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February 21, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mishpatim

At the end of this week’s Torah, the Torah says Moses was “upon the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:18).  What was Moses doing up there?

The most traditionalist Jews might argue that he was being given the “Oral Torah”- that is, the Mishnah, Talmud etc.  They use the idea of a Divinely-given Oral Torah as a justification for a halachic system that often addresses issues far removed from the written Torah.

But surprisingly, even Miller doesn’t go this far.  He writes that “God taught him only the general principles” (based on a midrash).  Why?  Miller cites Joseph Albo (a 15th c. rabbi) for the proposition that “it is not feasible that the Torah would have been given in a comprehensive manner… because new types of human interaction and conduct arise constantly and they are too vast in scope to be included in a book.”  Thus, Moses was given general principles “from which the sages of each generation would be able to innovate further points of law.”

I am kind of surprised to see someone as far right as Miller admit that halacha is mostly man made.

February 12, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Yitro

This week’s Torah portion begins with Yitro’s advice to Moshe about judging.  Moshe is resolving disputes and teaching Torah, and Yitro tells him that the former function is wearing him out.  He accordingly suggests that Moshe appoint judges for “minor matters” but that “When any major matter arises, they will bring it to you.” (Exodus 18:22).  Moshe concurs, but the Torah suggests that he slightly altered Yitro’s idea, stating that “They would bring any difficult case to Moses.” (18: 26)

What’s the difference between a “major” case and a “difficult” case? Miller suggests that major cases involve large sums of money, while “difficult” cases are complicated ones.  Moshe thought he should judge only the latter cases rather than focusing on high-value cases (which would presumably be more likely to involve wealthy individuals).

How does the U.S. court system resolve this tension? The highest courts (both federal and state) review cases at their discretion.  I think the unspoken norm is that, like Moses, they should focus on legally difficult issues rather than high-dollar ones.  So here we seem to have borrowed from the Torah- rightly so, I think.

February 7, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Beschallah

This week’s Torah portion involves a miracle- the Splitting of the Sea, causing the Hebrews to escape Egypt for good.  Reflecting on this, Miller writes: “God is the essence of good and desires to do good… Reflect upon this frequently and deeply, and w0rry will be dispelled at once.”

I guess the validity of this statement depends on the meaning of the word “good.”  If by “good” we mean “good” to every individual human, this statement strikes me as highly questionable.  Certainly in this life, even the best lives usually end in suffering (because of old-age related diseases) and death.   The difficulty of this problem has forced humans to invent the concept of an afterlife in which humans are compensated for their lifetime pain.

A Jewish traditionalist might argue that the Torah actually supports the notion of the afterlife.  I am perfectly prepared to assume this is so- the Oral Torah of Jewish tradition unequivocally believes in a mostly-good afterlife, though the Written Torah could, I think, be read either way.  But non-Jewish religions agree- which tells me that belief in an afterlife is a basic human urge, a way to make God seem better.

Alternatively, one could define “good” very differently- as good for the planet or universe as a whole.  But this concept of goodness certainly doesn’t dispel worry for an individual, who might reasonably believe that he or she (or his nation/culture/other relevant collective) gets the short end of the goodness stick even if the universe as a whole wins out.


February 4, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

Had shabbos dinner alone.  Because last week’s parsha includes the first Pesach sacrifice I had lamb (lamb kebabs from Marani ).  And because the Hebrews left Egypt with their cattle, also beef kebabs (OK but not quite as good).

The parsha begins with the plague of locusts. Because the locusts ate a lot of greenery (Exodus 10:15) I had molokhia (a green vegetable made in Egypt- as far as I know, the only kosher-certified product in that nation!)

And finally I had cornbread and a Napoleon pastry from Marani, for no particular reason. The cornbread was exceptional, much denser than typical American cornbread.  The Napoleon was pretty good for a parve dessert but that’s a low bar.

January 30, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bo

This week’s Torah portion contains the first mitzvah applicable to the Jewish people collectively: that of celebrating the new month (12:2).   However, it does not address how to establish the new month, unlike the “Oral Law” requiring witnesses to a new moon and a Jewish court to judge their veracity.

Miller writes (citing Ibn Ezra) that because the Torah fails to address the latter issue,  “you learn at the very outset, when embarking on your study of the very first precept of the Torah, that Scripture can only be understood by means of the Oral Law.”

This claim does not make sense to me in two ways.  First, in context, there was no need for witnesses, etc.- at the time of Moses there was only one Jewish community and it was pretty obvious to everyone when there was a new month.  By contrast, when Jewish communities were miles (or hundreds of miles) from each other, it may have been more difficult for Jews to coordinate about chronological issues.

Second, the broader argument is that because the Torah is ambiguous, there must have been a Divinely mandated Oral Law to clarify the ambiguity.  If by “Oral Law” you mean “tradition of interpretation” generally, perhaps this claim makes sense.  But if by “Oral Law” you mean “Divine law given directly to Moses”, I don’t find it persuasive at all- because (a) the Mishnah (the first “oral law” document available to us) is full of disagreements among rabbis and (b) even if (a) was true, the Mishnah itself is ambiguous- otherwise there’d be no need for a Talmud.  In other words, the Oral Law is just as ambiguous as the Written Law, if not more so, and each attempt to clarify its ambiguities gave rise to new ones.

