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Archive for the ‘Torah_Commentary’ Category



Torah Commentary- Shemot: Moses and Emancipation

Dec19

by: on December 19th, 2013 | Comments Off

I. The Challenge

Whereas the stories within the book of Genesis fall into atomizable story units, when encountering the book of Shemot (Exodus) it is clearly organized with a longer arc of narrative, with the episodes being more syncytial and interwoven. The themes I wish to deal with in these pieces do not find their closure in one verse or one commentatory, one might say they are “deterritorialised” across the arbitrary perasha divisions. One major theme encompassing a large portion of the book can be summarized as “how can one change the world for the better even in the face of a powerful evil empire?”

Insight into how one individual, like Moshe (Moses, as he is known in English) was capable of standing up to the dominant world power, and changing the course of human history, is not limited to one episode alone. “Speaking truth to Power” can serve as a subtext for virtually every narrative in the text from the book of Shemot (Exodus). How can one learn this skill, become a Moshe in the continuing fight against injustice?

Michael Walzer’s approach towards the book of Exodus as a blueprint for liberation is a very satisfying approach; here I would like to show how the prelude to political emancipation is more deeply rooted in a spiritual and epistemological ability to transcend the given reality, beyond the positive Marxist approach of Walzer. Furthermore, this ability is not only valid for political struggle, rather, following the approach of the Sefat Emet in perashat Va’era, the story of the Exodus illuminates the path to freedom for the individual trapped in their existential despair and darkness. So the goal is, not only to hear about, or venerate the biblical hero Moshe, but to learn how to “be” him, to actualize him in our own lives. With this in mind, we will try to undestand the route by which Moshe, the Hebrew slaves, all individuals who are exposed to this narrative, come to free themselves from the injustice of political, historical, and personal bondage.

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Campaign Financing Is Legalized Bribery (Not to Mention a Violation of the Torah!)

Oct18

by: on October 18th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

I was reading the Torah a couple months, well actually I read it every week as part of my Sabbath practice, but a couple months ago the Torah portion focused on bribery and stirred me to thinking (the Torah has that effect on me!). Specifically, Deuteronomy 16, sentence 19, states that “You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”

Credit:Flickrcc/Meiling

This simple little sentence has a lot to say about our current political structure, wouldn’t you say? “Don’t judge unfairly.” What could that possibly mean? Well, I take it to mean that we should not judge others lest we understand the path they have walked. This speaks to me about being empathic.

What about “you shall show no partiality”? Well that seems obvious enough, if you are a judge or have a position of power that allows you to make decisions that impact others, don’t be partial. Don’t let your biases get in the way of making sound decisions grounded in the facts. But it can also be applied in more mundane situations – as a teacher, parent, friend, lawyer, etc. When I read this as applying in all circumstances (the Torah does not seem to limit its application), what I take it to mean is to find a path of compassion, look at the situation from all sides, don’t assume one person is right and one wrong. That’s rather powerful. Reminds me of Rumi’s poem:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
 there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

 When the soul lies down in that grass,
 the world is too full to talk about.
 Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

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Essays on Yom Kippur

Sep12

by: on September 12th, 2013 | Comments Off

As the “Day of Atonement” approaches I invite you to reflect on two of my previously posted essays.

First, Yom Kippur: Time and Teshuva- A Place for Healing, which explores:

  1. The relationship between time and teshuva (repentance) and how we can change the past with actions from the present.
  2. The startling similarity between R. Kook and Nietzsche on the retroactive force of history- and healing the past.
  3. How Yom Kippur can provide a safe place for self-healing as it places us “outside of time.”

Second, Book of Jonah Dvar: Delivered at Temple Beth Shalom, Las Vegas, Mincha of Yom Kippur 2011, speculates:

  1. How a traditionally somber day is actually one of the happiest.
  2. Why we read the Jonah story on Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah (New Year) Essays

Sep3

by: on September 3rd, 2013 | Comments Off

For Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to reflect on:

  1. The interrelationship between time and consciousness, and how they can be transcended and healed.
  2. How to relate to the holidays when one is in no mood to relate to the holidays.
  3. The meaning of this metaphor of the “book” of life. How do we relate to the “events” of our life (following Badieu) and can we transform these events into a narrative?

