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June 25, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Shelach

This Torah portion is most known for the “sin of the spies.” (That is : Moses sends people to scout out the land of Israel, the scouts suggest the Jews should avoid the land, and everyone gets angry).But after all this, God instructs the Jews about sacrifices, and mentions that most of them should include wine (Numb 15:5).

The Rav suggests that we pray not just for survival but for “the finer things in life” and that wine is one of them. So why is this relevant to the spies? Because the spies’ statement that the land “eats its inhabitants” (13:32) could be interpreted (says the Rav) to mean that even if the Canaanites did not wipe out the Jews they would win enough battles that the Jews would “barely eke out an existence.” By mentioning wine God is telling the Jews they will thrive.

This is relevant to our lives because every week observant Jews have either wine or grape juice on Shabbat. Although halacha allows grape juice, I  prefer wine. To me grape juice not only feels insufficiently luxurious* but also feels like a concession to other religions’ alcohol-phobia.**

*Actually kind if gross, but that is a matter of taste.

**Conservative Protestants especially.



June 18, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behalotecha

In this week’s portion, Jews complain about inadequate meat supply and then get sick from too much of it(Num. 11:33) – which sounds to me like possible food poisoning.

The Rav comments on this, stating that Judaism is not opposed to acqusition or even to luxury, but wants “that the economic urge be bounded, that man not turn into an economic demon, his acqisitiveness into an infinite drive.”

I heard a similar dvar Torah over Shavuot, pointing out that the Jews are told to limit their intake of manna right before they are attacked by Amalekites. Why are these stories juxtaposed? Because the Jews learn to limit their acqusitiveness, while by contrast Amalek refuses to share the land.

June 11, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Naso

This week’s portion mentions that each tribal chieftain brought an identical offering to the Tabernacle. The Rav asks: why does the Torah mention each offering separately?

He says that according to Nachmanides, each leader must have had different perspectives and approaches, and that “each tribe had a separate identity and unique talents and strengths.”

Is this true today? Do we think that other “tribes” of Judaism have unique strengths? Or do we think that our own tribe, and maybe those closest to us, have a monopoly on strength?

My sense is that the Rav would not have thought of non-Orthodox Jews as having anything uniquely useful to say; because they have given up on the core faith-claims of 18th-century rabbinic Judaism, non-Orthodox movements were perceived as more like competing religions than as Jewish tribes.

On the other hand, my sense is that the orthodox Jews I am most familiar with tend to see some advantages in the various “tribes” of Orthodoxy: yeshivish Jews’ focus on learning, modern Orthodoxy’s attempt to combine Torah learning with the best of post-Enlightenment secular society, Chabad’s focus on outreach, etc. (My sense is that modern Orthodox Jews simply don’t think so much about more insular non-Chabad Hasidim, and that this lack of interest is mutual. But I could be wrong).

I do think of Conservative Judaism as having unique strengths: a willingness to study Torah while at the same time paying attention to forms of scholarship that orthodox scholars tend to ignore. Although Reform Judaism to me now seems more alien than Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, I guess its flexibility can be a strength: I think the yarmulke-phobic Reform Jews of 100 years ago would find modern Reform more alien than the Chatam Sofer would find most Orthodox shuls.

June 4, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bamidbar

This week’s Torah portion mentions that God is substituting the Levites for the first born, and giving them a variety of religious duties (Numbers 3:12). Based on this passage the Rav comments that the firstborn is normally the most cherished child in a family, and suggests that this is why the Torah mentions them.

Going further, he adds that “the claims of the Almighty are proportionate to the value which man attributes to certain entities and events.” For example, “many precepts regulate the consumption of meat… the vegetative world has fewer prohibitions.”

I am not sure he is right, for three reasons. First, is it really true that man attributes more value to meat? Certainly Orthodox Jews tend to, but a significant minority of many civilizations are vegetarian. On the other hand, the fact that some people go out of their way not to eat meat is in some way a tribute to its importance in the human diet. Books and websites exist on “Judaism and vegetarianism”- but I doubt there has been much written by (or against) Jews who won’t eat vegetables.

