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November 21, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vay

This week’s Torah portion contains a rather infamous episode: Shechem (the son of a leader of a village) rapes* Dina (the only daughter of Yakov mentioned in the Torah) and some of Dina’s brothers (especially Levi and Shimon) respond by killing Shechem and all the males in his town, taking their women and children as slaves, and taking their cattle as well. (Gen. 34).

Arama’s comments on this episode are a bit retrograde.  He first admits that secular logic would condemn the acts of Levi and Shimon.  Then he goes on and on about how Jews are different because they “learn the word of G-d”- for example, the Akedah.   He writes that the “standards of ethical conduct for Jews are set on high for the Torah oriented personality.”  In particular, he writes that because “as a result of [not marrying Canaanites] their father had established a family all of whom were true to their heritage.  Rape of their only sister then was a public descecration of G-d’s name, in the face of which ordinary principles of human conduct did not apply any longer.  The brother’s deliberate flouting of all [ethical] rules of conduct was designed to impress the G-dly principles on which their lives were built, on the surrounding country.” (emphasis added).

What is Arama trying to say here?  If he’s saying “we get to be less ethical because we have Torah” that’s obviously deranged.  The Akedah analogy is balderdash because there’s no Divine relevation telling the brothers to exterminate people.  If he’s saying that this impressed the surrounding country, this is obviously wrong because Yaakov tells his children that their conduct is making him “odious among the inhabitants of the land” (34:30).

But here’s what I think Arama might be getting at.  By pulling the chillul Hashem card maybe he’s saying that insulting their sister is an insult to tribal (and by implication Divine) honor.  In a “culture of honor” people get status by not being disrespected by others, and respond violently when they feel humiliated.  Honor cultures tend to be patriarchal and very violent, dominated by blood feuds rather than by law.  Arama is telling us that Yaakov’s world is still a culture of honor – and apparently (judging by his favorable reaction) 15th c. Spain was as well.

It seems to me that Sinai was the first step in throwing out the culture of honor; it didn’t eliminate blood feuds, but puts limits on the idea through concepts such as the city of refuge.  And Chazal, by creating a web of law, wipe the culture of honor out of the mainstream of Judaism.   But what I don’t get is: how is this idea worming its way back into Judaism hundreds of years after the Talmud?



November 15, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayeze

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob marries Leah and Rachel.  At first he thinks he is just marrying Rachel, but after the first wedding he discovers that he inadvertently married Leah; he had been tricked by their father Lavan, who always meant to marry Leah first.

Arama asks how Jacob could have been deceived.  Arama responds: “After the wedding, having fulfilled the act of consummation, he presumably separated from his wife in accordance with the laws of ritual purity. When he observed Rachel next morning in her father’s house… and he found Leah and Zilpah in his own house, he realised that he had been tciked.”

Of course, one problem with that answer is: how come he didn’t realize it was Leah the night before?

But also: what’s all this about ritual purity?  Is he saying that Jacob observed Torah laws of family purity centuries before the Torah is given?

Although that may seem to make no sense, there is some basis for this idea in Jewish tradition.  The Mishnah states that Abraham observed the Torah because it states “Abrahma obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” (Gen. 26:5).  This redundancy implies to Rashi that Abraham not only obeyed God but kept all sorts of mitzvot given to Moses later, and even the oral Torah of the Mishanah.   The most traditionalist rabbis will stop there.

But… the Talmud says there is a dispute about this, and Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) says that the redundancy is meant to distinguish between circumcision (“My charge”) and ethical commandments (“My laws and My teachings”) such as the Noahide laws and other ethical teachings that Abraham presumably did not need Divine revelation to tell him about.  So the crazy-sounding theories about patriarchs being rabbinic Jews (which Arama appears to endorse here) were not universally adopted even in the Middle Ages.

*I’m not sure how the laws of ritual purity were relevant here, since Arama doesn’t suggest anyone had been menstruating- but that’s beside the point.

November 14, 2015 / conservadox

Pittsburgh shuls updated.

Just visited Dor Chadash, Squirrel Hill’s Reconstructionist congregation.  All I have left to visit now (not counting informal minyans) are Tree of Life (which I’ve visited for minyans just not shabbos) and Reform.

November 13, 2015 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

Because Esau was so obsessed with red lentils, naturally there will be red lentils.

And lots of other red stuff too:

taramoslata (carp caviar)

pickled eggplant

mini pizzas on challah rolls (because they were lying around)

bbq salmon

cabbage rolls (veg version)

strawberry cassava flour pancakes (difficult to make, and not really sweet enough with the low sugar jam I used)

blintzes with strawberry jam

actual strawberries

November 8, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Toldot

In this coming week’s Torah portion, Jacob pretends to be his brother Esau in order to get a special blessing from his father Isaac.  This episode raises about a zillion difficulties.  But Arama’s discussion is interesting (to me) as to only one such issue.