Click here to explore these questions through my 2012 Rosh Hashanah essays.

Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashat Ki Tavo — Amen for Humanity

Aug22

by: on August 22nd, 2013 | 5 Comments »

In the last few weeks there has been a nasty kerfuffle in the orthodox Jewish blogosphere, started when a Rabbi associated with the same progressive group that has been striving to create leadership roles for women within Orthodox Judaism attempted to take a balanced position on bible criticism. Shouts of heresy resounded across the internet, with one positive outcome being an excellent response on the part of Prof. Jacob Wright which is worth reading and can be found here.

After all the name calling, the question remains whether religious faith is based only upon the empirical fact of a text supposedly emanating word from word from God, or is there a deeper set of meanings for which an evolving spiritual community provides a set of answers. In this week’s reading the subject of communal response is paramount, as we encounter, for only the second time in the Bible, the unusual word “Amen”.

Curious word, this Amen. What does it mean when we respond “amen“? Its previous mention in the Torah is in the rather unpleasant episode of the sotah, related to marital infidelity. In our text, starting at verse 27:11, the context isn’t exactly positive, either; it is linked to a series of condemnations of various offenses, mostly of a sexual nature, beginning with idolatry and ending with a curse against one who “does not maintain all the words of this Torah, to do them”. Responsively, the text tells us, the people answered amen. What does this word amen mean?

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Torah Commentary: Shabbat Nahamu — The Meaning of Hope

Jul18

by: on July 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope. (Walter Benjamin, Schriften I)

 

Traditionally, the weeks after the ninth of Av, which is the traditional dark day of Jewish history commemorating the destruction of the temple, are considered weeks of hope, the weeks of being comforted. We frequently speak of hope. Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, but we must continue to redefine the question of hope toward what end?

Schiller seems to have summed it up for the Romantic era as:

Im Herzen kuendet es laut sich an:/Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren!”

“The heart proclaims it loudly within/We were born for better things!”

What these better things might be is not outlined, yearning alone was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Hope always seems about something that will take place in a distant future, for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, now adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, opens with a similar line: “As long as within the heart/A Jewish soul yearns…our Hope is not lost”. This hope is defined as (in the current official version) “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion-Jerusalem”. While perhaps at the time this may have served to define “The Hope”, there are few who would currently feel that these two lines were a sufficient end goal of hope. Hope seems no less necessary now than it did in the past. So what is it that we hope for? Must hope always be something aimed at a distant unattainable fantasy future? Is it possible that we can define hope in such a way that it reflects a process which can be actualized in the present, in the here and now? Hope for now?

In the Jewish tradition, the classic locus of hope is the Messianic hope. Is the Jewish hope for a Messiah a simple hope for a utopia in some mythological future? Is the hope that a Messiah will appear and transform the world into a happy place? I will attempt to demonstrate that a tradition exists, extending through the Hassidic masters on to Kafka and Benjamin, which places messianic-like responsibility upon contemporary generations, and views hope as a possibility for the present.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Behar: Learning to Let Go

May2

by: on May 2nd, 2013 | Comments Off

Earlier this week, I was in a patient’s room, and this patient had a fascinating guest, who was a meditation teacher. She said that her approach to meditation was the only way to really find yourself was to entirely let go. Something about the way she said it, in the unexpected setting of a stem cell transplant unit, just stuck with me, and ‘letting go’ is the point of this week’s essay on the sabbatical and jubilee years, as related in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah reading begins,

“And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and tell them that when they arrive in the land I am giving them, they shall let the land rest as a Sabbath for the Lord”.

