Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ma'i Chanukkah?

"What is Chanukkah?" With these words, the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) introduces its discussion of the holiday, which focuses on the "miracle of the oil" that most of us recall when we think of Chanukkah:
The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev there are eight days of Chanukkah... for when the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oil in the Temple. When the kingdom of the Hasmonean dynasty arose and defeated them, they searched but could only find one flask of oil that was set aside with the seal of the high priest. However, it contained only enough to burn for one day. A miracle took place and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established them as festival days with praise and thanks.
The Talmudic story explains the form that Chanukkah takes today, with its eight nights of burning candles and foods fried in oil. Yet the "miracle of the oil" is not mentioned in the books of Maccabees, which were composed at a time considerably closer to the events commemorated by the holiday than the Gemara. These books describe the military victory of the Jews, led by the priestly family of Mattithias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, over the army of the oppressive Seleucid monarch Antoicus IV. 1 Maccabees 4:52-59 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 describe an eight-day festival celebrating the purification of the temple, beginning on the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the very day on which Antiochus' troops profaned it by offering an impure sacrifice on the altar (1 Maccabees 1:59, cf. 2 Maccabees 6:4-5). 1 Maccabees does not explain why the celebration lasted eight days, but 2 Maccabees provides the missing information: the new festival of Chanukkah was modeled on the eight-day biblical festival of Sukkot (Lev. 23:39-43, etc.). The Jews had been unable to properly celebrate Sukkot at the appropriate time because of Antiochus' oppression (2 Maccabees 10:6), so they compensated now, even incorporating the lulav (palm frond) of Sukkot into their new holiday.

At first glance, the explanation in 2 Maccabees seems reasonable, but then an obvious question arises: if the temple was desecrated the previous year in the month of Kislev, then the Jews would have missed the opportunity to celebrate all three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Why did the victorious Jews single out Sukkot for a late celebration? Perhaps because Sukkot was associated with Solomon's dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:2, 66). By marking their victory with a similar ceremony, the Maccabees recalled a time when Israel was strong, united, and independent, and they likened the newly purified, Hasmonean-controlled temple to the original Jerusalem temple, the legitimacy of which was (at least in their own day) unquestioned.

The new holiday was not immediately accepted throughout the Jewish world, and the book of 2 Maccabees opens with two letters exhorting the Jews of Egypt to observe the "festival of Sukkot in the month of Kislev." Both letters link the festival to the rededication of the temple by the Hasmoneans, but the second introduces a new element, a miracle performed in the days of Nehemiah, the governor of Judah who oversaw the construction of the second temple:

When our ancestors were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone. But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but only a thick liquid, he ordered themm to dip it out and bring it. When the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and on the things laid upon it. When this had been done and some time had passed, and when the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled. And while the sacrifice was being consumed, the priests offered prayer -- the priests and everyone.. . .After the materials of the sacrifice had been consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured on large stones. When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out (NRSV 2 Maccabees 1:19-23).
The letter goes on to relate the history of the sacred fire, which was carried into exile by the prophet Jeremiah, and the nature of the "thick liquid," which is called naphta (petroleum). The event is likened to the dedication of the tabernacle in the days of Moses, when a miraculous fire from the Lord consumed a burnt offering (Leviticus 9:24), and to a similar miracle said to have occurred at the dedication of the first temple by Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:1). Thus Nehemiah is implicitly compared to Moses and Solomon, the second temple becomes divinely sanctioned like the first (and like its predecessor, the tabernacle), and Chanukkah becomes a festival affirming the legitimacy of the second temple, which was never so severely threatened as in the Hasmonean period.

The legend also links the festival of Chanukkah to a miracle having to do with fire. One wonders whether this was not the original impetus for the practice of lighting candles on Chanukkah -- or at least the prototype for the rabbinic story.

For more on the convoluted history of Chanukkah practices, see last year's post on Judith and dairy products, or this reworked version, which includes a recipe for cheese latkes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Troubling Texts II: "More Bitter Than Death"

In Wrestling With God & Men, Rabbi Steven Greenberg relates his personal practice of standing during the afternoon Torah reading on Yom Kippur, in anticipation of the words "you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination" (Lev. 18:22). One year, Greenberg writes, he asked to be called to the Torah for the aliyah containing those words.

Rabbi Greenberg's practice might seem masochistic, but it reminded me of one of my own. Whenever possible, I volunteer to read the seventh chapter of Qohelet on Sukkot. I do so because of the following passage:

Now, I find woman more bitter than death; she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares. He who is pleasing to God escapes her, and he who is displeasing is caught by her. See, this is what I found, said Qohelet, item by tiem in my search for the reason of things. As for what I sought further but did not find, I found only one human being in a thousand, and the one I found among so many was never a woman” (Qoh. 7:26-28).

This sort of depiction of women isn’t surprising coming from a patriarchal society. Some might say that as a result of women’s inferior status, they are forced to accomplish their goals by manipulating those in power, and then those in power view them as inherently dishonest and manipulative. . .

However, if one examines Qohelet as a whole, and at this chapter in particular, I think it becomes clear that underlying this passage is, more than a distrust of women, a distrust of emotion, particularly desire or passion. Even if women did not behave in manipulative ways, from the perspective of this chapter they would be "all traps," because, from a male heterosexual perspective, they are objects of desire, and desire is dangerous. It interferes with reason.

Qohelet often expresses ambivalence with regard to the tension between passion and reason. It is interesting to compare the passage in chapter seven to one in chapter nine:

Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun — all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun (Qoh. 9:7-9).

Here again, woman is presented from a male, heterosexual perspective, and again, she represents desire and its fulfilment. Yet now pleasure is viewed in a positive light. It is to be embraced either because it is a gift from God (v. 7), or because life is short, and there is little sense wasting it on sorrow.

These texts are particularly challenging for contemporary Jews, because the underlying ideas with which they deal are still very relevant to us. We are often torn between the notion that we should enjoy life and the idea that a life of pleasure may be a waste, and that love and passion can blind us and lead us to do foolish, destructive things. The reading and study of Qohelet can provide an opportunity for reflection on this tension. On the other hand, the way these ideas are presented in the text ignores the fact that women share this intellectual and emotional struggle. The text presents women as objects, as though our sole value lay in the nature of our relationships with men.

Is there an intellectually honest, ethical way to approach these texts that at the same time recognizes their inherent worth and respects their status within our religious tradition? I think that the most responsible approach to texts like these is to acknowledge their problematic aspects, while at the same time attempting to move beyond these aspects to find a deeper, more resiliant truth. In its extended, multi-faceted search for meaning within the seemingly meaningless, the book of Qohelet itself provides a model for the struggle to find inclusive meaning in an ancient work that is, in its plain sense, anything but inclusive.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Troubling Texts I: The Sexual Prohibitions

This year, I was asked to speak after mincha, the afternoon service, on Yom Kippur. Although it immeditately occurred to me that I should speak about the mincha Torah reading, with its discussion of sexual prohibitions in general and homosexuality in particular, I remained so ambivalent about the subject matter that until the very moment that I stood at the bima, I was seriously considering ad-libbing something about Jonah.

Even after receiving generally positive feedback, I wonder whether I did the right thing by raising such a controversial subject on Yom Kippur, rather than offering a few simple words on teshuva, or a pep-talk for the final service of the day. Maybe you should tell me. (Be honest, but please, no badmouthing.)

Here are a few excerpts:

There has been a great deal of emphasis lately, in the political arena as well as within the leadership of the Conservative movement, on the verse reading “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is abhorrence” (Lev. 18:22). But really, the entire framework of the Torah reading is problematic. Many of the regulations in it are based quite explicitly on the idea that women are the sexual property of men. We read, “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father” (Lev. 18:8); in other words, you, male reader, may not have sex with your father’s wife, whether she is your biological mother or not, because her nakedness, her sexuality, belongs to your father. Because most of the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are based on this principle, we don’t have any discussion of many of the more pressing issues in contemporary sexual ethics.. . . The premise of the text is that men can have multiple sexual partners and women can have one, and that sexual relations are problematic primarily when they involve a woman who belongs to another man.

The discussion of homosexuality in the Conservative movement has, to a large extent, I think, sidestepped some of the most fundamental questions that this chapter raises. To what extent is the Torah a product of its historical context, and to what extent is it timeless? Conservative leaders generally agree that Judaism allows human beings a good deal of interpretive license with the Torah, but there is much less agreement on the limits of that license, or on whether there even are limits. This is because there is no consensus on the even more fundamental question of the nature of the Torah’s authority. Is it the direct word of God revealed to human beings? Is it God’s word interpreted by human beings through the prism of their own experience? Or is it a noble, but ultimately flawed attempt by humans to figure out what God’s will might be? These are crude articulations of complex theological ideas, but I think that it’s important to articulate them even in this very crude form, to convey some sense of the range of positions held by people who consider themselves Conservative rabbis.

