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November 13, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Toldot

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion mentions Isaac’s prayer to God for progeny (Gen. 25:21).  Drazin and Wagner use this as a jumping-off point for describing two theories of prayer: the Talmud suggests “that God desire the prayers of the righteous” while Rambam “states that God has no need for prayer: prayer helps people and does not affect God.”

What motivates this dispute?  It seems to me that the Talmud may be motivated by a desire to encourage people to do spiritually meaningful things.  By contrast, Rambam was motivated by a desire to describe God accurately (or at least in a way that seemed accurate to him).  So the “dispute” is really a difference in emphasis- do we focus on abstract philosophical truth or the needs of the common person?  I do not think there is an all-purpose right answer for this question.

November 5, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion contains the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebecca; the former goes hunting for a wife for Isaac, and finds Rebecca.  The main story is not what I found especially interesting; rather, I was interested in a few small nuances in the text and how the medieval commentators treat those nuances.

After the servant meets Rebecca, she tells her brother Laban. When Laban “saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s hands … he came to the man, and behold, he was standing beside the camels by the spring.” (Gen. 24:30).

What did Laban see?  According to Drazin & Wagner, Radak says Laban “invited the servant to his home only after he saw the ring and bracelets.  In contrast, Sforno states that Laban acted properly; he invited the servant [to visit] because he saw the presents ands did not want to appear ungrateful.”

This difference illustrates a common division among the commentators, not only about Laban, but also about other people mentioned in Genesis who are not of the covenantal Abraham/Isaac/Jacob line.  Similarly, the commentators divide on how to treat Ishmael.   Gen. 21:9 notes that the latter was “playing” before being expelled by Abraham.  Rashi says ishmale was engaged in idolatry and other bad stuff.  Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, interprets this language literally, and says that Sarah wanted him out for other reasons.

In other words, some commentators want to treat every textual ambiguity as a way to attack Laban or Ishmael (or for that matter Esau, who comes up next week’s Torah portion); others believe that non-Jews, like Jews, should be judged favorably, and apply this attitude in their interpretation of Genesis.



October 29, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayera

This week’s portion contains, among other things, the story of the destruction of Sodom (also Gomorrah, but Gomorrah doesn’t get any separate discussion).  Lot and his family escape Sodom.  First they go to a small town called Zoar, then they go to a cave in the country.  His daughters decide to get him drunk and make babies with him, because “there is no man in the land to go to us” (19:31).   This makes no sense at first glance.  Obviously there were men in Zoar.   So what’s going on?

Some commentators think they really did believe the world was destroyed, which makes them sound pretty dumb.

But Radak and Sforno have more interesting suggestions.  The former writes “they thought that no man would want to marry them because they were tainted as evil persons, having come from the destroyed cities.”  The latter says “that they felt that there would be no man worthy enough for them to marry.”

Over my decades of dating, I’ve felt both emotions.  I have dated many women who I just didn’t like enough; I suppose you could say that I thought they were not “worthy enough” in the sense that I thought I could do better.   But at other times I have wondered whether I was being too picky; because of my career instability I wondered if anyone would want to marry me.  More recently, as I have become middle aged (I’m 54) I began to doubt that anyone of child-bearing age would want to marry me.

Much to my surprise, a woman of child-bearing age (36 or so) has had a couple of dates with me.  But I still have to decide whether she is worthy enough, and she has to decide the same of me.  I wonder if I like her enough; in addition, she is more frum than I, which may pose obstacles in the future.

October 27, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

Last week, I went to shabbos dinner at shul so this is my first dinner at home in a couple of weeks.

I promised to go through the list of nations in alphabetical order, so this week I am trying a little of Albania.

Cheese bureks seem to be a major dish, so I am using a recipe that calls for taking fillo dough and adding eggs (actually I used egg whites), yogurt and cheese. (It should have been feta but I used cream cheese because I didn’t want to take time to go to the outer boroughs or UWS to get kosher feta.  It was delicious- probably better than if I had used feta!)

Also,  I am trying a dish called leek bake.  Because my oven is dairy and I am not in love with peppers, I am varying the recipe a bit: no meat, tomatoes instead of peppers. (post shabbos note: this turned out badly because I burned the leeks while sauteeing them as the recipe suggests).

Also a parsha-themed dish: because Abraham had plenty of silver and gold (Gen. 13:2) I am trying a silver-gold dish: chopped herring (silver) mixed with mustard and honey (gold).

Also misc stuff I got while shopping: salmon bourekas, potato knishes, blintzes for dessert.

October 27, 2017 / conservadox

Weird dream

I was thinking of getting a small pet, and contacted someone about gerbils yesterday.  So this was my dream: I came home one day not just to a couple of gerbils, but to a bird in a cage, a couple of guinea pigs, and a giant aquarium.

