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October 14, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Lech Lecha

This week’s portion begins the story of Abraham (Abram at the start of this parsha), including Abraham’s participation in a small war. The Torah notes that Abraham was “living in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshkol and the brother of Aner, who were Abram’s confederates.” (Gen. 14:13).

I had never noticed before that Abram had gentile friends. But the Rav treats this as evidence that the Jew “is entangled in the activities of Gentile society economically, politically, culturally, and, on some levels, socially… The problems of humanity- war and peace, political stability or anarchy, morality or permissiveness, famine, epidemics and pollution– transcend the boundaries of ethnic groups. A stricken environment, both physically and ideologically, can wreak havoc upon all groups.”

Many engaged Jews vote just on Israel. The Rav is saying: the stuff that affects non-Jews matters too,* stuff like air pollution- a though worth considering at a time when yet another storm is flooding the southeastern USA and sea levels continue to rise.

*I also think voting on Israel is futile because Israel is now much more powerful than it was a few decades ago, and can pretty much take care of itself. But that discussion is for another day.

October 12, 2018 / conservadox

shabbat dinner

This is a very unusual shabbos. I was planning to go back to my home town for my birthday, but everything was disrupted by Hurricane Michael, and my flight was canceled even after being rescheduled from Thursday (when the weather was bad) to Friday (when it was much better). I even spent 2 hours in a plane that was stuck on the tarmac due to maintenance issues, then was forced to deplane. Because there were no other pre-shabbos flights I went home.

I still managed to cobble together a small shabbos dinner. This week’s country is Bhutan so I am having a watered down version of Kewa Datshi (cheese and potato stew)- I say watered down because the Bhutanese version has lots of chili peppers and I am having matbucha instead. (PS turned out badly because I didn’t use enough cheese).

What about the parsha? The parsha, Noach, involves the great flood in which Noah saved every species on Earth. So I am having vegetarian versions of several animal speeches- cheese for cattle, soy sausage for pork, soy garlic parmesan wings for chicken. (Why vegetarian? Because I wanted to do the cheese and potato stew and also I was in a hurry and my kitchen is mostly set up for dairy).

Also I got chocolate hummus (which turned out very nicely rich, though not as sugary as real chocolate) and other chocolate for dessert.

October 7, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Noach

The Rav had lots of interesting things to say about Noach:

*Regarding God’s remembrance of Noah (Gen. 8:1) the Rav writes that this statement illustrates God’s concern with each individual, and adds: “Just as God exhibits both universal and individual concern, so should man.” Putting the matter less supernaturally, I would say that the Torah’s interpreters sometimes try to make God a role model for man, saying in so many words: God is doing praiseworthy thing X (looking after the individual) so should you. It is a cliche that man invented God in his own image, but maybe it would be more accurate to say that man invents God in the image of the ideal man.

*Regarding the statement that God will not curse the earth even though “man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21), the Rav asks: if God earlier used man’s corruption as a reason to destroy life, why is he now using it as a reason not to do so? The Rav interprets earlier phrases as an assertion that “all man’s instincts and talents were directed to complete evil” while afterwards “every person had the capacity for repentance.” In other words, man progressed, going from all bad to mostly bad. I suppose this is another way of saying that Judaism is an religion of progress; it (sometimes) supports the idea that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and virtue. (Though I suspect there are plenty of rabbinic statements to the contrary as well).

*In discussing the Tower of Babel, the Rav contrasts the pre-Flood society with the society that built the Tower. He suggests that the pre-Flood society “represented orgiastic man, the man of pleasure.” By contrast, he sees the Tower society as a disciplined, totalitarian, achievement-oriented society, much like Communist Russia or China. He suggests that one leads to the other, because “A pleasure-seeking individual is ready prey to the scheming of a power-hungry, evil mind.” He suggests that this happened in Weimar Germany, which he describes as “an orgiastic society, seeking pleasure and enjoyment.” I don’t find this persuasive; I don’t see any reason to believe that Weimar Germany was more orgiastic than England or France or the USA at the same time, nor am I sure that Nazis were more orgiastic than anti-Nazis. My inference is that the Rav was really writing about the United States in 1974; he was perhaps traumatized by the sexual revolution and the rise in crime, and saw the U.S. becoming an “orgiastic” society.

October 5, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s country is Benin- a country with lots of vegetarian options, which fits perfectly with this week’s Torah portion (since Adam and Eve are apparently commanded to be vegetarians).

One national dish of Benin is Kuli-Kuli, a fritter typically made of mashed peanuts. Although I did not feel like mashing peanuts, I found ground peanut powden and so am making it with that (though using avocado instead of peanut oil because I don’t feel like paying for a big thing of oil that I will never use again).

Another Benin dish is kale and sweet potato salad; my version will have a few revisions but again is somewhat faithful to the original.

Also- mushrooms/rice/tofu from West Side Wok (a new Chinese place) and some ginger noodles from Kosher Marketplace, also on the Upper West Side.

And a parve chocolate marshmallow bar for dessert.

