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February 17, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Tetzaveh

This coming week’s Torah portion focuses on the clothing of the priests.  For example, the high priest’s robes should include two precious stones with the names of the sons of Jacob (Exodus 28:9).  These stones are to be placed on the ephod (a kind of vest) as “memorial stones” (28:12).

Rashi writes that God would see the stones and recall the righteousness of the Hebrews’ ancestors.  Drazin and Wagner note that Onkelos avoids such “interpretations, especially the notion that God can forget and needs symbols as a reminder.” They suggest another interpretation: that the stones are on the high priest’s shoulders because he “undertook the ‘shoulder’ the responsibilities that devolved upon the spiritual leader of the nation.”

A monarchy or a theocracy can have leaders who, like the high priest, symbolically represent the entire nation.  For a democracy that also happens to be a republic it is much harder.  In theory, the President represents all the people; however, he primarily represents the people who voted for him, especially in his first term when he needs to retain that majority to get reelected.  In a parliamentary republic like Israel, the prime minister has the same problem: he primarily represents the governing coalition that elected him.   So it seems that a democracy loses something in this regard.

I think it is possible to solve this problem; one could have a separate prime minister and president, and have the president elected by a consensus vote rather than a majority vote of the parliament, making him closer to a leader of all the people.  But this system would require the parties to work together in ways that currently seem alien to the American polity, and maybe to the Israeli one as well.  (Israel has a figurehead President, but he is elected by a majority of the Knesset like the Prime Minister).

February 15, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Terumah

This week’s Torah portion is about the building of the Tabernacle, which involved a wide variety of valuable materials.  Drazin and Wagner suggest that one advantage of this project is that it gave Jews something “constructive… to do in the wilderness.”

By contrast, a campaign to build a religious institution today “requir[es] an equal commitment, but this time, in a world in which poverty and hunger is rampant.   The same funds, and the same energies, could be invested in relieving the plight of the needy.”  Does this mean we should stop wasting money on religion?

I think not, for a couple of reasons.  First, if religious institutions are a major contributor to relieving the plight of the needy, these institutions have to be thriving to do their job.  When (as in liberal Protestantism) religion becomes primarily about “relieving the plight of the needy”, religion dies- just as liberal Protestantism has been dying.  In other words, if religion leads to charity then its important for religion to maintain itself.  (On the other hand, I’m assuming that religion does play a useful role in this area; I can’t say I’ve fully researched the issue).*

Second, I don’t think helping the needy and religion are all that fungible.  People who give money and effort to religious institutions, if they suddenly all became atheists, wouldn’t necessarily use that money and effort to cure poverty.  They might use it to, for example, spend it on their own personal consumption, or spend it building political machines like the Mercers and the Koch Brothers, or even spend it on other good causes like the opera or something.

*There appears to be some evidence that religious people of all religions give more to charity generally.  But some of that charity is self-serving; for example, if I gave 10% of my money to charity and my atheist neighbor gives 5%, but half my charity goes to shuls or yeshivas, that isn’t so impressive.

February 4, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mishpatim

This week’s portion includes a variety of laws.  One of the less clear rules is often translatede as: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20).  Today, some American Jews tend to use this language as an endorsement of liberal immigration policy, on the theory that immigrants are “strangers.”

But the Torah can’t be interpreted that broadly, since elsewhere the Torah commands us to wipe out at least some tribes of idolatrous strangers.   So what does this passage really mean?

Onkelos uses the term “proselyte”, which is the modern meaning of the Hebrew word ger— that is, convert to Judaism.  Drazin and Wagner point out that Ibn Ezra interprets the term a bit more broadly, as a reference to a “resident alien who obligates himself not to worship idols.”  Thus, Ibn Ezra believes that you should not oppress an alien who adopts your values- as opposed to, say, one who supports the Islamic state.

