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December 9, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mikeitz

In this week’s portion, a famine forces Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt, where they try to get food and have all sorts of adventures both in this portion and the next.   Since Joseph has been become a major public official, the brothers have to see him to get grain.  Of course, they do not recognize him (Gen. 42:8).

Drazin and Wagner pose the question: why don’t Joseph’s brothers recognize him?  Commentators give a variety of reasons, suggesting that Joseph has a beard that covers his face, spoke through an interpreter, etc.

But it seems to me that these questions make the whole issue more complex than it needs to be.  Sometimes, if you are not expecting to see something, you don’t see it, no matter how obvious it is.

A classic example is the gorilla suit psychology experiment: “six people-three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen.”   So you might think everyone who watches the video sees the gorilla- right?  Wrong.  About half the people watching the video missed the gorilla.

Joseph might have been like the gorilla- because his brothers didn’t expect to see him in a position of power (or indeed anywhere in Egypt) they didn’t recognize him.

December 9, 2017 / conservadox

having it both ways

I went to a shul I live closer to than my regular shul, because I didn’t want to argue with Trump supporters gloating over his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which strikes me as significant as an assertion that water is wet.

Instead, I went to another shul slightly closer to home (10 min walk instead of 20), and listened to a Trump-supporting rabbi doing the same thing.  What was really irritating is that he told a story that completely contradicted his message.

His story: Menachem Begin visits Margaret Thatcher, and is asked by an aide to lobby her about Jeruasalem or something.  Begin responded that Jerusalem existed thousands of years before London, so he didn’t really care what her opinion was on this point.  To me, the obvious moral of the story is that Israel shouldn’t give a rat’s behind about what other nations think.

But a few minutes later the same rabbi was celebrating that Israel got some worthless crumbs from the Trump table!

December 9, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos lunch

I was at a friend’s for dinner, but made a small lunch: latkes in honor of Chanukah, plus an adaptation of Andorran tomato bread (but with challah).

The latkes were a bit unusual because I used banana flour, mainly because I had it lying around and wanted to get rid of it.  A bit bland, but serviceable.

Also I had kung pao tuna (just canned tuna with kung pao sauce, nothing fancy) and chocolate covered gooseberries (very good!) for dessert.

December 5, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion contains, among other things, the story of Judah and Tamar.  Tamar marries Judah’s first son, who dies of natural causes (Gen. 38:7).  Judah then tells the second son to marry Tamar, because it is his “duty to her as a brother-in-law…to provide offspring for your brother.” (38:7).

This seems to be the first mention in the Torah of levirate marriage (discussed further at Deut.25:5), which requires a dead guy’s brother to marry his sister-in-law if the brother dies without offspring (subject to exceptions not relevant here).*  As Drazin and Wagner point out, “Radak observes that this requirement was an ancient practice observed in Judah’s family even prior to the giving of the Torah.”

Why is Judah’s family observing levirate marriage?  A haredi-ish interpretation would be that of course the patriarchs observed the Torah before it is given- an intepretation that is supported by some but not all medieval commentators, and which furthermore makes no sense, given that Genesis is full of ethically questionable activity (not to mention Jacob marrying two sisters, which was later forbidden by the Torah).

The better view is that Judah’s observance of levirate marriage is not in response to a Torah command.  In fact, medieval commentators suggest that Judah and his family did things related to levirate marriage that were not later required by the Torah. For example, Mizrachi suggests that the pre-Moses practice “required the husband who married his dead brother’s wife to name the child after the deceased brother.”** and Nachmanides writes that after Onan dies, Tamar moved to her father’s house because she was waiting for son no. 3 to grow up and marry her, and in such situations it “was customary for a [widow]… to wait at her father’s house.”  Neither practice is in the Torah.

