The Story Begins When the Stranger Arrives

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera, in observance of Immigrant Justice Shabbat. Cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

The story starts when the stranger comes to town.

This is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. The arrival of a stranger can be a breath of fresh air, a new love interest, a source of tumult, or, in most plot-lines, some combination of the three.

The arrival of the stranger is also a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in this week’s parasha. This week, we read several stories that start with the arrival of strangers: the most famous of which are the announcement of Isaac’s birth, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Parashat Vayera opens with the arrival of three strangers in Mamre, where Abraham lives with his wife Sarah. Seeing three men approaching from a distance, Abraham leaps into action: preparing—or having his wife and servants prepare—food, drink, water to bathe, and a place to rest for his guests. Abraham doesn’t know that the strangers are there to bring good news—that Sarah, long barren, will finally give birth to a son. The story gives the impression that this is just what Abraham does for all weary travelers.

This act of hospitality will result in a tremendous reward, but Abraham has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Cut to Sodom and Gomorroh, where two strangers have just arrived at the city gate. Here they are explicitly described as “angels,” whereas in the previous story, it is not clear whether the strangers are human or divine. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, doesn’t want the men to sleep alone in the city square—he knows his neighbors aren’t the most hospitable people. Indeed, no sooner does Lot invite the strangers in, than the townspeople come pounding on the door. They want Lot to surrender the two strangers for their own nefarious purposes, but Lot refuses, offering his own daughters instead. The townspeople reject this offer, and are about to attack Lot, when the angels intervene, blinding the townspeople and rescuing Lot’s family from the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Lot’s hospitality temporarily endangers his entire family, but Lot has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Later in the parasha, we see the tables turned, and Abraham’s family become the strangers: Abraham and Sarah, sojourning in Gerar, find themselves in a vulnerable position as strangers in a strange land. Hagar and Ishmael, once an integral part of Abraham and Sarah’s family in spite of Hagar’s foreign origin, are banished from the household and nearly die of thirst.

The story begins when the stranger arrives. Sometimes it turns out for the best, sometimes it leads to something traumatic. But we have no way of knowing, until we see how the story unfolds.

The rabbis tease out of this parasha two very different approaches to welcoming strangers. Abraham is what we would probably today call an outreach and engagement specialist. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham kept the four sides of his tent open, so that strangers coming from all directions could enter right away. But he also went out in order to find strangers and bring them home with him. Moreover, he set up well-stocked way-stations all over the desert, so that he could serve the stranger even when they weren’t going to cross his path (Avot De Rabbi Nathan 7).

Taking the opposite approach were the people of Sodom and Gomorroh. Legend has it that these cities held unimaginable wealth: the roots of their vegetables were literally encrusted with gold flakes and jewels. But this led them to take a protective stance, putting up barriers to keep strangers out, and harshly mistreating them if they dared to come in. They attackedthem physically, robbed them of their property, imposed ridiculous tolls and fees for entry, and even executed those who dared to help them (Sanhedrin 109a-b).

The Jewish tradition praises Abraham’s behavior, which we call hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. But it’s not difficult to see why we often take a more protective approach.

This week, we watched in horror as the news unfolded, regarding a terrorist attack in New York City. Eight people were killed and 11 injured when a man plowed a pickup truck into the bike path along the Hudson River. As the story developed, we learned that the man had been radicalized and committed this heinous crime as a purposeful act of terror. Some voices are choosing to emphasize that the man was an immigrant, and that incidents like this wouldn’t happen if we had higher walls or closed borders.

But that is just untrue. Putting aside how many acts of terror originate from native-born Americans, we must remember that, for every person we let into this country who ultimately hurts another person, there are thousands of people who come here to live peacefully with their neighbors, and contribute positively to the country we all live in. Like Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, each of these immigrants took great risks coming here, sustained by their dreams of a better life. And when that better life is threatened, it falls on our community to speak up.

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism has marked tonight as an Immigrant Justice Shabbat, with a particular focus on DREAM-ers. Dreamers are immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31, who have been in the country for at least five years. There are currently 800,000 people in this program, 87% of which are currently in the workforce. Their average age upon arrival was six and a half. The 2012 DREAM Act, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, made it possible for young immigrants to get work permits and attend school without fear of deportation.