I also think that, however we approach these issues, egalitarian communities such as this one can’t in good conscience take the prohibition against sexual intercourse between men at face value. Both its context and its wording strongly suggest that the prohibition is fundamentally about maintaining the boundary between male and female, and that is a boundary that we routinely transgress in our religious practice. Whatever our perspectives on the fundamental theological issues I mentioned earlier, the fact that we’re here indicates that we all believe, on some level, that although the disparity between the status of male and female was quite conspicuous at earlier stages of the Jewish religion, it is ultimately unjust to perpetuate that disparity. . . .

I’m not going to make a halakhic argument. . . but I would like to discuss what I think is an interesting exegetical and philosophical approach to this prohibition.. . . This interpretation is advanced independently, in different ways, by the Reform feminist theologian, Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism and by the gay Orthodox rabbi, Steven Greenberg, in Wrestling With God and Men. Both authors see this law as fundamentally prohibiting men from turning other men into women. It is a reading that actually fits the wording and context of the verse very well, and it explains why the Bible doesn’t prohibit lesbian sex. In a society in which men have a higher status than women, sexual intercourse between men disrupts the social order in a way that sex between women doesn’t. It degrades one of the partners by turning him into a woman.. . . So there is a concern for justice here, a concern that men not “declass” or degrade one another, just as there is a concern fro justice behind the prohibition against sleeping with another man’s sexual property. It isn’t the inclusive justice that we would demand today, but it is a concern for justice nonetheless.

Adler and Greenberg both go a step further in their readings of this verse to suggest that we bring it up to speed with our contemporary sense of justice by employing a rabbinic exegetical principle called ribuy, or “expansion.” Rabbi Greenberg specifically focuses on the word 'et, which can function either as a direct object marker or as a preposition meaning “with.” For the ancient rabbis, 'et was code for a missing element. And from a contemporary perspective, it seems clear what missing element should be read into this verse: not only is one forbidden to degrade a man sexually, but one is also forbidden to degrade a woman sexually. It’s a clever reading; clearly on the original meaning of the verse, but not entirely out of keeping with it, either. In a way, it’s a natural extension. As Adler writes, “what makes the Torah sacred is not that it has one fixed eternal meaning, but that its meanings are inexhaustible" (p. 1256).

I went on a bit after that about the importance of sexual boundaries in the modern world and the relevance of the topic to Yom Kippur, but this post is long enough already, so I'll leave all that out. What I'm chiefly wondering is, did I take "questioning the fundamentals" too far, consdiering the context? Is this an appropriate approach to text and tradition for a traditional egalitarian community? Should I lay off this topic already?

Next in this series: A d'var torah on Qohelet.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"7" Meme

Right here.

On Turning Around

I have several explanations (excuses?) to offer for this long hiatus. One is the start of the academic year. Another is preoccupation with holiday preparations, and the interference of the holidays themselves. A third is my recent activity on Kosher Blog.

Yet another reason for my failure to blog is that I've been trying to write about teshuva (repentence, or more literally, "turning back"), and that isn't easy. Everything I've come up with has either been too personal to post on the internet or too trite to be worth writing at all. Instead of blogging, I've scribbled in my dead -- I mean, paper -- journal, prayed (half-heartedly, as usual), whined, and cried a little. And I'm still not sure where I stand.

In addition to the holidays, a good deal of my energy lately has been focused on a weight-loss program, called, coincidentally, the "Turn-Around" plan. I've had moderate success in spite of this month's feasting and fasting (equally problematic, from a weight-loss perspective), and that has lead me to wonder whether I might be able to apply dieting principles to other areas of life, to overcome the various obstacles to the changes I'd like to make.

As difficult as weight loss can be, however, I've found that it isn't nearly as hard as teshuva, especially for someone who's approach to yiddishkeit isn't purely halakhic. Changes in my body are more easily quantified than changes in my soul (I use the term loosely). How can I measure improvements in my relationship with God and my relationships with others? I know they're not as healthy as they should be, but what can I do to change that? There's no simple formula, like "eat less, exercise more."

According to one tradition, beynonim, those whose actions in the preceding year tip the scales neither on the side of good nor on that of evil, have until Yom Kippur to earn a favorable verdict. Though the beynoni's sentence is "sealed" on Yom Kippur, it is finally "delivered" only on Hoshana Rabba, until which point the Almighty may still render it void. Since I never finish anything on time, I like to think of this tradition as offering me an "extension," a chance to make some of the changes I wanted to make by Yom Kippur but didn't. Most of these changes are somewhat amorphous and therefore difficult to implement, but at least I can spend one more week focusing my energy on making them happen. And, since we don't have a Sukkah in which to entertain guests, this time I won't be preoccupied with pot roast.

As a final note, I'd like offer my apologies to anyone I've hurt or offended, either in person or on the web. May we all earn a favorable verdict.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

And Another Thing

Happy Arrival Day (one minute late, so far). My post (if it comes) will be characteristically late.

Even Later

Somehow, I forgot to mention Eemie in my Blog Day post. Eemie comes across as a warm, sensitive, thoughtful individual, and a wonderful mother to the cutest little boy I've ever seen. What makes her perspective different from mine? Very little, actually, except that she has a wife as well as a husband (and a cat, and an avocado plant).

Happy reading (again).

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Theodicy: It's Our Problem

No decent person can fail to be appalled by the various attempts to blame hurricate Katrina on its victims. At the same time, we must acknowledge that this line of thinking is a direct outcome of the concept of a just God, which we Jews are so proud have introduced to the world.

Thankfully, several thousand years of religious civilization did yield at least a few people who noticed that life isn't always fair. The first known sustained attempt to grapple with this problem from within the monotheistic tradition appears, of course, in the book of Job. To be strictly accurate, Job actually offers two approaches to the problem: one in the folktale framework of the book, and one in the poetic portion. The folktale offers what may seem like a throwback to the idea of an amoral deity, who treats his creations callously for the sake of his own ego. The poem, on the other hand, depicts a Supreme Being Whose nature and actions are so far beyond human understanding that, while they may ultimately be just in some cosmic sense, we can never hope to reckon with them. Rabbinic theology later introduced the concept of an afterlife that would even all scores, and the idea of "afflictions of love" imposed upon the good in this world, to lessen their suffering in the next. These ideas were developed by many thinkers throughout the centuries, yielding varied results. Yet one common thread runs through all of them, namely, an acknowledgement that the notion of a just deity giving each of us what we deserve within our lifetimes simply does not accord with observed reality.

There have always been those among us who have attempted to correlate particular "punishments" with particular "sins," and in so doing, they were not out of keeping with Jewish tradition. Yet they were also not fully in keeping with that tradition, and it is the responsibility of those of us who identify as religious Jews to emphasize that point. This sort of reasoning cannot be tolerated -- particularly since there are so many alternatives.

Ba' al HaRahamim - God of Compassion:
Mikolot mayim rabim - Above the voice of vast waters;
Mishberei yam - The breakers of the sea;
Adir bamarom Adonai -Awesome is Adonai our God.
In the path of Katrina's destruction, let the good in humanity rise to the top of the flood.
Give us strength to console those who have lost family, friends and neighbors.
Give us the courage to provide hope to those who despair.
Provide us with the guidance to heal those who ail, both in body and in spirit.
~ excerpt from A Prayer for Guidance and Understanding by Richard S. Moline and Rabbi Elyse R. Winick

Donate, if you haven't already, here, here, here, here, here, here, or here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Late, as Usual

Apparently, today was Blog Day, described as follows by its creator, Nil Ophir:

In one long moment In August 31st, bloggers from all over the world will post a recommendation of 5 new Blogs, Preferably, Blogs different from their own culture, point of view and attitude. On this day, blog surfers will find themselves leaping and discovering new, unknown Blogs, celebrating the discovery of new people and new bloggers.

I like the idea, so I will post five recommendations, even though it is technically past midnight:

1. Raising Yousuf: a diary of a mother under occupation. Like everyone else in the J-blogosphere, I discovered this blog via Chayyei Sarah. Different culture: check. Different point of view: check. Different attitude: check. A difficult read, for someone like me, but ultimately worthwhile.

2. Life at TJ's Place, also via Chayyei Sarah. By Kevin, the assistant manager of a gentleman's club in the Midwest. Different culture? Definitely. It's an entertaining read, and all the strippers and bartenders come off seeming very human and sympathetic.

