Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Marc Brettler was on NPR yesterday promoting his new book, How to Read the Bible. You can listen to the interview here, but my main reason for linking to the page is to direct you to the excerpt from the book's introduction. (You'll have to scroll down a bit.)

How to Read the Bible is a thoughtful, easy-to-read book designed to present the historical-critical method to Jewish laypeople. It is not only for Jews or laypeople, however. I am currently in the middle of the book, and I'm finding it very engaging. It has also helped me come up with ideas for effective ways to present biblical criticism to my (mostly Christian) students.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Schepping Naches

Jack Abramoff is a Brandeis alumnus and former chariman of the Brandeis College Republicans, according to an article in Sunday's Globe.
Selected the lead student organizer for Reagan in Massachusetts, Abramoff hung ''Reagan '80" banners off bridges over Route 128, helped register 3,000 students to vote, schmoozed men in South Boston social clubs, and accompanied Maureen Reagan, the candidate's daughter, on a trip to Brookline to persuade the Bostoner Rebbe, a national Hasidic leader, to endorse Reagan, a nod that was believed to be worth thousands of Orthodox Jewish votes.. . .

[In a tidbit submitted to the alumni notes last year], Abramoff mentions he is married with five children, helped start two schools in Washington, is lobbying Congress, and has fond memories of his years at Brandeis.

''It was a great experience and I learned a lot!" he wrote.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Confessions of a Cookbook Addict

It isn't rational. I have more soup recipes than I would ever use in a winter, more cookie recipes than I could reasonably use in a year, and more pot roast recipes than I will probably use in a lifetime. And there are so many other recipe sources, from the internet to my mother. But then, I have an irrational love of books and an equally irrational love of food. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that I drool over the cookbook aisle in every bookstore I visit, and that, cheapskate though I am, I often can't bring myself to leave without making a purchase.

Still, when I returned from the SBL/AAR conference with Great Vegetarian Dishes by Kurma dasa, "one of the Hare Krishna movement's most celebrated chefs,"* I began to think that I might have a problem.

Then I read this article:
Sally LaRhette, 75, has over 3,000, and she's not letting up anytime soon. In fact, one of the reasons she moved to her Natick home was for extra room to house her collection. Daniela Coleman, 38, of Jamaica Plain has 250 books in her kitchen and another 100 or so boxed up in her mother's attic. Jane Kelly, 49, of Wayland, owns around 850. The 75 she uses most often are in the kitchen, hundreds fill a large bookcase in her office, and the remaining ones are stored in the basement.

While some may wonder how anyone could possibly need, want, or use this many volumes, food lovers admit to pangs of desire when roaming the cookbook section of a well-stocked bookstore.

As it turns out, I have a long way to go. Since I don't have a "problem," I guess it wouldn't hurt to place an order at Amazon.com. I think I'll get Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julia Sahni. And The New Best Recipe -- Jabbet seemed to like that. And Myra Kornfield's The Voluptuous Vegan (I'm enjoying The Healthy Hedonist). And maybe. . .

. . .maybe I should sleep on this. I am a cheapskate, after all.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog)

*The book includes "over 240 recipes from around the world," including a lokshen kugel recipe attributed to the author's mother. Draw your own conclusions.

Obligatory Sharon Post

This is hardly a political or current events themed blog, but when something truly significant occurs, such as the prime minister of Israel suddenly losing consciousness just as his new political party begins to form, I feel that I should say something. At the same time, these are often the moments when I feel that I have little of value to contribute. Like many Jews, I am praying for Sharon's recovery, but there is little to say about that. And of course, the real issue is not whether Sharon is wiggling his toes but what will happen to Israel in the wake of his exit from politics.

I've often said that if there is any proof that God protects the people of Israel, it lies in the fact that the state of Israel hasn't imploded. Its political system is so hopelessly complex that even the most astute political junkies can't seem to make head or tail of what is going on there most of the time. That said, it seems fairly clear at this point that Kadima will survive without Sharon and even win a plurality of seats in the Knesset.

Is this good news? Much of Kadima's appeal seems to lie in its relatively non-ideological stance. After years of brutal terrorist attacks, leftists who speak of Israeli-Arab harmony, messianists who speak of Greater Israel, and Sharanskiniks who speak of a democratic Palestine all begin to seem like crazy dreamers. Many Israelis would rather support a policy that promises to minimize Israeli casualities to the greatest extent possible as soon as possible, by whatever means seem most practical here and now.

As someone with relatives in Israel, I am generally inclined to support this approach. Still, there is always the nagging concern that Sharon's policy of fence building and unilateral withdrawals may prove hopelessly short sighted. And then, there is always the possibility that Kadima will surprise its supporters, just as Sharon surpised his by withdrawing from Gaza, and who knows what that might mean.

