Torah Study Notes 7-28-12

July 28, 2012
p. 1166
Deuteronomy is presented to us as one long speech by Moses. The “I” is generally Moses but at times he is quoting God. He recaps the travels through the wilderness. There is little here that is taken from elsewhere in the Torah. Consider Exodus 19 where God is speaking to Moses and then Moses speaks to the Israelites – presumably what God said but with slight differences. In putting something in your own words you are inevitably putting yourself into the message. You become an editor or a “translator.” There is also a theological element: whatever Moses understands is only a portion of what God can reveal. The very act of communication is always partial to the listener. Did the Deuteronomist know all of this? Even if he did he has treated the material with humility rather than arrogance. ML: Was all of this derived from an oral tradition? PG: Generally, but there is a core of actual experience – this is true of every writer. Whoever is putting pen to the paper in the Torah is confident that they are recording the will of God – it is not created from their own experiential reality.
46: Passing through the lands of Esau. SN: This is redolent of the beginning of Exodus with the conflict between Jacob and Esau. Clearly a sense of mistrust still persists. PG: A useful observation. The difference is between pre and post exilic writings. The text here requires the respect of the territory of Esau. This is a change from the book of Numbers where the Israelites want to cross the land but it is not permitted. The unspoken part of this is that the Edomiites must respect your territory – which they did not do during the Babylonian invasion. The Edomiites took Israeli land at that time. Post-exilic Esau therefore becomes more of a villain. AF: Does this suggest that the descendents of Esau have their own covenant with God? PG: No, Only that their integrity will be preserved. God at this point is only working with one family. God has started with all of humanity with Adam and Eve. That didn’t work. Similarly, all the descendents of Noah. That didn’t work either. Now he is focused on one family. Buber puts it nicely: the history of the Jews is the history of humanity. LL with a smile: Has God’s plan worked the third time? SN: It’s looking apocalyptic. PG: These experiments take a long time.
Note that the organizers of this text are evoking a legendary past – just as we do in tales of dragons. Batman wears a cape. No one wears capes any more. We use the past not to return to the past but to give guidance to the future. This is like a fugue where the voices are ever changing. CL: During the Renaissance there was a great revival of interest in the Old Testament. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is in accordance with your suggestion as to the importance of the Garden of Eden and the story of Noah. LL: The Sistine Chapel is constructed on the basis of God’s instruction for the building of the Temple of Solomon. See:
AF: I lived in Morocco for a year and a half and was very impressed with the way the Koran was taught. There were story tellers who evoked great passion in the listeners. PG: The Koran today is taught chiefly in madrassa’s where the students – generally young men – memorize the text. In some Arab cultures they are permitted to ask questions – much as we are doing today.
8: Do not harass the Moabites… PG: There is a problem here with the chronology. The reference is to the taking of the land as if had already occurred. Note that this is indented to indicate a “flash forward” as an editing technique. This description of how other tribes came to possess their lands reinforces and justifies the claim of the Isrealites. LL: Is there an undercurrent of guilt here – much the way we feel guilt over the displacement of the American Indians? PG: This context again is post-exilic and reflects the loss and recovery of the land by the returning Israelites. One’s ability to settle peaceably on a land requires a pact with God. The Edomites and the Horites might not understand that but the Israelites better. The issue is not a matter of guilt – it is a matter of humility; that possession only occurs via the grace of God. Why did they lose the land in the first place? Because they became arrogant and self-righteous. Then the Babylonians did the same thing.
13: Cross the wadi Zered! Of all the adults who crossed the Red Sea only Moses, Caleb and Joshua remain.
16: There are two way s of understanding “warriors”: anyone over the age of twenty and also as a contentious group. There are repetitions here – likely to emphasize the importance of what is repeated. PG: This has the nature of song – where there is always a chorus. Note the underlying theme: Israel is not intended to possess the world. One can sense in the story of David the notion of a hegemonic power but it is quickly dashed. By the time of post-exile there is no suggestion of hegemony – rather it is survival in a sea of humanity. This is critical in the early Christian era where there was a suggestion of a new covenant and the growth of hegemonic thinking as the new faith became identified with Rome. This thinking was rejected by Israel. The emphasis of Judaism is on people-hood rather than universality as in Catholicism.