Just two months ago, it was announced that this program would be terminated in six months. The only hope for DREAM-ers now is for Congress to pass a Clean DREAM Act, which would grant conditional permanent resident status for all DREAM-ers, as well as lawful permanent resident status and a path to citizenship for those Dreamers who attend college, work in the US, or serve in the U.S. military.

The Religious Action Center has also declared this Monday, November 6th, as a call-in day, to encourage our senators and representatives to co-sponsor the new DREAM Act. After Shabbat, I encourage you  to learn more about this legislation, and how you can help turn these immigrants’ dreams into reality.

Because our news cycle is so often dominated by stories of immigrants who do harm, let us consider the stories of immigrants doing good:

Benita Veliz came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents in 1993, when she was 8. Benita graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class at the age of 16. She received a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University, where she graduated from the Honors program with a double major in biology and sociology. Benita’s honors thesis was on the DREAM Act. She dreams of becoming an attorney. In a letter to Senator Durbin (IL), Benita wrote: “I can’t wait to be able to give back to the community that has given me so much. I was recently asked to sing the national anthems for both the U.S. and Mexico at a Cinco de Mayo community assembly. Without missing a beat, I quickly belted out the Star Spangled Banner. To my embarrassment, I then realized that I had no idea how to sing the Mexican national anthem. I am American. My dream is American. It’s time to make our dreams a reality. It’s time to pass the Dream Act.”

Sometimes the stranger brings something bad…and sometimes the stranger brings something good. But, like our biblical ancestors, we don’t get to know that in advance. This leaves us with two choices: do we take an Abrahamic approach, letting everyone in in hopes of doing good? Or do we follow the example of Sodom and Gomorroh, shutting people out, even when it means committing an act of cruelty, even when it precipitates our own downfall?

Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to welcome the stranger, to live with our doors and our hearts open. We see in tonight’s stories how doing so can make us vulnerable. But let us not forget how opening our doors to the stranger can also open doors for us: doors of possibility and doors of blessing.

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Lech Lecha: Walking Each Other Halfway

This week’s sermon on parashat Lech Lecha. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Go forth from your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…”

Imagine you are hearing these words for the first time, and that they are directed at you. Imagine they come from a voice that you’ve never heard before: a voice claiming to be the one true God. What is your next move?

I posed this question to our seventh graders, whose first response was, “New phone, who dis?”

But immediately afterwards—with only a brief interlude into “What do I wear?” and “What do I pack?”—came what is possibly the most important question: “Who do I get to take with me?”

Abram doesn’t ask any of these questions. In fact, he says nothing at all. He just listens, and starts walking. It is the text that provides our answers: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5).

If we truly want to answer the question of “Who do I get to take with me?” we also have to address the question, “Who am I leaving behind?” To answer that inquiry, we have to flip back a few pages to last week’s Torah portion.

At the end of parshat Noach, we find out that, although God has not yet called Abram to “go forth,” his entire family has already started the journey. We read: “Terach took his son, Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. And the days of Terach were two hundred and five years; and Terach died in Haran” (Gen. 11:31-32).

Why is it that they started on this journey in the first place, prior to God’s call? And, having done so, why did they stop in Haran?

This was no quick jaunt across town. Ur to Haran was essentially the Southeastern most corner of Iraq; Haran was located at the Northernmost tip of Syria. It is quite possible that Terach and his family were simply exhausted. As modern readers, we might read a bit into the word “settled”: he was comfortable, so he stayed where he was. Or Terach might have fallen ill, and died before he could continue on to his original destination.

But the rabbis point out that there are 65 years between when Abram left for Canaan and when Terach died at the ripe old age of 205. Why then, does Abram’s departure appear AFTER Terach’s death in the Torah? Rabbi Isaac says that, “the wicked, even during their lifetime, are called dead.” This hints at the rabbinic tradition that paints Terach as an idol-maker, who clashed with his son, the monotheist, at every turn. Terach couldn’t go forward. He was stuck in his old ways.

But Rabbi Isaac isn’t finished. “For Abram was afraid,” he says, “saying, ‘Shall I go out and bring dishonor upon the Divine Name, as people will say, ‘He left his father in his old age and departed’?’ Therefore the Holy One, blessed be God, reassured him: ‘I exempt you from the duty of honoring your parents, though I exempt no one for this duty. Moreover, I will record his death before your departure” so that no one will think that you left him alone to die (Gen. R. 39: 7).