3. House of Joy, also via Chayyei Sarah. (Anyone noticing a pattern here?) The author is originally from Long Island and is now a resident of the West Bank. Different point of view? You betcha. But generally quite sympathetic, and always worth reading.

4. Frummer, a frequently conflicted Chassid from Stamford Hill. Always thoughtful.

5. The Wooden O, "being the abstract and brief Chronicle of Wm. Shakespeare, gent." Different culture? We're not even from the same century!

Off to bed now. Happy reading!

Friday, August 19, 2005

For Shabbat Nachamu

Be comforted, be comforted, my people
Says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
And declare to her
That her term of service is over,
That her iniquity is expiated;
For she has received at the hand of the Lord
Double for all her sins.

Behold, the Lord God comes in His might,
And His arm wins triumph for Him;
See, His reward is with Him,
His recompense before Him.
Like a shepherd He pastures His flock:
He gathers the lambs in His arms
And carries them in His bosom;
Gently He drives the mother sheep.

~Isaiah 40:1-2, 10-11

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Prayers for the Pullout

It is becoming difficult not to say anything about the Gaza pullout, even though I have little to add. I am not attached to the "greater Israel" idea, and I support efforts to create a democratic Palestinian state, but it is still unclear whether this move will bring us any closer to peace, or even Palestinian statehood. It has already resulted in tremendous suffering and a few depraved acts. One can only hope and pray that the ultimate outcome is positive.

I pray for the evacuees. May those who remain to be evacuated prevail over their evil inclinations, and may they all succeed at building new homes and resuming their lives with minimal trauma.

I pray for the soldiers. May they remain unified, strong, and safe.

I pray for the Palestinian residents of Gaza. May they eschew violence and succeed at building homes and constructive institutions from the rubble of the Jewish settlements.

May the One who creates peace in the heavens create peace for us, and for all Israel, and all the inhabitants of the world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Blogs, Journalistic Ethics, and Kosher Food at Dartmouth

It recently came to my attention that my blog had been quoted in the Dartmouth Independent, in an article entitled "The Economics of Observance," by Jared S. Westheim. The article deals with the kashrut ("kosher") standards of the Pavilion (apparently the kosher dining hall at Dartmouth University), which is supervised by Rabbi Rafael Saffra of the "Tablet-K" kashrut organization. Apikorsus is quoted on the subject of Saffra's standards:

Josh Gajer at Columbia, a former ’06 and mashgiach (religious supervisor) at the Pavilion, pointed out that “in the world of kosher supervision, this guy doesn’t have exactly a sterling reputation for high standards.” Numerous weblogs and local Orthodox practitioners concurred. One blog called Apikorsus, which is concerned with the intimacies of kashrut, stated that “there are probably legitimate reasons not to trust Tablet-K. Rabbi Saffra, who runs the organization, has a habit of jumping to certify products that others won't.” A significant number of others doubt the rigor of his work with Cabot.

First of all, some context: the quoted post (which you can read here) is actually about why I do eat Tablet-K cheeses. More importantly, as those of you who read this blog regularly know, I do not deal extensively with the "intimacies [intricacies?] of kashrut," nor do I represent myself as an authority on such matters.

There are legitimate and illegitimate ways for a journalist to make use of weblogs. Non-anonymous blogs by professional journalists, academics, etc. can be quoted as expert commentary on various subjects, although it is always preferable to contact the blogger and give him or her a chance to put the quotation into context. Non-anonymous blogs have about the status of "man-on-the street" interviews. In the context of this article, it might have made sense to quote Orthodox Dartmouth students, but a quotation from an anonymous nobody from God-knows where (e.g. Yours Truly) is of little value. It is particularly irresponsible to rely on such a source when a person's reputation is at stake.

Of course, I also bear some responsiblity for putting unsubstantiated, potentially harmful information in the public domain. The original version of the above quote included a specific allegation against Rabbi Saffra, which I removed because it was an unsupported rumor, clearly lashon hara (gossip) and possibly motsi shem ra (slander). I now realize that what I did write is almost as bad. I ought to have written, "there may be legitimate reasons not to trust Tabet-K," period.

One of the purposes of a university newspaper is for students to learn responsible journalistic practices, which they often do by making mistakes. I am clearly still learning responsible blogging practices, so I am sympathetic. At some point, however, we all have to take responsiblity for our actions.

I am e-mailing Jared Westheim with a link to this post, to give him a chance to respond if he sees fit to do so.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Blogburst Reminder

Shanna Giora-Gorfajn points out that my previous post is relevant to the current Kesher Talk blogburst. I've notified Judith of the post, and it seems only reasonable to include a reminder here, for any of you who might want to participate in the blogburst or read the essays that emerge from it.

Acceptable topics for the blogburst include (in Judith's words):
- the ongoing Temple Mount destruction and efforts to mitigate it
- the history of Jewish Jerusalem and Jewish residence in Israel (preferably that which can be corroborated by artifacts and documents)
- the disinformation campaign to falsify Middle Eastern history to erase the Jewish presence
- controversies about future Jewish and Muslim activity at the site
- Tisha B'Av: its rituals and many meanings
- personal experiences at Har Ha-Bayit

Read the original post for full information.

UPDATE: And here it is. Judith was good enough to use separate posts for the various topics listed above. Tradition severely limits Tisha B'Av activities, so it's good to have some relevant stuff to read.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Toward Tisha B'Av

The rabbinic system, according to the esteemed professor Shaye Cohen, is one that perpetually declares itself inadequate. Built into our prayers, laws, and customs, is a pervasive theme of mourning for Jerusalem, and of prayer for a future time, when Jerusalem will be reinhabited, the Temple rebuilt, and the Jewish people forever free of suffering and oppression.

Today, we live in a time when the model of the Jewish future on which the rabbinic paradigm is based has been shattered. History has presented us with a paradox: a national homeland with Jerusalem as its capital, but no return to Temple worship and no end of suffering in sight. What are the implications of this situation for modern Judaism? Must we abandon the rabbinic myth, or can it be effectively reinterpreted? I raised similar questions around this time last year. Below is a summary of some of the approaches that I and others suggested then, and the reasons why I find them all ultimately unsatisfactory.

1. The establishment of the State of Israel was a mistake, and has nothing to do with ancient Jewish dream, which will be fulfilled in the future by supernatural, rather than human, means. This is the predominant anti-Zionist Orthodox approach. It is not very popular nowadays, and probably has no adherents among readers of this blog. Therefore, instead of taking the time and energy to dispute it rationally, I will simply remind you all of an old joke about a man who put his faith in God.

2. The rebuilding of the physical Jerusalem is incomplete. According to this perspective, when we mourn Jerusalem, we are actually mourning the Temple, which, when rebuilt, will usher in the true messianic age, and with it, the fulfillment of our people's dreams. This is the predominant approach among Orthodox Zionists, for obvious reasons. It maintains the traditional myth virtually intact, only drawing its fulfillment out for a somewhat longer period than our ancestors might have imagined.

My primary objection to this approach is historical. The existence of the modern state of Israel provides us with an opportunity for re-examining the past in light of the present, and realizing that, while there are many advantages to national autonomy, autonomous periods in Israel's history have never been utopian. This was equally the case whether or not a temple stood in Jerusalem.

A second objection is the implication that the type of worship that took place in the Temple would be appropriate outside an ancient context. Animal sacrifice was very common at the time that the Israelites practiced it, but most modern Jews would, I think, agree that its replacement with prayer was a change for the better. Further, we may reasonably question whether centralized theocracy should be regarded as an ideal form of government (this book notwithstanding). Again, in the ancient world it may have seemed the only option. But times have changed.

3. The emphasis that we place on the physical city of Jerusalem in an error. Instead, we should focus on the ideas with which Jerusalem has traditionally been associated. My understanding is that the Jewish version of this idea originated in pre-Zionist times,* but it continues to have adherents. Rachel Barenblat's "Diaspora Grrl" is a particularly thoughtful contemporary articulation.

While Rachel does not advocate ignoring or abandoning the physical city of Jerusalem, her philosophy would logically seem to lead to that approach, which makes me uneasy. I was educated in a strongly Zionist tradition, and in spite of everything that has been going on in Israel lately, I still believe that the existence of a Jewish state is integral to the well-being of Jewry as a whole. For this reason, it seems to me that it would be worthwhile for the idea of a Jewish homeland to remain a part of Jewish mythology.