So what? If Judah is observing a set of levirate marriage type customs, where’d he get this idea if not from a Divine relevation?  To me the obvious answer is: it was part of the broader culture.   In other words, Judah & Family were observing a stricter version of levirate marriage based on Canaanite rules, which in turn suggests that the Torah’s version of levirate marriage, far from being a set of laws commanded out of nowhere, might actually be a kind of leniency.  The Torah is saying “here, do levirate marriage, but you don’t have to follow all these weird customs about naming your kid after the dead guy, and here’s a ritual for you to follow if the whole idea seems too crazy for you.”

I suspect that if we knew more about the Hebrews’ pre-Torah culture, we’d learn that a lot of the Torah’s seemingly incomprehensible laws are like levirate marriage- modest modifications of preexisting practice.


*But see Deut. 25:7-10 for details of the ritual the brother-in-law performs if he chooses not to marry the widow.  Typically, that ritual is performed today, rather than the marriage itself.

**This is a comment on 38:9, which suggests that Onan refused to impregnate Tamar because “the offspring would not be called by his name.”

November 26, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayishlach

This week’s portion contains the story of Dina (the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in the Torah) and Shechem.  Shechem, a local Canaanite big shot, has sex with (or maybe rapes) Dina, then asks Jacob for the girl’s hand in marriage.    Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi got very angry and kill Shechem and many of his friends and neighbors.

One thing that had always confused me about this story: most translations say Shechem raped Dina (perhaps to make the later massacre seem more reasonable).  But if Shechem raped her, why would he be so eager to marry her? (Gen. 34:4).  Normally rape is not exactly a crime of love.

Drazin and Wagner resolve the difficulty.  They point out that Onkelos uses the ambiguous word “afflicted” to describe Shechem’s conduct, and that not every medieval commentator use the term “rape.”  Saadiah Gaon wrote that “afflicted” is a synonym for sexual intercourse generally, and Rashi uses the term “abnormal sex.”  So perhaps this was consensual- which would explain Shechem’s interest in marriage.

But that creates a new difficulty: why are Dina’s brothers so incensed?  A few possible explanations:

  1.  They haven’t spoken to Dina, and they don’t know what really happened and are assuming the worst.
  2.  They consider the idea of marriage to a Canaanite stranger to be abhorrent, and don’t really care if its consensual.
  3. Maybe Dina was young enough that they thought any sexual act with her was morally questionable (akin to modern statutory rape).

Explanation 3 is certainly the most relevant to our time.  A Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, has gotten in trouble for sexual contact (not full-scale intercourse, just breast-touching and kissing) with a 14-year old and a few 16-year-olds.   None of this was literally rape- not just because he didn’t go “all the way” but he stopped when he was told to stop.  If the women involved had been over 18 this would, I think, not have been a major scandal.  At the other extreme, if Moore had touched 8-year olds this way he would probably be behind bars.

What age was Dina? I don’t know, but assuming that she was a teenager, I can imagine that Shechem might have seen her as an appropriate mate while Simeon and Levi might have seen any sexual act as inherently exploitative even if consensual.   Then as now, the lines between appropriate and inappropriate, and the line between somewhat inappropriate and criminal, can be a bit blurry.

PS By an odd coincidence, I found an article on Slate that is chock full of sexual “gray area” scenarios.


November 24, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner/lunch

I’m being invited out for dinner so I will probably eat most of this for lunch- but may have a bit of it tonight!

This is my first dinner at home in a few weeks- a dinner with a friend, then a singles Shabboton, then a shul dinner interfered.

In alphabetical order I am up to Algeria, so I will have two Algerian dishes: tafifa (pumpkin with meat, garlic, cabbage) and couscous (which I put eggplant dip in to liven it up).

And because the parsha talks about Yaakov’s adventures with sheep breeding my meat in the tafifa will be lamb.

Also figs because the mandrakes that Leah and Rachel argued about are, according to some commentators, figs.

November 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayetzei

Jewish inheritance law is a bit puzzling; the Torah suggests that normally only males inherit, unless a decedent leaves daughters and no sons (Numbers 27).  Where’d this idea come from?

