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October 15, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah – Bereshit

As I mentioned a few posts ago, this year I am using a Chumash based on the Onkelos translation.  Onkelos differs from the most recent Orthodox Chumashes; Onkelos tends to favor rationalist interpretations of the Torah.

For example, Gen. 6:2 refers to “bnai ha-elohim” (literally “sons of the powerful” orr “sons of God”) suggesting that this group took wives among the children of men.  Onkelos translates as “great ones” suggesting some sort of exploitation by the powerful.   Similarly, he translates 6:4 as “mighty ones of old” (while by contrast Miller refers to “giants on the earth” implying a different race). The commentary notes that some commentaries think this involves some sort of supernatural group such as fallen angels- but Onkelos is having none of that.

So what does God do about this?  Onkelos writes that God “retracted through his memra [word or wisdom] that He had made man on earth.” Why does Onkelos use the term “memra”? Other translations refer to God “regretting” the creation of man, and Onkelos isn’t comfortable with suggesting human emotions to God.   After all, if God is beyond time why would God change God’s mind?



October 15, 2017 / conservadox

shul website updated

I updated my Manhattan shul guide today with a look at the Lower East Side’s Chasam Sopher.  Too right wing for me!

October 15, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos lunch

This actually was going to be Shabbos dinner, but then I was invited out.  Because the original humans were vegetarians, I usually have a vegetarian meal for Parshat Bereshit*.  By and large this was no exception.

My main dish was a mix of lentils and rice noodles.  I also had figs (because Adam and Eve wore fig leaves) and apples, as well as cotton candy.

Also, this year I’m starting something new.  I read something a few years ago about a kosher family that had something from a different nation every shabbos, starting at the beginning of the alphabet (Afghanistan).  I had a fairly simple Afghan-ish dish (leek dumplings)- it didn’t turn out that well, but I was more focused on other dishes.


*With a slight twist: I used a tiny bit of bison meat for Eruv Tavshilin which I ate.

October 9, 2017 / conservadox

new chumash

I am finally done with Miller and had to find a new chumash/commentary for this year.  My school library has something very unusual: a translation based on Onkelos (who apparently lived in Roman times).   In addition to the translation there is the usual set of medieval commentators, but more detail than Miller or even Artscroll, so I’ll spend a lot more time studying the Pentateuch than in recent years.  The main authors are Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner, two (apparently) modern Orthodox rabbis.

Because I will be studying Bereshit over Shemini Atzeret (when I am not going to use email) do not expect to see a Dvar Torah until next week.

October 1, 2017 / conservadox

Teshuva, Tefilla and Technology

The Untakeh Tokef prayer, which Jews read yesterday and also on Rosh Hashanah, says that “teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah” (roughly translated as repentance, prayer and charity) mitigates the severity of Divine decrees of misfortune.

But after the recent natural disasters, I thought of another T: technology.  Most of the recent hurricanes have taken about 50-100 lives (though it may be still too early to tell in Puerto Rico).  The latest death toll from the Mexico earthquake is about 360.

By contrast, natural disasters in less developed countries were far worse.  For example, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed over 150,000 people, and premodern earthquakes killed even more.   Modern technology leads to better building codes etc. – though having said that, our dependence on electricity makes non-fatal disasters more miserable in some less important ways.

October 1, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vezot Habracha

In this last Torah portion of the year Moses blesses the tribes.  He blesses Zebulun before Issachar (Deut. 33:18), which Miller thinks is interesting because a midrash claims that Issachar studied Torah constantly while Zebulun supported him.

Miller, citing the Lubavitcher rebbe, says that Zebulun goes first because the Torah scholar merely sanctifies his immediate environment, while “the businessman (Zebulun) sanctifies his entire working environment, through observing the laws of business ethics, being attuned to acts of Divine Providence that he witnesses, and donating generously to charity.”  This is “why God made the world in such a way that most people are businessmen, and not Torah scholars.”

So go out there and sanctify your workplace!

By the way, this is my last Dvar Torah based on Miller.  Generally it is like a more accessible, but also more crazy and Kabbalistic, version of the Gutnik Chumash.  Definitely not rationalistic enough for my tastes.


October 1, 2017 / conservadox

My Perfect Pre-Yom Kippur Meal

Quinoa, lentils and dates in a pot.  Zero sodium (so minimal thirst created by meal) lots of protein.  Now if only I could stop sneezing (I think because of being around all those dusty books that are only used once a year…)

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.