[Thanks to BZ for encouragement posting this, originally given as a dvar torah Friday night.]
In my Talmud class this semester, we are studying tractate Brachot (Blessings), chapter four. In it (27b to 28a), there is an intriguing story about Rabban Gamliel, the great leader of the beit midrash, the house of study of the rabbis, right after the fall of the Second Temple.
So, Rabban Gamliel is not such a pleasant guy. He runs a tight ship. He does not allow multiple rulings in his beit midrash, at least not when the disputed one is his. He sometimes likes to humiliate his peers to make them recant their disagreements with him.
He especially has it out for Rabbi Yehoshua. One day, when Rabbi Yehoshua disagrees with him, he makes Rabbi Yehoshua stand up in front of everyone and deny the disagreement. He then makes Rabbi Yehoshua stand for the rest of Rabban Gamliel’s lecture. Just stand in the front row, in front of everyone, as an example. At this point, the other rabbis in the beit midrash have had enough. It is time for a change in leadership. It is time for a coup. They stand up and stop the lecture.
The rabbis argue amongst themselves over who will replace Rabban Gamliel, who will have enough yichus because their good family name will speak for them, or who has money so that they can be called before Caesar. Who will be impressive enough to represent them to the world. They choose a successor. This is not the most remarkable part, though.
In Israel, the anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination is usually marked with commemorative ceremonies. While ceremonies can be nice, they can’t do much more then recall a date, and perhaps make us feel a little sad. While that is important, ceremonies quickly become trite, they don’t interest most people, and they don’t do anything to answer the underlying flaws in our society that allowed the murder to take place.
If ceremonies don’t work, what other options are there? Many, including Amit Gevaryahu, a frequent contributor to the comments here, have likened Rabin’s murder to the biblical murder of Gedalyahu ben Achikam. If they are similar, then perhaps a fast day would also be the best answer here? However, in that same article Amit recognizes that despite having a fast day commemorating his own death, most people do not know who Gedalyah was, or why he was killed. Fasts quickly become only nuisances. Another problem with marking Rabin’s death with a fast day is that even if it is done well, fasts create mourning and sadness, and while appropriate, I think a good response will do more then make us cry.
This year, Mimizrach Shemesh – The Center for Jewish Social Justice Leadership is sponsoring a night of learning, a Tikkun Leil Rabbin at centers across the country. At Hebrew University, Hillel is hosting a program on October 31 that will include a lecture by Dr. Micha Goodman titled, “Social Justice Leadership in a Time of Crisis,” followed by Jewish text study and discussion.
I am very excited about this initiative, and plan on being there Tuesday night. Rabin’s death was a direct result of the misinterpretation of Torah, and one of the most important things we can do to atone for the crime is to fix those errors. Engaging torah in a positive discussion of what it means to be just, of what it means to be a leader, and of what it means to be Jewish, is precisely that antidote. Torah was perverted and tragedy resulted, please God, an honest relationship with Torah and open discussion will lead to blessing.
I just put up a little musing on the problematic theology of the Unetane Tokef on Jerusalem Syndrome. If you’re interested, feel free to check it out here.
Blessed are you, YHWH, our God, King of existence, King of all Earth, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.
The central blessing of Rosh Hashana brings into focus one of the holidayâ€™s central contradictions. We stress Godâ€™s universal sovereignty by doubling the reference to Godâ€™s kingship, and by moving from the regular, abstract King of existence to the specific, more tangible King of all Earth. Yet, at the same time we recall our specific relationship with God.
This contradiction is not limited to that one blessing. The entire holiday presents the tension. Tomorrow, the day the God created the world (or humanity) is the same day that so many of us go to synagogue and proudly identify as Jews. The other special prayers of the day continue the same theme. The prayer of remembrance recalls that God knows all, and never forgets anything. We declare that all actions and thoughts, of all people, of all existence, are recorded for God and are present continually to God, and yet we in the same prayer ask God to remember specific events, specific actions, and most importantly, the specific covenant that binds us, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to God.
