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February 17, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mishpatim

This week’s Torah portion contains a wide variety of laws, including laws related to subjects that non-Jews would not recognize as religious, such as personal injury law. For example, the Torah states that if men are fighting “and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall surely be fined… But if any harm follow, then though shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:22-23).

Ibn Ezra interprets this as follows: “Since they were ‘fighting’, he intended to do some evil to his fellow, which means that, even if he did not mean to kill the woman, if he does so he is killed.* But this does not apply to her fetus, for it is not considered to be alive until it comes forth into the air of the world. He is merely fined for it.” (emphasis added)

This is relevant to the Jewish law of abortion. Catholics and evangelical Christians believe that a fetus is identical to a human, and thus that abortion should never be allowed. Jews, by contrast, do not generally view a fetus as identical to a person.

But unlike some secular progressives, they do acknowledge a fetus as “somewhat linked to its soul“- something in between a mass of cells and a human being, especially after the first month or two of pregnancy.

As a result, Orthodox Judaism takes a position that is closer to, but not identical, to that of conservative Christians: abortion is generally not OK, but modern authorities are divided as to how broad the exceptions to this rule are. By contrast, conservative Christians generally believe that abortion is never ever appropriate except to save the life of the mother.

*I note that Rashi seems to disagree with this view, suggesting that since fighting might not involve intent to kill, financial compensation is adequate.

February 10, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Yitro

This week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments (which actually include more like 15 or so commandments, but never mind). One of the early ones is often translated as a prohibition against “taking the name of [God] in vain” but has also been translated as “You shall not swear falsely by the name of [God]” (Exodus 20:7).

Ibn Ezra write that this refers to a “vain oath” and adds “one who invokes God and does not keep his promise is as if denying God’s existence” because the point of mentioning God’s name in an oath is to say “just as God is truth, so is my word.”

This all seems pretty noncontroversial, right? But Ibn Ezra spices it up by complaining about the low morality of medieval Jews. He writes that Jews “swear by God’s name in every moment. It has become such a rule for them that they do not even realize they are swearing. If anyone tries to reprimand them, they swear that they have not sworn! A murderer kills no more than once or twice, and even an adulterer commits that sin only a few times, but some of these people swear every minute of every day, to the point where one who hears them simply cannot keep count of how many times they have done it. If this were the only sin found among the Jews, it would still be enough to keep the Redeemer from coming.”

So if you think violations of the Ten Commandments are an epidemic, the 12th century wasn’t so great either!

February 1, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Beschallah

One of the most disagreeable things about studying Torah in an Orthodox environment is the cult of Rashi. Rashi was a medieval Torah commentator who had a penchant for citing fanciful midrashim. For example, this week’s portion says that the Hebrews left Egypt armed (13:18) or in Hebrew, hamushim. Rashi cites a legend stating that because this word is similar to the Hebrew word for “five”, they went up fifthed- that is, 4/5 of them died in the plague of darkness. In fact, other legends go even further, suggesting that 1 out of 500 left Egypt.

What many people don’t know is that such odd readings of the Torah are not infallible oral tradition, but are rejected by other commentators- in this case, Ibn Ezra. He writes that this is “a midrash, and need not be taken seriously” in its literal meaning. He adds that this is “a controversial opinion offereed by a single individual- not at all a tradition.” Moreover, it makes no sense because the Torah suggests that millions of Hebrews left Egypt- and if 4/5 of them died before leaving Egypt, there would have been over 5 million, which seems a bit absurd.*

Ibn Ezra adds that had only a small percentage of Hebrews left Egypt, “it would not have been redemption but a sick evil- just the opposite of what the text says.”

In sum, not every widely cited interpretation of the Torah is something that was universally accepted- even in premodern times.

*However, he does defend the Torah’s figure, reasoning that if Jacob had 69 descendants, and each of his descendants were as fertile as he was for 200 years, the Torah’s figure of 600,000 adult men makes sense. But of course this assumes no infant mortality, infertility etc.

January 31, 2020 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s country is Colombia so I made hogao (a tomato/onion sauce) to go along with some soy sausages (Beyond Sausage) I bought. I also baked some plaintains.

This is the Torah portion where the Hebrews escaped Egypt with matzot so I am having matzo for hamotzi. Also, the Egyptians gave them silver and gold so I am having a range of silver and gold foods:
1) lemonade (silver-ish) and orange soda to drink
2) a salad made with Yuba soy noodles,* silver salmon skin, and yellow mustard
3) the aforementioned plaintains.

And my wife will make stuff too.

*edible but I wouldn’t get them again.

January 25, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bo

In this coming week’s portion, the plagues end and the Hebrews start to leave Egypt. God commands Moses about the Passover holiday, ordering, among other things, that Jews do not eat leaven for seven days.

The first Passover sacrifice took only one night. So why seven days? Ibn Ezra explains that the purpose of the no-leaven rule is “a remembrance of what happened to our ancestors” because the Israelites could not delay, and had to leave been their flour could rise. He then adds that these ancestors “ate unleavened bread for seven days… because it was not until the seventh day that Pharoah drowned and they could have pause.” (commentary to Exodus 12:15).

In other words, they weren’t just on the run at the start of the seven days when they were leaving their slave camps, but until they left the sea a week later. The days after the Hebrews leave home might have been a little less nuts because at least they were not working as slaves or living next to the Egyptians anymore- but they were still on the wrong side of Egypt/wilderness boundary and were still presumably in a hurry to get out.