In the United States and Europe, this guideline isn’t very helpful.  I think all Americans agree that Islamic extremists should be excluded or punished.  The difficult issue is: what do when we are confronted with large numbers of migrants, and we don’t know who will be (or has been) radicalized?

For example, should we exclude people claiming to be refugees or asylees when they come from a nation that suffers from a significant amount of Islamic extremism?  In such a situation, the overwhelming majority of immigrants probably aren’t Islamic extremists, but some will be- and certainly to a much greater extent than non-Muslim migrants.

And should we exclude migrants from uncommonly crime-ridden non-Islamic countries?  One might argue that whatever spiritual illness is affecting these migrants’ home nations is likely to affect the migrants as well.  I do not see how the Torah’s general guidelines provide any answer to these questions.

February 2, 2018 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

For the first time in a month, I get to eat shabbos dinner at my home in Manhattan (something that will not be repeated for at least 3 weeks- next week am in hometown, the week after that is a shul dinner).

I decided to go with my alphabetical list of countries, and focus on Angola because it is next in the alphabet.  I am making two dishes:

a mountain-shaped chunk of funge (basically like mashed potatoes except made with corn meal)(why a mountain? In honor of the parsha which is mostly about the revelation at Mt. Sinai)

fish stew (but different from the classic version in a few ways- most notably substituting olive oil for palm oil because I didn’t feel like spending money on a giant tub of palm oil, most of which I would never use).  My version has mackerel, garlic, tomato paste, lemon juice, onions, spinach flakes instead of the traditional collard greens, and mashed eggplant.

I bought some strawberry and vanilla jam for dessert, which is not Angolan at all!

January 28, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Yitro

This week’s Torah portion includes the so-called “Ten Commandments” (more accurately “ten utterances”).  They begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2).

Drazin and Wagner cite a variety of explanations of this statement.  My favorite right now is that of Nachmanides, who wrote that “your God” is “in the singular to instruct us that God addressed every individual who experienced the Mount Sinai revelation.”  Presumably he means something deeper than that everyone heard it, which seems fairly obvious.  Maybe he is saying that everyone heard revelation a bit differently in accordance with their own capacities.

Certainly that is true today, in the sense that everyone conceives of God a bit differently.  Some see God as easygoing, others as strict, some as cruel, some as merciful, some as all of the above (and of course atheists see God as nonexistent!)  Rashi writes that the manna (star of last week’s portion) tasted like whatever people wanted it to taste like.  It seems to me that you could say the same about the Deity who created it.


January 27, 2018 / conservadox

shul website updated

I visited Or Olam today (a Conservative UES shul) and added it to my Manhattan shul webpage.  I’m kind of wedded to Modern Orthodox shuls right now but it was kind of nice.

January 21, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bschalach

In this week’s portion the Hebrews finally escape Egypt for good.  In addition, they start getting fed with manna after their provisions run out.

This portion also relates to a variety of common practices.  One such practice is the covering of bread for Shabbat meals.  Children are often instructed that this has something to do with not embarrassing the bread or some such nonsense.  Not so!

To which I say: Fake news!  It is actually related to manna.  The Torah points out in this portion that “when the layer of dew ascended, there, over the surface of the wilderness” (Exodus 16:14) lay the manna.  On the other hand Numbers 11:9 states that “the dew descended.”  Drazin and Wagner elaborate: “If the dew descended, it covered the manna.  If it ascended, the manna was above the dew.”  So one Talmudic opinion suggests that the dew was both above and below the manna.

To memorialize the manna. Jews have two loaves of bread (representing the double portion of manna) at the two main Sabbath meals, and place a cloth or napkin both above and below the bread, representing the dew which was both above and below the manna.


January 16, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bo

This week’s Torah portion hints at the mitzvah of tefillin, stating that there should be “a sign on your hand for you and as a reminder of your eyes” (Ex. 13:9) of liberation from Egypt.