I pray for Sharon and I pray for Israel, but I cannot pray for Kadima. What will be will be.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Public Service Announcement II

Voting is open. If you're interesting in reading some new blogs but are overwhelmed by the list of nominees, I recommend reading the nominees for "best post" and just voting in that category.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

For Nehama Leibowitz, zts"l

In the Orthodox day school that I attended from first through eighth grade, Torah study consisted of plodding through the text, verse by verse, in an attempt to derive valuable lessons for life. Occasionally, we would read Rashi's commentary, particularly when he introduced an aggadah, or legend. There was no discussion of Rashi's sources, or of why particular verses elicited the comments they did. All in all, we were led to believe that the Torah was fundamentally different from any other book and could not be read or understood by ordinary means; that only the divinely inspired could interpret it correctly; and that our task as ordinary people was simply to learn what they had written.

Theologically, I accepted that the Torah had "seventy facets," that many legitimate meanings could be derived from any given verse. At the same time, as a fan of literature, I instinctively felt that biblical texts had a certain "plain meaning" that could be discerned with attention to context, wording, and literary structure.

When I became Bat Mitsvah, my father bought me an expensive set of books: Nechama Leibowitz's Studies in the Torah. Leibowitz's approach to Torah was traditional in that she accepted it as the unadulterated word of God and relied heavily on medieval Jewish commentators to understand the text. Yet she used the commentaries critically, accepting or rejecting their conclusions on the basis of their agreement with the wording, context, and structure of the biblical text. When she derived lessons from the Torah, they were rooted in the text as a whole, not hung precariously from a single word or phrase. This new approach enthralled me, and I spent many a Shabbat afternoon engrossed in her writing, especially the "questions for further study" at the close of each chapter. For the first time, Judaic studies were as interesting and challenging as my secular studies. For a child who was both deeply religious and intellectually curious (not to mention bored), this was a true gift.

Looking back, I can honestly say that Nehama Leibowitz was one of the major impetuses behind my ultimate decision to enter the field of biblical studies. She probably would not approve of the direction in which I have taken this interest. Nonetheless, I can say this truthfully: My admiration for her is unlimited.

Nehama Leibowitz would be 100 years old today. May her memory be a blessing.
(Hat tip to OOSJ.)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Public Service Announcement

The Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards are back, and this year they're co-sponsored by the Jerusalem Post. This is a fun opportunity to become acquainted with new blogs and to show support for your favorites. (No, you still can't vote for Apikorsus, but thanks for asking.) Voting begins January 9th. (I guess they're running on Jewish time.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Davar Acher

I heard an interesting dvar torah this past Shabbat on the prehistory of Chanukkah. The speaker focused on the following Talmudic passage, which explains the origin of the Roman winter solstice festivals, Kalenda and Saturnalia:
ת"ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח' ימים בתענית [ובתפלה] כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

The Rabbis taught: when Adam saw that the days were growing shorter, he said, "Oy! Perhaps because I sinned, the world is becoming dark on my account and returning to chaos, and this is the death that was decreed for me by heaven [Gen. 2:17]." He fasted for eight days. When the solstice arrived and he saw that the days were growing longer, he said, "It is simply the way of the world." He went and established eight days of festivity. The following year, he observed both [the eight days preceding the solstace and the eight days following the solstace] as days of festivity. He [Adam] established them for the sake of heaven, but they [the Romans] established them for the sake of pagan worship (B. Avodah Zarah 8a).
The speaker added a twist to the plain meaning of the text: They (the Romans) celebrate an eight-day solstice festival for their own reasons, but we (the Jews) have adopted the practice as a celebration of the Hasmonean victory.

Because Jewish holidays are fixed to a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar calendar, Chanukkah always falls around the winter solstace in the northern hemisphere, but it does not always accord with it precisely. Nonetheless, the parallels between Chanukkah and Saturnalia (later celebrated as Christmas and New Year's Day) are clear. Both begin on the twenty-fifth of a mid-winter month and last eight days. The practice of lighting an increasing number of candles on each successive night also has obvious resonance as a solstice ritual.

Could Chanukkah be based on a pre-Roman version of Saturnalia? A Google search indicates that the aforementioned Shabbat speaker was hardly the first to suggest a historical connection between the two. If this is the case, then by calling the holiday the "festival of Sukkot in Kislev" (2 Maccabees 1:9), the Jews of the second temple period were linking a pagan holiday to their own tradition, making it an appropriate context for celebrating the cleansing of the second temple.