Whether Terach was physically dead, or spiritually dead, when Abram left for Canaan, most rabbis agree that there was no way Terach could have completed the journey with Abram. My teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen, suggested that it was psychologically and spiritually necessary for Abram to lose his father before answering God’s call. Many rabbis translate lech-lecha as “go to yourself,” become your own person, pursue your own destiny. Abram, Rabbi Cohen supposed, could only begin this journey of self-discovery after his father’s death.

The rabbis have many reasons for why Terach couldn’t complete the journey. But I wasn’t able to find any answers regarding why he started it. How did he know that he needed to move in this direction? Why did he undertake such an arduous journey, knowing he couldn’t complete it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to Terach before: he’s kind of an afterthought at the end of parshat Noach. But this week, I found myself thinking that, rather than deride Terach for not being strong enough to reach Canaan, we might instead give him some credit for walking his son halfway.

As some of you know, my great-uncle Billy passed away last week, and I went up to Albany for his funeral. Billy lived a long, full life: he was 92 years old, and was married for 69 years to my great-aunt Muriel. He danced at a few of his grandchildren’s weddings and met a great-grandchild. It was a good life, and a reasonably good death. But it was still hard on his family, and ours.

Though I hadn’t seen him in awhile, Billy was a fixture of my childhood from our annual pilgrimage to Albany. His snoring was audible throughout their ranch house. He made us Mickey-Mouse and Star Wars themed pancakes like we were his own grandchildren.

The loss was particularly difficult for my mother. She grew up spending family holidays going from house to house on the one street where her aunts, uncles, and grandmother lived. On Passover, she would eat three breakfasts so she could have matzah brie in every kitchen. The cousins all slept on rollaway cots in one basement. She attended college in Troy in part to be near them, and even changed her wedding date so that all of them could attend. When her own mother died young, her aunts and uncles took care of her as if she were their own child.

Their love was expansive. There was always room for one more.

The morning after Billy died, my mom told me a story she had never shared before. She was traveling by bus from New York City to Utica, so that she could visit her dying father. The bus made an hour-long stopover in Albany, and all of her aunts and uncles drove downtown, just to sit with her in the bus station, and then wave goodbye to her as the bus pulled away.

That is a special kind of love. It is a rare person who is with us on our life’s journey from beginning to end. Sometimes, all we can do is walk them part of the way. And sometimes, all we can do is sit in one place with them for a stretch of time.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether I could attend the funeral, given my own full schedule of meetings about other families’ life-cycle events (one great irony of the rabbinate). But when my mom told me this story, I decided to make it work, and I’m grateful that the community was so supportive. I hadn’t been able to spend much time with my Albany family over the years. I don’t even see my immediate family as often as I’d like. But for these few hours, I was given the opportunity to be with my mother while she was grieving. I couldn’t do anything to make it better. But I could sit with her, just for that hour.

Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

We might say that Terach got too comfortable, or stuck, or was too weak to go the distance. We might posit that Abram could only achieve his full potential when he left his father behind. But we might also see Terach’s journey, incomplete as it was, as an act of love.

The text doesn’t say that Terach and his family set out for Haran. It says that they set out for Canaan. Even though God had not yet called to Abram to tell him where to go, his father knew to start moving the family in that direction, even if they wouldn’t make it all the way there.

Maybe he was there to wave goodbye to Abram as the caravan pulled away, and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Terach started a journey with Abram that he knew he might not be able to finish. Perhaps he loved his son so much that he decided to walk him halfway, and then sat with him, as long as he could, so that Abram could prepare himself to move forward on his own.

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said that, in life, “We are all just walking one another home.” And sometimes, we only make it halfway. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

 

 

 

The Stranger Within Your Camp

havdalah crane lake camp panoramaMy sermon this Shabbat on parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

After each of the four summers that I attended URJ Camp Harlam, I’d get a terrible case of laryngitis. By my final summer as a camper, it was so bad that the only noise I could make for a week was a honk. This wasn’t just from screaming cheers during color war, or staying up all night talking with my bunkmates. It was actually because I, previously the quietest child in my family, talked for the entire two-hour drive home to Philadelphia. I told my parents every last detail, stories that I thought were hysterical, and that they likely didn’t understand, many of which I still remember today.