4. The Book of Lamentations and the kinot that we recite on Tisha B'Av focus primarily on human suffering. For Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem is paradigmatic of human cruelty and suffering, and that is what “mourning for Jerusalem” is really about. I made this suggestion last year, and I still think that there is something to it. Still, I've come to find it dissatisfying for the same reason that I find the previous approach dissatisfying: it undermines the significance of Jerusalem itself.

Perhaps what we really ought to be mourning is the lost dream of a simple, complete, glorious redemption, both physical and spiritual. We should mourn the fact that the physical Jerusalem has turned out to be so unlike the Jerusalem of Jewish dreams, and that the world after the creation of the Jewish state is so unlike the messianic age that we long envisioned. And we can ask ourselves what we can do in this imperfect world of ours to bring the Jerusalem of our people's dreams closer to reality, both in the physical city of Jerusalem and elsewhere.

*For some reason, I associate it with Martin Buber, but then it wouldn't be pre-Zionist. Maybe it was Mendelsson's idea? Maybe I'm really mixed up and should do some more reading...

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Tofu Salad

This intellectual and emotional heavy stuff is starting to take a toll on me, so I've decided to break it up with a recipe. Tofu salad is perfect for cold summer lunches and is convenient for picnics and potlucks. This particular version is adapted from the Moosewood Cookbook, but it's very similar to a variety that my mother makes, which is always a winner, even among carnivores.

4 tbs sesame oil
5 tbs rice or cider vinegar
1 tbs sugar
3 tbs soy sauce
2-3 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt (to taste - and really unnecessary, IMO)
crushed red pepper or chili oil, to taste
1 tsp minced fresh ginger

1 to 1-1/2 lbs. extra-firm tofu, well drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
8-10 medium mushrooms
1 small carrot, shredded or cut into small, thin pieces
1 small bell pepper (preferably red*), minced
finely shredded cabbage
1-2 minced scallions
a handful or two of fresh mung bean sprouts

Optional Toppings:
minced fresh cilantro
diced fresh, ripe tomato
a sprinkling of sesame seeds

Combine marinade ingredients in a large, shallow bowl or pan. Add remaining ingredients and stir gently. Cover and let marinate for at least two hours, preferably overnight. Add toppings, if using, and serve cold or at room temperature.

*When I double the recipe, I like to use one red and one orange.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Dragon's Fine, Thank You.

I've avoided discussing my theological struggle on this blog until recently, for various reasons. At this point, I think it would be best to articulate one of those reasons, even though it's kind of silly. You see, for whatever reason, most of my readers are to the right of me on the religious spectrum. As a result, I often find myself defending liberal Judaism. (This is somewhat ironic, given that my religious practice is to the "right" of the vast majority of American Jewry, but never mind.) I've often thought: what would it say about liberal Judaism, if its defender turned out not to be a believer at all?

The truth, I've come to realize, is that it doesn't say anything about liberal Judaism. All it says anything about is me. I've met Orthodox Jews who seriously doubt God's existence, and I've met Reform Jews with deep, unquestioning faith. And, while it's true that my doubts were partly responsible for my shift toward a more liberal interpretation of halakhah, I know others who have moved in a similar direction for entirely different reasons. Movements are made up of many individuals, each with his or her own distinct spiritual history, convictions, and doubts.

It should be clear by now that, notwithstanding my doubts about God, I am, in my own way, still deeply committed to Judaism. I've never questioned that fundamental commitment, any more than I'd question my love for and commitment to my husband and family.

So, about that dragon: It may be invisible. It may not even exist. That won't stop me from putting out milk and cookies, and otherwise making sure that my garage remains a comfortable place for an invisible, heatless fire-breathing dragon to live.

(Please, spare me the observation that I don't have a garage.)

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Responses To Tanya, Sefer Shel Benonim, chs. 1-5

Do people have souls?

The problems posed by the concept of a transcendent soul that interacts with the physical body are similar to those posed by the concept of a transcendent deity who interacts with the physical universe. Neuroscience has a long way to go, but we do seem to be making strides in the direction of understanding -- and, to an extent, being able to control -- many aspects of emotion and cognition, including matters as fundamental as decision-making, empathy, and impulse control. The better these matters are understood, the less room there seems to be for a non-physical human "spirit."

Most religious people seem convinced that we do have souls independent of our bodies, but I wonder whether this doctrine is truly vital to religious belief. It is undeniable that people have the capacity for thought and emotion. We can contemplate God, choose ethical conduct, and find joy in religious activity. If these are the elements necessary for religious devotion, and if we believe that these traits are, in one way or another, given to us by God, what difference does it make whether they are ultimately physical or not?

I raise this question now because it relates to the nature of the truth that may be embodied in such mystical works as Tanya. The author of Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, divides the transcendental aspect of human beings into various parts. We have two souls (neshamot), as well as spirit (ruach) and life (nefesh). In addition, our souls (the sum of the three) have ten manifestations, corresponding to the ten Sefirot, or Divine spheres. For the Ba'al Ha-Tanya (the author), this is all quite literal. The base, wicked soul resides in the blood, and the evil inclinations within it emanate from the four elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth). The second soul, meanwhile, resides in human breath. The external nefesh, surrounding the internal neshamot, ruach, and nefesh, is comprised of the essences of the individual's mother and father, and so on.

But are these physical connections necessary? In a very different context, Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into Ego, Superego, and Id. Freud never claimed that these were directly related to the physical brain, or that they existed on some transcendental plane separate from it; they simply described the various human inclinations as they seemed to manifest themselves in his observations. Presumably, he could have divided the psyche into four parts, or ten (if he were a kabbalist), and the analysis would be no less accurate, provided that it corresponded to human nature as we experience it.

Is Tanya less valuable because it claims more for its assertions than this? Because, frankly, the Aristotelian science doesn't do it for me. . .

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Dragon in My Garage

Whether your name is Meredith or not, be forewarned: this post contains deeply heretical ideas, along with some gross stuff about my love life.

DH has known about my spiritual struggle since we were in high school. This was, in part, because we were both socially inept. I asked him to senior prom (not because I was particularly interested in him, mind you, but because I knew he'd be available), and on the way, in the limosine, I started rambling on about God.

I was in the midst of a massive crisis of faith. All my life, I'd been deeply religious, which is to say that I did my utmost to behave in accordance with halakha as I understood it and to believe the religious dogma that I was taught. This had become increasingly difficult, however, and lately, even the most basic tenets of religion had begun to seem irrational.

Everyone else seemed to think that I was a model Jew (notwithstanding my strange decision to go to prom), and I didn't know how my date would respond to this sudden admission of agnosticism. To my surprise, it didn't seem to affect him at all. He responded matter-of-factly that of course there was no way to prove or disprove the existence of a Supreme Being. Then, with a grin, he concluded:

"God is a postulate."

Strangely enough, that was the moment when I realized that this incredibly nerdy boy, who couldn't assemble an English sentence without including a world like "postulate," was someone I'd actually like to befriend.

Several years later, when we became romantically involved (in spite of a distance of approximately 400 miles), I began what became a lengthy e-mail exchange debating the God Postulate.

Some excerpts:

God is only a useful concept. . . if He interacts with the universe in some way. Can't one assert, then, according to a law that seems to hold true within the universe, that a system including a superfluous entity is less likely to accurately describe the way things work?

If you get the same results from one line of math that you would get from 7 pages of algebra, chances are, you want to use the one line, and all that it implies about the physics, as the basis of your theory. On the other hand, if there are some phenomena that can only be explained by the theory that would require 7 pages of algebra to do, you know that while the one line works in a limiting case, it can't be the entire truth.

Quantum theory is valuable because there are cases that Newtonian physics can't explain. Find me an aspect of the universe that can't be explained except through theism.

Dearest Pathetically Devoted One,
I'm glad that you finally responded to my e-mail. I was starting to worry that I might have actually destroyed your faith, which would suck, because then we'd have to switch positions.

And so on.

One of the things that most attracted me to DH was his willingness to confront these issues. I also liked the fact that they didn't seem to interfere with his religious commitment. Still, I have to admit, I was also kind of hoping that he'd eventually formulate an argument that would make religion seem reasonable again. Perhaps that was too much to hope for from anyone.

I've found myself thinking about these issues a good deal lately, mainly as a result of the proliferation of blogs by Orthodox and formerly Orthodox sceptics. Of course, I've dragged DH back into the conversation. The outcome of our last debate (if you can call me whining while my husband tries to sleep a "debate") is encapsulated in this post on DH's blog. In response, some obviously intelligent and thoughtful people contributed these (forgive me) entirely pathetic arguments in favor of theism:

1. "Cognitive closure:" The "wiring" of the human brain prevents us from grasping God's function in the universe.* Possible? Certainly. It is also possible that we are "wired" to think that the world around us is real, when it is actually a "matrix" designed by giant robots who are farming us for energy. In fact, a movie based on that premise was wildly popular. Still, I don't see people restructuring their lives on the basis of The Matrix. That's because, not only is there no reason to think that it's true, but it undermines everything we're able to deduce based on our senses and our capacity for logical reasoning.