This sort of fits with the way I view Pesach: the most stressful time is preparing for Pesach (corresponding with slavery in Egypt), then comes the seder (starting to leave Egypt), then comes chol hamoed (going through Egypt which is still pretty stressful, but not quite as bad because at least you know you are headed in the right direction) and then finally comes the last two days (which are a bit more laid back because you know you’re more or less out of Egypt and on the way back to normal life).

January 24, 2020 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

This week’s Torah portion includes most of the ten plagues, so I made some plague-related items, including
1) salmon croquettes (in honor of fish dying during the plague of blood)
2) barley with eggplant in a tomato sauce (because barley was affected by the plague of hail according to some translations- and also something red because of the Nile turning into blood)
3) marshmallow candy bar (plague of hail)

and because this week’s country is China I made lo mein. And my wife is doing some sort of salad but that’s her business.

January 19, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayera

This week’s Torah portion includes many of the ten plagues of Egypt. One question that might come to mind is: as he watched his nation get devastated, why didn’t the Egyptian king just let the Hebrews go? The text states that God stiffened the king’s heart, and of course much ink has been spilled on this concept. But there might be more concrete explanations as well.

Ibn Ezra hints at one possible explanation (in commenting on Exodus 9:12): “We should not assume every plague lasted seven days just because the first one did… It is well known that the pestilence lasted just for an hour and the plague of darkness for three days.” Maybe, and I realize I’m stretching here, each of the first few plagues didn’t make much of an impression on the king- in some cases because they weren’t that long, in some cases for other reasons. (For example, 8:3 points out that his magicians were able to replicate the plague of frogs). To us, reading with a few millenia of hindsight, the big picture is what matters. But because the king didn’t have that hindsight he looked at each plague in isolation*.

For some reason the story of the plagues reminds me of American politics. Some of our President’s less insane defenders admit that he has done some untoward things, but point out that each isolated incident is, if not exactly defensible, arguably not an impeachable offense. For example, Trump is hardly the first President to have played a little dirty to get reelected, or to have told a lie or two or ten. But it seems to me that looking at his conduct as a whole, he is not mentally stable enough to be commander-in-chief- especially at a time when the world’s two greatest military powers seem to be allying against the United States.

*At least until the plague of hail, after which he starts to get a little more concerned. (9:27)

January 13, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shemot

This week’s Torah portion begins the story of Moses; as most literate Jews (and for that matter non-Jews) presumably know, he was placed in the river by his mother, found by an Egyptian king’s daughter, and brought up among Egyptians. Ibn Ezra writes: “God’s designs are subtle indeed… it may well be that He arranged the whole affair so as to have Moses grow up in the palace, at a high intellectual level, rather than in the debased environment of a slave. Moreover, his kinsmen would not have respected him when it was time for him to lead them out of slavery if he had grown up among them.”

The latter sentence seems to reflect American politics: as our society becomes less egalitarian, Americans have become more and more unwilling to elect the man of humble origins who “grew up among them.” Bush and Trump were born rich, and Obama (though born in a more middle-class environment) was sort of an exotic because he grew up in Hawaii and is half-African. The last American President who grew up in more ordinary surroundings was Bill Clinton, who seems kind of inconsequential today. For some reason, the average American voter doesn’t want someone who grew up like them; they want someone who seems like a strange visitor from other planet. Maybe we think that the person who grew up like us isn’t extraordinary enough to be a leader.

January 6, 2020 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayehi

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob comments about the tribes of Israel. Most of his statements appear to be predictions about the future rather than statements about his individual sons.

For example, he states “Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth” (Gen. 49:27). Ibn Ezra describes this image as related to “valiant might”, referencing a story much later in Tanach. Similarly, Jacob uses military imagery in discussing Gad and Dan, and agricultural imagery in referring to Issachar and Asher. He describes Joseph and Judah as leaders, and says Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore (implying a future of maritime trade). His prophecy about Naphtali is less clear, and his references to Reuben, Simeon and Levi seem more related to his sons’ individual failings.

So what do I get out of this? It seems to me that Jacob is emphasizing the diversity of the tribes: rather than being just a race of scholars or a race of businessmen, the tribes will be in many walks of life, and some will specialize by dominating one occupation or another. Or to put it another way, Judaism is for soldiers as well as scholars, farmers as well as businessmen.

December 31, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Vayigash

In this week’s portion, Joseph reveals himself to his siblings and invites them and his father to go to Egypt. When Jacob meets the king of Egypt he says “few and eveil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attined unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers.” (Gen. 47:9).

Radak interprets this mean that his years “do not match them [his ancestors] either in length or in happiness.” There’s a cliche that “comparison is the thief of joy” but it must be a hard thing to avoid if even Jacob does it.

In many ways he has had a good life- he has a promise from God that his life will be super-significant, and he has often been wealthy and had a lot of children. But he doesn’t see it that way because he compares himself to Isaac and Abraham, overlooking the difficulties they had. He instinctively views their lives as a tranquil Golden Age. Sound familiar? Certainly to me. I am less wealthy than my parents, and unlike them will never have children (other than the stepchild I just acquired by marrying). But then again, I haven’t lived through the Holocaust (unlike my father, who spent his early 20s narrowly avoiding an all-expense-paid trip to Auschwitz).