This week’s portion gives us a clue: when Jacob asks his wives if they are willing to leave Laban’s household and move to Israel, they ask “Do we still have a share and inheritance in our father’s house?” (31:14).    The answer, of course, is no.  According to Drazin and Wagner, “there is no financial reason for them to remain, for only males will receive a share of their father’s possessions.” So the Torah rule is basically the same as the pagan rule- probably a region-wide rule that just seemed like common sense in a patriarchal world.

November 13, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Toldot

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion mentions Isaac’s prayer to God for progeny (Gen. 25:21).  Drazin and Wagner use this as a jumping-off point for describing two theories of prayer: the Talmud suggests “that God desire the prayers of the righteous” while Rambam “states that God has no need for prayer: prayer helps people and does not affect God.”

What motivates this dispute?  It seems to me that the Talmud may be motivated by a desire to encourage people to do spiritually meaningful things.  By contrast, Rambam was motivated by a desire to describe God accurately (or at least in a way that seemed accurate to him).  So the “dispute” is really a difference in emphasis- do we focus on abstract philosophical truth or the needs of the common person?  I do not think there is an all-purpose right answer for this question.

November 5, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion contains the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebecca; the former goes hunting for a wife for Isaac, and finds Rebecca.  The main story is not what I found especially interesting; rather, I was interested in a few small nuances in the text and how the medieval commentators treat those nuances.

After the servant meets Rebecca, she tells her brother Laban. When Laban “saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s hands … he came to the man, and behold, he was standing beside the camels by the spring.” (Gen. 24:30).

What did Laban see?  According to Drazin & Wagner, Radak says Laban “invited the servant to his home only after he saw the ring and bracelets.  In contrast, Sforno states that Laban acted properly; he invited the servant [to visit] because he saw the presents ands did not want to appear ungrateful.”

This difference illustrates a common division among the commentators, not only about Laban, but also about other people mentioned in Genesis who are not of the covenantal Abraham/Isaac/Jacob line.  Similarly, the commentators divide on how to treat Ishmael.   Gen. 21:9 notes that the latter was “playing” before being expelled by Abraham.  Rashi says ishmale was engaged in idolatry and other bad stuff.  Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, interprets this language literally, and says that Sarah wanted him out for other reasons.

In other words, some commentators want to treat every textual ambiguity as a way to attack Laban or Ishmael (or for that matter Esau, who comes up next week’s Torah portion); others believe that non-Jews, like Jews, should be judged favorably, and apply this attitude in their interpretation of Genesis.



October 29, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayera

This week’s portion contains, among other things, the story of the destruction of Sodom (also Gomorrah, but Gomorrah doesn’t get any separate discussion).  Lot and his family escape Sodom.  First they go to a small town called Zoar, then they go to a cave in the country.  His daughters decide to get him drunk and make babies with him, because “there is no man in the land to go to us” (19:31).   This makes no sense at first glance.  Obviously there were men in Zoar.   So what’s going on?

Some commentators think they really did believe the world was destroyed, which makes them sound pretty dumb.

But Radak and Sforno have more interesting suggestions.  The former writes “they thought that no man would want to marry them because they were tainted as evil persons, having come from the destroyed cities.”  The latter says “that they felt that there would be no man worthy enough for them to marry.”

Over my decades of dating, I’ve felt both emotions.  I have dated many women who I just didn’t like enough; I suppose you could say that I thought they were not “worthy enough” in the sense that I thought I could do better.   But at other times I have wondered whether I was being too picky; because of my career instability I wondered if anyone would want to marry me.  More recently, as I have become middle aged (I’m 54) I began to doubt that anyone of child-bearing age would want to marry me.

Much to my surprise, a woman of child-bearing age (36 or so) has had a couple of dates with me.  But I still have to decide whether she is worthy enough, and she has to decide the same of me.  I wonder if I like her enough; in addition, she is more frum than I, which may pose obstacles in the future.