For example, one summer, we had a British counselor named Sarah, and there was a running joke where campers would try to get her to say “to-mah-to” so that they could make fun of her accent. By the end of the summer, she would say, in an exaggerated American accent, “to-may-to.”

One evening, while we were camping, our counselors decided to make banana boats: basically a s’more, stuffed in a banana, wrapped in tin foil, and cooked over an open fire. They got really hot, and Sarah was put in charge of warning us. She made each of us raise our right hand and repeat after her, in a proper English accent, “I will not touch my hot ba-nah-nah boat because it will buhrn my tongue.”

I don’t know why I still remember this, but it still makes me laugh, every single time I think of it.

Now, you are probably thinking: Rabbi Berkowitz has run out of sermon ideas, and is now just telling silly camp stories. I assure you that is not the case. I told this story because I wanted to explain to you tonight how international staff have become an integral part of the fabric of URJ summer camps. This is important for you to know, because the current administration is considering doing away with the J-1 visa program, which would affect international au pairs, as well as international staff at summer camps.

The attack on the J-1 visa program is part of a “Buy American, Hire American” initiative in the White House. Encouraging us to spend our money on American products and American workers is a noble and admirable goal. However, doing away with the J-1 visa program would be detrimental to our summer camp programs, are an essential component to fostering Jewish identity and a relationship to Israel in our young people.

For starters, I’m not sure how many camps would be able to stay open without hiring international staff. Sadly, with the rise of the unpaid internship, fewer and fewer American college students choose to spend the summer being a camp counselor, let alone work in the kitchen or tending the grounds. But there are plenty of international candidates who would happily make thousands of gluten-free pancakes a day, teach arts and crafts, or supervise 12 eight-year-olds for eight weeks, in exchange for a subsidized trip to the U.S.

More importantly, however, having international staff at camp provides an important opportunity for cultural exchange. As the Jewish community becomes increasingly diverse, it can be incredibly moving for campers to relate to Jews from all over the world. It helps both sides to see that Jews around the world are very different, or in some cases, very similar, to them. Last summer, Crane Lake Camp hosted two Jewish girls from Uganda as counselors. How incredible it must have been, on both sides, for these counselors to interact with campers of color, who rarely see an adult Jew who looks like them?

Not every international staff member is Jewish, which means that often, we are teaching young adults from around the world about Judaism and Jews. As we experience global spikes in anti-semitism, one of the best things we can do is give people from other faiths and other nations a positive experience with American Jews.

For those staff members who are members of the tribe, meeting Jews from around the world gives both campers and counselors a different perspective on what it means to be Jewish, whether the staff in question comes from Europe, Australia, Africa, or Israel.

Having Israeli staff on camp is particularly important, and not only for the reasons you would think. Yes, Israeli staff teach our campers about real life in Israel, and introduce them to the language and culture of their spiritual homeland. They teach Israeli music and dancing, and design celebrations for the camp-only festivals such as Yom Israel Day. They also spend eight weeks with our children, building relationships that can long outlast the summer. One of our Israeli counselors at Camp Harlam later served as a staff member on our NFTY in Israel trip, and we came to know him as our protector. When there was an incident of hate near the camp in Pennsylvania, he kept watch on the porch all night so that we could feel safe. When there was an attempted bombing during our travels in Israel, he gave us a very real perspective about what it means to live in Israel and to be constantly under threat.

But there is yet another side to the Israeli staff coin. As a rabbi on faculty, I now realize that, as much as we want our American Reform Jewish kids to meet real live Israelis, it is imperative that Israelis meet real live American Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is often disparaged, and even discriminated against, in Israel. This may not seem like a big deal here, where there is friendly competition between all the denominations. But in Israel, where the line between synagogue in state is blurred, this distaste for Reform Judaism can have far-reaching implications. Israel is a country where many secular Jews allow an Orthodox rabbinate to dictate what is permissible in both public and private spheres. The rabbinate controls not only what goes on at the Kotel, but also marriage, divorce, and conversion, all of which have implications for citizenship, the equality of women, and the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

You might be aware that, for nearly three decades now, Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center have been fighting for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, a plan for this space was agreed upon by all parties. But in June, the project was suspended. The rising tension came to a head when the chief rabbi of Jerusalem reacted to protests by calling Reform Jews, “evil,” an “abomination,” and “worse than Holocaust deniers.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned that such statements had the power to incite violence, as just over a week ago, he and two major Reform leaders in Israel received death threats from an Orthodox man in B’nei Brak.

