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September 17, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Hazinu/Yom Kippur

This week’s portion, the second to last in the Torah, is another short one. Moses talks about how the Jews will ultimately stray from God and get punished. One verse states that “The fear of the Mighty One who created you, you forgot” (Deut. 32:18).

Drazin and Wagner point out that the Dubno Maggid has a homiletical (i.e. extremely forced) interpretation of this verse. He translates this phrase as the One “who gave you birth” and suggests that God “enabled you to be born… with the power of forgetfulness (as a blessing, since who would be able to bear the pain of horrible memories that would be impossible to erase from one’s mind) … and you used the blessing that God gave you to forget the God who gave birth to you.”

Is forgetfulness a blessing? This issue is relevant to the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur. We repent our sins and too much forgetfulness is not good, because without memory I don’t remember all of the misdeeds I should be repenting for. On the other hand, a little forgetfulness eases the pain of it all- and frankly there are parts of this year I wish I had forgetten, mostly involving saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or failure to say the right thing at the right time.

September 15, 2018 / conservadox

shul website updated

My Manhattan shul website now contains a post on KRA on West 72nd.

September 14, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

I wanted to try a restaurant I hadn’t been to this week, so I got falafel and shwarma from Golan Heights near Yeshiva University.

This week’s Torah portion mentions that the Land is a land of “milk and honey” (Deut. 31:20) so I decided to make “milk and honey” pancakes- because I wanted a meat meal I am using coconut milk yogurt instead of dairy milk.

And this week’s country is Belize so in addition to the pancakes (which is sort of similar to Caribbean johnnycakes, though not quite identical) I thought i would have bean stew, a Belizean dish. Finally, since the haftorah mentions fig trees, I am having fresh figs.

September 13, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar torah- Vayelekh

This week’s portion mentions that every seven years the Torah must be read to everyone – men, women, children and even v’geircha (understood by some as ” strangers” and by others as “converts.”) (31:12).

Drazin and Wagner says this passage “highlights the egalitarian nature of Judaism.” But in debates over the role of women, Orthodox rabbis sometimes argue that feminism (a species of egalitarianism) is not a Torah value but an import from modern liberalism.

Although this passage obviously is not directly relevant to whether women should be rabbis or read from the Torah, it does suggest that the idea of equality for women is sort of a Torah value, even if it is often outweighed by other values.

September 3, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Nitzavim

In this week’s portion, Moses says that “Secret things are before [God] but revealed things are for us and our children forever” (Deut. 29:28). The Masoretes placed eleven dots over part of this sentence. Ibn Ezra has no idea what this means. The Talmud and Rashi decide to use this to make a moral point, speculating that the dots mean that the Israelites (in Drazin and Wagner’s words) “became responsible for reach other’s spiritual welfare.”

Drazin and Wagner ask whether this means we are to be “God’s policeman’ to ensure that Jews comply with the Torah. The answer, in our civilization, is certainly no. There are too many Jews who simply reject the basic assumptions required for such reproof to work- in particular, the assumption that Jewish law is Divinely given and/or binding. This strategy might work in closed communities where everyone shares the same ideological assumptions, but not in the rest of the modern world. By contrast, in the generations of Moses and Joshua, the only thing that kept Israelite society together was religion- so without religious uniformity, the society might have quickly assimilated into the Canaanite world. And presumably there were enough heavily armed enforcers to make this strategy work, at least for a few generations.

August 27, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tavo

This week’s Torah portion is centered around a kind of covenant renewal ceremony at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Moses states “Today you have come the people before [God]” (Deut 27:9).

Drazin and Wagner suggests that this statement references the Jews being a nation- something that seemed obvious to the generation of Moses but which is not so obvious today (since Jews are dispersed around the world). They ask: “If Jews are a nation wherever they reside, can they be justifiably charged with ‘dual loyalty’ both to the nation in whose midst they live and to the Jewish people?”

The easy answer to this is no: the Jewish people are not a nation in quite the same sense that the USA or the UK or the Republic of France is a nation.

But what about the Israeli Republic? Here I am a bit more uncertain. I don’t particularly worry about the possibility of the USA fighting Israel, a notion which seems so farfetched as to not be worth wasting time on. By and large, today’s wars are mostly within nation-states rather than between nation -states.

But I do worry about something a bit more insidious: the slow degradation of American Jews’ ability to balance their feelings about Israel and the USA. At one extreme, most American Jews are pretty apathetic towards Israel. I don’t think this creates any risk of dual loyalty- but it usually goes along with a decline of commitment to Judaism, intermarriage etc. Many of these Jews will simply fail to have Jewish descendants and that will be the end of their participation in the Jewish nation.

