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September 17, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Haazinu

“I cause death and I bring to life.  I injure and I heal.” (Deut. 32:39).

Miller suggests that this verse is evidence for the resurrection of the dead (citing the Talmud).  He reasons:  what’s the point of the second sentence?  Doesn’t healing and injury flow from death and life?  Obviously, the second sentence must have a less obvious meaning.

The less obvious meaning, he writes, is “that just as one person is injured and then healed, so too, this same person who dies is brought to life.”

Am I persuaded?  Not necessarily- the parallelism could just be poetry, a kind of redundancy designed to make a point.  But it is interesting to see that this might be where the concept of resurrection comes from.

September 15, 2017 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

This week’s portion mentions idols made of silver and gold (Deut. 29:16) so I had a “silver and gold” salad of corn and herring.

Also I got a couple of interesting things at Kosher Marketplace and decided to work with them: chunks of curried tofu, and kale (which I made into a baked salad with black beans, mustard and ketchup).

For dessert: a vanilla cake cut into a heart shape (because 29:17 discusses the risk of people’s hearts turning away from God).

September 10, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Nitzavim

In this week’s portion, Moses warns the Jews that if they misbehave, “the foreigner who comes from a distant land” (Deut. 29:21) will wonder why the land of Israel was so afflicted, and will learn that the true cause of the problem was the Jews’ faithlessness towards God.

Miller writes that this language “is an allusion to Nero Caeasar, who came from the distant land of Rome to destroy Jerusalem.. [and according to the Talmud] upon entering Jerusalem, Nero recognized that it is God who orchestrates all worldly affairs, and he fled, later converting to Judaism.”

Of course, this is all wrong.  It was Vespasian, not Nero, who invaded Jerusalem (and was pretty good at destroying it!) Nero never converted to Judaism, probably never visited Israel, and committed suicide in Rome after the Romans revolted against him.

Miller’s commentary exemplifies the Jewish version of fundamentalism: instead of taking the Bible literally as far-right Christians do, haredim take the “Oral Torah” of the Talmud literally.  This sort of thing is why I can’t really take haredi-ism (aka ultra-Orthodoxy) seriously.

And this attitude can’t really claim the mantle of tradition: in Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam wrote about how silly it was to take these midrashim (legends) as literal truth, rather than as parables designed to prove a point.

September 10, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

Because last week’s Torah portion mentions the offering of the first fruits, I decided to have six of the fruits in one dish: barley with bits of figs and dates, plus pomegrantes, plus  olive oil (since olives is one of the fruits) and wine (since grapes is another).  It was OK but the blandness of the barley still dominated- I added some tagine sauce Saturday and greatly improved it.

The seventh fruit is wheat, and I dealt with that through pizza from Saba’s- which wouldn’t have been necessary if I was dining alone, but I had a niece over so felt the need for something more.

Also had bonito (a very salty canned fish, from a Greek market in Astoria- too salty for me) and a store bought mini-cake from Dylan’s candy  bar (mediocre), and pumpkin mini-donuts from Dunkin Donuts (ditto).

September 3, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tavo

This week’s portion ends with a selection of blessings and curses: if you observe the mitzvot “You will be blessed in the city, and blessed in the field.” (Deut. 28:3).

Miller notes that the first half of this formula “refers to the reward for the commandments that you will observe in the city”.  This of course presupposes that there are city-intensive mitzvot, and that there will be Jews who live in the city, not just as farmers.

In Christianity (especially Protestantism) religion tends to be associated with rural areas, and secularism with the city.   But this dichotomy is completely alien to Judaism: the most committed Jews, especially in the United States, tend to be in cities (or in a few densely populated suburbs like Kiryas Joel) while rural and outer-suburb Jews tend to be more assimilated.  Our holiest site, the Temple, was the center of a city that grew up around it.


August 30, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tetze

This week’s Torah portion contains the law of the rebellious son (Deut. 21:18 et. seq.) If you read this law literally, you might think that any son who does not listen to his parents will be stoned to death.

Miller points out that, according to the interpretations of the Talmudic sages, this is actually a very narrow law.  It only applies if, among other things, both parents “speak to him in the same voice”, “relate to the child with an equal sense of seriousness” and “convey to him the same message and value system.”  (The Sages also add a variety of other limits which make the law virtually impossible to apply, but which aren’t really relevant to Miller’s point or mine).