Beyond the liturgy, the center of the entire service, the shofar, exposes all of the facets of the contradiction. The simple hornâ€™s blast recalls so many different images. It is the shofar that awakens us, as Godâ€™s original call awakened Adam and Eve in Eden, and it is the shofar that calls all of existence to judgement. It is the shofarâ€™s sound that makes us dream of the great horn that will once again be blown for all humanity when we reach the Messianic age. However, it is this same shofar that recalls Isaac â€“ bound and prepared for sacrifice, and it is the same shofar whose bellow brought our people to attention at Sinai.
Tonight, as we, and all of the Children of he who struggled with God and Humanity, gather to crown God as King, let us continue the struggle. While we wrestle with understanding creation, the creator, and all creatures, let us continue to wrestle with who we are as Jews. What does our heritage, our covenant, our mission mean? How can we be different when God is equally the king of all people? What value can this gift have when people across the world continue to suffer? When even the existence of the angels can not be justified, how do we make meaning of our own being?
Let these questions and more be in our hearts, let us all be inscribed in the books of life, happiness, mitzvoth and Torah, and let this be the year when the Great Shofar will be heard, and Godâ€™s name in all its glory and majesty be known throughout the world.
Aryeh Cohen, Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the University of Judaism, offers a salient commentary on Tisha B’Av this week on Radical Torah:
Lamentations Rabba, the Rabbinic exegesis and amplification of Lamentations â€” the sad and haunting elegy we read on Tisha Bâ€™Av â€” begins with an odd and compelling comment. The opening words of the scroll are “Eichah yashvah vadad/Woe is she who sits alone.” The Rabbis however read the etymological affinity of the opening word to the shorter word “eich/how” in order to picture God asking the question: â€œHow do people mourn so that I may learn how to mourn?â€ Citing verses from the Prophets and Psalms as prooftexts, the midrash relates the way in which Godâ€™s angelic court teaches God how to mourn. This is the cosmic shift which signals the beginning of Exile: Godâ€™s learning to mourn. The God of the Rabbis is not the avenging God of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The God of Exile is a more humble God, who learns to sit, and cry, and grieve.
My thoughts have often turned to this wonderful midrashic passage over the past week, as we edge towards Tisha bâ€™Av, and Israel edges toward â€” what? Tisha bâ€™Av commemorates a string of tragedies which, according to traditional sources, were brought about by Israelâ€™s failures â€” the infidelity of the Golden Calf, the lack of trust of the spies, the idolatry of the First Temple, the baseless hatred of the Second Temple and on. And yet, it is God who learns how to mourn. It is God who contracts and humbles God’s self. Standing on the edge of Canaan, Moses warns the people of Israel. â€œBeware that you do not become so proud that you say to yourselves, â€˜My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.â€™â€ (Deut. 8:17)
A few months ago, Rabbi Jack Riemer decided that Islamo-Fascists are an incarnation of Amalek.
Last week, Rabbi Marc Gellman made a similar declaration in his Newsweek column. It turns out, according to Gellman, that Amalek utilized the same tactics as Hezbollah:
What made Amalek so dastardly was that unlike any other enemy who attacked the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt from the front, Amalek attacked the rear. This meant that his soldiers could kill women and children, the elderly and the infirm and in so doing avoid engagement with the soldiers at the front. In this way he could produce maximum carnage and maximum terror.
Of course Deut. 25:17-19 instructs us to remember Amalek for a good reason. Sayeth Gellman:
I believe this is because the planned and plotted slaughter of innocents even during wartime cannot be condoned and must be remembered as a bright moral line which can never be crossed.
Sorry. I have a bullshit meter that buzzes whenever someone uses the Torah to score political points. But maybe that’s just me. Perhaps the Amalek label is appropriate here.
[Don't worry. Newsweek's erudite readers bash Gellman plenty in this week's Letters to the Editor.]
Just passing along the info, y’all. I don’t know any more than what’s below.
