Holy Rollers – Vassar Temple Religious School Students Learn about the Torah

This past Sunday, students at the Vassar Temple religious school rolled and unrolled the Temple’s Torah scrolls, learning about the Torah as they did.

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(All photos courtesy of Danielle Brundage.)

Torah Study Notes 1-22-11

Notice to readers. On occasion the writer has the misfortune of missing a Torah Study Class. Accordingly, in order to maintain some sense of continuity in the narrative, I will post notes from the prior year or years. This is such a posting.

January 22, 2011


19:1 Moses has been up the mountain.  The use of the word “moon” is interesting – since no one knows what the ancient Israeli calendar system was. They are now in the wilderness of Sinai and have been borne out of Egypt on “the wings of eagles.” To be holy means to be separate; to be a priest is to act as an intermediary between the people and God. Julius Lester, when asked if he was a bridge between two communities replied “bridges are something people walk all over.” Note that they are a kingdom of priests – which is probably a unique idea – different from other cultures. However, becoming a priest is both an honor and a burden. The difference between a liberal and conservative mindset: The latter wants to maintain order and security while the former wants to create community. This creates a problem for the Jews. It was uncertain as to how and where they would fit in. They succeed in only the liberal scenario. This same rubric also applies to Muslim society – which is supposed to be anti class. Similarly, as to early Christianity until they had an emperor.

19:7  Since it appears that God is providing for them they are willing to accept the commandments – although they don’t yet know what they are. It appears that Moses is going up and down the mountain frequently. In verse 9 there is reference to a thick cloud – which is not mentioned thereafter. This is an example of the conflation of two oral traditions. To this extent the text is indecisive and self-referential. Words fail and “showing” becomes the way to deliver the message. This is a technique most frequently associated with post-modern literature. Consider also “Pulp Fiction” or “Rashomon.” Tom Stoppard in “Acadia” talks about history as a parade along a path. Someone in front drops something and you come along and pick it up. The play occurs in two different points in time. In architecture compare the Seagram’s Building and the Pompidou Center. The latter is post-modern because it turns modern inside out – from concealment of structure to glorification of it.

Note that purification is going to be a process and take time. This also conveys the significance of the event.

19:14 Moses: be ready for the third day – the men should not consort with woman. Moses has now interpreted what God told him and has created a different set of rules. This is what he heard as distinguished from what God said. Sexual intercourse renders both parties impure. What do we know of priestly purification issues in ancient Egypt? Verses 7 through 13 set us up for 14.  The feminist scholar Judith Pleskow has written “Standing Again at Sinai”” where she addresses this problem of the treatment of woman. The ancient Israelites were probably exposed to a pastiche of purification rituals from other societies – Mesopotamian and Egyptian among them. The compilers were already faithful and accepted the authority of God and his commandments but were nevertheless compiling this text. There is always a gap between God’s will and our perception of it. This may be the most important chapter in the Torah since it lays the groundwork for God’s revelation.

19:16  They take their places at the foot of the mountain. Thunder, lightning and a cloud combines the two traditions. Did the mountain hover threateningly over the people? Talmud: It hovered until the Torah was completed and the commandments were accepted. See Emile Fackenheim on God’s presence in history: Think of yourself being there – there were those who experienced the presence of god and those who experienced an extraordinary meteorological event. “We walk sightless in the presence of miracles.”



Seth Erlebacher – Golfer, IBMer, Friend

Many thanks to Jeff Biamonte for creating and sharing this tribute to Seth:

Vassar Temple Teen Helps Science Team Win $10,000

Rachel Erlebacher, a member of Vassar Temple who also teaches in the Sunday School, helped her Arlington High School research team join only six other groups across the country that won $10,000 in scholarships and grants as part of the the Lexus Eco Challenge.

Her team “studied the dangers of invasive insects and plants, developed educational materials and spoke to science classes and community groups,” according to the Poughkeepsie Journal, and plans “to spend part of the prize money to create an interactive walking trail at Peach Hill [in Poughkeepsie, NY] to educate people about invasive species.”

