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June 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Korah

This week’s portion is primarily about the rebellion of Korah, a Levite who complains that the priesthood (and Moses) are too powerful.  Moses responds by challenging Korah to a “sacrifice-off”: Korah and his followers offer incense at the same time as Aaron.  Instead of accepting the offering of Korah & Co., God wipes them out.

The end of the portion discusses tithes for priests and then tithes for Levites.  Why do they tithes follow the rebellion?  Miller writes that the tithes are a response to Korah’s attack, in that they show how closely the people, priests and Levites are connected: the priests and Levites are the spiritual leaders of the people.

It also seems to me that this shows how connected the priests and Levites are: after discussing some Levites’ complaints, the Torah is telling us that the priests and Levites should be on the same team, since both are part of the religious leadership.  Or to put it more crudely, Moses is getting “buy in” from the Levites by showing how they too benefit from the Hebrew caste system.

June 11, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shelach-Lecha

This week’s portion is another episode of “Those Whiny Jews.”  Moses sends some spies to examine the Land of Israel, most of the spies worry that they can’t prevail against the local heathens, the people flip out, and then things get really ugly.  God threatens to wipe out the people and start over gain with Moses’ family, Moses pleads for mercy, and God splits the difference by promising that the Jews have to wander for 40 years and at the end of that period, most of the Jews now alive won’t be.

Why was God so angry?  Miller (citing Isaac Arama) writes: “In rejecting the land, they showed that they … preferred to go back to Egypt.” And in Numbers 14:4, they indeed said: “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”

Since God told them to go to Israel, this is not only a direct defiance of a Divine command, but also defeats the whole point of everything that has happened since Moses started talking to them about freedom.

So what, you may ask?  Isn’t this all pretty obvious.  Yes, but… often today’s commentators use the “sin of the spies” as somehow analogous to 8 zillion things we do wrong today.  Like the spies, we don’t show enough faith because we do X, or because we don’t do X, etc.

But it seems to me that this situation was a one-off.  We really don’t have Divine revelation, prophecy etc. today.  Assuming arguendo that the Torah is Divinely revealed, it still does not speak to our situation as directly as it spoke to the situations of the founding generation of Jews.   This has advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, it is harder for us to know what we should do.  But on the other, God doesn’t punish us as severely (or if so, we don’t know for sure that it was happening or why it is happening).   Either way, comparing our lives to this week’s Torah portion is a stretch.

June 6, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behaalotekha

After the Jews start inexplicably complaining about food (Numbers 11:4) Moses gets disgusted and asks God “did I conceive this entire people? Did i give birth to them?” (11:12).

After the Golden Calf fiasco (a much more serious sin to the extent that it involved idol worship) Moses takes charge, and here he complains to God.  Why is he so ticked off?

The Miller Chumash has an explanation.  Miller says that the Golden Calf was based on a theological mistake about how to worship God, and that “Moses was comfortable with this since his role was that of the teacher and educator.”  In other words, the people misunderstood so Moses could teach them the right way of doing things.

By contrast, the complaints about food were “not an error of ideology but something much more basic and crude.”  Such lusts weren’t really amenable to intellectual instruction.  Instead, Moses “would have to nurture the people through their national understanding.”  In other words, Moses had to go beyond his original skill-set as a miracle-worker and intellectual leader.

Miller cites Rav Soloveitchik for all this, and adds that today’s Jews are tempted not by other religions but by “the pleasure-seeking culture of our day”- so Jews need “the warm embrace as much as the brilliant idea.” (Which may explain why Chabad is so popular, since they tend to specialize in the former).

There is one thing that seems a little too neat about this analysis: the way it describes the Golden Calf incident is a bit incomplete.  Miller makes it sound like Calfgate was a faculty seminar, but in fact Moses resolved it not through an elegant argument but by having 3000 men executed (Exodus 32:28).  And also God kills a few more people with plague (32:35).

June 6, 2017 / conservadox

Perfect unthemed meal

I had a houseguest over and didn’t want to be bothered with figuring out a themed meal.  But since Shavuot was over and I still had dairy leftovers, that was a constraint.  So this is what I had:

red cabbage w/lentils as a cold salad (no need for green stuff that you might have to check for bugs, and cabbage lasts longer)

lentils again with tomato sauce (because I had sauce lying around)

spinach pierogies

cheese blintzes

I bought a few other things (lox, chocolate) but we didn’t eat them because my guest eats like the proverbial bird.

