Torah Study Notes 2-25-12

February 25, 2012
Next week at Bethel for the Shabbaton. Visiting Rabbi Alice Goldstein will talk about the different approaches to scripture by men and woman.
Last week Moses told the people that he was ascending the mountain and would be there for 40 days. He is receiving instructions for the construction of a mishkan – an “indwelling place”” or tabernacle that will hold the Torah and be a space for offerings. See schematic p. 544
26:31 A detailed description. It is believed that this text was prepared at the time of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Friedman suggests that the mishkan was re-built in that Temple. SF: What was the intent of the redactors here? What were they trying to do? PG: At the time this was committed to writing, between 900 and 600, the Temple in Jerusalem existed. SF: But this is about the creation of sacred space. PG: It is also a description of a real physical object – something that has been physically relocated to the Temple. The Torah became “popularized” after the return from Babylonia – between 550 and 450. At that time the mishkan as described no longer existed. The 2nd Temple is being built – it doesn’t have the ark or the tent but it reinforces and recreates the notion of Zion – a complex theology in which there is a place for Israelites to go to encounter God. Yet there is no indication that this was actually recreated in the 2nd Temple. The message is that Jews can be Jews wherever they gather by focusing on the writing rather than the alter and upon Jerusalem as a place of worship. Early synagogues demonstrate floor plans that had no particular orientation toward Jerusalem or fixed location for the ark. Now it is usually on the eastern wall – or the direction of Jerusalem. In Bombay the ark is on the western wall of the synagogue. CL: All of the major ancient cultures had permanent temples – the notion of portability here is somewhat puzzling. PG: The notion is built into the story of Abraham – who built a new altar at whatever location he felt the presence of God. Paradoxically the inner sanctum is only accessible by the high priest once a year. LL: This lends an element of mystery which is an inherent part of religion.PG: But it is important to note that the designation of a sacred place is not arbitrary – it is the place “that I will show you.” CL: Temples historically have also been a statement of the power of the state. PG: Martin Buber made the point that the association of the king with god is always fraught with problems.
26:36 RR: Is this the back story of why they had to take all of the gold and silver out of Egypt? (See below)
27:1 More detailed description of the altar. Suggests a high level of available craftsmanship. CL: Egypt was known for its gold. These details are very useful for art historians. Note the relative absence of silver in the descriptions – much more is made of gold and copper. See reference to 40 silver sockets. There may also be a translation issue as to the word for bronze. Consider the role of the story in molding our thinking: Egypt is the evil empire ala Star Wars. When the Egyptians perish we cheer – just as we did for the Death Star. Hence the redactors came up with a reason for taking all of the gold from the Egyptians – due and owing back pay.
27:9 This is the outer enclosure – made out of cloth. Note that there is no roof. Like a construction site this outer enclsoure stops people from wandering into a potentially dangerous zone – because of the presence of God. Holiness takes two forms – kadosh and kodesh. The barrier separates that which is intrinsically holy from what is contingent holiness. SF: There is a psycho-sexual element here. This layering of access is analogous to the body of a woman. Compare the work of Mary Douglas on this subject – also Vita Zornberg. PG: There are fundamental notions of creativity and birth here. Some societies become very anxious about this. As sex becomes more holy there is more celibacy. In Judaism this anxiety is manifested by the notion of “family purity.” So that men and woman cannot come into contact for a period of time during which the woman is deemed to be “unclean.”

Torah Study Notes 2-18-12

.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.

February 18, 2011


23:14  This is right after the revelation of the Ten Commandments. “Three times a year you should hold a festival for Me… and you shall not come empty handed.” This is Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. PG:  This is the first reference to a gathering of males. There is a practical basis for this reference – who was available to leave the farm. You also have to think about who is being told the story – not the situation at the time of the story. LL: I suggest that the woman were left behind because they were actually doing the important work.  Note that the numerical equivalent of “Torah” parsed is 611. That’s how we know there are 611 commandments in the Torah. This is a kabalistic process called gematria – turning letters or words into numbers. In Hebrew words are used for numbers but have other meanings as well – unlike most Arabic numbers. This is significant because Moses/authors wanted the people to know that there were other suggestions as to proper behavior embedded in the Torah. Compare the stele of Hammurabi which depicts the king sitting on a throne receiving laws from God. Law tends to be foundational and must have continuity from generation to generation – such as a constitution or a well established tradition. Laws can be derived didactically (as here) or situationally (as in the case law system.)

23:18  “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This instruction appears three times in the Torah – virtually out of nowhere – almost as a tag line. The ethical instruction seems to be that there are certain acts that are inherently repulsive. Note that blood is equated with life – the animating force. One doesn’t eat life and hence not blood.  This is the foundation of the dietary laws and was extended into a general prohibition against mixing meat and dairy products.