Read more…

Torah Study Notes 10-29-11

Notice to readers. These notes are unedited and comments and corrections are welcome. All page references are to Plaut. It is assumed that readers are familiar with the text but these notes are most intelligible when read with the text readily available. Initials are indicated in an effort to give recognition to someone who asked a question or made a comment. “”PG” is Rabbi Paul Golomb.

October 29, 2011

p. 64

9:18  A strange story of Noah’s nakedness. Canaan is damned. Why? PG: It is likely that something is missing. Possibly a story that everyone knew. Did they discover Canaan on top of or under Noah? It was a known scandal? There is a teleological need to debase the Canaanites – who were ousted from the land. Adam’s generation was punished because they had failed to take responsibility for their lives. Violence is an upset to the current order. Why are we told this story? Noah’s failing was that he despaired of human-kind. Everyone else had drowned. The two fundamental sins set forth in Genesis are loss of faith in God and loss of faith in people. CL:  Wine was a staple of the ancient world. PG: The OT is consistent in condemning the drinking of wine – not even for ritual purposes. This is a relatively uncompromising text – an idealized guide. DC: You don’t prohibit something unless the people are doing it.  

9:28 A listing of Noah’s descendants. Many of the names are recognizable from later use in the Torah. LL: Does “before the Eternal”  have a metaphoric meaning referring to Nimrod?  PG: Could be a colloquial expression. Like where someone answers “Baruch a shem.” I am feeling fine thanks to God.  SF: Nimrod is the beginning of the warrior code. This is Paul Johnson’s view. Establishing leadership on the basis of personal strength.


Torah Study Notes 11-5-11

NOTICE TO READERS OF THESE TORAH STUDYPOSTS: The text submitted here is unedited. Corrections and comments are welcome. Generally, the initials shown are an attempt to credit the individual who made a particular point or responded to it. “PG” is Rabbi Paul Golomb. Page references are to Plaut. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the text but these notes will be more inteligible if read in conjunction with the cited passages.

November 5, 2011

p. 99

Abraham has been told he would be father to a nation but so far he has no children. Sarah is barren.

16:1 This is akin to the story of Rachael and her sisters. She gave her handmaiden so that he husband would have a child. Has there been a change in human nature since that time? Yes. According to Prof. Pinker and his new book on the history of violence. The fundamental problem of epistemology is how we select what is important in the world around us. Here Sarah is engaged in what appears to be a selfless act – but then she feels diminished by Hagar. Compare the story of Samuel – who is adopted and raised in the house of Eli. See the footnote number 3 from the Assyrian culture.

16:5  Hagar leaves. But she has not yet had the baby. This presents a conundrum for Abraham.  The appearance of an angel is always a manifestation of God.

16:8 Call him Ishmael. A people apart. But what are the Jews? The Muslims don’t read this passage. Their knowledge of this story comes through the Koran. There was no Arabic translation of the bible until about the year 1100 CE. Note that there is nothing negative about the expression “wild ass” as it is used here. Here it implies “robust” and “free.” The blessing for Ishmael to Hagar is the same one given to Abraham. Ishmael means “God has listened.”

16:13  There are various translations of this passage. Note that Abram adopts the name given by God.

17:1 The covenant. You shall be the father of nations – an everlasting covenant. SF: What has Abraham done to deserve this blessing:? PG: He persisted. He was consistently faithful. See footnote on the extension of the name from Abram to Abraham.  Recall the story of Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister – twice.  The story is told again with Isaac and Rebecca.

17:9 Circumcision as a sign of the covenant. A covenant of blood. This was a widespread practice in the ancient near east. It was limited to priests and was what made one a priest. The radical reformer at the time of Christ decided to abandon circumcision – considered a very radical idea.

17:15  Now God tells Abraham that Sarai shall be known as Sarah and become the mother of a multitude. Is a multitude a good thing?  “If only you would let Ishmael live happily before you.” This is an example of theurgy – God’s giving credence to human desires.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek. Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another.



