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August 9, 2017 / conservadox

Back to Tisha’b’Av

I didn’t write about the Nine Days while they were happening, because I was traveling and didn’t have much time to get in a library and blog.  (Blogging from a smartphone is obviously a bit harder).  But I did feel the pain of Tisha’b’Av this year, but in a very odd way.

Rather than being in NYC this year, I was traveling: I had agreed to spend the summer in my home town with my mother, and took a vacation from THAT during the Nine Days.  I spent Tisha’b’Av in the third (and most boring) city I visited.  So I didn’t really experience anything particularly alarming, but was in a rather bland, uninteresting city with a small Jewish community.   At the end of Tisha’b’Av we saw “Gentleman’s Agreement” a 1940s film in which a journalist passes as Jewish to experience anti-Semitism- but his Jewishness had no religious content, and nothing in the movie mentioned any form of religious observance either by the journalist or his Jewish friend.

How is that relevant to Tisha’b’Av?  Because blandness and assimilation are a part of exile too: even though it is of course different from the many horrible places Jews have lived in over the past 2000+ years, it is also quite different from Temple Judaism.  Living in Eretz Yisrael 2000 years ago may have involved a lot of conflict, but more excitement too: all those different schools of Jews arguing with each other, the smell and taste of Temple sacrifices, etc.

August 9, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ekev

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reminds us of the risk that the Jews might forget God if they get too prosperous (8:14).

Miller occasionally adds a series of questions to the Chumash.  One of them is “Has success made you more or less religious?”

On balance, more.  My career has progressed in a good way over the past fifteen years, as I have become gradually more religious.  And I do think there is a causal relationship: I continue to be grateful for the miracle of my liberation from a career I was failing at, to a career I am at least somewhat successful at.  And because my first job in my new career turned out badly, I am grateful for my liberation from THAT job as well, and for me being able to bounce back from my first job.

Having said that, I feel Moses’s point too.  Often, as I get trapped in day-to-day miniutia of life, I do forget the disasters I avoided.

August 3, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vaetchanan

“Just be careful and keep track of yourself well (Deut. 4:9).

Miller points out that according to some commentators, this means “Having a totally healthy body is a key element of worshipping God, for you cannot have an understanding or knowledge of God when you are sick.”

Is Orthodox practice consistent with this view? In some ways, yes- obviously walking to shul promotes physical fitness, and so Orthodox shuls tend to be in fairly walkable communities.  However, there are exceptions to this, especially in the car-dependent South.  Last week, I was in Houston and found a synagogue that was gated off during the week.  Because the gate sealed off both the shul and the parking lot,  you have to punch a code and be surrounded by cars while you are doing so.  Since I was just visiting and of course did not have a code, I had to wait for a car to come up.

Dietary practices are also a problem here.  The conventional nutritional wisdom seems to favor fruits and vegetables but kosher certification practices disfavor these foods, sometimes virtually outlawing certain ones.  Why?  Because the most heavily processed foods have supply chains that can be monitored by rabbis.  By contrast, kosher certifiers have discovered that tiny bugs infest vegetables, and reason that since the Torah forbids eating insects, this is obviously a problem.

For many centuries, this was not a problem.  If a bug was visible with the naked eye you removed it, if it was microscopic you didn’t know it existed.  But modern technology has allowed rabbis to find bugs that are technically not microscopic, but which as a practical matter no consumer could find without considerable expertise. (I have tried to distinguish bugs from water spots by looking at videos like this– but I personally can’t).  So as a result, today most Orthodox rabbis don’t consider normal naked-eye scrutiny enough.  Instead, you have a profusion of websites and videos, all of which are designed to try to teach you how to become such an expert.

The rational reaction to this sort of thing, for the rational kosher-keeping cook, is to just stay as far away as possible from fresh fruits and vegetables.   This seems slightly inconsistent with the principle enunciated in this week’s parsha.

Moreover, I’m not really persuaded that the anti-bug principle justifies all of this.  If normal naked-eye scrutiny was good enough for thousands of years, it should be good enough today.  The attractiveness of Orthodox Judaism is, in part, the idea of an unchanging law.  Each change in the law tarnishes the brand.

Having said that, I do follow the crazy new rules at home; my philosophy is that I am not cooking for myself, but for guests more observant than I am.  (But outside my own home, not so much).



July 27, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar torah-Devarim

In this week’s portion, Moses recounts the adventures of the Jews over the preceding 40 years. He asserts tthat after the sin of the spies (portion Shelach), the Jews complain that “God took us out of the land of Egypt because He hates us!” (Deut. 1:27). Miller cites Rashi’s statement that in fact the Jews hated God and thus imagined that the feeling was mutual. This seems hard to take literally; the concept of “hating God” seems wemed to me.

But in the field of human relations the concept of “projection” (by which I mean, accusing others of feeling/doing what you are really feeling/doing) seems quite real.  For example, the Nazis were trying to take over the world (or at least a big chunk of it) and accused Jews of doing the same.

July 17, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Mattot- Massei

In this week’s parsha, the tribes of Reuben and Gad ask Moses for land on the other side of the Jordan River from the rest of Israel, because that land is good for sheep-herding.  Moses gets angry and calls them cowards (in so many words).  They respond that they will be happy to fight to conquer the rest of Israel (Numbers 32).