CALLING JEWISH WOMEN ARTISTS
“Women of the Book: Jewish Women Recording, Reflecting, Revisioning”
Community artist and Torah scribe, Shoshana Gugenheim, in partnership with the Women’s Torah Project of Kadima Reconstructionist Congregation in Seattle, WA, is seeking Jewish women artists to contribute to the creation of “Women of the Book,” a midrashic (interpretive) scroll based on the form and content of a traditional sefer Torah (Torah scroll). In the spirit of the Jewish scribal tradition, this scroll will be created on 62 sheets of parchment created by 62 artists from around the world and sewn together as is a traditional sefer Torah.
This is an international, collaborative art installation inspired by, and in conjunction with, the historic scribing of the first sefer Torah by women. The midrashic Torah is each artist’s personal interpretation, in visual imagery, of the text of the first Five Books of Moses.
Women of all denominations, secular and religious, are invited to join. Chosen artists will select one of 62 passages in the Torah to use as a basis for their creative interpretation. They will be provided a standard-sized piece of claf (parchment) upon which to work. The 62 completed parchment panels will be bound together into one scroll, which will be exhibited in galleries, museums, synagogues and other institutions worldwide.
To learn more about Kadima and The Women’s Torah Project please visit: womenstorah.com
My chavruta [study partner] and I recently completed Masechet Megillah (one of the tractates, or “webs”, of the Talmud). We’ll have a formal siyum sometime this summer in NYC, and you’re all invited.
On the penultimate page, there’s a timely section that relates to how we prepare for Shavuot. The general topic is Torah readings for various times of the year. (This is the primary source for the holiday Torah readings that are read to this day.) Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar brings a tradition that Ezra established that we should read the curses in Leviticus 26 before Shavuot, and the curses in Deuteronomy 28 before Rosh Hashanah. Sure, enough this is what we still do: our calendar is rigged so that Parshat Bechukotai (containing Leviticus 26), which we read last week, always comes up about two weeks before Shavuot, and Parshat Ki Tavo (containing Deuteronomy 28), always comes up two weeks before Rosh Hashanah.
If you’re not interested in the Conservative Movement, feel free to skip this one. But for those who are, read on about soon-to-be-ex-Chancellor (as of June 30th), Ismar Schorsch.
Last Thursday, Rabbi Dr. (or just “Dr.,” as he seems to prefer) Ismar Schorsch delivered the keynote address at the 112th JTS commencement. This was Dr. Schorsch’s swan song, his opportunity to address the faithful after having served as the titular head of the Conservative Movement for twenty years. His speech was breathtaking, though, unfortunately, not in a positive sense. Dr. Schorsch delivered a speech full of veiled and not-so-veiled insults to the very people he was addressing– the students, families, scholars, and clergy of the Conservative Movement. I wish I could post a transcript here, but it hasn’t been made public. Here are some highlights, with the caveat that everything not in quotation marks is how I remember it and not necessarily a direct quote.
Dr. Shorsch’s speech began with an anecdote about this year’s students at JTS that led him to the following conclusion: Today’s generation has no interest in wrestling with difficult texts or in deep scholarship. According to Schorsch, this generation refuses to delve into anything dense or complicated, shying away from texts that require hard work and deep thought. This is a particular travesty since true spirituality comes from academic study, particularly the study of history. (Schorsch is a trained historian.) The audience was more subdued than I would have imagined after Schorsch had just insulted his graduating students, but all around me I did see people whispering and shaking their heads.
Schorsch then talked at length about spirituality, which he called the “aquifer” that feeds and supports halakhic observance. (I see this relationship as precisely opposite, but that’s not surprising). Again, he seemed to be talking primarily about a spirituality gleaned from academic study and spoke against the contemporary focus on music as a source of real spirituality in prayer. Bizarrely enough, in the course of this discussion Schorsch very explicitly and very publicly tore apart the Etz Hayim Humash. Its editors and authors, he declared, had thoroughly “eviscerated” the JPS Torah Commentary that it was based on and de-scholared the whole enterprise. The only “true spirituality” to be found in Etz Hayim, he claimed, was in selected footnotes and essays from the academic commentators, not the rabbinical commentators. All in all, I think Schorsch ranted about Etz Hayim for at least five minutes. I haven’t used Etz Hayim enough to assess his claims, but it was crazy for the outgoing head of the Conservative Movement to heap such public scorn on a publication whose tagline is “a publication of the Conservative movement, produced through a joint venture of The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and The Jewish Publication Society.”