We need secular Israelis to see—and to tell their families and friends—that Reform Judaism is not an abomination, or a joke, but rather a valid and vibrant way of practicing Judaism. And I would argue that that is something that happens at URJ summer camps more than it happens anywhere else. It doesn’t always mean that they stop being secular—in fact secular Judaism in Israel can look very similar to Reform Judaism in America—but it might mean that the sight of a woman in a kippah or holding a Torah scroll won’t seem foreign to them anymore. It might mean that they see a positive Jewish identity blossoming in a child of intermarriage–something the Orthodox rabbinate currently renders legally impossible, such that an interfaith couple could only be married abroad. It might mean that they decide to read from the Torah for the first time themselves, and realize that doors that the Orthodox rabbinate closes for them might yet be opened. And that might mean a change in how they think, feel, speak, and vote.

Whatever it means, it won’t happen if the J-1 visa program is canceled. There is so much going on in the world right now, and we are all fighting battles big and small. This is an opportunity for us to make an impact. After Shabbat, and after Selichot, I hope that you will contact our senators, the President, and the Secretary of State to let them know how important it is for us to continue the J-1 visa program, so that we can continue to have international staff at our summer camps.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the famous passage listing all the people that Moses is speaking to in his final address: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

While clearly Moses was speaking about a different kind of camp, his words remind us that, when something really matters to us, we need all hands on deck, regardless of status. Whether they are scrubbing pots in the kitchen, teaching our children to swim, or making sure they don’t burn their tongues on hot banana boats, the stranger within our camp is an essential piece in the summer camp puzzle. And when we welcome them into our home and our hearts, we give ourselves the opportunity to become a part of their Jewish story as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

Torah Study Notes 8-26-17

August 26, 2017

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Discussion of Zionism and the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state.

In Israel, one cannot marry without the cloak of a religious organization. There is no civil marriage. The only form presently recognized is orthodox Judaism. It is unlikely that this will change without violence. It is the only country in the world that has existed without stable and recognized borders – with the possible exception of Kashmir.

Page 1294

16:18 the appointment and standard of conduct for magistrates. What is justice in this context? The standard is no partiality and no bribes. Society must be organized on an impersonal basis. Rhode Island is a good example of a small polity where everyone knows everyone else. Result: frequent corruption. It is recognized that there is a tendency to corruption but how is it to be contained? Jacques Derrida http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/

pointed out that most gifts are given in expectation of something in return.  Marvin Fox http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/25/us/rabbi-marvin-fox-professor-73-led-school-at-brandeis.html?mcubz=0    – writing about Jewish organizations and fund giving pointed out the importance of peer pressure. The scales of justice balance punishment and mercy in the context of criminal law. Where was justice in Les Miserables?   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Mis%C3%A9rables

Jean Val Jean and Jabert clearly had different notions of justice. One of the over-arching themes of Deuteronomy is that the people are entering a land that they have no right to other than that G has given it to them. They are displacing another people. Where is the justice? This is saying that there is no natural right to the land without the establishment of a just society.  The forensic evidence suggests that the people of Israel actually organized indigenously within Israel itself. The flight out of Egypt is a construct. A group coalesced into a political unit about 1000 BCE around the time of David.  Until the Assyrian invasion there were primarily border conflicts with the Edomites, Moabites etc. Deuteronomy is a retelling of “back history.” For example we know virtually nothing about the history of Vassar Temple? We know the names of the founders from the articles of incorporation but not where the Torah scrolls come from. What did the composers of this scripture know about what occurred before the year 1000? Probably very little so they constructed a back story. See Noah Harari and Sapiens as well as Homo Deus. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuval_Noah_Harari

This is mixture of retrospective constructs and some traditional “facts.” The notion of the displacement of an indigenous people is a particularly odd construct – but it is what led them to be forced out that is the theme here of Deuteronomy – idolatry.  In Leviticus the land is even more important in terms of establishing the identity of the people.  The term “Zion” meaning “…a marked place.” does not appear in Deuteronomy. It is a weaker term than a “promised land.” See David Aaron in Cincinnati   http://huc.edu/directory/david-h-aaron

who is very skeptical of anything that is pre-exilic. But we have actual evidence of a Davidic monarchy that cannot be ignored. The Redactor was active about the year 500 – after the exile to Babylonia. There is a built-in dialectic in Torah about what makes the people a people – is it the land or is it inherent in the people. It is unresolved. PG: the various forms of Judaism are not “denominated” as they are in Christianity – they are movements. Some are organized and some are not – like JewBu’s. But they are not denominations. They are informal aggregations.     We identify by association with the Jewish Federation. Jews for Jesus is not included. BN is shameless when it comes to staying in power – using demagoguery. We may see some riots and violence when the time comes to change administrations in Israel.