September 29, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Genesis

This year I am using a new Chumash, the “Neuwirth edition” based on the writings of Joseph Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), a mid 20th-c. modern Orthodox leader. This Chumash is published by the OU, and complied by Arnold Lustiger. Because it is in five volumes I doubt it will become a common congregational Chumash soon- but still it may be interesting.

So far I’ve read the first half of its Genesis commentary; the most interesting insight so far relates to Gen. 2:7, stating that God formed man “from the dust of the ground.”

According to one midrash, this means that the dust came from the four corners of the Earth. But what does THAT mean? The Rav writes: “Man belongs everywhere. He is no stranger to any part of the universe. The native son of the sleepy little town is, at the same time, a son of parts distant and unknown. He is cosmic through his intellectual improvement, wanting to know about things far removed from him… Man is cosmic through his mobility. He can easily attach himself from his native surroundings and adapt himself to new environs.”

This resonated with me, because I have lived in 14 cities since graduating from law school, and visited 3 countries this year (the first time I have been overseas since 2011, and the first time I have been in Europe since 1997). I try to be mobile intellectually as well as physically- even if you believe in the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah was written at least 2400 years ago.

More broadly, this point illustrates a difference between Judaism and Christianity: Christianity focuses on the Fall of Man, Judaism is mostly about the Ascent of Man (as Joseph Hertz wrote in his Chumash 80 years ago).

September 29, 2018 / conservadox

Songs for chagim

For some reason I have been thinking about Jewish holidays having theme songs.

Since Shemini Atzeret is the last chag of the “teshuva season” that starting with Tisha’b’Av, I nominate “One Last Time” from Hamilton.

For Rosh Hashanah: “Perfect Year” from Sunset Boulevard.

I’m not sure about the other holidays yet.

September 25, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Vezot Habracha

In the last Torah portion of the year, Moses blesses each tribe (well, almost every time- Shimon doesn’t make it into this portion). Often, his blessings are obscure- for example, the JPS translation states that Moses states “Rejoice, O Zebulun, on your journeys, And Issachar, in your tents” (Deut. 33:18).

According to Drazin and Wagner, Onkelos uncharacteristically gives a Midrash-like interpretation, translating this verse as “Rejoice, Zebulun, when you go out to war against your adversaries, and Issachar, when you go out to set the time of the festivals in Jerusalem.” Drazin and Wagner think that at least part of this translation was the result of an overzealous later scribe.

Does the ambiguity of the Torah call its Divinity into question? Secular scholars often argue that the contradictions in the Torah prove that it comes from multiple sources. It seems to me that one could plausible make the same argument about the Torah’s ambiguity- a single author who desired to give people Pure Truth would be less obscure.

And on the other hand, such an argument would be vulnerable to the same counterarguments as arguments based on contradictions in the Torah text: that they are based on an assumption that a Divine author would want to communicate the same way a human author communicates (i.e. with as few ambiguities and contradictions as possible). I don’t see why this argument is necessarily true.* God created a world full of baffling uncertainties, so why not a Torah that is equally messy? So ultimately there is no easy right answer- every argument leads to a plausible counterargument.

*Of course, another argument is that the Oral Torah solves all the ambiguities. But a look at any Torah commentary shows that the major commentators disagree with each other quite frequently, so this claim is not really so plausible.

September 17, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Hazinu/Yom Kippur

This week’s portion, the second to last in the Torah, is another short one. Moses talks about how the Jews will ultimately stray from God and get punished. One verse states that “The fear of the Mighty One who created you, you forgot” (Deut. 32:18).

Drazin and Wagner point out that the Dubno Maggid has a homiletical (i.e. extremely forced) interpretation of this verse. He translates this phrase as the One “who gave you birth” and suggests that God “enabled you to be born… with the power of forgetfulness (as a blessing, since who would be able to bear the pain of horrible memories that would be impossible to erase from one’s mind) … and you used the blessing that God gave you to forget the God who gave birth to you.”

Is forgetfulness a blessing? This issue is relevant to the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur. We repent our sins and too much forgetfulness is not good, because without memory I don’t remember all of the misdeeds I should be repenting for. On the other hand, a little forgetfulness eases the pain of it all- and frankly there are parts of this year I wish I had forgetten, mostly involving saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or failure to say the right thing at the right time.

September 15, 2018 / conservadox

shul website updated

My Manhattan shul website now contains a post on KRA on West 72nd.

September 14, 2018 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

I wanted to try a restaurant I hadn’t been to this week, so I got falafel and shwarma from Golan Heights near Yeshiva University.

This week’s Torah portion mentions that the Land is a land of “milk and honey” (Deut. 31:20) so I decided to make “milk and honey” pancakes- because I wanted a meat meal I am using coconut milk yogurt instead of dairy milk.

And this week’s country is Belize so in addition to the pancakes (which is sort of similar to Caribbean johnnycakes, though not quite identical) I thought i would have bean stew, a Belizean dish. Finally, since the haftorah mentions fig trees, I am having fresh figs.