My favorite line of the whole speech (favorite mostly because I can’t believe someone said it in public and at a graduation no less) was a stinging rebuke to this generation of (and here I quote) “pampered and promiscuous individuals who scorn all contemporary norms.” Again, it was unclear whether Schorsch was referring to his students, to Conservative Jews, or to Jews in general, but it was wild.
But this was the general tone of Shorsch’s speech. The clear underlying message was 1) the Conservative Movement has gone to the dogs, 2) it’s everyone else’s fault but his own (he blamed the students, the rabbis, Etz Hayim, new liturgical music, etc.), and 3) the only thing that will save the Movement is not a clear-eyed evaluation of how the Movement got into this mess or an openness to different approaches to Judaism and Jewish education or a sober acknowledgement of contemporary realities such as intermarriage or an embrace of this fuzzy-wuzzy musical sort of spirituality, but rather a return to “our glorious past.” By which I gather he meant a return to the Conservative Movement’s academic heyday, and not a return to the shining and glorious 1950s-on era of sterile suburban synagogues, organs and choirs, Jewish illiteracy, disaffiliation, and disaffection.
A final anecdote: At the end of Schorsch’s speech, a highly-placed employee in the JTS development office was asking nearby attendees what they thought of Schorsch’s speech. In response to one person’s answer that Schorsch had been insulting and demonstrated how out of touch he was, this person replied, “I know. We saw an advance copy of his speech and we asked him to tone it down. But I think he actually ratcheted it up.” This reply was punctuated by lots of regretful, disbelieving shakes of the head.
Schorsch’s whole speech was quite a performance. Did anyone else experience it differently? Or have thoughts about what was driving it?
Shocked to learn that the Bible contains stories of murder and deceit, Slate Deputy Editor David Plotz resolves to read the Bible “fresh” – and blog about it.
My goal is pretty simple. I want to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based. I think I’m in the same position as many other lazy but faithful people (Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus). I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?
He boasts of his intention to eschew most commentary and to rely on translations such as the King James version (although to his credit he’s also using the Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim). What’s odd is that this exegesis will be appearing on Slate and not, say, on a MySpace blog.
This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, which contains the famous Biblical verses that are used to discuss male homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13). Before you hit shul (or the rooftop), check out BZ’s innovative and erudite take on the matter. I wish I had time to blog it more extensively before Shabbat, but alas….
Many many years before before Nuestro Himno, there was Ã£Ã© Ã¹Ã¨Ã²Ã¸Ã¯ Ã¡Ã Ã¶Ã©Ã¸Ã¨Ã² Ã´Ã Ã¤Ã¯. The Star Spangled Banner, translated into Yiddish in 1943 by Dr. Abraham Asen.
O’zog, kenstu sehn, wen bagin licht dervacht,
Vos mir hoben bagrist in farnachtigen glihen?
Die shtreifen un shtern, durch shreklicher nacht,
Oif festung zich hoiben galant un zich tsein?
Yeder blitz fun rocket, yeder knal fun kanon,
Hot bawizen durch nacht: az mir halten die Fohn!
O, zog, tzi der “Star Spangled Banner” flatert in roim,
Ueber land fun die freie, fun brave die heim!
Rabbi Jack Riemer, founding chair of the National Rabbinic Network, and Bill Clinton’s rabbinic counsel during his presidency, has, in his weekly Torah commentary on parsha B’shallah, declared Islamic fundamentalism to be Amalek.
Let me say today–and I take no pleasure in saying thisâ€”I wish that I were wrong in saying this–but I am slowly but surely and reluctantly becoming convinced that we of the western world are confronting the kind of evil that Amalek represents. I am becoming convinced that Islamic Fundamentalism, or, as some people prefer to call it, â€˜Islamo-fascismâ€™, is the most dangerous force that we have ever faced and that it is worthy of the name: Amalek.