Torah Study Notes 8-5-17

August 5, 2017
Page 1188
3:23 Moses here describes the negative things that have happened during the exodus – including G’s injunction that Moses shall not enter the promised land. LL Note the recent report in NYT about the people of Lebanon being genetically identified as descended from the Canaanites. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/27/science/ancient-canaanites-bible-lebanon.html
Why is Moses being “punished?” This refers to the incident of drawing water from the rock – where he struck the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed. Moses here blames the others for all of this as he passes leadership to Joshua. Is there a connection here to the notion of original sin as it is viewed in Christian theology? This is clearly not a Jewish idea – in Judaism there is no community responsibility for the sins of ancestors. Each person is born with their own propensity to sin. What is our responsibility as a society for the “sins” of others? Mental illness has alternatively been seen as either externally induced or internal – consider the Dybbuk. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dybbuk
3:28 Moses recalls the incident at Ball-peor; sacrificing to alien gods in concert with the Midianite woman. All were wiped out in a plague as punishment. The injunction that one should not “add or take anything away…” from the Torah. However, consider the Talmud – which is extensive commentary and contains many rabbinically created rules. This instruction as to not adding or subtracting is more likely a reference to pagan rituals. Even today the Hasidim have been adding new regulations to the conduct of woman as a way of control. AF: There is an analogy to computer architecture that stays the same. LL: How are the various sects of Judaism dealing with transgender and LGBT issues? RB: The Reform movement has tried to be adaptable – the ultra orthodox have greater difficulty. Modern orthodoxy is different and likely to be more adaptable.
4:5 A light unto the nations. Make these words known to your children and your children’s children. The Ten Commandments etc. Make no sculpted images and don’t bow down to them. LL This seems to enjoin keeping and creating human or animal images of any kind – as is the practice in Islam. CL It is almost impossible to suppress the human urge to create images. LL: Do we not worship art? SF: The impulse to create is divine inspiration. The muse is the Eternal. See footnote 8 and Essay page 490.
4:21 Now the Eternal was angry with me on your account and swore that I would not cross the Jordan… A warning as to what happens when and if they worship idols. RB: The notion of a God that one cannot see or touch is original but divine feminine imagery is effectively suppressed by this idea. Has anything as grand as this ever happened… heard the voice of God? See: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/God.pdf for an analysis on the development of monotheism in ancient Israel. Consider the brief reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton as well who tried to introduce monotheism in Egypt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhenaten
4:41 Then Moses set aside three cities to the east side of the Jordan to which a killer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow… without being hostile to the victim. LL: This notion of cities of sanctuary is still referenced today on the issue of immigration.
LL//

Torah Study Notes 7-29-17

July 29, 2017

Page – 1161

Starting Deuteronomy – the second telling or Hebrew D’varim meaning “words.”

This entire book is a statement by Moses to the Israelites. They have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. There has been a reiteration of where they have been and a statement of laws       ( 70 new ones dealing with living in the land.) “Deuteronomic Theology” is the notion that our continuation in the land is dependent on our good behavior – the punishment will be communal. Rain will be the most common form of blessing. See maps on page 1158. This is thought to be the work of two authors.

1:1 Wandering in the same space for 40 years? See footnote 2. A character building exercise and a way to enter with the new generation that had never been slaves. A spiritual wilderness. Note that “Teaching” is capitalized as an editorial choice as a translation of “Torah.” The description of the land as recited appears to be a large geographical area. It has been suggested that there is an effort here to deny any divinity to Moses. That would be inimical to monotheism. Q -what does it mean here to “take possession” of the land? A system of deeds and land records? Or just military occupation? PC: If this is the land promised to Abraham 40 generations ago the current occupants were squatters. Note the role of the Rothchild family and others in buying up land in Israel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_land_purchase_in_Palestine Purchases by “foreigners” were essentially forbidden by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire.