At the other extreme, many (if not most )North American Orthodox Jews seem to me to be more oriented towards Israel than towards their own nation. They don’t vote based on the needs of Americans (or Canadians)*; they vote based on who can say the nicest things about Israel and its current leadership, make the most crowd-pleasing symbolic gestures towards Israel, and be the most punitive towards Israel’s real and perceived enemies. This strikes me as a more subtle kind of dual loyalty.

Of course, the people I am speaking of may think Israel’s needs are more urgent than those of the USA. In their minds, we live in an eternal 1948, with Israel under constant threat from the enemy of the week (now Iran, some years ago Iraq).

I think this view is the exact opposite of reality. Israel has dozens of nuclear weapons and is arguably the most significant military power in the region. Given the nation’s technical sophistication I suspect that Israel’s hackers can out-hack Iran’s. By contrast, the United States is clearly a declining power; it cannot seem to protect its elections against Russian interference, and seems to have difficulty protecting its private sector against other international hacking. We Americans have stagnant living standards, and poor relationships with every nuclear nation except Israel.

*I have some experience discussing politics with American and Canadian Jews, but not much with anyone else. So I can’t intelligently discuss (for example) European Jews.

August 20, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Teitzei

This week’s Torah portion states that a man “must separate the firstborn [son] … and give him a double portion of all he has” (Deut. 21:17). Why is the firstborn favored?

Drazin and Wagner write that “Most ancient cultures… felt that a patrimony were divided among all of a father’s children, it would be dissipated, none would be able to live at the same standard as their father, and society generally might e harmed by the absence of rich people who can aid the poor.”

With all due respect, I wonder if the authors are missing the point; at least as to agricultural property, there is a much stronger reason to favor one son over the others.

Suppose you have a farmer with 10,000 square feet of land. He has five sons. If you divide the land equally among the five sons, each has 2000 square feet – roughly the size of a normal American house. On such a small plot of land, the farmers might not grow enough to feed themselves,* let alone get cash for other purposes. By contrast, if these holdings are consolidated into one 10,000 square foot farm, there might be an economically viable farm; if so, the oldest son who inherits the land is better off, and the younger sons who are frozen out aren’t really much worse off than if they had a tract of land too tiny to be useful. So the “firstborn only” law is perhaps a way to make agriculture more efficient.

*Here is a highly technical article on the subject.

August 17, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s nation is Belgium, so I decided to have Guylian chocolate (made in Belgium) and french fries (apparently a big Belgian thing).

Also, the Torah portion refers to kings having silver and gold, so I decided to have silver and gold foods. The only silver food I know of is herring, so I am having herring with mustard and pumpkin.

Other golden foods: bananas, yellow plums, orange soda.

August 15, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shoftim

This week’s portion contains the law against destruction of fruit trees during a wartime siege, because trees of the field are not like a man to come against you during a siege.” (Deut. 20:20).

Environmentalists have spilled a lot of ink (and maybe even killed a few trees) discussing this mitzvah, suggesting that it creates a broad rule against environmental waste.

However, the principle here is actually fairly limited. According to Drazin and Wagner, Sforno notes that this law “does not apply to a fruit tree that no longer bears fruit; if it is old or spoiled it may be cut down.” Similarly, the Torah itself emphasizes that a tree that does NOT yield food may be destroyed (20:21).

The broader lesson here is that plants are entitled to special consideration when they are good for man, not just because they are part of nature.

Is this an anti-environmentalist meassage? The anti-environmentalist far Right would like to think so. But in fact, the primary environmental issue of our time is global warming, which may adversely affect humans in all kinds of ways- for example, rising sea levels may render much of coastal America uninhabitable. The issue here is not saving the Earth; once large amounts of the world have become uninhabitable to humans, the rest of nature may well be better off, even if it takes a few million years. The issue is where and whether human civilization will thrive.

On the other hand, there are certain types of environmentalism that aren’t quite as important from a Torah perspective. Some environmental disputes are about whether wild places in the American West should be preserved in their existing pristine beauty; some of these places, like the rotten fruit trees referred to by Sforno, really aren’t that important to humans.

August 10, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s Torah portion includes the prohibition related to mixing milk and meat (Deut. 14:21). So I decided to have cheeseburgers with soy meat and real cheese, which of course look like they do this but don’t.

This week’s nation is Belarus so I decided to try Dranicki, the Belarus version of latkes.

Also for dessert- pumpkins in syrup and Oreo flavored milk.