James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

What Can We Do with the Holiness Code? A Humanistic Jewish Reading

James Tissot's "Two Priests Destroyed," depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

James Tissot’s “Two Priests Destroyed,” depicting the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (image from Wikipedia)

(Warning: this is a long read.) The Torah has lots of laws. Lots of them. And in the traditional Torah-reading cycle, we’re neck-deep in them.

These laws make using the Bible today more than a little problematic.

Continue reading

Pencil drawing of the biblical prophet Samuel Cursing King Saul after Saul has attempted to spare King Agag, the Amalekite - by Hans Holbein the Younger

Drek and Amalek

It’s still Jewish Disability Awareness Month, but I read something related to Purim that I found provocative. Though maybe it wasn’t provocative in a good way.

Over at Mosaic, Atar Hadari has an article in the “Observations” section of the site, “What to Do When the Lord Orders Vengeance.” It’s about the Haftarah for this Shabbat, Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat before Purim. As Hadari says, the Haftarah is from I Samuel 15:1-34, the story where Saul decides to forego fulfilling Yahweh’s instruction to kill the Amalekite king, Agag; Samuel steps in, slaughters Agag, and informs Saul that his monarchy will soon come to an end.

Hadari says the story is a study in character and leadership styles: Saul vs. Samuel, or outer- versus inner-directed leaders.

Continue reading

A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

In Advance of Jewish Disability Awareness Month: There Are No Four Children

Hey, all, guess what? It’s January. That means next month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month! And wouldn’t you know it? This week’s Torah portion on the traditional cycle is Parshat Bo.

A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

Used under Creative Commons license

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “And…so?” But Bo contains this nugget:

And it will happen, when you come to the land which Yahweh, your god, is giving you–just as he said–that you will take care to perform this worship [the Passover lamb and blood]. And it will happen that your children will say to you, “What is this worship to you”? And you will reply, this is the Passover sacrifice for Yahweh, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt. (Ex. 12:25-27a)

Notably, this is the statement of the “wicked” child in the Passover Seder.

Continue reading

“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

Continue reading

Let’s Make a Deal

I have heard it suggested that the biblical book of Genesis is really just the story of a fractious family. That’s basically true, I suppose, and the family story told by the biblical text keeps on rolling this week in Parshat Vayishlach, telling the story of Jacob and Esau’s meeting to bury their father, Isaac.

It’s also one of a number of Torah portions in Genesis that includes a negotiating session. This one is, in some sense, a life-or-death dispute: the time for Jacob to reckon with Esau over the lost birthright has finally come.

I’m not all that interested in the story itself at the moment. I want instead to talk about something that legal education has made me sensitive to: bargaining practices. Let’s look at the negotiations that appear in Genesis and how the conduct of those negotiations gives readers literary clues and a bit of heightened drama in the associated stories. Continue reading

Who’s Your Daddy?

First, I hope those who celebrated Thanksgiving had an enjoyable holiday. If you haven’t read it yet, I posted a pre-Thanksgiving piece. I think it’s worth a read, though you may disagree. (If so, tough patootey, I guess.)

On to other things, then.

The Torah portion this week continues on with the adventures of Jacob and Esau–and adds in the adventures of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Laban. There’s a lot of interesting narrative that deals with the complications of dealing with fathers.

Continue reading

A Simple Kind of Man

This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.

That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.

You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.

Continue reading

It’s Negotiable

Wow, we’re getting busy here at the blog!

Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.

I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.

I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.

Continue reading

No, We Shouldn’t Start Writing Midrash Again

R. Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center argues for just that, calling the recent movie about Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky a modern midrash for its filling in of gaps in the narrative and its addition of new shades of meaning to an old story.

The core of R. Fink’s concern is that the body of interpretations called “The Midrash” in the Modern Orthodox world has gotten too small and hidebound. I agree with R. Fink that there is a problematic tendency to treat as effectively canon medieval and earlier biblical commentaries. I am not, however, sure that the proper remedy is to write new midrash. (Setting aside that his suggestion implies that the spinning of midrash has somehow stopped; I don’t think he means that, and I don’t think that has happened in any event.)

(Warning: this is a bit of turgid post, language-wise. It’s a lot of thinking “out loud” about relatively wonky stuff. Just, you know, hold tight. Inspirational stuff comes at the end.)

Continue reading

On the High Drama of Torah Cantillation – Simchat Torah 2014 / 5775

I’ve posted before that I think there is a place for Simchat Torah in humanistic approaches to Judaism; the SHJ thinks so, too, of course. I’m just a lot more of a nerd about subversive readings, and so my own approach is very history-nerd-ish.

One aspect of Simchat Torah–and in fact, of the public Torah reading generally–that I think is particularly interesting is the performance of the reading itself. I think the way public Torah reading is usually done in synagogues is pretty much the opposite of how it was “supposed” to be done (that is, how Jews of Late Antiquity and the early Medieval period envisaged the affair). And the reading of the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, which occurs on Simchat Torah as the annual reading cycle is completed, is an excellent way of leveraging into that vision.

Continue reading