Miller, citing an 18th-c. rabbi, suggests that these tribes had another comeback to Moses’ point.  They actually thought that fighting was unnecessary, because “since God had defeated so many lands for the Jewish people, the conquest of the land of Israel would also be aided by miraculous assistance from God, and their own help would not be required.”  According to this interpretation, Moses actually agrees that Reuben and Gad aren’t necessary for the conquest of the land.  But nevertheless he wants them to fight, because “the rest of the Jewish people would not understand that this [reliance on miracles] had been their intention.  The people would interrupt their lack of willingness to fight as plain fear.”  In other words, the two tribes didn’t really have an improper intention, but their conduct appeared improper to others.  So the broader moral lesson is: avoid the appearance of impropriety.

This lesson seems highly relevant to the political scandals of the last year or two, on both sides of the partisan aisle.  When the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from all sorts of people with political connections and who had interests in U.S. foreign policy, I don’t think there was any corrupt intent involved.  After all, a well-connected global charity is going to get donations from all kinds of rich people.  Nevertheless, I can see why it might appear suspicious, so it didn’t exactly help the Clinton campaign.

Similarly, it may be that the Trump campaign wasn’t trying to fix the election or trade favors with the Russian government (I emphasize the word “may” since I suspect that the special counsel’s investigation might take months or years).  But nevertheless, when a political campaign meets with Russian spies it doesn’t look good.

July 10, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Pinchas

This week’s portion involves the daughters of  Zelophedad.  The Torah says that normally sons should inherit from fathers, but this man died with only daughters- so who inherits from him?

The daughters argue (ultimately successfully) that they should inherit.  In the course of their argument they say that their father was not part of Korah’s group (Numbers 27:3).

Why is that relevant? Rabbi Miller writes that according to the Talmud, “when a person receives the death penalty for rebellion against the king… his possessions are taken and given to the king.”  Since Korah rebelled against Moses, his children (according to Miller) could not inherit from him.

This logic is quite dangerous; if the king can get the stuff of people who plot against him, he has an incentive to frame people for such plots in order to get their stuff – as a later king in fact did.  Even 3000 years ago, perverse incentives created perverse results.

July 6, 2017 / conservadox

strange dreams

Dreamt I was in another city where I used to teach (which in real life doesn’t have a local rail system), visiting former students.  Wanted to take an 8:34 train to the airport, but was too busy socializing.  Was about to take a 9:34 train, then saw I had left my tefillin a few hundred feet away.  Ran to get them, then the dream ended before I knew whether I had made train or missed it.

July 2, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Balak

One issue I sometimes worry about is kavanah  (intention)- to what intent should I feel guilty if I’m not focused on ultimate values while doing one ritual or another?

Rabbi Miller thinks that part of this week’s portion is relevant.  The Moabite king Balak wants Balaam (a local sorcerer) to curse the Jews, because he is afraid that the Jews will conquer Moab.  In addition, he makes a bunch of sacrifices to God, because Balaam says he should.

R. Miller writes that although “he did not bring these sacrifices for the sake of Heaven [but to encourage Balaam to curse Israel] he merited that Ruth should be his descendant”.  In turn, Ruth’s descendant was Solomon, who built the First Temple and offered sacrifices for much better motives.  Thus, Balak’s ill-motivated sacrifices led to Solomon’s good deeds.

Similarly, you and I should (in Miller’s words) “busy yourself with Torah and its commandments, even if you have ulterior motives, because eventually you will do so for the sake of heaven.”

By an odd coincidence, a neighborhood rabbi in my hometown made a similar point in Seudah Shlishit last night, interpreting an entirely different text.  Somewhere in the Talmud or Mishna it is written that you should study Torah on the day of your death.  (Don’t have time to google this right now…) The rabbi interpreted this to mean that even on days you feel “dead” to Torah and mitzvos, you should still practice them, because such consistency will encourage you do so on days you feel more “alive.”

June 26, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chukat

This week’s portion begins with the “red cow ritual”- the rule that certain sacrifices should involve a red heifer.  After the cow is sacrificed and burned, its ashes should be used for purification.  However, the people involved in this process become ritually impure for a day or so.

Medieval commentators found this rule to be very intriguing, because the ritually pure person who burns the cow becomes impure-  yet the ashes are used to purify people who become ritually impure.   Over the centuries, people have used this “harmony of opposites” (in Miller’s words) to make all sorts of ethical points.

One example mentioned by Miller: “We should spend money in the same paradoxical manner, being frugal with other people’s money, while at the same time giving charity generously.”

This resonated with me because about a decade ago a relative (who shall remain nameless) was a houseguest and made all sorts of expensive suggestions about how my apartment could look better.  I was quite offended.

June 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Korah

This week’s portion is primarily about the rebellion of Korah, a Levite who complains that the priesthood (and Moses) are too powerful.  Moses responds by challenging Korah to a “sacrifice-off”: Korah and his followers offer incense at the same time as Aaron.  Instead of accepting the offering of Korah & Co., God wipes them out.

The end of the portion discusses tithes for priests and then tithes for Levites.  Why do they tithes follow the rebellion?  Miller writes that the tithes are a response to Korah’s attack, in that they show how closely the people, priests and Levites are connected: the priests and Levites are the spiritual leaders of the people.

It also seems to me that this shows how connected the priests and Levites are: after discussing some Levites’ complaints, the Torah is telling us that the priests and Levites should be on the same team, since both are part of the religious leadership.  Or to put it more crudely, Moses is getting “buy in” from the Levites by showing how they too benefit from the Hebrew caste system.