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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?



October 15, 2017 / conservadox

shul website updated

I updated my Manhattan shul guide today with a look at the Lower East Side’s Chasam Sopher.  Too right wing for me!

October 15, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos lunch

This actually was going to be Shabbos dinner, but then I was invited out.  Because the original humans were vegetarians, I usually have a vegetarian meal for Parshat Bereshit*.  By and large this was no exception.

My main dish was a mix of lentils and rice noodles.  I also had figs (because Adam and Eve wore fig leaves) and apples, as well as cotton candy.

Also, this year I’m starting something new.  I read something a few years ago about a kosher family that had something from a different nation every shabbos, starting at the beginning of the alphabet (Afghanistan).  I had a fairly simple Afghan-ish dish (leek dumplings)- it didn’t turn out that well, but I was more focused on other dishes.


*With a slight twist: I used a tiny bit of bison meat for Eruv Tavshilin which I ate.

October 9, 2017 / conservadox

new chumash

I am finally done with Miller and had to find a new chumash/commentary for this year.  My school library has something very unusual: a translation based on Onkelos (who apparently lived in Roman times).   In addition to the translation there is the usual set of medieval commentators, but more detail than Miller or even Artscroll, so I’ll spend a lot more time studying the Pentateuch than in recent years.  The main authors are Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner, two (apparently) modern Orthodox rabbis.

Because I will be studying Bereshit over Shemini Atzeret (when I am not going to use email) do not expect to see a Dvar Torah until next week.

October 1, 2017 / conservadox

Teshuva, Tefilla and Technology

The Untakeh Tokef prayer, which Jews read yesterday and also on Rosh Hashanah, says that “teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah” (roughly translated as repentance, prayer and charity) mitigates the severity of Divine decrees of misfortune.

But after the recent natural disasters, I thought of another T: technology.  Most of the recent hurricanes have taken about 50-100 lives (though it may be still too early to tell in Puerto Rico).  The latest death toll from the Mexico earthquake is about 360.

By contrast, natural disasters in less developed countries were far worse.  For example, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed over 150,000 people, and premodern earthquakes killed even more.   Modern technology leads to better building codes etc. – though having said that, our dependence on electricity makes non-fatal disasters more miserable in some less important ways.

October 1, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vezot Habracha

In this last Torah portion of the year Moses blesses the tribes.  He blesses Zebulun before Issachar (Deut. 33:18), which Miller thinks is interesting because a midrash claims that Issachar studied Torah constantly while Zebulun supported him.

Miller, citing the Lubavitcher rebbe, says that Zebulun goes first because the Torah scholar merely sanctifies his immediate environment, while “the businessman (Zebulun) sanctifies his entire working environment, through observing the laws of business ethics, being attuned to acts of Divine Providence that he witnesses, and donating generously to charity.”  This is “why God made the world in such a way that most people are businessmen, and not Torah scholars.”

So go out there and sanctify your workplace!

By the way, this is my last Dvar Torah based on Miller.  Generally it is like a more accessible, but also more crazy and Kabbalistic, version of the Gutnik Chumash.  Definitely not rationalistic enough for my tastes.


October 1, 2017 / conservadox

My Perfect Pre-Yom Kippur Meal

Quinoa, lentils and dates in a pot.  Zero sodium (so minimal thirst created by meal) lots of protein.  Now if only I could stop sneezing (I think because of being around all those dusty books that are only used once a year…)

September 17, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Haazinu

“I cause death and I bring to life.  I injure and I heal.” (Deut. 32:39).

Miller suggests that this verse is evidence for the resurrection of the dead (citing the Talmud).  He reasons:  what’s the point of the second sentence?  Doesn’t healing and injury flow from death and life?  Obviously, the second sentence must have a less obvious meaning.

The less obvious meaning, he writes, is “that just as one person is injured and then healed, so too, this same person who dies is brought to life.”

Am I persuaded?  Not necessarily- the parallelism could just be poetry, a kind of redundancy designed to make a point.  But it is interesting to see that this might be where the concept of resurrection comes from.

September 15, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s portion mentions idols made of silver and gold (Deut. 29:16) so I had a “silver and gold” salad of corn and herring.

Also I got a couple of interesting things at Kosher Marketplace and decided to work with them: chunks of curried tofu, and kale (which I made into a baked salad with black beans, mustard and ketchup).

For dessert: a vanilla cake cut into a heart shape (because 29:17 discusses the risk of people’s hearts turning away from God).