Assuming that God gave us the Written Torah, God simply chose to give us ambiguous rules, and that’s that.

January 22, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vaera

In this week’s portion, the Torah mentions that God will “harden Pharoah’s heart.” (Exodus 7:3).  Miller gives a very simple answer to this: “Pharoah was punished with the removal of his free choice as a punishment for his prior enslavement of the Jewish people.”

This answer leads to a difficulty: plenty of people (inside and outside the Torah) do nasty things, but why is this phrase limited to the king of Egypt?

Right now, I am reading Shadal*’s commentary on Exodus; he mentions this theory but also some other interpretations.  He mentions one explanation that is a bit more naturalistic: “here there was no Divine punishment or actual miracle; rather, Pharoah himself hardened his heart, for all actions are attributable to God in some sense, as he is the First Cause.  I would add that the actions which are attributed to God in the Scriptures are the strange actions whose reasons are incomprehensible to us.  So here, Pharoah’s stubborness despite his having seen several signs and wonders is a strange and astonishing thing, and therefore it is attributed to God.”   In other words, the phrase “hardening his heart” is a figure of speech, a way of saying that the king was behaving quite oddly.


*Shadal- Samuel Davvid Luzzaatto, 19th-c. Italian commentator.

January 20, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

For the first time in months, I am having shabbos dinner alone in my apartment- I’ve had three weeks of winter break, and my last few shabbos in Manhattan I ate at shul or shared a meal with someone who brought the main course.

This is a parsha themed meal, sort of- the Torah mentions that the Hebrews will go to a land of milk and honey (Exodus 3:17), so I made something with milk and honey (blueberry pancakes with milk and honey, and a little date paste since the Torah’s “honey” may really have been date syrup).  Also, I got a khachapuri from Marani in Queens.

In addition I have some dried figs (because the Haftarah mentions Ephraim being swallowed like a fig (Isaiah 28:4) and blueberries (for no reason at all)

January 18, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shemot

This week’s Torah portion begins with the story of Egyptian oppression.  The Egyptians first enslave the Hebrews, and then try to kill their baby boys.  Two midwives, Shifra and Puah, ignore these orders; the Torah states that “because the midwives feared God… He made them houses.” (1:21).

What does this mean?  Rashi suggests that Shifra and Puah were Moses’s mother and sister, and were rewarded with great descendants.  Miller doesn’t reject this fanciful* midrash, but he prefers a more theoretical interpretation.

He writes that “when you fear God, you become a ‘house’: mentally organized, settled, and structured.”  In my life, religious observance has helped to structure my life, even if I am not always as settled as I would like.  Each part of the day has its different obligations, and each part of the year as well.

*Why fanciful?  Because I find it hard to imagine the Egyptians trusting Hebrews to kill each other.  I suspect that Shifra and Puah were really Egyptians- but that’s another discussion.

January 11, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayhi

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob blesses his children- but he doesn’t really bless Simeon and Levi, instead rebuking their anger.

Miller writes that “Jacob did not bless Simeon and Levi because they were from the side of gevurah (severity) and if these forces would be intensified the world could not endure them… What parts of your personality come from Gevurah?  Can your world endure them?”

After watching lots of aggressive political arguments on Twitter and Facebook (and in the broader media) over the past year, it seems to me that argumentativeness in these matters can certainly be severe.   I have tried to be a little less severe than I would have been a few years ago.

Interestingly, I noticed one politician who seemed to have worked on this characteristic.  Gov. Kasich, who I voted for, had a reputation as being, to put it charitably, a bit aggressive. (I can’t seem to copy and paste to this computer, but just google “kasic state trooper” for an example).  But he ran a very l0w-key, positive campaign; perhaps he sensed that gevurah was an issue for him (though I’m sure he’s never heard of the word).

January 1, 2017 / conservadox

Rabbis gone wild

I have seen a lot of furious hyperpartisan (expletive deleted) about the U.S.’s failure to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israel for its settlement policy etc.

But a congregational rabbi in my hometown went a little further.  He said that the nations of the Security Council were challenging Israel’s right to the Western Wall.  Here’s the text of the resolution.  Is he right?

It mostly refers to “East Jerusalem” in a general way.  However,  it does say that “it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.”  So if you read it literally, I think you could say that it endorses trapping Israel within its pre-1967 borders.

On the other hand, if you read about the political controversy surrounding this non-binding resolution, it seems to me that this isn’t really what the nations voting on it (at least not the more pro-Israel nations such as the UK) intended.  Most of the actual controversy seems to be about settlement construction- that is, creating Jewish neighborhoods all over the place on disputed land.  (I’m not really persuaded by the left-wing view that the settlements are the primary obstacle to peace, nor did I think the U.S. decision to veto this resolution was a good idea- but that’s another discussion entirely).  And since the resolution has zero legal force, I don’t think you can expect the level of precision that you would for a treaty.