23:20  An angel here is a manifestation of God’s presence. LL: I find the appearances of angels throughout the Torah somewhat troubling – inimical to strict monotheism. Here the angel cannot be defied “…for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him.” The Angel has god-like powers but seems to be almost a separate entity.

23:23  Fulsome promises to those who adhere to the law and abjure idolatry. As to the mandate applying only to men: see Hertz commentary from an Orthodox perspective – woman are freed from time-bound commandments since they must care for the children. This reflects real social patterns. With the advent of the feminist movement in the 1960s Hertz accepts that there is something there that must be accommodated.

23:27  Sets out some interesting boundaries for the Promised land that are much more extensive than those that appear in the Book of Numbers. This is likely a post-exilic idea that incorporated a romantic notion of David’s kingdom. They can drive out the indigenous people because they are idolaters. Note that the Hebrew word translated here as the English word “annihilate”does not mean extermination. Compare the headline “The Reds Murder the Cardinals” and its misinterpretation by Plaut when he visited Cincinnati as the triumph of communism.

24:1  Here Moses wrote down all of the Commandments of the Eternal – after he had repeated them to the people. This is the first indication of the recording of the Commandments. How it was done is unknown. There is a significant difference between verse three and verse seven in the Hebrew – not apparent in the English translation. In verse three “we will listen and we will do.” Now in the midst of the ceremony they say “we will do and we will listen.” This means that one will obey even prior to full understanding. This is the difference between seeing (reflexive and immediate) and hearing (reflecting). But how can one act before hearing? The ceremonial act is that of a witness. Some things can only be shown.  What puts us in the position of reflexively doing the right thing? Compare the debates between Buber and Rosenzweig on action vs. the ritual law.  According to Rosenzweig the ritual is the training that embeds the ability to act properly without reflection. GT: Like that American in China that saved a child that had been hit by a car while all of the Chinese stood around and did nothing. LL: Is there something embedded in us via Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition that is different from Eastern faiths? I will defer to my roommate who has a PhD in Chinese Art History. CL: That idea may be correct.

Thinking about Bar or Bat Mitzvah

There are two ages that have broad significance in Jewish life: eight days and thirteen years.  The b’rit milah or bris for a baby boy and Bar/Bat Mitzvah also tend to extend over the entire Jewish community, from ultra-Orthodox to mostly secular.  They are ubiquitous.  Of the two, however, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the much bigger deal.  Once a child is born, parents have fully thirteen years in order to plan for the event.  I know that most of us do not do this, but the thought tends to hover at the edge of one’s consciousness for that entire time.  Then, sooner or later, it erupts as full-blown concern.  The kid is getting older.  Maybe we should think about joining a synagogue, or getting him/her a Jewish education, or finding a tutor, or setting the date, or looking up the names of good caterers, or at least talking to someone about what we should do!

If you have young children, thinking about what happens around the age of thirteen is virtually inevitable.  Let me commend to you my latest essay on the Vassar Temple website, Thirteen.  Even if your children are now grown, you might appreciate reading what the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was all about.

Torah Study Notes 2-11-12

February 11, 2012

p. 477

This Torah portion is perfectly made for the triennial cycle – it is three chapters. See the Decalogue for public reading on p. 476. There were two separate traditions as to how to chant or vocalize the ten commandments prior to about 600 CE. The Masoretes came up with vowel and cantellation marks which include both sets – leaving it to each tradition to select the one they wanted. (The Hebrew word mesorah (מסורה, alt. מסורת) refers to the transmission of a tradition.) The synagogue was not in rabbinic control until about 800 CE. Note that “Decalogue” is better translated as ten pronouncements rather than commandments. Also, some of the commandments are conflated into a single statement – although, e.g., verse 13 is publically read as four commandments when chanted.

20:1  LL: We are uncomfortable with the notion of visiting the sins of one generation onto another. PG The social concept: don’t be the children of infamous or notorious people. You will have a burden. This also makes the warning even weightier – your children will suffer the collateral damage. Idolatry is a major issue throughout the Torah but the punishments are most severe in the beginning. There is a strong pedagogical element – like a lesson from the drill instructor – a warning that idolatry leads to bad things. A distinction is made for a mezuzah or a mishkan which represents the idea of god. LL: The focus seems to be on appearances rather than the inner life of the individual.  PG: The concern of the rabbi’s is “what does it look like?” What does it look like when you walk into a McDonalds to use the washroom.  Will people assume that you are eating “tref?” Do you want to lose credibility? Are you leading others into misconduct? SF: These words have an inherent power and compassion. We are urged to move up the ladder of civilization – to be uplifted. PG: Note that the words here are spoken by Elohim not Adonoi – which is a change from the usual identification where God is addressing the people.  The Rabbi’s suggest that Elohim (the lawgiver) here is acting as a judge whereas Adonoi is the caregiver.