If this doesn't trouble you, think about your daily life. Pretty much everything you do is based on the assumption that your senses and capacity for basic reasoning will not fail you. Everything. . . except religion.

2. God could "shift some quantums one way, and balance it out by shifting others the other way."** Also possible. But realize that this is the logical eqivalent of the argument that God fabricated the fossil record in order to fool us. Tell me again why I should believe in a God who's done everything possible to ensure that I can't detect his existence?

Sorry to be so shrill, but I know that there are many intelligent religious people in the world. Can't anyone do better than this?

* From respondingtojblogs
**From Godol Hador

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Yes, I just added it. So, officially, there has been a total of 1 visit to this site as of now (not counting DH and myself). In case you care for some reason.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Daughters of Zelophehad as a Model for Halachic Change

The story of the daugthers of Zelophehad (Num. 27:1-11) is often looked to as a prototype of Jewish feminism. A group of women approach Moses, the leader of the entire Israelite nation, and demand, before all the members of the Israelite hierarchy, that they be granted a right previously restricted to men: the right to inherit land.

A close reading of the story (or Hirhurim), however, reveals that this interpretation has serious flaws. The daughters of Zelophehad argue not on their own behalf, but on behalf of their deceased father, who, they say, has a right "live on" by keeping his allotment of land within the family, a right that the current system would deny him because of his lack of sons. The ruling issued at the end of the narrative addresses precisely this complaint, and not the inequality of the sexes: the daugthers will inherit their father's land, but only for the purpose of ultimately passing it on to their sons. Moreover, in order to ensure that the patriarchal system of land-tenure is maintained, the daughters of Zelophehad (and presumably any women to whom the ruling applies) are required to marry within their father's tribe.

That said, it seems to me that the story can still provide a model for feminist change within halacha, as well as for any change that seeks to expand the rights of various individuals and groups within the Jewish community.

In this regard, the following features of the story are noteworthy:

1. Change is initiated by laypeople (in this case, people from a particularly low stratum of society). These people observe that the legal system, as it stands, does not do justice to certain members of the community.

2. The laypeople do not request justice; they demand it.

3. That said, they do so within the communal framework, by bringing their complaint to the religious authorities (in this case, Moses and God).

4. The religous authorities take their complaint seriously and address it. They do not dismiss those making the complaint because of their lack of status, or because of their tone, or because the complaint is based on the fundamental value of justice rather than the particulars of Israelite law.

5. The result is a partnership between bold laypeople and bold leaders, both willing to modify the legal system when it is in the interest of justice to do so.

Of course, there is one glaring difference between the situation in the parsha and the situation facing Jewish communities today. God very seldom speaks directly to our rabbis and tells them exactly what to do. Instead, we try to preserve the integrity of halacha by working within a textual tradition, which seems to say something slightly different to each individual who confronts it. But here again, I think the idea of partnership is key. We can't just wait for the texts to tell us what to do or for rabbis to tell us what to do. We have to figure out for ourselves what isn't right with the status quo and then try to work together, with our leaders and with our halachic tradition, to change it for the better.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The DH Moves

My husband's commentary on "Judaism, Computers, and other elements of Life" can now be found at The Apikorsus Companion v2.0.

Monday, July 11, 2005

ELF Experiments with New-Age Avoda Zara

I attended my first yoga class on Thursday. It was enjoyable. Most of the exercises were physically intensive, but at the end of the class, the instructor asked us to lie on our backs and try to get in touch with the "energy in everything" and "experience it as joy." Eventually, he said, we would learn to channel and "radiate" that joy to the people around us.

I'm a good sport, so I gave it a shot. For five minutes or so, I lay on my mat, not thinking too much, just breathing and feeling. As soon as the class was over, though, the analytical side of my mind kicked back into gear. The first thing I thought was, "what the hell??"

I don't know much about the philosophy behind yoga (or Eastern religion in general), but it seems to me that the notion of a "spirit" or "energy" inhabiting all physical things has attained much of its current popularity in the West as a response to the challenge that science poses to religion. The fundamental problem is this: the more we understand about the workings of the universe, the more it appears to be a causally closed system. Thoughtful people who believe in an active, independent God must imagine Him to be increasingly limited, not a direct force behind the weather, or the growth of plants, or the birth of babies, but a remote force, lurking behind some distant, primordial event that scientists have yet to fully explain. It is difficult to imagine such a God being truly relevant to our daily existence, even if, as some assert, He planned the entire course of history from the outset.

An alternative to this approach is to expand God rather than contracting Him, imagining a divine spirit inhabiting all that exists. But what does it mean for God to be part and parcel of a causally closed system? Can one pray to a god who is indistinguishable from a fruit fly, or the force of gravity? Can such a deity command ethical behavior?* I'm all for feeling at one with the universe and radiating joy to the rest of humanity, but why get in touch with God when I could accomplish the same thing by eating a bowl of ice cream? Can this sort of theology provide an adequate substitute for theism in the modern world? Many liberal Jews and Christians seem to think so. But I have my doubts.

* I realize that classical yoga includes prayer and ethical conduct. It also usually includes theism (I think). But I'm not really talking about classical yoga, which I clearly don't know much about . . .

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Couple of Links

As usual, I find myself with little to say about recent tragic events. This post by Islamoyankee is worth reading, as is my Dear Husband's analysis (of course). Ed Cook has an encouraging quote from C. S. Lewis.

On a different topic, a very human column in today's Globe looks to Israel for a much-needed warning against character judgements based on political affiliations.

I will have something of my own to say again, eventually. Your patience is appreciated.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Shelach: A Documentary Analysis

[Meredith warning]

Parshat Shelach contains the famous story of the "spies:" twelve men sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land before the Israelites enter it. A number of doublets and contradictions have led critical scholars to the conclusion that the spies narrative as it appears in the Torah is actually a conflation of two versions of the same story (although there are differences of opinion with regard to the details, as always). The following are some of the problems that a source-critical approach to the text helps resolve:

1. Moses sends the delegation of spies twice, once in Numbers 13:3 and once in 13:17.
2. The spies offer two separate reports, one in 13:27-29 and one in 13:32-33.
3. God grows angry over the incident twice, once in 14:11-12 and once in 14:26-35. (He seems to be placated in between.)
4. Caleb is twice exempted from the punishment meted on the other spies, once in 14:24, and once in 14:38, where he is joined by Joshua.

1. In 13:21, the spies are said to tour the entire Promised Land, "from the Wilderness of Zin to the entrance to Hamath," while in 13:22-24 they travel only as far north as Hebron.
2. In 13:26, the spies issue their report to Moses and Aaron, yet in 13:27 the recipient of the information is identified by means of a singular pronoun.
3. In 13:27, the spies concede that the land is "flowing with milk and honey," yet in 13:32 they describe it as a "land that devours its inhabitants."
4. In 14:24, Caleb is told that he, alone among the spies, will enter the Promised Land. This contradicts 14:30, in which both Caleb and Joshua are told that they will enter the land.

These doublets and contradictions, along with stylistic considerations, serve as guidelines for dividing the narrative into two documentary sources, as follows:

Priestly version (P):
13:1-17a: At God's command, Moses appoints twelve heads of tribes to scout the land, and dispaches them from the Wilderness of Paran.
13:21: The spies tour the land, all the way to its northernmost point.
13:25-26: The spies return and display the land's fruit.
13:32: The spies issue their report to Moses and Aaron, stating that Canaan is not only unconquerable, but a "land that devours its inhabitants."
14:1a, 2-3: The Israelites are disheartened and refuse to enter Canaan.
14:5: Moses and Aaron prostrate themselves, presumably in anticipation of divine wrath.
14:6-10a: Caleb and Joshua attempt to encourage the Israelites to proceed with the conquest. The Israelites respond by calling for them to be stoned.
14: 26-35: God decrees that the Israelites will wander the wilderness until the present sinful generation dies off. The period of wandering will be forty years.
14:36-38: The spies die in a plague. Joshua and Caleb are exempted from the punishment.