1:9 “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.” This is resonant of Jethro and his father in law who used similar language. The fact that Jethro is not mentioned essentially erases the Midianite origins.  See footnote 16.

1:19 A recap of what led up to entry into the land – the spies etc. “You sulked in your tents…”  Their sin is lack of faith. Joshua shall attend you.  “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too…”

1:39 A recitation of the initial attack on the Amorites – that was not authorized by the Eternal. Thus they marched back into the wilderness via the Sea of Reeds. Note that there is detail here that does not appear in Numbers 14. See page 986. Suggestive of a different author with different oral memory. See page 991 discussion re two traditions.

LL/

Torah Study Notes 6-24-17

June 24, 2017

Page 1003

16:1 Korah raises a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Note that K is of the line of Rueben. His argument is that everyone should be equal before the lord. LL This has socio-political elements – almost a form of proto communism. Who can encounter God? Why should a small group enjoy all of the emoluments of leadership? But there are also the burdens of leadership. We cannot just look at the glory and benefits. This very issue was one of the key bases of the Protestant Reformation. And is more in accord with the attitudes of rabbinic and modern Reform Judaism. Moses argues that he is God’s choice. He urges them to make fire to divine the truth. See essay page 1001.

Moses remonstrates by arguing that K and the others have jobs as Levites.

16:16 The theory is that we have two stories of the rebellion here – that are weaved together. One reads as a rebellion against Moses and the other against Aaron.  The presence of the Eternal appeared before the community and threatens to annihilate them all. But they cried out “when one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” Communal responsibility is an essential tenet of Judaism. LL note: There is a recurring theme in the Torah on this issue. We have Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah and this. In each instance the question is presented as to the liability of all for the transgressions of a few – or even the preservation of the few where the society at large is guilty.

16:23  Moses again says that he is just obeying the Eternal. The earth opens up and swallows them and their household. They went down into Sheol. There is a suggestion here however that rebellion is necessary and justified at a certain level.

17:1 et sec. A plague kills 14,000. God indicates that He can fix this. Moses supports and serves the people. He sees his job to protect the people. But note that it is Aaron who saves the people – denoting a shift in power. It is not until Ezekiel that parents and children are seen as separate from their father – they and wives were merely property.

Torah Study Notes 6-17-17

 

June 17, 2017

Page 979

  • Numbers 13:1| Spies Sent into Canaan

 

Multiple authors. Note that the chieftains are sent – indicating the seriousness of the mission. More of a tour rather than espionage? Why is G giving us the land occupied by others? Seems ethically wrong. A problematic precedent for Israel today. But we should not look at this through a modern lens.  Note that these translations are constantly “updated” – often to become more gender neutral. All translation is interpretation. The use of the word “representative” here instead of “man” is interesting because it implies responsibilities to the group. The Hebrew word used is “man.” “Anashim” is translated as “notables’ rather than “people.” See Deuteronomy 120:2 on page 1154. The latter suggest that “you” or the people have decided to reconnoiter. Later it is implied that the whole sending of spies was problematic – not just the peoples reaction.  Why the name- change to Joshua? It endows him with more gravitas.

13:17 What they are to look for. They scouted the land. It does indeed flow with milk and honey but the people are powerful. See map on page 997. LL I see a problem with consistently positing an omniscient God. It would eliminate free will. Maimonides argued that there must always be mystery.  Consider the philosophy of Star Trek. https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetstemwedel/2015/08/20/the-philosophy-of-star-trek-is-the-prime-directive-ethical/#287b2f462177

 

13:30 Caleb wanted to proceed but the others were negative. See a Wrinkle in Time as a midrash on the Noah story. There was likely hyperbole here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Wrinkle_in_Time

 

 

14:1 The whole community broke into loud cries… “Let us head back to Egypt.” Can also be translated as “let us choose a new leader.” Note that Caleb’s message is not accepted until Joshua stands with him.

 

Torah Study Notes 6-3-17

June 3, 2017

Here we count the Levites. A census of the Gershonites, Merasites and Koathites and their duties in the tabernacle are detailed.