The two great challenges of the twentieth century were Nazism, and Communism. And, God knows, they were each mighty threats. It cost untold lives and untold billions to defeat each of them. And yet, let me say, in all seriousness, that I am beginning to fear that the danger of Islamic Fundamentalism may be more serious than either of those two awful movements were.
How utterly irresponsible.
Riemer’s full commentary after the jump.
The Jewish Left tends to frame the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of competing nationalisms and victimologies. The Right often frames the conflict as motivated by traditional antisemitism.
But this conflict is, at its core, over theological birthright, symbolized by the land of Israel generally, and by Jerusalem and the Temple Mount most acutely, and it is not limited to the Arab world generally versus Israel, but spills into and exacerbates the broader conflict between the West and Islam.
To grossly understate its centrality, the Torah is the single most important document to Jewish civilization. And yet, the Torah paradigm for our relationship with Yishmael and his status as outlined in Genesis was disregarded and dismissed by the Labor Zionist architects of the modern State of Israel, and is still frequently disregarded and dismissed both by Zionists and non-Zionists.
Keep the Waters Rising
by Shaul Judelman, Yeshivat Bat Ayin
Here rolls a little Jewschool frabrenginâ€¦
Itâ€™s the new moon of Shevat tonightâ€¦ according to the infamous outdated and awaited House of Shamai, tonight is the birthday of the treesâ€¦Not the full moon Tu bâ€™shevat of Hillel, but right now, in the as yet unseen space. Here in Israel, it was a beautiful sunny day after a cloudy rainy Shabbat- and we hit the hills, digging out new holes for some 4 year old olive transplants. Digging the earth- the preparation for plantingâ€¦ Tu bâ€™Shevat is a holiday in reference to the fruits- and I feel Shammai is more connected to the rootsâ€¦I and I at the Rootâ€¦ That Bob Marley song, Blood is thicker than waterâ€¦ our Blood, our roots, the place where we come from.. Today is a time to dig into itâ€¦ for the deeper oneâ€™s roots are- the farther out the branches may spread (that was a torah I learned from a Big Leaf Maple in Seattle WA)) the longer we develop our trunk, â€œThatâ€™s why I build my house, on a solid foundation.â€ Gladiatorsâ€¦
Commentary on Parshat Shemot
by Shaul Judelman, Yeshivat Bat Ayin/Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo
In the Jewish guides to prayer, there is a component that is more important than anything elseâ€¦ The connection of redemption to prayerâ€¦ In the liturgy this means that the last words out loud a Jew says before entering their holy of holies- is â€œBlessed You Are- Who has Redeemed Israelâ€¦ As these words-and this consciousness fade off the lips of our mouth- our eyes close and we enter the intimate dialogue and pleadings of silent prayer. This teaching-that real prayer only comes from a connection to the place of redemptive change is found in our story of redemption from Egypt- in what is one of the most powerful transitions in the Torahâ€¦
This weeks Torah reading tells the story of how we came to exile and slaveryâ€¦After we became settled in Egypt, and our population started tremendously growing- â€And there arose a new king upon Egypt, who did not know Josef.â€ Josef, whose name hints to Moreness, the ability to add, and was himself the dreamer. To dream, is to think of what more could be- for myself, for my family, for the worldâ€¦Dreamers are open to the possibility that all could change. Yet the new king-was the king of over newness (from R. Yitzchak Ginsburg), â€œwho didnâ€™t know Josefâ€. Weâ€™ve already learned Josefâ€™s power to get out of jail through his dreams. Slavery and subjugation are enabled by the elimination of options and cause for rebellion. In a sense, by setting up a society so established- the original pyramid scheme-he closed off the chances of dreamers and newness from entering life. Egypts economy is metaphored by a horse and rider (from R Motti Alon)- each person serving that one above them- and receiving in exchange all that they need- all four food groups- the basic standard of existence guaranteed for all. So why would one think to change when if you look at the material conditions-you have all you need. By keeping our heads to the grindstone- we will not find the source of redemption that so many parts of our life need. But from where comes that space for a More? A brighter tomorrow?