Jahwistic version (J):
13:17b-20: Moses dispaches the spies.
13:22-25: The spies tour the southern portion of the land (the future kingdom of Judah).
13:27-29: The spies issue their report to Moses, stating that the land is "flowing with milk and honey," but that the inhabitants are giants and and their cities are fortified.
13:30: Caleb alone affirms that the Israelites are capable of conquering the land.
13:31,33: The spies counter Caleb's claim, stating that the land is unconquerable.
14:1b, 4: The people are disheartened and refuse to enter Canaan.
14:11-12: God threatens to destroy the Israelites by plague.
14:13-19: Moses dissuades God from committing such a brash act.
14:20-25: God concedes not to destroy the Israelites, instead issuing a lesser punishment of wandering the desert until the present generation has died off.
14:39-45: Unable to accept their sentence, the remorseful (or fickle) Israelites attempt to penetrate the land. However, God and the Ark of the Covenant remain at the camp rather than accompanying them into battle, and they are roundly defeated by the land's inhabitants.

The two versions of the story have the same basic contours. In both versions, Moses sends a delegation of spies to tour the land of Canaan. The spies return with a report that dipleases God, including an assertion that the land's inhabitants are physically large and hence formidable. Both versions include "good" spies who attempt encourage the Israelites to enter the land, to no avail. In both versions, the older generation of Israelites are condemned to die in the wilderness as a punishment for their cowardice and lack of faith. The heroes alone are exempted from the punishment.

The similarities between the stories, however, bring their differences into relief. Some of these differences are merely factual, but others betray a variance in ideology. For example:

1. J, who is generally believed to have lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, has the spies explore the southern portion of the land alone. This suggests that, as far as J was concerned, the land promised to the Israelites comprised the south alone. For P, on the other hand, the full extent of the later united monarchy was vital and had to be included in the story.

2. In a similar vein, J's hero is Caleb, a representative of Judah, the leading southern tribe, whereas P adds Joshua, a representative of Ephraim, the most powerful tribe of the north. In part, the inclusion of Joshua has an expository function: P, who knows of the tradition of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, must explain why Joshua, unlike the other members of the Exodus generation, had the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. However, Joshua's inclusion also seems to serve an ideological end: Just as Caleb's faithfulness earns his decendents title to the land that he traverses in J (14:24), Joshua's faithfulness in P might be said to have earned the Ephraimites -- and, by extension, the entire northern kingdom -- title to their territory.

3. I(n J, the spies admit that the land is bountiful, but protest that its inhabitants are mighty and the cities impregnable. In P, their offense is greater, for they impugn the land itself. The people's transgression is greater in P as well, for when Caleb and Joshua assert that Canaan is a bountiful land and can be conquered, the people not only refuse to believe them, but call for them to be stoned. In keeping with the severity of the spies' offense, they meet a particularly severe punishment, dying in a plague rather than wandering the wilderness with the other Israelites of their generation.

4. The two versions of the narrative reflect the respective theologies of P and J. In J. In J, God has humanlike emotions, first wrathfully decreeing death for the entire nation, and later relenting when Moses intercedes on their behalf. Moses influences God by appealing to his capacity for forgiveness as wells as his pride. If he destroys the Israelites, Moses argues, the nations who have heard of his might will lose their awe of him, supposing that he was unable to lead the people to victory. In P, on the other hand, God's stance remains constant from the outset. Moses' only role in this story is to obey God. Even the act of reconnaissance itself is a response to a direct divine command. This is, in fact, the most praiseworthy form of behavior in P.

The strongest support for this division analysis of the text comes from Deuteronomy 1:19-46, which recounts the story of the spies according to the J version. As in J, Moses sends the spies on his own initiative rather than as a response to divine command; the spies depart from Kadesh-barnea rather than the Wilderness of Paran; the expedition reaches Nahal Eshkol, not the entrance to Hamath; the spies report that the land is "good"; there is no mention of the plague that consumes the guilty spies in P; there is a reference to the unsuccessful attempt to penetrate Canaan that ensues in J after the punishment is issued. Most strikingly, the deuteronomist, who clearly knows of Joshua and his role in leading the people into Canaan, does not mention Joshua among the spies. Linguistic parallels to the J narrative reinforce the notion that it served as the basis for the deuteronomic version of the story.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

BeHa'alotcha: God's Glory Revisited

[Insert standard Meredith warning here.]

Earlier, I suggested that the Cloud of Glory that rested over the Tabernacle might be a Priestly version of the pillar that guided the Israelites through the wilderness, which appeared as a cloud of smoke by day (when the smoke obscured the fiery center) and a fire by night (when darkness obscured the smoke). A passage from this week's parsha seems to support this notion (though its authorship is contested):

On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of Testimony, and in the evening it hovered over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: The cloud covered it [the Tabernacle], and it appeared as fire at night. And whenever the cloud rose from the tent, the Israelites would travel, and wherever the cloud rested, the Israelites would encamp (Numbers 9:15-18).

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Festival of Cheese

A popular but somewhat elusive Ashkenazi custom dictates that dairy products be eaten on Shavuot. Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tissa 9) derives the custom from the idea that milk symbolizes Torah, which is based on the phrase "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11). The land of Israel, in which the rite of presenting the first fruits of the land was performed on Shavuot, is likewise described as "flowing with milk and honey." Indeed, Central European Jews once favored honey cake for dessert on Shavuot, according to Gil Marks' World of Jewish Cooking (p. 314).

Another explanation for the practice derives from Psalm 68:16, which describes Sinai as har gevunim, a "jagged mountain." The word gevunim resembles the Hebrew word for cheese, gevinah. One kabbalistic explanation derives the custom from the gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, which is equal to forty, the number of days that Moses spent on Sinai. Another derives it from the first letters of the words describing the festival meal offering, minchah chadashah ladonai beshavuoteichem, "an offering of new grain for the Lord on your Shavuot festival," which together spell mi-chalav, "from milk."

Better-known than any of these is the explanation given by the Mishnah Berurah (494:3), which has it that upon returning home after the revelation of the Torah, along with the detailed "oral laws" pertaining to the slaughtering and consumption of meat, the Israelites realized that they could no longer eat the meat they had prepared or use their knives and pots, which were not kosher. Thus, they were forced to eat dairy and parve foods (presumably raw). A variant on this tradition has it that before receiving the Torah, the Israelites thought that dairy products might be considered part of a living animal, which may not be eaten according to the seven Noahide commandments. When they received the Torah and learned that milk was one of the foods with which the land of Israel was associated (e.g. Exodus 13:5), they realized that it could not be forbidden.* They immediately rejoiced with a dairy meal.

Other explanations attribute more pragmatic motives to the Israelites. According to one, the people fasted for three days in preparation for receiving the Torah. When they returned, they were so hungry that they did not have the patience to prepare meat, and resorted to eating dairy instead. According to another, receiving the Torah took so long, that by the time the Israelites returned, their milk had turned to cheese.

Yet another explanation is based on a midrash cited in the Talmud (B. Sotah 12a), which sets the date of Moses' rescue by Pharaoh's daughter at the sixth of Sivan (the date of Shavuot) and states that Moses refused to suckle from Pharaoh's daughter because she was a gentile. For this reason, Moses' mother became his wet nurse. The milk consumed on Shavuot, according to this explanation, reminds us of an important stage in Moses' infancy. An alternative explanation associates the practice with the infancy of corporate Israel, which only truly became a people upon receiving the Torah. Some describe God's granting of the Torah as an act of loving kindness, similar to that of a mother nursing her child. Others focus on the Torah itself as a fundamental source of life, analagous to breast milk. A very different explanation associates meat with a negative aspect of the Sinai experience: the sin of the golden calf. According to this explanation, Jews avoid meat on Shavuot so as not to remind God of their sin.

Perhaps the oddest explanation is based on the Zohar, which compares the seven weeks of sefirat ha-omer (between Passover and Shavuot) to the seven days following a woman's period, during which rabbinic law forbids her contact with her husband. After being separated from God through exile in Egypt, Israel (and her divine counterpart, the shekhinah) had to wait seven "clean" or "white" "weeks of days" before being purified at Sinai through knowledge of the Torah and finally reuniting with God (or, in the shekhinah's case, the aspect of God known as tiferet) in the great cosmic sexual encounter that was the Sinai theophony.** This transition from menstrual impurity to purity is described as a transformation of blood into milk (Be'er Heitev OH 494:3).

