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January 21, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bschalach

In this week’s portion the Hebrews finally escape Egypt for good.  In addition, they start getting fed with manna after their provisions run out.

This portion also relates to a variety of common practices.  One such practice is the covering of bread for Shabbat meals.  Children are often instructed that this has something to do with not embarrassing the bread or some such nonsense.  Not so!

To which I say: Fake news!  It is actually related to manna.  The Torah points out in this portion that “when the layer of dew ascended, there, over the surface of the wilderness” (Exodus 16:14) lay the manna.  On the other hand Numbers 11:9 states that “the dew descended.”  Drazin and Wagner elaborate: “If the dew descended, it covered the manna.  If it ascended, the manna was above the dew.”  So one Talmudic opinion suggests that the dew was both above and below the manna.

To memorialize the manna. Jews have two loaves of bread (representing the double portion of manna) at the two main Sabbath meals, and place a cloth or napkin both above and below the bread, representing the dew which was both above and below the manna.


January 16, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bo

This week’s Torah portion hints at the mitzvah of tefillin, stating that there should be “a sign on your hand for you and as a reminder of your eyes” (Ex. 13:9) of liberation from Egypt.

A common non-Jewish term for tefillin is phylacteries.  Drazin and Wagner point out that this term is a misnomer.  The latter term, they write, is Greek for “amulets”, which tefillin are not.* An amulet is an object typically worn to protect the wearer from something, one often alleged to have magical powers.  By contrast, tefillin are worn as a reminder- in this case, of liberation from Egypt.

Jewish tradition is divided as to the appropriateness of amulets.  Medieval rationalists opposed all forms of superstition, including the belief in the magical powers of amulets. But the common Jew was often OK with superstition.   Today, Jews often wear various objects as necklaces of the sort that would have been amulets a few hundred years ago (for example, the letter hay) but generally do not, I think, attribute magical powers to them.

*Later note: not everyone agrees with this translation.  Aryeh Kaplan, in his Living Torah Chumash, writes that the Greek root word for phylacteries is “to guard” which puts a different spin on it.

January 11, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vaera

This week’s portion includes most of the famous “Ten Plagues” of Egypt.  Before one of them, God says to Moses “Go to Pharoah and speak with him.” (Exodus 9:1).  Drazin and Wagner point out that the Torah uses the word “bo” which menas both “to come” and “to go.”  They add: “Some commentators suggest that ‘come’ implies that Moses and Aaron were granted the unusual right to meet with Pharoah whenever they desired, without invitation or prior official permission.”

Even if we reject this fanciful interpretation, why are Moses and Aaron getting to meet with the king all the time?  After all, even a normal President doesn’t meet with every person who criticizes his policies.

It could be that societies were so much smaller and human scale that pretty much anyone could meet with a king.   Maybe Ramses and David were just glorified mayors who presided over what today would be small towns.

But even if anyone could get a first appointment with the king, why did the king keep meeting with them even after he knew that they would just keep insisting for a policy change?

More interestingly, why didn’t the king just have them beheaded?  As far as I know, Egypt was an absolute monarchy, so a king could certainly have people executed.

One guess: maybe the king was a little nuts.  He kept promising to liberate the Hebrews and then going back on his promise, which suggests that he kind of enjoyed jerking people around.  So maybe he was playing a similar cat and mouse game with Moses and Aaron, rather than just terminating them (or at least throwing them out of his office) as a “normal” despot would have done.

January 1, 2018 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shmot

This week’s parsha begins the story of Moses.  An Egyptian king directs that all the male babies be cast into a river (Exodus 1:22), apparently in order to prevent a male savior of the Jewish slaves from surviving and challenging his leadership.   The king’s daughter rescues one of the boys, who becomes Moses, the aforementioned savior.

What is interesting about this is Onkelos’s translation.  He has the king saying “Every son that is born to the Judeans you shall cast into the river.”  The phrase “to the Jews” is not in the original Torah text.  So why does Onkelos insert it?  To make it clear that the king wasn’t going to exterminate Egyptian babies, which he thinks would obviously be insane.

By contrast, the Talmud suggests that this mandate applies to Egyptian males as well, because a deliverer foretold by the king’s seers might be Egyptian or Israelite. It says (BT Sotah 12a)

Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: The use of the phrase “every son that is born” indicates that he decreed even on his own nation that all their male babies must be killed. And Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says further: He decreed three decrees. Initially, he commanded the midwives only with regard to Jewish infants: “You shall look upon the stones. If it be a son, then you shall kill him; but if it be a daughter, then she shall live” (Exodus 1:16). And afterward, he decreed with regard to the Jewish infants: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river” (Exodus 1:22). And ultimately, he decreed even on his own nation that Egyptian infant boys should be cast into the river as well.

