) instead of working, and had my second yom tov meals in all kinds of places (one home with food from Pomegranate, another from Kosher Marketplace, one at shul, and another being hosted by someone from another shul).

At any rate, back to normal life.  Miller’s Chumash writes that when Aaron inaugurates the Tabernacle with various sacrifices, “no trace of that sin [the Golden Calf] could still be attributed to Aaron, and he was totally forgiven” (commentary to Lev. 9:11) and that “God had already forgiven the people for the Golden Calf” (9:22).   This kind of surprised me, because I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that the Golden Calf has been a continuous source of punishment in some sense.  Are these two views in conflict or is there a way to reconcile them?

I’ve had relationships where there were wrong turns- and sometimes even when things are repaired they aren’t quite as before; after things went wrong I was a little wary of the other person, a little less trusting.  Maybe that’s the best analogy I can think of.

April 13, 2017 / conservadox

Pesach in NYC

For the first time since I moved here in 2011 (which is to say my first time ever) I’m spending Pesach in NYC; my sister in law had recently been ill and I wasn’t sure she wanted to host the seder (to summarize a complicated scenario briefly).

Since I have advantages in NY that I don’t have in other places (an employer giving me chol hamoed off, plus kosher restaurants etc that are open) I’m trying to treat it as sort of resort like instead of just eating canned mackerel for every meal: I had stuffed cabbage from Mendy’s over yom tov, pastrami from Mr. Broadway for lunch today, and dinner from Colbeh (better than either) tonight.  I am not sure whether to just have Colbeh leftovers tomorrow or something else as well.

April 2, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Tzav

“This is the law of the guilt-offering. It is most holy.” (Lev. 7:1).

Miller writes: “The verse can be read as follows: this is the law regarding what makes a person guilty of sin- he feels that he is ‘most holy’. If you feel that you are perfect, you are most likely to sin.”

In other words, pride goeth before a fall.  Yet I constantly have read over the years about why we should be proud to be American, proud to be Jewish, etc.

And the people most likely to favor making wars on other countries also tend to be the ones blathering about “American exceptionalism”- the idea that we are really great.  The more exceptional we feel as Americans, the more likely we are to support bombing the dickens out of the rest of the world.