Because of the rabbinic dictum that "there is no joy without meat and wine," many observant households (not including mine) make sure to eat a meat meal on Shavuot in addition to a dairy meal. Some commentators cite this practice in their explanations of the custom of eating dairy. Thus, the Remah (OH 494:3) compares the two types of food eaten on Shavuot (meat and dairy) to the two cooked foods eaten on Passover (egg and shank bone), which commemorate the two sacrifices offered on the holiday. A variant on this explanation invokes the two leavened loaves offered on Shavuot. Alternatively, the consumption of both meat and dairy is related to the juxtaposition of the prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother's milk with the commandment to offer the first fruits of the land to God (Exodus 23:19; 34:26), a ritual performed on Shavuot in Temple times. Another explanation relates to the combination of meat and dairy served by Abraham to the three angels in Genesis 18:8. According to Midrash Rabba, the angels were angry at Moses for removing the Torah from heaven and bringing it to earth, but God prevented them from attacking him by reminding them of Abraham's hospitality. Thus, a meal of meat and dairy made it possible for the Torah to be given to Israel.

Isaac Klein, author of A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, prefers a more rationalist explanation, which he attributes to Hirshovitz, author of Otsar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun ("Collection of all the Customs of Jeshurun"). Klein explains (p. 151): "Meat is the food of those who know no restraint.. . . Eating dairy dishes on Shavu'ot is a reminder that the Torah is given to him who lives the sober life rather than that of pleasure." (Needless to say, the dairy meals eaten in this household on Shavuot are completely out of keeping with Hirshovitz's explanation.)

The presence of so many explanations for a single custom may be a testament to the endless creativity of the Jewish people, but it also draws attention to the fact that no one of these explanations is particularly convincing (although some are highly entertaining). The most probable reason for the practice of eating dairy on Shavuot is that pastoral communities tend to produce most of their cheese in the spring, when sheep, cows, and goats suckle their young. Because of this, springtime festivals the world over tend to feature butter and cheese.

This in no way lessens my enthusiasm for the traditional Shavuot fare of Ashkenazi Jews: blintzes and cheesecake. Although I've never met a cheesecake I didn't like, I have to agree with DH that the very best recipe comes from Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Kitchen.*** Beaten egg whites make this cake delightfully fluffy, without deminishing the richness imparted by the cream cheese and sour cream. Without further ado:

The Very Best Cheesecake

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
6 eggs, separated
1 pound cream cheese
1 pound sour cream
1 cup sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons flour

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease the sides of a 9-inch springform pan.

2. Melt the butter and combine with the graham cracker crumbs. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan. Save some crumbs.

3. Combine the egg yolks, cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and flour. Beat very well until light and fluffy.

4. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into cream cheese mixture. Pour the batter into the pan and sprinkle with the remaining graham cracker crumbs.

5. Bake 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave cake in the oven 1 additional hour. Then leave the oven door ajar 30 minutes more.

Chag Sameach!

*This line of reasoning comes from B. Berachot 6b.
**This encounter is repeated each Shavuot at halakhic midnight. You can catch it by staying up for the traditional all-night Torah learning session, or tikkun.
***In fact, it was tasting this cake at my in-law's that convinced me that I had to buy the book.

What's Going On?

Good question, but I'm not in the mood to answer it right now. Suffice it to say that posts on the parsha may or may not resume after Shavuot. In the meantime, I'll be blogging about food.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Emor: Rabbinic Mathematics

[Note: I've altered this post somewhat since Shabbat. Persons by the name of Meredith are requested not to read the footnote.]

Today is the 19th day, that is, two weeks and five days in the counting of the Omer.

The commandment to count the omer (sheaves of wheat), in both days and weeks, comes from a literal reading of Lev. 23:15-16:

You shall count off seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, the day after you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation. You shall count until the day after the seventh Sabbath, a total of fifty days; then you shall offer new grain to the Lord.

Although the sheaves and grain can no longer be offered, rabbinic tradition retains the practice of counting these forty-nine days, which are followed, on the fiftieth day, by a festival (Lev. 23:21), elsewhere called Shavuot. However, unlike Sadduceean, Christian, and Karaite traditions, which interpret the phrase “the day after the Sabbath” literally, rabbinic tradition mandates that the count begin on the second night of Passover (the first day being a “holy convocation,” a sort of pseudo-Sabbath). Last year, I finally heard an explanation for this counter-intuitive interpretation: the Rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall on the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the day of the Sinai theophany. While all three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) have agricultural and pastoral connotations, the Torah also associates Passover with the Exodus from Egypt and Sukkot with the journey through the wilderness. Only Shavuot is not anchored to Israel’s religious history. By making Shavuot “the day of the giving of our Torah,” the Rabbis made the holiday more durable: it could continue to have meaning when Jews no longer had a temple at which to offer sacrifices and had ceased to live in agricultural and pastoral communities.

This is all very well, except that the Torah does not explicitly state that the Israelites received the Torah on the sixth of Sivan. Exodus 19:1 does seem to suggest that they arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first of Sivan (so Rashi), but the amount of time that elapsed between their arrival and the public theophany is unclear.* All that we know is that some time after the Israelites set up camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses instructed them to devote three days (inclusive of the day on which the instruction was issued) to preparation for an encounter with God. In keeping with the tradition that this encounter occurred on the sixth of Sivan, the instructions must have been issued to the Israelites on the fourth day of the same month. Are there any textual clues on which the rabbis might have drawn to support the idea that precisely four days elapsed between the encampment and Moses' instruction?

Ibn Ezra suggests that Moses made two separate trips up and down the mountain in the period between the first and fourth days of Sivan: first, to have a conversation with God about the laws that the Israelites were about to receive (Ex. 19:3-6), which he later relayed to the people (Ex. 19:7-8), and then to have a second conversation with God regarding the three days of preparation (Ex. 19:9-13), which he also relayed to the people (Ex. 19:14-15). If each conversation occurred on a distinct day, the following chronology can be deduced:

1 Sivan: Arrival; Moses' first conversation with God (Ex. 19:3-6)
2 Sivan: Moses' first conversation with the people (Ex. 19:7-8)
3 Sivan: Moses' second conversation with God (Ex. 19:9-13)
4 Sivan: Moses' second conversation with the people (Ex. 19:14-15); Beginning of three days' preparation
5 Sivan: Preparation continues
6 Sivan: Israelites receive the commandments (Ex. 19:16-)

Does this interpretation provide sufficient reason for the rabbis to have chosen their interpretation of the laws regarding the counting of the omer? Or is it, rather, the sort of interpretation that would have arisen after the date for the receiving of the Torah had been fixed at the sixth of Sivan? I fear the latter, which is rather disappointing, as it leaves me with no explanation for the rabbinic interpretation of Lev. 23:15-16.

Two alternative explanations emerged from conversations that I had over Shabbat, but I’m not sure what I think of them:

1. The rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall at the earliest possible date. This may because (as Ibn Ezra suggests) only a brief period seems to have elapsed between the arrival at the Wilderness of Sinai and the theophany. (My reservation: Ex. 19:11-6 allows for multiple interpretations. The Rabbis could have easily decided that Moses’ interactions with God and the Israelites took longer than four days.)

2. The Rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall on a particular calendar date, which could be more easily associated with the theophany than a date that varied according to the year. (My reservation: prior to the fixing of the Jewish calendar, Shavuot could fall on either the fifth or the sixth of Sivan. Is there, then, such an advantage to setting the beginning of the counting of the omer at the second night of Passover?)


*In fact, the narrative sequence is quite convoluted, evidence of the multiple authorship of this pericope. That does not concern me here, however; right now, I am only interested in the rabbinic interpretation of the text, which takes for granted that the narrative is a coherent whole.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Parsha Backlog

I gave a d'var torah Friday night on parshat kedoshim, but I haven't had a chance to blog on the subject until now. The theme of the d'var torah was competing conceptions of holiness: the holiness of separation, which requires Israelites to separate themselves from other nations by observing commandments that impose divisions on the natural world, and the holiness of justice and compassion, which tends to minimize differences rather than accentuating them.

The idea "holiness through separation" is most clearly expressed in a passage toward the end of kedoshim (Leviticus 20:23-26):

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you . . . I am Adonai your God, who has set you apart from other peoples. Therefore, you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure, and the impure bird from the pure, and you shall not make yourselves objectionable through the beasts, birds, and all that creeps upon the ground that I have set apart for you as impure. Thus shall you be holy to me, for I, Adonai, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

A number of precepts in the parsha seem directed toward enforcing this type of holiness, e.g. the prohibitions against interbreeding animals and plants and against wearing clothing made from a mixture of materials (19:19); the injunction against sorcery and consultation of spirits, which threatens the divisions between life and death and between human and supernatural (19:31); and the sexual prohibitions (20:10-21), which enforce differentiation between male and female, human and animal, pure and impure, kinship and marriage.