20:8  Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy… This is something that we wouldn’t otherwise know. See notes on seven day cycle from last week. God rested on the 7th day.  This is the one innovation of the ten commandments that we wouldn’t otherwise have known.

20:13  Coveting does go to an individual’s inner life – not just appearances. Compare the 7 deadly sins which include anger, lust and envy. Beginning in the 1st C. there were intense debates about what was more important – the inner life or appearances. PG: It was not until Constantine and the imposition of authority that the Christian church began to focus on appearances. Honor your father and your mother… modern scholars believe that this is a reference to burial practices since there were no communal burial grounds. The emphasis was changed to honoring the living after the people became separated from the land – disenfranchised in Babylonia.

20:15  Moses is asked to act as an intermediary and interpreter of events. We sense the presence of God in violent natural events. We are frightened and seek explanations. The people couldn’t handle the direct word of God – they had to wait for the tablets. But by the end of the Bible people experience God’s presence and handle it. See the Book of Esther. This is part of the development of the individuals relationship with God as described in the entire Bible.


Torah Study Notes 2- 4-12

February 4, 2012

P. 443

15:27  The people are grumbling. The writers want us to be aware of the struggle for faith. Things will not come easily. ML: See verse 22 – this is repetition. Freedom does not come without a cost – and some complaints may be legitimate.

16:4  I will rain bread down from the sky. Their argument, says Moses, is with God, not with him. Also, God will get the credit for the free food.  Next week: Does Moses actually tell the people exactly what God said – or is he editing?

16:9  Here God speaks to Moses and Moses to Aaron. Is this an amalgam by the redactors of two traditions? Why have Aaron gather the people – why doesn’t Moses do it himself? Modern scholars see two narrative streams here – one designed to promote Aaron. By the time the Torah is assembled the priestly establishment was essentially Aaronite. Aaron is establishing a role is recognizing the presence of God. Note that the Book of Deuteronomy eliminates Aaron. AL: Is the wilderness a surrogate for God? PG: They will be moving toward and traveling in the wilderness. Emil Frackenheim points out that two groups can see two different realities.

16:13  Bread is here non-meat nourishment.

16:17  Let no one leave it till morning. Note that where the following day is the Sabbath they were not to be baking or boiling on that day. However, there has been no reference in the Torah to a seven day week after the creation in Genesis. Putting this into a larger Middle Eastern context – Babylonian literature refers to the lunar month and the significance of the seventh, fourteenth and twenty-eighth days. But there is still a day or two left before the new moon happens. The Mesopotamian focus was on the cycles of the moon. Israel is the first culture to have a seven day cycle. Compare: James Frasier’s work on the ten day cycle in the Horn of Africa. Our modern calendar has no relationship to lunar cycles. Janus is the two faced god who looks back at the past year and forward to the new – January.

PG: The Israelites at this time were likely an amalgam of people who were enslaved in Egypt. Their antecedents are unclear. So at this point there was little in the way of what is now considered traditional Jewish practice – except for circumcision. They continued to be herders in Egypt but details of their separate nature is unknown. There had to be a certain amount of acculturation – particularly in language and clothing. The Book of Exodus begins by raising the question of how they were distinct from the Egyptians – they preserved their names and perhaps a tradition of descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  There is no description that has survived as to their ritual practices. Prior to the 19th C. there is little emphasis on uniformity within a faith – except for the battles between Catholics and Protestants. The Israelites had accommodated themselves to life in Egypt until they were asked to surrender their first born sons. Then they fell back on the one God of their ancestors. But those who “struggle with God” do not need to be descendants of Jacob. The names that were preserved are Hebrew names – but this is reference to a language not a religion. The story of religious evolution is told by looking at one family. There is no concept of a nation in the normal sense.

16:27 Note that the seventh day is God’s day off. He will not provide manna for them on the 7th day. So the people were inactive on the 7th day since there was no gathering to be done.

16:31 The reference to The Pact is anachronistic here – since it is not created until later in the Torah. Here it is a symbolic representation of the covenant between God and Israel.  The covenant with each of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was not an eternal covenant – it was renewed each generation. And it was not with the people of Israel – they didn’t exist as a people until much later.

17:1”From the wilderness of Sin…”  Here is the “no water” part.  The people are thirsty. Take with you the rod and strike the rock of Horeb. See the same story in the Book of Numbers. “Is the Eternal present among us or not?”