Second, even if the answer to the first question is “yes”, which way does the cause and effect relationship run? Jews may attach more significance to meat precisely because our laws make it costly and hard to get. If all meat was kosher, would we take it for granted?

Third, the modern trend among Orthodoxy is to reverse the pattern pointed out by the Rav. Kosher meat is easier to get in many places than it was a century ago, due to modern communications and trasnport. But because of concerns about insect infestation, kosher-keeping Jews’ practice regarding vegetables have become stricter over time. If the trend continues, sometime all fresh fruits and vegetables may need kosher certification!

May 26, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bechukotai

This week’s portion contains a variety of blessings and curses – blessings if Jews obey the mitzvot, curses if not. After the curses, the Torah says God will eventually “remember the Land.” (Lev. 26:42).

The Rav, commenting on this, takes a religious Zionist position. He writes: “Take away Eretz Yisrael, and the Jews of the diaspora will be engulfed by a tremendous wave of estrangement and assimilation.”

Was he right? On the one hand, we have a strong state of Israel, and yet Diaspora Judaism continues to assimilate.

But would things be better, or even as good, without the state of Israel? I think not at the time he was writing: Jews were, I suspect, quite demoralized after the Shoah, and I think it is reasonable to guess that the morale boost provided by the state of Israel kept some Jews from becoming even more demoralized. Finally, Jews were actually winning, and a Jewish population is growing somewhere.

Will this always be true? I don’t know. I fear that the hope engendered by the Jewish State is a bubble; if the State declines or collapses, Diaspora Jewry will be where it was in 1946 (i.e. in bad shape). Even if the State continues to grow but becomes corrupted, this could happen. Right now, the State of Israel is led by a man who seems to me to be a strong and reasonably able leader, but whose respect for the rule of law is a bit questionable. If he keeps setting bad precedents, this may start to reflect on the State’s public image. And become observant Judaism has become so tied in with Zionism (in part due to the efforts of the Rav and other Religious Zionists) people who become turned off by such antics may become turned off by Judaism as well.

On the other hand, the above paragraph contains an unusually high number of “mays” and “coulds”. So I’m not really sure its right, and I can’t pretend that I have any data to back my ideas up.

May 25, 2019 / conservadox

Shabbos lunch

I went to shul for shabbos dinner but decided to make a full lunch at home. I had Beyond Sausage (better than other soy alternatives).

Also, because the Haftorah mentions that Israel is a land of milk and honey, I had dates boiled in coconut milk (which didn’t taste that much different than dates boiled in anything else).

And because this week’s country is Cambodia, I had bananas in coconut milk , which was good (though the recipe I used was without salt).

I am going to my fiance’s in New Jersey next weekend, and to my family in my home town for a couple of weeks afterwards, so I am not going to have any meal-related posts until the end of June (if then).

May 20, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Behar

This week’s Torah portion contains the law of the shmittah year, requesting that the land lie fallow once every seven years. Since this seems like a Sabbath for the land, the Rav comments (in his discussion of Lev. 25:23) by discussing Shabbat, noting that on Shabbat we shake off our materialism and “face the truth that we are managing someone else’s estate, not our own.” In other words, by not being creative we acknowledge that God is the real creator.

In this discussion the Rav notes that “Judaism relativizes all human finite values … denying them unconditional commitment.” To me this has a broader meaning; it means that secular ideologies must be limited by Judaism.

Here’s an example: a friend wrote that she was uncomfortable with the idea of not turning off lights on Shabbos, on environmental grounds. She thought that this was a waste of electricity.