October 24, 2017 / conservadox


At Shemini Atzeret, my main shul’s rabbi mentioned that one translation of “Atzeret” was “gathering”, and asked us to gather what we got out of the holidays.  Some of the most memorable ideas:

  • Shabbat Shuva- rabbi (in my hometown) tells us to remind ourselves that studying Torah involves connecting with our Creator.  I think he wanted us to think we were reading the word of God, though when reading commentaries, etc probably it is more accurate to say that we are seeing how our ancestors connected with the words of God (or what they believed to be the word of God if you take a more secular point of view)
  • Yom Kippur- rabbi talks about Kol Nidre, suggests that we aren’t revoking our literal vows so much as our bad habits that have become like vows to us.
October 21, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Lech Lecha

Drazin and Wagner ask “On papyri dated five hundred years before Abraham, we find pictures depicting Egyptian priests circumcising initiates into the priesthood.  Does the fact that God commanded Abraham to embrace a rite already in existence, providing it with a new meaning and significance, diminish its sanctity in any way?”

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: that way madness lies.  If any ritual similar to any other ritual wasn’t sacred, there wouldn’t be much space for ritual, since presumably pagans engaged in animal sacrifice and (I am guessing) maybe even prayer.

But the question made me think of something else: its easy to think of circumcision as some scary, strict requirement.  But its a lot easier to be circumcised as a baby (the Jewish rule) than as a grownup would-be priest (the Egyptian rule).   So maybe the Jewish rule is really a leniency.  Its as if the following dialogue took  place:

GOD: “remember that circumcision thing your neighbors are doing.  You have to do it…

ABRAHAM: (gasp)

GOD: “but after this generation you can do it on babies who can’t talk back.”

ABRAHAM: (sigh or relief).

You might say Judaism’s rule is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of circumcision go down.


*Or tradition if you don’t believe in revelation.

October 18, 2017 / conservadox

A nice Dvar Torah from Yeshivat Har Etzion

Explaining how the rainbow Noah saw was different from other rainbows.

October 17, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Noach

This week’s portion contains the infamous “curse of Ham”- which isn’t a curse of Ham at all.

After a mysterious incident (possibly involving sexual harassment) Noah says to his son Ham “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25).  As Drazin and Wagner point out, this verse has been used to justify racism and slavery, on the theory that (1) Noah was really cursing Canaan’s father Ham; (2) black people all come from Ham (neither of which is exactly obvious from the Torah).

Although I don’t think the “curse of Ham” is the cause, it does seem to me that the most frum Jews tend to be the most racist.

Why do I think this?  Well, I admit that a lot depends on how you define anti-black* racism.  If you define racism as narrowly as many self-styled conservatives do (as violence directed at blacks or explicit calls for legislation explicitly discriminating against blacks) I don’t think frum Jews are especially racist.

But most Jews I know define anti-Semitism much more broadly – essentially, as any statement that attacks Israel for things that other countries get away with without so much criticism, or as any negative statement about Jews generally.  I think of this as “soft anti-Semitism”- not explicitly anti-Semitic, but certainly perceived as offensive by many Jews.

Similarly, I see a lot of “soft racism” among Orthodox Jews (or even more observant Conservative Jews) .  That is, I hear lots of statements that are negative about blacks, or that would be considered anti-Semitic if someone said them about Jews.  For example, I often hear whites (including Jews) put down black complaints about police brutality because some old black guys (for some reason, always Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson) didn’t do enough to criticize black on black crime.   So imagine if trigger-happy police shot hundreds of Jews a year (or even dozens, or even one) and non-Jews said “why should we worry about this, when [Jewish celebrity X] doesn’t complain about the Madoff scandal”?  Most Jews would of course say this was anti-Semitism.

Why is racism so high among frum Jews?  I don’t think its the curse of Ham; I have only heard this mentioned once in my life.   Other causes might be:

*Trauma from the 1960s and 1970s, when the movement of blacks into urban neighborhoods at a time of rising crime led to considerable “white flight.”    To put the matter less euphemistically, some whites felt like they were ethnically cleansed out of their neighborhoods.

*Generally being a few decades behind the times, so that people just don’t know what’s socially acceptable.

*Exposure to right-wing political media, which (because blacks tend to vote Democratic) tend to be a cesspool of this kind of soft racism.



*Not all racism is anti-black.  But the only racism I intended to discuss in this post is anti-black racism, not any other kind.

October 15, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Bereshit

As I mentioned a few posts ago, this year I am using a Chumash based on the Onkelos translation.  Onkelos differs from the most recent Orthodox Chumashes; Onkelos tends to favor rationalist interpretations of the Torah.

For example, Gen. 6:2 refers to “bnai ha-elohim” (literally “sons of the powerful” orr “sons of God”) suggesting that this group took wives among the children of men.  Onkelos translates as “great ones” suggesting some sort of exploitation by the powerful.   Similarly, he translates 6:4 as “mighty ones of old” (while by contrast Miller refers to “giants on the earth” implying a different race). The commentary notes that some commentaries think this involves some sort of supernatural group such as fallen angels- but Onkelos is having none of that.

So what does God do about this?  Onkelos writes that God “retracted through his memra [word or wisdom] that He had made man on earth.” Why does Onkelos use the term “memra”? Other translations refer to God “regretting” the creation of man, and Onkelos isn’t comfortable with suggesting human emotions to God.   After all, if God is beyond time why would God change God’s mind?