May 28, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Naso

This week’s Torah portion addresses the Sotah ritual in which a suspected adulteress gets to clear herself through a kind of trial by ordeal.   But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.

The Torah mentions that in the middle of the ritual a priest uncovers a woman’s hair (Numbers 5:18).  This phrase is the origin of the idea that a married woman shall cover her hair, and is why Orthodox women often wear wigs and headscarves and hats.*

The Miller Chumash cites the Zohar as follows: “If a woman covers her hair, her children will be superior, her husband will be blessed with spiritual and material blessings, wtih wealth, children and grandchildren.”

This sort of statement is why I find it hard to take mystics’ statements literally (and right-wing Orthodoxy to the extent that it does so).  Realistically, plenty of people wind up without any off these blessings no matter what they do.


*By the way, if you want a sense of how right wing/ideologically diverse an Orthodox shul is, look at hair.  In the most liberal shuls, most women don’t cover their hair at all.  In the most right-wing, everyone has a wig or a Muslim-like headscarf or other coverings.  In-between shuls have a lot of women wearing hats- which kind of implies maybe they aren’t covering outside of shul.

May 26, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

“It was I who gave her [Israel] much silver and gold” (Hosea 2:10, this week’s Haftorah)

So I am having a little silver and gold together – frozen pizza (gold) with matjes herring (silver).  Also:

some golden fruits (apricots, peaches)

soy chicken (sort of golden)

an experiment: peach bread

cheese blintzes with melted chocolate bars

May 23, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bamidbar

In this week’s portion, the tribes are numbered and gather around their encampments.  Each man stays with his tribe (Numb. 1:52).  Miller writes that Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote: “Just as there were four divisions then, contemporary [i.e. 16th c.] is divided into four main groups: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Catalonian, and Italian.  They must all remain loyal to their ‘divisions’, to their own unique customs, which are holy and precious.”

What’s interesting to me is that Jews seemed to have ignored this advice; two of these groups (Catalonian and Italian) have diminished or disappeared over time.  Catalonians have, I would guess, merged into Sephardim generally.  Italians are a pretty small part of the Jewish world, so I don’t know if they have any unique customs.  In their place, other divisions have arisen: Western Sephardi vs. Mizrahi, Hasidim vs. non-Hasidim, and of course more significant ideological divisions (Orthodox/Conservative/Reform).  Even among Jews who are kept their identity, people have become pretty flexible over the generations in their intra-Jewish identity.

May 22, 2017 / conservadox

shul site updated

My Manhattan shul site now includes a review of Chabad of Midtown Manhattan- probably one of the best shuls in town for late sleepers (starts a bit after 10 AM).  I’m not really a late sleeper on Saturday so less ideal for me- wine puts me to sleep.

May 19, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

After weeks of trying out restaurants and visiting friends, I am having a home-made,stay-at-home Shabbos dinner (mainly because I was too busy grading papers to take the subway all over town to restaurants).  Today I am going Israeli with:

a) home made falafel (more like chickpea pancakes really- I haven’t gotten the chickpea/flour balance right for real falafel)

b) hummus

c) shakshuka

  • also chickpeas, pierogies, an attempt at from scratch-cake that really is more like bread with some milk and candy with it, cheese blintzes
May 15, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behar

This week’s Torah portion contains various verses related to care for the poor (such as Lev. 25:25 , referring to redemption of a poor relative’s land).  Rabbi Miller notes: “Never be tempted to find fault in the poor who ask for your help.  Our moral duty to the less fortunate is to help them, not to judge them.”

This sentiment seems very different from the attitude of many Americans (including many if not most modern* Orthodox Jews) towards the non-Jewish poor.  There is a widespread attitude (primarily among people who think of themselves as political conservatives) that if you are poor, it is your own fault because you are lazy and/or dependent on welfare.

I am much less sympathetic to this view than I was a couple of decades ago, for three reasons.  First, being exposed to the Torah may have affected my views.  Second, the economy doesn’t produce low-skill jobs to the extent it did 50 years ago.  Third, the welfare state isn’t what it used to be; the 1996 welfare reform  turned the midcentury American welfare system into block grants to states, who need not use the money for cash payments to the needy.


*I say “modern” because I am not as familiar with haredim.  But to the extent not-so-modern Orthodox Jews share these views this applies to them as well.