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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.”

November 26, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayishlach

This week’s portion contains the story of Dina (the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in the Torah) and Shechem.  Shechem, a local Canaanite big shot, has sex with (or maybe rapes) Dina, then asks Jacob for the girl’s hand in marriage.    Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi got very angry and kill Shechem and many of his friends and neighbors.

One thing that had always confused me about this story: most translations say Shechem raped Dina (perhaps to make the later massacre seem more reasonable).  But if Shechem raped her, why would he be so eager to marry her? (Gen. 34:4).  Normally rape is not exactly a crime of love.

Drazin and Wagner resolve the difficulty.  They point out that Onkelos uses the ambiguous word “afflicted” to describe Shechem’s conduct, and that not every medieval commentator use the term “rape.”  Saadiah Gaon wrote that “afflicted” is a synonym for sexual intercourse generally, and Rashi uses the term “abnormal sex.”  So perhaps this was consensual- which would explain Shechem’s interest in marriage.

But that creates a new difficulty: why are Dina’s brothers so incensed?  A few possible explanations:

  1.  They haven’t spoken to Dina, and they don’t know what really happened and are assuming the worst.
  2.  They consider the idea of marriage to a Canaanite stranger to be abhorrent, and don’t really care if its consensual.
  3. Maybe Dina was young enough that they thought any sexual act with her was morally questionable (akin to modern statutory rape).

Explanation 3 is certainly the most relevant to our time.  A Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, has gotten in trouble for sexual contact (not full-scale intercourse, just breast-touching and kissing) with a 14-year old and a few 16-year-olds.   None of this was literally rape- not just because he didn’t go “all the way” but he stopped when he was told to stop.  If the women involved had been over 18 this would, I think, not have been a major scandal.  At the other extreme, if Moore had touched 8-year olds this way he would probably be behind bars.

What age was Dina? I don’t know, but assuming that she was a teenager, I can imagine that Shechem might have seen her as an appropriate mate while Simeon and Levi might have seen any sexual act as inherently exploitative even if consensual.   Then as now, the lines between appropriate and inappropriate, and the line between somewhat inappropriate and criminal, can be a bit blurry.

PS By an odd coincidence, I found an article on Slate that is chock full of sexual “gray area” scenarios.


November 24, 2017 / conservadox

Shabbos dinner/lunch

I’m being invited out for dinner so I will probably eat most of this for lunch- but may have a bit of it tonight!

This is my first dinner at home in a few weeks- a dinner with a friend, then a singles Shabboton, then a shul dinner interfered.

In alphabetical order I am up to Algeria, so I will have two Algerian dishes: tafifa (pumpkin with meat, garlic, cabbage) and couscous (which I put eggplant dip in to liven it up).

And because the parsha talks about Yaakov’s adventures with sheep breeding my meat in the tafifa will be lamb.

Also figs because the mandrakes that Leah and Rachel argued about are, according to some commentators, figs.

November 20, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayetzei

Jewish inheritance law is a bit puzzling; the Torah suggests that normally only males inherit, unless a decedent leaves daughters and no sons (Numbers 27).  Where’d this idea come from?

This week’s portion gives us a clue: when Jacob asks his wives if they are willing to leave Laban’s household and move to Israel, they ask “Do we still have a share and inheritance in our father’s house?” (31:14).    The answer, of course, is no.  According to Drazin and Wagner, “there is no financial reason for them to remain, for only males will receive a share of their father’s possessions.” So the Torah rule is basically the same as the pagan rule- probably a region-wide rule that just seemed like common sense in a patriarchal world.

November 13, 2017 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Toldot

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion mentions Isaac’s prayer to God for progeny (Gen. 25:21).  Drazin and Wagner use this as a jumping-off point for describing two theories of prayer: the Talmud suggests “that God desire the prayers of the righteous” while Rambam “states that God has no need for prayer: prayer helps people and does not affect God.”

What motivates this dispute?  It seems to me that the Talmud may be motivated by a desire to encourage people to do spiritually meaningful things.  By contrast, Rambam was motivated by a desire to describe God accurately (or at least in a way that seemed accurate to him).  So the “dispute” is really a difference in emphasis- do we focus on abstract philosophical truth or the needs of the common person?  I do not think there is an all-purpose right answer for this question.