The Torah says Isaac was deceived because he had weak eyes (Gen. 27:1).  But Arama quite wisely asks “What kind of weak eyesight prevents a father from recognizing his son?”

Arama suggests that Isaac suffers from “a process not only related to physical eyesight”.  Because of the importance of this sense, the Tanach “frequently equates the ability to know and comprehend with the ability to see.”  Even though Isaac is aware enough to use his other senses, still something is wrong with his mind: he is a bit confused, disoriented.

Today we understand more of what Arama may have been trying to get at.  Someone with Alzheimer’s might be able to see and hear, but he does not always understand what he sees and hears.  Perhaps Isaac had some sort of early stage Alzheimer’s, in that his ability to recognize people was beginning to slip away.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I have a 92 year old father with Alzheimer’s; the last time I saw him he recognized me, but I can’t assume that this will be true on our next visit).

November 7, 2015 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

In last week’s Torah portion, Eliezer gives Rivka silver and gold.  So I had a silver-and-gold themed Shabbat, with:

herring (my silver entree) with pumpkin, mustard (gold)

corn (for gold) w/some sort of yuppified organic sauerkraut (too sour for me, regular sauerkraut better)

pumpkin (also for gold)  w/sauerkraut again

baked bananas (gold) with honey

a little cake made out of cookie dough and pumpkin- I tried to shape it like a cave (as in the cave where Sarah is buried) but it didn’t quite have the consistency for that.  Still it tasted good.

November 2, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chayyei Sarah

Because this week’s portion relates to matchmaking and wives, Arama thinks this is an appropriate place to discuss the balance between mazzal (luck) and free will.

He notes that two great Talmudic sages had very differnet lives: Rabbah died at age 40, buried 60 relatives during his short life, and “had hardly enough money to live on bread made of barely flour.”  On the other hand, Rav Chisda lived to be 90 and was rich.

Is this level of luck compatible with free will? Clearly, says Arama: mental equipment may predispose a person to act one way or the other, but his “intellect, willpower and heart” may override these tendencies.

But then Arama points out that God gives Abraham children because of his merit.  How is this compatible with the general concept that mazzal governs the world? Arama understandably creates a “Bible exception” stating “Due to his [Abraham’s] merit, however, God intervened and superimposed his will on that of natural law.”  In other words, Divine Providence overrides chance only in the most extreme cases.    Although sometimes Arama floors me, here he is being more or less a rationalist: rather than pretending that all good fortune is due to virtue and bad fortune due to vice, he says that most of us are governed by natural law and only the Abrahams and Moseses get unusal breaks.

October 30, 2015 / conservadox

Shabbat dinner

In this week’s portion, Abraham gives some angels cakes with “fine flour”, a calf, and some sort of dairy dish- the translations and commentaries I’ve seen refer to cottage cheese and labneh.  (Gen. 18:6-8).  Obviously I couldn’t have a calf, but I figured I would do the next best thing by having soy beef.

So: soy beef tips

laffa bread (my idea of “fine flour”) with cottage cheese and tomato sauce, for a kind of pizza roll

ditto but with labneh

a bit of chocolate cake with a bit of a candy bar mixed in

cheese pierogies (just because I felt like it)

mushrooms w/sesame garlic sauce (because I felt like I should have something resembling a fruit or vegetable, and the salad I had purchased a few days ago was going bad).

October 26, 2015 / conservadox

weird dream

I dreamt I was in Iraq pretending to be a Muslim convert for some reason.  A nice lady is looking at a Birnbaum siddur and says “you must be a Christian who hates Jews, right?” and starts to explain that Jews aren’t so terrible.  Then ISIS marches in and I run away to hide somewhere dark.  Then the dream ended.

October 25, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayera

In this week’s Torah portion, both Abraham and Lot have some angels over.  Arama comments that these two incidents give us nice examples of what to do and what not to.

On the one hand, Abraham: “he could have withdrawn into his tent long before the travelers had a chance to reach him.  Instead he ran forward, imploring them, as if they were doing him a favor by dining with him…”

On the other, while “Abraham rushes to welcome strangers”, Lot “waits until the last possible moment to invite them in”.  Also, he “asks them to be gone first thing in the morning; he does not even mention food.” (Fortunately in Pittsburgh my hosts have been more like Abraham than Lot- I think I’ve had invites 2/3 of shabbos lunches).

Arama also uses the issue of hospitality to explain why Sodom was destroyed.  Sodom’s residents liked homosexual rape and disliked poor people- but that alone might not justify Divine genocide, since plenty of highly murderous civilizations (even Jews at certain times)  were punished less severely.

So why was Sodom so terrible?  Arama  posits that (according to Jewish legend) Sodom made hatred of hospitality and charity into an ideology; it became part of their nature, making repentance impossible.  By contrast, Jews at times behaved badly due to anger, temptation, etc. but maintained high ideals, leaving open the possibility of improvement.  Arama’s interpretation has a lesson for us: we may fail due to temptation, but let’s acknowledge and keep our ideals even if we fall short of them.


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