Torah Study Notes 1-7-12

NOTICE TO READERS OF THESE TORAH STUDYPOSTS: The text submitted here is unedited. Corrections and comments are welcome. Generally, the initials shown are an attempt to credit the individual who made a particular point or responded to it. “PG” is Rabbi Paul Golomb. Page references are to Plaut. It is assumed that the reader is familiar with the text but these notes will be more inteligible if read in conjunction with the cited passages

January 7, 2012

p. 313

49:28  Jacob’s final testament in Egypt. Why does the aliyah begin at 26? Because each one always begins with a blessing. Is this an assertion of title to the land? PG: This is a unique circumstance because the land is purchased. Joshua and the Israelites appropriate the land. Compare to the purchase of Manhattan. Both sides thought they got a good deal: the dutch felt the price was very low while the Indians were selling something they didn’t own.  Here Abraham purchases the lot from Ephron the Hittite. How did Ephron get the land. It is not explained or questioned but they may have taken it by force. LL: I think we have to assume that there was some system of land registration and title. Here the family is in Egypt on Pharoah’s land. Recall that Rachael is buried where she died – with the site marked by a pillar. VT historical note – Irv Millerhas a diagram of the Pershing Ave cemeteryshowing the location of each burial.

50:1 The reference to embalming is likely from an Egyptian practice, and even the writers of this text would  have recognized that this was not a Jewish practice.

50:4  Pharaoh gives Joseph leave to go to Canaan to bury his father. Note that only Joseph’s bones are subsequently returned to Israel – he is not embalmed or mummified even though he is a high-ranking Egyptian official.

50:7  A large procession including officials. The surety for their return is the retention of the kids and flocks. The route along the King’s Highway is just east of the Mediterranean coast – it might have taken about a week by caravan. There was a ten year archeological project split between Israel and Egypt which surveyed this highway – looking for development.  It was discovered to be a virtually unbroken line of caravansary’s and shops.

50:10  A great and solemn lamentation. This is a mixed up and confusing paragraph because it refers to the east side of the Jordan – where they didn’t need to go to get where they were going – as well as much further north then Hebron. This presages the crossing of the Israelites during their later sojourn. This entire tale is an artificial construction – it is intended to be instructional – a teaching fiction with some verisimilitude. The Canaanites would have viewed this all as an Egyptian ceremony. Jacob’s family had been in Egypt for twenty years. This is a significant ending to the Book of Genesis.

Note that the language of ancient Babylonia was Aramaic – the lingua franca of the ancient near east. After the Babylonia captivity the written language of the Israelites was Aramaic  and may have been the spoken language as well. This Torah was written somewhere about 550 BCE. It is important to keep this in mind in terms of understanding the purpose of the text as a discussion of  the identity of a people. Hebrew was the language of the scholars and was undoubtedly how the Torah was written. Note that Nebuchanezzer divided the Israelite’s into three groups – those who remained under Babylonian rule in Israel, those taken to B and those who fled into Egypt and formed a community there. The latter do not enter the narrative until a few hundred years later. It was under the aegis of Alexander that the Torah was translated into Greek. See the work of David Aaron on this subject. LL: Read “Jerusalem” by Simon Sebag Montefiore for a good summary of all of this.


Content, Connection, and Compassion: Three Steps to a Productive Religious School

At a National Jewish Book Award ceremony not so long ago, an award recipient took the stage, smiled broadly, and told the audience that “it’s nice to get a prize.” Then she added, “the last time I got a prize was in Religious School…” — for what? — “…for being quiet.”

Yes, she was awarded a prize for simply being quiet, the bar in her school sadly having been set so low that by doing nothing she was already outperforming her peers. (Rabbi Larry Milder expresses a similar sentiment in his song about his experience teaching Religious School: There’s a Riot Going On in Classroom Number Nine.) Equally unfortunately, most of the audience at the award ceremony chuckled in solidarity, probably remembering their own not-so-different experiences in Religious School. Some of them may even have thought, “so you’re the goodie-goodie who got us all in trouble when we were pasting our yarmulkes to the wall.”

How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Many Religious Schools seem like case studies in institutional bipolar disorder: children must attend but nothing should be required of them; or everything should be required of them and there should be no consequences for not fulfilling the requirements; or the consequences should be so severe that everyone hates being there; or loving Religious School is so important that the school is turned into a playground where nothing is taught; and so forth.

Hidden in this list of institutionality-disorder symptoms are three of the elements that I believe are crucial to a productive Religious School: content, connection, and compassion.