A common non-Jewish term for tefillin is phylacteries.  Drazin and Wagner point out that this term is a misnomer.  The latter term, they write, is Greek for “amulets”, which tefillin are not.* An amulet is an object typically worn to protect the wearer from something, one often alleged to have magical powers.  By contrast, tefillin are worn as a reminder- in this case, of liberation from Egypt.

Jewish tradition is divided as to the appropriateness of amulets.  Medieval rationalists opposed all forms of superstition, including the belief in the magical powers of amulets. But the common Jew was often OK with superstition.   Today, Jews often wear various objects as necklaces of the sort that would have been amulets a few hundred years ago (for example, the letter hay) but generally do not, I think, attribute magical powers to them.

*Later note: not everyone agrees with this translation.  Aryeh Kaplan, in his Living Torah Chumash, writes that the Greek root word for phylacteries is “to guard” which puts a different spin on it.

January 11, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vaera

This week’s portion includes most of the famous “Ten Plagues” of Egypt.  Before one of them, God says to Moses “Go to Pharoah and speak with him.” (Exodus 9:1).  Drazin and Wagner point out that the Torah uses the word “bo” which menas both “to come” and “to go.”  They add: “Some commentators suggest that ‘come’ implies that Moses and Aaron were granted the unusual right to meet with Pharoah whenever they desired, without invitation or prior official permission.”

Even if we reject this fanciful interpretation, why are Moses and Aaron getting to meet with the king all the time?  After all, even a normal President doesn’t meet with every person who criticizes his policies.

It could be that societies were so much smaller and human scale that pretty much anyone could meet with a king.   Maybe Ramses and David were just glorified mayors who presided over what today would be small towns.

But even if anyone could get a first appointment with the king, why did the king keep meeting with them even after he knew that they would just keep insisting for a policy change?

More interestingly, why didn’t the king just have them beheaded?  As far as I know, Egypt was an absolute monarchy, so a king could certainly have people executed.

One guess: maybe the king was a little nuts.  He kept promising to liberate the Hebrews and then going back on his promise, which suggests that he kind of enjoyed jerking people around.  So maybe he was playing a similar cat and mouse game with Moses and Aaron, rather than just terminating them (or at least throwing them out of his office) as a “normal” despot would have done.

January 1, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shmot

This week’s parsha begins the story of Moses.  An Egyptian king directs that all the male babies be cast into a river (Exodus 1:22), apparently in order to prevent a male savior of the Jewish slaves from surviving and challenging his leadership.   The king’s daughter rescues one of the boys, who becomes Moses, the aforementioned savior.

What is interesting about this is Onkelos’s translation.  He has the king saying “Every son that is born to the Judeans you shall cast into the river.”  The phrase “to the Jews” is not in the original Torah text.  So why does Onkelos insert it?  To make it clear that the king wasn’t going to exterminate Egyptian babies, which he thinks would obviously be insane.

By contrast, the Talmud suggests that this mandate applies to Egyptian males as well, because a deliverer foretold by the king’s seers might be Egyptian or Israelite. It says (BT Sotah 12a)

Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: The use of the phrase “every son that is born” indicates that he decreed even on his own nation that all their male babies must be killed. And Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says further: He decreed three decrees. Initially, he commanded the midwives only with regard to Jewish infants: “You shall look upon the stones. If it be a son, then you shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live” (Exodus 1:16). And afterward, he decreed with regard to the Jewish infants: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river” (Exodus 1:22). And ultimately, he decreed even on his own nation that Egyptian infant boys should be cast into the river as well.

This illustrates a broader question of interpretation: do we interpret the Torah (a) literally, (b) to make sense, or (c) to create a moral?

Onkelos chooses the most sensible interpretation.  The Talmud often disdains both (a) and (b) – sometimes for the benefit of a broader moral, sometimes just to add an innovative interpretation.  It is not clear which is going on here- at first, these rabbis’ interpretations just looked to me like innovation for the sake of innovation.  But it is possible that they were try to show that the Egyptian kings had become wackjobs.