Page 923

Numbers 4:21

From last week – question as to conscription into the Israeli army. There are a variety of exemptions for woman. Orthodox woman can do a year of national service. One can be a conscientious objector but first must serve jail time. Loophole if you are in a Yeshiva. The Druse population are exempt but many of them serve. There is an inherent prejudice against anyone who has not had military service. There was a law some years ago requiring the Haredim to serve but this was changed by Netanyahu in order to form a government.

RL –  note that we are now considering individuals who are slightly older. They are in their 30s. RB – That is correct. It is unclear what they were doing before.

There is a biblical concept that is carried forward in The Handmaid’s Tale. Ihttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Handmaid%27s_Tale It has to do with the adoption of the child of a concubine. There is also leveret marriage. Note that one can start rabbinical school at a later age. There is a tradition of coming to Judaism later in life. Rabbi Akiva did not start Hebrew until later in life. Mysticism can only be studied at the age of forty or later. The is an ultra orthodox called “Baal teshuva” or “master of repentance.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_teshuva  …a Jew who turns to embrace Orthodox JudaismBaal teshuvah literally means “master of return” i.e., one who has “returned” to God. It is often contrasted with “FFB” (Frum from birth), which refers to Jews who are born into families that are already religiously observant, and who have been conceived, born, and raised in the Orthodox Jewish religion.

Originally, the term referred to a Jew who transgressed the halakhah (Jewish law) knowingly or unknowingly and completed a process of introspection to “return” to the full observance of God’s mitzvot. According to the Talmud, a true “ba’al teshuvah” stands higher in shamayim (lit. “heaven”) than a “frum from birth”, even higher than a tzadik, chasal says. In contemporary times, the phrase is primarily used to refer to a Jew from a secular background who becomes religiously observant (normally in an Orthodox fashion) later in life. The alternative term, chozer b’teshuvah (חוזר בתשובה) is more commonly used in Israel.

29: As for the Merarites… they shall be recorded from the age of thirty and up to the age of fifty… They are in charge of the posts and sockets for the tent.

34: So they were recorded and counted – the Koasites, Gershanites, Merarites. SF: To be counted means that you have affirmed your obligation to serve God. It takes maturity and wisdom to do so.

Do We Trust Women?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s piece in this week’s Poughkeepsie Journal. To take action on this important legislation, visit Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts.

The debate over reproductive rights is nothing new. We’ve discussed it from a faith perspective, we’ve studied the economics, and we’ve debated it through the lens of public health. But all it really comes down to is this: Do we trust women?

I’m a woman in a profession traditionally populated by men, and I can say with some authority that there are a lot of times when the answer is “no.” I often have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in my field. But who knows the “field” of women’s reproductive health better than a woman and her health care provider?

Reproductive rights are under attack on the national scale. Anti-abortion legislation is forcing clinics to close and forces women to travel out of state to receive vital medical care, or to go back to the unsafe, illegal methods used before Roe v. Wade. Our nation’s leaders threaten constantly to defund the vital services provided by Planned Parenthood, going so far as to shut female legislators out of the drafting of the AHCA.

So it’s time to ask again: Do we trust women?

Do we trust women to decide when the time is right for them to become sexually active? If that is the case, our only course of action is to provide young people with education about healthy relationships and safer sex, and provide affordable, accessible contraception.

Do we trust women to decide when and if they want to start a family? If so, we need to support legislation such as the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which helps ensure affordable insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Do we trust women to decide how big they want their family to be, and how to space the births of their children? If yes, passing the CCCA can make this easier for women by allowing them to access 12 months of contraception on the same prescription, and to access Emergency Contraception at a pharmacy without a copay.

Supporting the CCCA shows that we trust women to be partners in the fight against STIs and unintended pregnancy. Trusting women to manage their reproductive health has been shown to reduce the need for abortion.

Do we trust women to consult with their medical professionals to make the best decision for themselves and their families? One overlooked aspect of the abortion debate is what happens when a pregnancy that was planned for and desperately wanted cannot continue. Abortion is a necessary component of women’s health care and should be treated as such.

The Reproductive Health Act would update New York state law to ensure that access to safe and legal abortion will always be available in New York as currently protected by Roe v. Wade. The RHA provides for abortion after 24 weeks to protect the health of the woman or when a fetus is not viable. The RHA recognizes that advance practice clinicians, within their scope of practice, can provide abortion care and regulates abortion under public health law.

In 1970, New York was a leader in legalizing abortion. Now, in 2017, New York has the opportunity to make the statement that we trust our women to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families.