In contrast to these are the precepts that minimize difference, e.g. the injunctions to leave portions of one's produce to the poor (19:9-10) and to treat employees fairly (19:13), thereby reducing disparities in wealth; the injunction against recognizing differences in class when issuing judgement (19:15); and the commandment to "love one's fellow as oneself" (19:18). Perhaps most exemplary of this second type of holiness is the prohibition against oppressing the stranger, which is based on an explicit injunction to identify with the Other (19:33-34):

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be like a citizen among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Both types of holiness can be related to the principle of imitatio dei. The former demands that Israel behave as a unique people, separate from the world, just as God is unique and seperate from the world. The latter demands that human beings follow God's example in recognizing the godliness inherent in others:

As He clothes the naked, so must you clothe the naked. [As] the Holy One, Blessed be He, visited the sick, so must you visit the sick. [As] the Holy One, Blessed Be He, comforted mourners, so must you comfort mourners. [As] the Holy One, Blessed Be He, buried the dead, so must you bury the dead (Sotah 14a).

Is it possible to harmonize these two types of holiness, which so often seem to be in conflict with one another? The suggestion that I made Friday night was that our very struggle to balance these conceptions of holiness can itself be part of the pursuit of holiness. (A bit of a cop-out, but I think the idea has merit.) For this blog, I'm going to add another, somewhat more controversial suggestion, relating specifically to the sexual prohibitions.*

My suggestion is based on the historical observation that, while differentiation has always been a major aspect of Jewish practice, the specific divisions that we make have been fairly fluid. For example, the Torah prescribes an intricate system of differentiation between pure and impure, most aspects of which have fallen into disuse since the destruction of the second Temple. On the other hand, contemporary halakhah prescribes an intricate system for separating meat from dairy, a division that does not exist in the Torah per se. Similarly, while we uphold the Biblical prohibitions against adultery and incest, our framework for understanding them has changed. In the Bible, both the prohibition of adultury (as expressed in Lev. 20:10) and many of the incest prohibitions (as expressed in Lev. 18:7-16) are based on the idea that women "belong" to men, and that sex with another man's wife is akin to trespassing on his property. Today, we tend to view adultury as a violation of a mutual bond between two people, while incest is variously viewed as a violation of trust, an abuse of power, or an inappropriate "mixture" of two types of relationships. This shift, of course, is a result of our changed view of women, which can be regarded as a recognition of the godliness inherent in every human being, male or female.

To my mind (and I'm sure I'm not the first to have suggested this), changing our approach to homosexual relationships would simply be an extension of the shift in our approach to male-female relationships. The imperative of holiness through justice and compassion demands that we lessen our emphasis on the distinction between male and female and re-emphasize the boundaries created through mutual commitment.

*This is partly an attempt to compensate for missing parshat acharei mot, which also catalogues the sexual prohibitions (Lev. 18:6-23).

Sunday, April 17, 2005

New Blogger Comments

Blogger has greatly improved its comments feature, so, after considerable nagging from a friend and some help from DH, I've switched to Blogger from Haloscan. Haloscan comments posted in March 2005 and earlier can be viewed by clicking on the links to the appropriate archive pages (right sidebar). I've imported the comments on the four April posts manually.

One change that you will notice immediately is that the most recent comments now appear at the bottom of the thread, rather than at the top. Long comments will not be truncated, so you will no longer have to worry about breaking them up. There are a few other differences, but they're pretty self-explanatory.

All rightie. Time to stop playing with my blog and go shopping for Passover.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Metsorah: The Purity System in Post-Temple Judaism

Last week I wrote about the biblical purity system. This week I’d like to discuss the impact of the biblical system on post-Temple Judaism.

After some initial ambiguity, it became accepted that most of the biblical purity regulations applied only when the temple stood, since their practical implications were limited to access to the sanctuary and to entities dedicated to the sanctuary. Exceptions to this rule occur where biblical law suggests implications that extend beyond the sphere of the sanctuary. These exceptions occur in three major areas:

1. Pure and impure animals, birds, insects, etc. In addition to transmitting ritual impurity, impure creatures may not be eaten, according to Leviticus 11. This chapter also specifies the ways in which these creatures may transmit impurity to various types of vessels (vv. 32-36). These regulations form the basis for the laws pertaining to the maintenance of kosher cooking implements and dishes.

2. Purity of priests. Priests (kohanim) are prohibited from contracting death-impurity except in very specific situations (Leviticus 21:1-4). Although one might logically assume that this prohibition derives from the priests’ role in the Temple, the Bible states the prohibition categorically. Observant kohanim therefore refrain from visiting cemeteries to this day.

3. Menstrual impurity Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sexual intercourse with a woman in a state of menstrual impurity. The basis for determining this state and purifying oneself of it is derived from Leviticus 15:19-30. The sacrifices called for by verse 29, of course, can no longer be offered, but women are required to immerse in water from a natural source (referred to as a mikveh), a process that the biblical text describes as “washing oneself in water.”

The rabbinic development of #3 puzzles me in a number of respects, which I will outline below. I would appreciate it if those of you with more extensive knowledge of this area of halachah could help enlighten me.

First, I am somewhat confused about the immersion requirement. The Bible does not mandate that a woman immerse after menstruation, or after any other form of discharge, for that matter. (It does, inexplicably, mandate that women immerse from semen-impurity contracted through sexual intercourse.) My understanding is that the rabbis derive the requirement of immersion after menstruation from the requirement that men immerse after contact with menstrual blood (vv. 20-24). (Ironically, this requirement no longer applies, since the impurity of males has implications only insofar as the sanctuary is concerned.) My questions are as follows: Is immersion after menstruation considered halachah mi-de’oraita (“biblical” law)? If so, is it derived by means of gezerah shavah (analogy) or some other legal mechanism, or is it simply assumed?

Second, I am perplexed by the fact that the rabbis deemed the laws of zavah relevant to the prohibition against sex with a menstruant. A zavah is defined by as a woman who experiences a long or irregular blood flow, as per Leviticus 15:25-30. Unlike women with regular periods, who remain impure for seven days following the onset of menstruation, zavot remain impure for seven days following the cessation of blood flow, presumably to ensure that the flow will not resume without notice.

Based on the biblical text alone, it would seem that the laws of zavah should apply to off-cycle periods, or to periods lasting longer than seven days. The rabbis, however, considered any flow of three days or longer a case of zavah, and the Talmud (BT Niddah 66a) relates that Jewish women took on the additional stringency of applying the laws of zavah to isolated blood stains “the size of a mustard seed” or larger. Because of the difficulty of differentiating between cases of niddah (regular menstruation) and cases of zavah, the rabbis eventually instituted a new law calling for the stricter zavah regulations to be applied to regular menstruation as well (BT Niddah 67b). Thus, contemporary Orthodox wives wait seven days after the cessation of menstruation, even when their periods are regular, before immersing in a mikveh and resuming sexual relations with their husbands.

My question is, why should the rules of zavah apply in post-Temple times at all? Leviticus 18 prohibits sex with a woman in a state of niddah impurity, not a state of zavah impurity. This may seem like hair-splitting, but it is the sort of hair-splitting that constitutes the bulk of rabbinic law. True, it would be illogical to prohibit sex with a woman experiencing a regular period and permit it in the case of a lengthy or irregular period. This could be resolved, however, by applying the laws of niddah to cases of zavah. Applying the laws of zavah to cases of niddah strikes me as beyond the realm of reasonable stringency. What was the purpose of instituting such a law?

Even stranger, contemporary Orthodox practice requires a woman to wait an initial five days before counting the extra seven, even if her period is exceptionally short. The reason for this, as I understand it, is that a woman may expel semen for several days after intercourse, resulting in a state of semen-impurity (also referred to as zavah). As I’ve noted, the Torah does not explicitly prohibit sex with a woman experiencing an irregular period, and it certainly doesn’t prohibit sex with a woman in a state of semen-impurity. Even if such a counter-intuitive prohibition did exist, it should only prevent a woman from immersing while she might still be expelling semen, that is (to use the rabbis’ somewhat overzealous estimate) for five days after intercourse. To prevent her from even beginning to count the requisite seven days preceding immersion seems to me to defy common sense.

Finally, I understand that women who ovulate early, during their period of niddah, and are therefore unable to conceive (a state known as “halachic infertility”) are sometimes given dispensation to begin counting the extra seven days before the initial five are completed. However, they are never (as far as I know) given dispensation to forgo the extra seven, which would seem to be the truly superfluous ones. Thus, these dispensations are unhelpful to a majority of women, whose periods typically last longer than five days. Is this because the seven days are a matter of rabbinic law (halachah mi-derabbanan), while the five are a matter of custom (minhag)? Even if this is the case, there are other situations in which rabbinic law is waived on account of extreme need. (Not only to save a life – for that purpose, even biblical law is waived.) Why not here?