He accordingly concludes that if the parents have not worked together harmoniously, “the fact that the child has become unruly may not reflect his innate depravity, but rather a dysfunctional upbringing.  If these factors would change, the child might improve.”

This interpretation reveal yet again one idea I like to bang away at now and then: that classical Judaism is very different from both modern liberalism and modern conservatism.

One of the basic ideas of modern conservatism is that if you are poor/suffering/criminal/etc it is your own fault, period, full stop.  The Sages clearly disagree; they acknowledge that people are affected by their upbringing, and that this reality should affect halachic policy.

A common counter-idea on the Left is that because social ills are caused by people’s bad upbringing, people should be punished for their misdeeds as little as possible.  Given the Torah’s liberal (pun intended) use of flogging and capital punishment, obviously this is not quite the Torah’s point of view either.


August 25, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner

This is my first home cooked (by me) meal since going back to NYC.

The parsha talks about sheep being slaughtered (Deut 18:3)so i thought i would get sheep cheese. I made it into a kosher cheese melt with soy sausage.

It also tells kings not to accumulate silver and gold (17:17) so i decided to get some silver and golden food:

Branzino (silver) w bbq sauce

Sweet potato fries(gold) w tagine sauce, onions, smoked tilapia

Mini pancakes(gold)

And because it forbids cutting down fruit trees (20:20) i am having french toast with charoset mix (made of dates).









August 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shofetim

Deuteronomy 17:15 and the succeeding verses discuss kingship in Israel.

Miller’s version says: “You should always set a king over you.” *

JPS Tanach (also Jewish Theological Seminary website): “you shall be free to set a king over yourself”

Aryeh Kaplan: you will eventually say, ‘We would like to appoint a king, just like all the nations around us.  You must then appoint the king [chosen by God]”

Isaac Lesser  [when the people want a king] “mayest thou indeed set a king over thee”

I can’t claim to know what the best literal translation is, but Miller’s translation is much more pro-king than JPS (which treats monarchism as optional) or Kaplan (which seems to predict rather than mandating monarchy).

So what does this have to do with us?  The broader issue is: how should we translate the Torah?  Miller prefers to pick the midrash or interpretation that he likes, and translate the text in accordance with that interpretation.  JPS seems a bit more neutral- although on the other hand, since it has no commentary, you could argue that maybe it is less upfront about its biases.I can’t claim to know what the best literal translation is, but since Miller makes it clear elsewhere that literalism is not what he’s interested in, I suspect that JPS is more accurate.  My suspicion is backed up by the fact that the medieval commentators are divided on this: Abarbanel says a king is not the ideal, and is telling Jews in so many words: “if you do appoint a king, this is how to do it.”




*By the way, this seems inconsistent with Samuel’s objection to the people’s demand for a king.  Miller (citing an 18th-c. rabbi) explains it away by saying that the demand was for a king “to judge us like all the nations” (I Samuel 8:4-6) implying that the Jews wanted to be governed by secular law and not Torah law.   Since the Torah suggests that priests will do the judging (Deut. 17:9), I don’t find this argument too persuasive.

August 18, 2017 / conservadox

back home- first NYC shabbos dinner of the academic yr

After a summer in my hometown, I am back in NYC, having my first shabbos dinner.  Because Re’eh mentions both Passover and related sacrifices (Deut. 16:2-4) and the milk-meat rule (14:21) I thought I would have:

  1. Lamb (because the Temple-era Pesach sacrifice was a lamb) so lamb steak from Marani (kind of expensive but I got tenure this week so I thought I’d celebrate a bit more than usual).
  2. Beef bourekas with tofu cream cheese (a kosher milk-meat combination)
  3. matzoh instead of challah (again, Pesach)
  4. Also- fresh figs, some sort of zucchini pie from a Bukharan market (which turned out to be dreadful), macarons just because I saw them in grocery stores.
August 13, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Re’eh (my bar mitzvah portion!)

This week’s Torah portion discusses the complicated system of tithes.  Today, observant Jews interpret these rules to require regular donations to charities, ideally totalling at least 1/10 of one’s income.  Some Christian sects do something similar, often requiring a comparable donation to a church.

Is this the Jewish way? Not quite.  Deut. 15:10 says that you should give to the destitute “repeatedly.” Miller (citing Nachmanides) elaborates: “There is a distinct advantage in giving lesser amounts of charity numerous times, in contrast to giving an entire sum at once.  While making a large donation is praiseworthy, the repeated act of giving transforms your character to become more generous and giving, for the soul is refined by means of repeated action.”