Torah Study Notes 7-14-12

July 14, 2012
PG: Chapter 28 through the end of this portion is going to be very repetitious. This is like a theme from the music of Phillip Glass where the left hand is always playing the same thing but there are extraordinary changes – dissonant harmonies. Consider the paintings of Jackson Pollack or Monet’s Water Lilies. We are no longer dealing with narratives or the personalities that tend to make an interesting story.
p. 1081
28:12 This is a burnt offering with a pleasing odor – as if God has a nose. The phrase is likely a colloquialism referring to acceptance or finding favor. Into the 19th C. the moral and the beautiful were deemed to be intertwined. Only in the 19th C. there is a change and refined individuals can be evil in literature. Theodore Adorno ( said that poetry died in the ovens of Auschwitz. Our ability to make esthetic judgments was, he argues, destroyed. ML: Why is this kind of sacrifice so important in the early stages of Judaism? PG: The relationship to the gods was always in the context of sacrifice and offering. Now it is in the context of prayer – the expression of words. LL: In an agrarian society it makes sense that the offering would be food – a central component of that society.PG: The prophets – who came later – subversively challenged the notion of sacrifice as propitiation – the gods were dangerous and needed to be placated. Sacrifice was a way of seeking protection. The essential narrative of the wilderness is the movement from Pharaoh as god to a new God. Finally there is an Israel that never knew Pharaoh. These changes do not happen quickly. This God is more interested in conduct than punishment. Consider the Norway massacre – was this just the act of a crazy person or did it arise out of a dark dank corner of Norwegian culture? Hegel and Marx want to argue that the opposing poles of a dialectic move toward a resolution. That is the tension between individual responsibility and leadership. Jeremiah and Micah harp on this: “love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly before God.” If everyone did that there would be no need for kings. Note again that God disappears from this narrative with the still small voice of Elijah. ML: But how do you explain religious radicalism – particularly in Islam? PG: This has not been a successful or victorious civilization since the 1500’s. By the 1800s the entire Muslim world was subjected to foreign domination. LL: It depends on how victory is defined. One can win by outnumbering the opposition. PG: It takes a tremendous effort to be Haredi in Israel and elsewhere. In a family of 7 only four at most might remain in the culture. As a percentage of Israeli Jews there has been little change in their presence since the founding of Israel. Living a counter-culture life is very difficult. DC: Belonging to a Temple is difficult – in a sense we are not part of mainstream culture. Outside of the Haredi all of modern Judaism is a reform – ranging from Reformed to neo-orthodox. They are all adaption strategies. See Rabbi’s posted essay “Real Jews.” To be a Jew is to live in the real world whereas the Haredi must withdraw from the real world. AF: What is the difference between fanatical religiosity and an addiction? They seem very similar to me. PG: There are organizations that assist Haredi dropouts. There is rarely bitterness and recrimination. The Haredi family cuts them out – they cannot be accommodated. See the film “A Price Above Rubies” with Renee Zellweger. ( which addresses this subject.
28:3 The specifics of the offering. AF: I thought that the priests ate the sacrifice. PG: Yes, some of the sacrifices – that were not totally consumed – were shared among the priests and their families. Once the Temple was destroyed the practice of sacrifice atrophied and prayer became the standard method to reach out to God. There may have been a similar transformation starting after the destruction of the first Temple but after a few generations the people were restored to the land. Also, the priesthood remained in high regard after the destruction of the first temple. Prior to the destruction of the second temple there was the Maccabean Revolt and a general dissatisfaction with the priesthood on the part of a significant swath of the Jewish population. Note the synagogue at Masada that was erected while the second Temple was still in existence. AF: Were early Christians actually all Jews? PG: There was a diverse group of people who believed in one god. It wasn’t until 370 that the Christian world became defined as separate from a Jewish world. There were divisions early on – primarily between Jews who had become Hellenized and those who were more orthodox.
28:7 More detail on the offering. LL: Consider the kosher market that used to be in Poughkeepsie on the corner of North Perry and Main St. ML: That was the Hecht Market – Miriam Segal’s grandfather.
28:9 Moving from sacrifice to liturgy involves the creation of a service. Consider Amos – from the early 700s who rails against the merchants who are punctilious about keeping the Sabbath but cheat their customers the next day. A few hundred years later Jeremiah rails against the merchants who are doing business on the Sabbath – and the same with Nehemiah a few hundred years after that. These are sociological snapshots – changing views of what it meant to work on Shabbat. In the time of Jeremiah merchants no longer considered buying and selling to be work in the sense of laboring in the fields. In the early 3d C the Mishnah lists the activities that are defined as work. But if you are not doing one of the specified items it isn’t work. Even the proscribed items can be acceptable where required for your health and well being – and are done publically so as to indicate that you know you are technically violating the law but there is some kind of emergency.

