Before blessing the various tribes in this last portion of the Torah, Moses states that the Torah is a “inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” (Deut. 33:4). Why “congregation” instead of “house” or “seed”? Nachmanides argues that this word choice is quite deliberate: the latter term might seem limited to the descendants of Jacob, but “congregation” implies that non-descendants of Jacob (i.e. converts) will share in the heritage of the Torah.
One issue dividing Orthodox Jews from both non-Orthodox Jews and each other is how far this conversion thing should go. The majority of Orthodox rabbis favor a very strict policy towards conversion, only allowing converts who are 100% religiously observant and even extending this policy to adopted children; some rabbis hold that if a Jewish couple adopts children, the parents need to commit to sending their children to orthodox day schools. A (relatively) liberal minority of Orthodox rabbis reject this policy, and Conservative and Reform rabbis are far more permissive.
Who’s right? As a technical halachic matter, I can’t answer that; there are plenty of rabbis who have studied relevant sources in far more detail than I. But the policy issues are kind of interesting.
It depends on whether you want quantity or quality. Do you want a small number of converts who are so motivated and so observant that (almost) none of them will relapse, or do you want the largest possible number of converts, some of whom will drift out of Judaism? Or do you want to split the difference? The more rigid the rules are, the fewer converts; and the fewer converts, the closer we are to the first extreme. The more converts, the more likely we are to become an “easy come, easy go” religion like some liberal Christian denominations, as opposed to a religion that runs in families. If we go to the latter extreme, do we lose something?
It seems to me that this is related to the broader question of outreach within Judaism- that is, to what extent do Jewish groups encourage modest improvements in observance (however you define that term), as opposing to focusing on perfecting the already-observant (however you define that term). Chabad tends to favor a high level of outreach; the basic theological assumption behind this is that the more mitzvot performed, the better. But I would guess that a non-outreach-oriented Jew (say a Satmar Hasid) might argue that what is more important is mitzvot per Jew- if so, isn’t it better to encourage less-observant people to drift away from Judaism?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions.
In this week’s portion there are a few food mentions:
“He kept him as the apple of His eye” [and] “made him to suck honey out of the crag” (Deut. 32:9, 13).
So its apples and honey again. But to make it more interesting am having apple blintzes, not just apples (because I had my fill of apples Rosh Hashanah).
“Curd of kine, and milk of sheep.” Sheep milk cheese of course. In particular I’ll have a pizza bialy with said cheese and a vegetarian cheeseburger with same. And for the cow’s milk part (“curd of kine”) some cheese blintzes (this time, Tuuv Tam- probably the second best, behind Frankel’s, of the five frozen blintz brands I have tried in Pgh).
Also mackerel and sauerkraut with tikka masala sauce, just to have something more protein-y. And pumpkin pudding (because its a new flavor of instant pudding I saw on the shelf so I couldn’t help myself, had to try it).
“My doctrine shall drop as the rain…” (Deut. 32:2).
Last night, I walked to Mincha in the rain, and after reading this I thought: who wants rain? Ibn Ezra points out that rain fertilizes the soil, just as Torah fertilizes Jews.
More broadly, this statement illustrates the sheer earthiness of the Torah: while rain may be annoying in modern urban civilization, it is very useful indeed in the agricultural civilization contemplated by the Torah- especially in Israel. In Egypt, farmers had year-round water from the Nile, and didn’t really need rain so much. By contrast, Israel is a little more dependent on rainfall. So the Torah’s emphasis on rain exemplifies the reality that Torah was written originally for a specific people at a specific time, even if interpretation made it universal.
Later commentators treat many of the laws of the Torah as chukkim- seemingly irrational decrees of God. But I suspect that if we could time-travel back to the days of Moses and Joshua, some of the seemingly irrational laws would have a pragmatic justification that has become lost in the mists of time.
This portion, like the last one, mentions that Israel is the land of milk and honey (Deut. 31:20) so a dairy meal it shall be:
cheese pierogies with tikka masala sauce
cheese blintzes with date honey (this time Mon Dairy, the fourth brand I’ve tried since moving to Pgh)
Rita’s S’More Cream Ice mixed with date honey (and bee honey since the date honey is sugar free and not sweet enough for me)
Also: the Haftorah mentions good corn crops (Joel 2:24) so I decided to add corn chips to my main course (chickpeas, mackerel with bbq sauce).
Unless I’m with family or something, I like to do my own Rosh Hashanah meal. I do the ritual foods-
dates, cabbage (in this case sauerkraut because I already had some), gourd (pumpkin), pomegranate, apples and honey, fish head (unfortunately herring- in Pittsburgh, unlike NYC, you can’t get salmon head, but the kosher market always sells whole herring so I got two of those), and misc fish (herring leftover from the aforementioned whole herring, plus mackerel).
Plus since the custom of eating meat is stronger for Yom Tov than for Shabbos, I decided to have meat. I saw two brands of beef fry in the market so decided to have a beef fry taste off (Shor Harbor vs. A&H- think I like the former better). Am making a stew out of the latter with black beans and avocado potato chips (why? because I saw some lying around and thought I’d experiment).
Dessert will be a bit dull in comparison- kosher marshmallow, some mini cookies.
In this coming week’s Torah portion, the Jews are commanded to read the Torah every seven years (Deut. 31). The audience for this reading includes not only Jews but “the stranger that is within thy gates” (31:12). Why? Ibn Ezra says that this might cause him (or her) to embrace Judaism.
If the Torah in its raw, uninterpreted form is a selling point for Judaism, that says a lot about the appeal (or lack thereof) of the alternative. In my experience, philo-Semites like Jews and Judaism as actually practiced- and certainly parts of the Torah might be appealing. On the other hand, there’s lots of icky stuff in the Torah (genocide, overuse of capital punishment etc) so I am not quite sure what Ibn Ezra was thinking. Maybe he was thinking that despite the Torah’s challenging bits it still compares favorably to the religious alternatives, especially the pagan alternatives (which presumably were at least as bloody-minded as the Torah and much sillier).
A few posts down from here
In Nitzavim, Moses says that the Jews saw the Egyptians’ abominable “iddols…silver and gold” (29:16). So I decided to have silver and gold food: soy veal and chicken (Mon cuisine, nothing to write home about), onion/cheese pierogies (actually more white than golden), matjes herring (the silver part) with pumpkin puree and some sort of only-in-Pittsburgh sandwich sauce (also orange-y). The soy stuff came with rice and couscous, which were blah.
Also frozen chocolate cool whip (its kind of like ice cream if you eat it fast enough) for dessert, and also some yellow cake I had lying around.
This week the Haftorah is more interesting than the Torah portion. Isaiah portrays God coming from Edom with red garments- according to Kimhi, a prophecy of Edom’s destruction, due to God’s fury over their evil conduct (Ch. LXIII:1-3). Yet a couple of Torah portions ago. we were commanded not to despite the Edomite (Deut. 23).
What’s going on? Evidently, Edom went from being a frenemy of Israel (somewhat hostile but not an aggressor) to being an enemy. On the other hand, at the time of the Second Temple the Idumeans (apparently descendants of the Edomites) fought with Jews against Rome. Then as now, Jews have no permanent allies or permanent enemies- only permanent interests. Germany was good to Jews in the 19th century, an enemy under Hitler, a friend again today. The Turks welcomed Jews from Spain in the 15th c. but are not so friendly today, and so on.