I disagree on pragmatic grounds; those extra hours of light are a small portion of my small electric bill.*

But more importantly, it seems to me that if Judaism means anything, it means that it should limit our commitment not only to materialism but to secular ideologies such as environmentalism, liberalism or conservatism. It is fine to be an environmentalist, but don’t let this ideology impair your commitment to Jewish observance. Similarly, it is fine to be a liberal or conservative or whatever, but be aware that no secular ideology will overlap 100 percent with the Torah. And if you believe that the Torah is a divine document this is unavoidable, because secular ideologies are made up by finite people, and the Torah is made up by an infinite God. (On the other hand, if you believe the Torah is man-made the lack of overlap is even more obvious, since the human authors were living in a different world).

*When I am not using air conditioning, my monthly electric bill is less than $30. Also, I suspect that what I lose from not turning off the one or two lights I keep on, I gain from not turning on other lights or the computer, so on balance my Shabbat observance saves electricity.

May 13, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Emor

The Rav comments on this week’s Torah portion by discussing a variety of now-obscure halachot related to kohanim (priests). For example, after prohibiting priests from marrying divorcees, the Torah remarks: “You shall sanctify him.” (Lev. 21:8). The Rav notes that this law justifies the rule that kohanim shall be given priority whenever honors are bestowed; for example, a kohen is the first to be called to the Torah when the Torah is read.

He then discusses the rule that the high priest (kohen gadol) “shall not leave his hair unshorn.” (21:10). This means that the kohen gadol may not let his hair “grow wild.” By contrast, regular kohanim are bound by this rule only when serving in the main Temple or Sanctuary. Why? Because the kohen is in some sense “tie[d]… to the Sanctuary even when he is outside his precincts.”

Is this relevant to us? Sort of. It seems to me that the Torah is saying that the highest officeholders should dress and act in a dignified manner all the time.

By contrast, in our country the cult of casualness has meant that our politicians feel the need to dress and act like “regular guys.” President Trump at least dresses decently; he nearly always wears a suit in public. But of course his manner of speaking and tweeting is hardly dignified. His predecessors and 2016 competitors were of course less embarrassing in this regard, but unlike the kohen gadol, their standards of dress were not always impressive.

I can’t say that this change has had anything to do with the degradation of our country’s politics in other ways; it does seem to me, however, that I prefer the Torah’s way of doing things.

May 6, 2019 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Kedoshim

This week’s portion contains the somewhat infamous statement “a man who lies with a male as one would with a woman… they shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:13). The Rav died before homosexuality was generally accepted, and the Neuwirth book does not bother to sugar-coat his position. It writes that “bestiality and homosexuality are considered unnatural acts. Man is enjoined from a carnal relationship with a mate that does not belong to his kind. Man is thus prohibited from any sexual relationship between male and male, for by the laws of nature, established and supported by the act of creation, mating is a male-female relationship. These motives are not to be found exclusively in the realm of man, but in organic life as well. Man should behave like a plant in its natural environment…[the prohibitions of homosexuality and bestiality] apply to non-Jews as well and form part of a universal religin that is based upon the concept of man and personality.” (emphasis added)

Is there any real logic there? It sounds like the Rav is saying “its bad becaue it doesn’t happen in nature.” Of course, we know now that homosexuality does happen in nature, and it appears to be conventional scientific wisdom that it is “natural” for some humans as well.

I am not saying that there’s no justification for the Torah’s rules on homosexuality; it seems to me that one could argue, for example, that (a) it is a nonrational decree like many of the Torah’s decrees; or (b) in a world where most people married young it is a fence around the law against adultery. But just hollering “unnatural” till you are blue in the face is not a justification, and the editors of the Neuwirth Chumash should be ashamed of themselves for giving us the Rav’s least coherent thoughts.

May 5, 2019 / conservadox

shabbos dinner

I finally had dinner alone for the first time in a while. This week’s country is Cape Verde so I had the national dish: cachupa, a kind of vegetable stew. I varied the recipe to make it meatless (see below) and to subtract a few things that either weren’t available in kosher form (like hominy) or that I just didn’t have time to get (like cassava and bay leaves) or forgot to add (bouillon cube).

Because last week’s portion was about Yom Kippur (which involves a ritual about goats), I added goat cheese instead of meat.

Also I had some chocolate with cardamom, which was surprisingly good.