Rashi, quoting the midrash Sifra, asks why specifically this mitzvah (commandment) of shemitta, the Sabbatical year in which the land is meant to be left fallow, is described as being presented to Moses at Sinai, alone of all the commandments. Rashi’s answer is an often cited teaching- while the general concept of the Sabbatical year was presented earlier, (in Perashat Mishpatim), with a more detailed repetition in this this chapter, both are ‘from Sinai’, the same is true of all the commandments- their general concept and their technical details, were given equally by God on Sinai. Similarly, the Avodat Yisrael uses this same Sifra to teach that all mitzvot must bring one to a state akin to that of being back at Sinai; one should reach as state through the vehicle of mitzvot as though one were once again standing as at the initial revelation of the Torah. In both cases, the teaching is based on the superfluous mention of Sinai here, but the deeper question is still unanswered, that is, why, of all the laws that could have been chosen, is the set of rules dealing with the Sabbatical year, Shemitta, singled out as being linked to Sinai? Is there something unique that we understand in comtemplating the Sabbatical year that merits a special connection to the Revelation at Sinai?

We will argue that there is a lesson contained within the concept of the shemitta year that merits this linkage to Sinai, that shemitta will define in various ways our relation to the world we live in and the people we live amongst. By way of definition, shemitta is the agricultural Sabbatical year, and yovel is the Jubilee year, years in which the land is left fallow, slaves are liberated from servitude, and ancestral homes return to their initial owners. Upon first glance, these shemitta laws seem to orient towards an almost nihilistic disregard for the free market, and all forms of commercial activity. All agricultural work comes to a dead halt, and in the yovel, all real estate transactions are voided.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Emor: Priesthood People Peace

Apr25

by: on April 25th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

Nietzche was preoccupied with the question of where the “good” came from, and who was responsible for it, that is, what is its “genealogy”. Here is his summary statement on the matter:

The judgment “good” did not originate with those to whom “goodness” was shown! Rather it was “the good” themselves , that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebian. It was out of this pathos of nobility and distance, as aforesaid, the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order, to a “below”- that is the origin of the antithesis “good” and “bad”‘ (The Genealogy of Morals, Kauffman edition pp 25-26).

Thus, to Nietzche, those who have power are those who create morals for a society. When, as in the ancient times, according to Nietzche’s myth, the leadership was in the hands of the aristocratic and noble, there was a different conception of morality than the currently accepted one in bourgeois society, which derives from the ressentiment of the herd, “perverted” towards concepts like pity and shame. The idea that morality as a concept and practice is the result of forces of power in society is developed in Foucault and others. Is this definition of power = morality the case in Jewish thought?

I propose that our perasha offers a test case in reading of these ideas.

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Eco-Judaism: The Torah Mandala and the Mystical System of Sustainability

Mar22

by: Rabbi Elisheva Brenner on March 22nd, 2013 | 3 Comments »

Vajravarahi Mandala, Tibet, late eighteenth century. From the David Shapiro collection. (Leidy and Thurman, number 33)

In the Torah “holiness” is part of an idiosyncratic way of understanding how the cosmos came into being, our place in it (cosmogony) and the nature of reality (epistemology). To our ancient ancestors, the cosmos, the physical world as we experience it, all life was brought about by “the word of G-d.” Today we would regard “the word of God” as a metaphor for the energies, forces, karma, particles, and waves, plus the energy of human consciousness that concentrates, compresses, expands, and contracts into what we experience as the physical and spiritual world. When the energies of life are in properly balanced, albeit dynamic, homeostasis, the life system has achieved a state of sustainability. In Torah-speak, that homeostasis, that sustainability, is called “Holiness.” The parts of the system as well as the objects, actions and time intervals used to maintain and correct the system are called “Holy.”

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Torah commentary- Ki Tissa: Allure of the Golden Calf

Mar1

by: on March 1st, 2013 | 3 Comments »

In previous essays, in dealing with the dull repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative, we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. R. Zadok Hacohen adds an interesting comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22: )

“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.

It was only with the second set of Luhot, not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we also received the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies. Our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden Tree was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the Tree of ‘Life’, which he reads as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, including theological speculation).

The question, then, is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what was implicit within that error that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate and all that commentary is necessary?

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