This illustrates a broader question of interpretation: do we interpret the Torah (a) literally, (b) to make sense, or (c) to create a moral?

Onkelos chooses the most sensible interpretation.  The Talmud often disdains both (a) and (b) – sometimes for the benefit of a broader moral, sometimes just to add an innovative interpretation.  It is not clear which is going on here- at first, these rabbis’ interpretations just looked to me like innovation for the sake of innovation.  But it is possible that they were try to show that the Egyptian kings had become wackjobs.

December 24, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayechi

In this week’s portion, the final portion of Genesis, Jacob says farewell to his children by blessing them.  But first he blesses two of his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Why only these grandchildren?  And why is it that today, Jewish parents bless male children by saying “May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh” rather than by saying “May you be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

Drazin and Wagner explain that because Ephraim and Manasseh were raised among alien nations, they are the best role model for Jews in exile.  Maintaining Jewish ways is indeed difficult without peer support: I am seeing this among my nephew and nieces, all of whom went to Jewish schools K-8 but mostly went to secular schools for high school and college.    Among the four who are in college or graduated college, Jewish observance seems to be pretty minimal.

Part of the reason for this is that they went to the wrong school for K-8: a diverse “community school” that apparently did not exactly inspire anyone with a love of Judaism.  As a result, they preferred secular schools for high school, and over the years of being surrounded by non-observant friends, their willingness to (for example) observe Shabbat just dwindled.  Had they gone to their city’s Orthodox school for K-8, they would have been willing to go to a similar school for high school, giving them a stronger Jewish grounding.  (The city where they live apparently has very strong Orthodox high schools, but weaker elementary schools, which is why my siblings chose the more wish-washy school for K-8).

At any rate, Jacob moves on to discuss his children.  His “blessings” are quite unclear.  For example, Onkelos says that Reuben should have taken “birthright, priesthood and royalty”.  But other commentators interpret the Hebrew very differently.  Ibn Ezra writes, for example, that Reuben “should have exceeded all and been uplifted.”  One reason why Biblical literalism is impossible is because we don’t always know what ancient Hebrew really means.

Haredim get around this problem by asserting that we have an oral tradition to clarify the ambiguities in the Torah.  But as to non-halachic issues, the disagreements discussed above shows that there is no common tradition on every issue.  Admittedly, the Jewish world (at least the Orthodox world, and in some cases, Conservatives as well) has reached halachic consensus on certain issues: but that’s not necessarily because the dominant view was passed down from generation to generation, but because where uniformity is important, SOME view has to be adopted by Jews.  Someone once said about the Supreme Court, “we are not final because we are infallible; rather, we are infallible because we are final.”  The same thing could be said with equal credibility about leading rabbis.


December 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayigash

“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. (Gen. 46:3) (God speaking to Jacob)

Drazin and Wagner mention that Sforno wrote that “[o]ne reason why the Israelites increased in Egypt was that the Egyptians refused to associate with them during their meals, resulting in a low intermarriage rate.”

This comment relates to an issue that has bedeviled Jews for centuries: how distant should they be from non-Jews?  The Talmudic sages, for example, created a bissul akum rule, essentially forbidding Jews from eating food cooked by non-Jews (subject to numerous exceptions).

Today, kosher certifiers in NYC are divided as to how far to extend this rule.  The majority rule seems to be that it should apply to restaurants, a theory that would prevent certification of most restaurants not run by Jews.  The minority rule is to the contrary; as a result, many vegetarian restaurants have certifications that most Orthodox rabbis would not accept.

My congregation’s (normally sensible) rabbi favors the majority rule, reasoning as follows: its not unreasonable to imagine someone becoming friends with the chef , which in turn will lead to marrying his or her non-Jewish child.

This scenario strikes me as fanciful to the point of insanity.  I’ve eaten at non-kosher restaurants for as long as I can remember, and I don’t think I have ever met a chef, nor do I remember my parents or siblings asking to meet one.  Maybe things are a little different in the clubby world of upper-class kosher dining, but the whole thing is alien to my experience.

The broader problem is that the “don’t eat with them” argument proves too much: if you don’t want to eat with them don’t make friends with them at all- not really a result most people outside closed Jewish communities are willing to put up with.

Having said that, I make compromises with stringency: the sort of restaurants my rabbi won’t eat at, I try not to have leftovers from in my kitchen.  I reason that I want a kitchen that is OK for people stricter than I.

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.”