Torah Study Notes 7-7-12

July 7, 2012
P. 1054
This is the ending of the story of Balaam (pronounced “BIllam”)and Balak. It is a pericope which is a passage from a book selected for reading. See Essays, pp. 1061-1064 and Gleanings, 1065-1067.
23:13 Balaam was supposed to curse the Israelites but instead blesses them.
23:16: “picked up his theme” is likely a colloquial expression. LL: It sounds like he is picking up a musical instrument. This is the word “mashal” in Hebrew which is sometime translated as parable. PG: This is like a scene from The Exorcist” – Balaam may be in a trance like state and he becomes a vehicle for God’s voice. See the Woman’s Commentary p. 945 “indicative of wisdom sayings that have a particular message.” From p. 1050 to 1059 is treated as a single block – there is nothing in the Torah indicating poetry – such is done here by the indentations. The Talmudic sages comment on the authorship of scripture gives Moses credit for the story of Balaam as well. This section is thematically alien in that it does not directly involve Moses and Israel. Israel is only a passive entity on the edge of this account. The oracles of Balaam have been found by archeologists in an 8th C BCE stone tablet. See p. 939 of the Woman’s Commentary. PG: It is believed that much of the Torah – assembled in the post exilic period 550 to 500 BCE – was based on pre-existing material. This is good evidence of that. The group of Israelites that embraced this pre-existing material were aware of other cultures and other gods worshiped by those cultures. The “god” referred to here is not believed by the protagonists to be the God of Israel – rather it is el shaddai – the powerful one. It is the reader who inserts the God of Israel. PG: I have assisted in two cases involving an exorcism. The person who believed they were being possessed had to feel that they were authentically cleansed. They had to believe so it was necessary to have a convincing ceremony followed by therapy. AF: the people had a concept of the priestly class and their functions that was a residue of their experiences in Egypt. They were used to and accepted a certain amount of conjuring and what we would consider the behavior of a charlatan. PG: Because of this history it was much easier, and more comforting, for the people to accept the notion of multiple gods rather than one God. Hence, they proceed in fits and start with considerable back-sliding. CL: This is all very different from what we have previously read and also more constructed, more literary. Even the choice of the names – starting with the sound of “b” which elicits a smile or a laugh. PG: Balak and Balaam come across as two different types of fools. They persist after multiple failures and are not capable of figuring out what needs to be done or taking the next step. CL: There are Greek and Roman stories of The Golden Ass. See:
PG: Martin Hengle ( and certain anthropologists believe that there was considerable communication as to thoughts and systems from cultures ranging from India to the Greek Islands. Plato might not have known the name of Buddha but was clearly aware of Buddhist thinking.

24:1 Note the lines that are used for entering the sanctuary for worship. This is the only place they appear and they come out of the mouth of a non-Israelite. This is part of his 4th prophecy. PG: This is an extraordinary polished tale. LL: And very difficult to understand.

A Visit to Camp Eisner

I had the great pleasure this morning of stopping by Camp Eisner. I drove up to visit three of our Vassar Temple teens who are there this summer, two as campers and one on staff.

YismchuI arrived in time for outdoor worship services that were so engaging that more than once participants leapt to their feet in jubilation. If Shabbat is a celebration, Eisner is the place to celebrate it.

Schmoozing  at Camp Eisner

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman with Vassar Temple teens Brianna E., Rachel E., and Rachel M., at Camp Eisner. Photo by Artur Aronov.

Both old friends and new acquaintances welcomed me warmly, one of them graciously offering to take me around camp.

The facility itself looks better than ever. The majestic old buildings continue to be restored and re-purposed, their charm preserving the past even as their function promises the future: a beautifully equipped ceramics workshop, a sparkling sports facility and training center, a modern music studio, even, I’m told, a working darkroom.

After lunch I sat with Brianna E., Rachel M., and Rachel E., who joyously relived what they’d experienced and eagerly anticipated what was yet to come: programs, friends, theater, food, trips, dances, music, Shabbat, and sacred community.

I know how much energy and money it takes to create a place like Eisner. It’s a joy to see the unparalleled results.