I think we have an absolute obligation not to waste the time of the students who show up to Religious School. After all, they aren’t allowed to leave. If I go to a lecture and I’m bored, I can walk out. But we don’t give children at Religious School (or public school, for that matter) this prerogative, so I think we have to make sure that their time in class is well spent by giving them challenging and engaging content.

Having fun also seems like a good idea. And some people believe that the best way to have fun is to turn learning time into game time. But I disagree, because, fortunately, children naturally love learning. So I think that by providing a stimulating environment we will also create a place where children enjoy themselves. Schools that dumb down their curriculum to make the place more enticing have it backwards.

Having fun also contributes to my second element of Religious School: connection. If the only point of the school were to convey information, we could distribute textbooks, offer a yearly exam, and do away with the weekly gatherings. But Judaism is not merely a collection of facts to be learned. It is also a sense of connection — to our history, to each other, to the Jewish people, to Israel, and to the synagogue.

Thirdly, I think our school has to offer compassion to people — children and parents — whose lives are increasingly lacking that vital component. Too many parts of our lives are uncompromising and rigid, forcing us to adapt to them rather than letting us be ourselves. Our school can offer an island of relief against this troubling trend.

Taken in isolation, any of these three aspects — content, connection, and compassion — can lead us astray. If we focus only on content, our Religious School will lose its soul. Connection by itself won’t work, because we have to offer something to be connected to. And compassion alone threatens to make the school irrelevant to people who are already thriving.

But in combination, I think these three goals can help provide the foundation of a school worthy of the collective energy we all invest in it.

Back From Israel

I’ve just returned from an exhilarating trip to Israel.

I try to make it over at least once a year, both for research purposes and to see friends. This time I had seven days in Israel that brought to me Haifa and Jerusalem in addition to a lovely hamlet near the airport called Monoson, where I was staying, and a few other spots in the middle of the country.

Intersection in Haifa

Intersection in Haifa (Horev Center)

Having spent two years living in Haifa — once in high school at Leo Baeck and then again in graduate school at the Technion — I love returning. The city has it all: the beach, mountains (well, hills, anyway), natural beauty, shopping, restaurants, and character. It also boasts nearly unsurpassed Jewish-Muslim coexistence.

Flowers In Old City of Jerusalem

Flowers Growing Next to 2,000-Year-Old Ruins in the Old City of Jerusalem

My time in Jerusalem (as I’ve described before, here, for example: “Leaving Jerusalem is Always Hard“) is always divided between awe for the holiness of the place and frustration at the poor road design and signage. This time was no exception. During my one-day visit I got stuck in traffic twice and lost once. But I nonetheless managed to spend time in the Old City, and, in particular, to visit the Western Wall, where I recited the Shema and placed a prayer in the millennial symbol of God’s presence in our lives.

Israeli Foliage

Israeli Foliage in Herut

I also stopped by a small place called Cherut, originally a “moshav,” or farming collective. Now it combines a working farm, citrus groves, and commuter housing. Among other things, the place reminded me once again of the pervasive natural beauty of Israel.

I’m continually in awe of Israel. It’s a high-tech society built in parts on Roman ruins that even 2,000 years ago comprised the second millennium of Israel’s existence. It’s beautiful flowers where there used to be desert. It’s espresso bars from way before Starbucks was popular. It’s a small-town mentality masquerading as a country.

And it was 65 degrees during my last day in Israel, but 12 degrees when I got back to New York. I’m ready to leave again.

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Temple Restroom Renovations Are Complete!!

The Temple restrooms are now outfitted with brand new sinks and vanities, mirrors and lighting. The ceiling tiles have all been replaced. There are new window dressings: valences and coordinated vertical blinds. The new soap dispensers are clean and dispense a measured amount of gentle hand cleanser. The towel dispenser is motion activated.

And … there is art work to complement the new fixtures and add a bit of panache to the atmosphere!!
Hope you like it!

I’d like to extend a big “Thank you” to the Sisterhood for their financial support to cover all remodeling costs.

Here are some photos of the remodeled Ladies Room:
























… and here are some photos of the remodeled Men’s Room:














Sandra Mamis