Torah Study Notes 9-22-12

September  22, 2012

p. 1387

31:1 “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” God will lead them into battle – although this can also be read as if God is taking care of their enemies for them. The chronology of matching this up with 40 years in the desert is difficult – if not impossible. “There is no before and after in the Torah.”  ML: How can we be sure that Moses existed? PG: We cannot with historical accuracy. There are no contemporaneous unbiased accounts to reference. That is true of Jesus, Buddha and Confucius  as well. We know that life can turn into legend. The use of archetypical names does not mean that there weren’t individuals who held those names. This section was written down centuries after the events described. The author(s) are writing down “the Moses story” but they had no tools with which to conduct historical analysis. It is believed, based on non-biblical archeological evidence, that there was the formation of this people of Israelites in the period from about 1500 to 1000 BCE. There is similar evidence that David and Solomon created a unified kingdom. What are thought to be the tombs of Abraham do contain ancient bones but they have not been carbon dated. See Friedman on “Who Wrote The Bible” which is the best analysis of these questions as to the source of this text. Generally, the different stories have been woven together, blended, in a very smooth way. But consider the two versions of creation which is there “in your face” without any effort to reconcile the two versions. For two thousand years the reader did not attempt to see these textual conflicts in any other context than faith – it was written by God. It was not until about the time of Spinoza in the early 17th C. that other explanations were sought – such as the political resolution of different traditions from the north and south. CL: In looking at different cultures we see that there is very little novelization going on – the writers are recognizing existing oral traditions. PG: Consider the last line of “”The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” “When all you have left is the legend – believe the legend.”  See:

31:7  The role of Joshua as intermediary between Moses and the people. He is one of the few sole survivors of the exodus from Egypt. The text is suggesting more than just an invasion – it is the fulfillment of an early promise. This is the second time in the Torah that we have a teaching written down by Moses and then given to another. The first time was upon the occasion of Moses descending from Mt. Sinai.

31:10 Every seventh year at the feast of booths you shall read this teaching aloud – hear and learn. Succoth is the harvest holiday but in the 7th year there is no harvest. Nevertheless, you come to temple to hear a marathon reading of the Torah. This proceeds over a period of days. People came to hear and discuss before there was a prayer service. RR:  It has been suggested that the reading was only of Deuteronomy. PG: I would dispute that.   By the time this is promulgated it is the entire Torah. Note that this has nothing to do with whether the listeners could read or not. There is a story of an ancient scroll being found in a wall. Josiah the king asks the priest to read it to him. Upon hearing the text Josiah then reads it to the people. It is recognized that hearing is important and is a recognition of a text being sacred. Torah only becomes Torah when it is heard. “Koran” means that which is read out load. Note that there was a competitive tension between the country and city folk. In order to create a positive relationship there were likely  written contracts – for the sale and purchase of grain etc. Accordingly, it was just as likely that the farmer and herd-keeper could read as those in the city. Ancient Assyrian tablets reflect these kinds of contracts.

31:14  Moses and Joshua present themselves in the Tent of Meeting. The Eternal appears in a “pillar of cloud.” And they are instructed to write down this poem.  Note that Hebrew poetry rhymes and has a set meter.  The key however is not in the meter or rhyme – it is in the construction of parallel statements. It is that structure that makes something easier to remember. The Israelites have constantly been questioning God. The assumption is that now they are settling on the land they will continue to question.  JB: How depressing this is for Moses – all of this effort and the people will continue to screw up.

31:20 This poem will confront them as a witness… PG: This is a projection of human nature. The ability to accept God’s wisdom and will is very difficult.  God – the author – is recognizing this. Following the commandments is emotionally and intellectually challenging.


Torah Study Notes 9-15-2012

September 14, 2012
P, 1375
29:28 The distinction between the actor’s intent and his action. Ones thoughts are a matter for God. This verse represents a kind of transformation in how the text addresses the reader. Some commentators suggest it may have been a footnote that became embodied in the text. Action may reframe our views of the past. CL: Our efforts to understand the human condition and our motivations are part of who we are. It is built in to us as mammals to consider motivation. PG: A rock comes through the window. We want to know how that happened. Was it accidental or intentional? The issue now is justice. The person has to pay for the window or if intentional there will be an additional penalty. This sentence suggests that the Torah will be the basis for social organization that incorporates a system of justice. This passage reminds us that we cannot play God by pretending to enter the mind of another person. See the new film “The Master” which has a theme of human limitations. The framework for the system is critical – for Islamists the perfect society is that during the ten year rule of Muhammad after he returned from the Hegira.
30:1 A pious hope in the years 550 to 500 where the writers are seeking to return to their land from Babylonia. This would have also been important to the Zionists. But for 1800 years the Jews were waiting for a divine act that would signal the return to the land. In 1900 98% of religious Jews were opposed Zionism – it was not seen as God’s plan. The Orthodox are deeply concerned about the implications of history. Those who opposed Zionism were concerned that Jews would be perceived as not loyal to their country in Europe. But what did it mean when the Messiah came? Was that a new beginning or an end of days? AF: This also talks about the Diaspora – which it is suggested by some thinkers became the basis for the survival of the Jews. SF: How does this apply to us here and now? This is more than a geographic issue. PG: This is about the process of thinking and what motivates us. CL: Several cultures did survive. The Greek culture continues to influence us. PG: Also Iran and Egypt are struggling with modern Islam and their pre-existing cultures. Dumont is saying that the Jews were saved by not having a geographic nation that could be destroyed. (LL: This is also true with terrorist groups like Al Quida.) PG: The identity of the Jews is sustained by community – whether in Israel or here. SF: In Kabalistic and Mussar ( practices it is understood that “the return” is about building relationships with other people and hence establishing a community. PG: See:  “Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson.( Buber insists that we are sustained by real communities – not imagined ones. That is why he became a Zionist. Judaism is more than theology. AF: For most people their community is really their families. PG: Family can represent a genuine community but we don’t use that term in discussing family. Family is more encapsulated – smaller – than community. LL: There are many communities – take the Red Sox Nation for example. In a modern society we belong to many communities. PG: Yes and virtually all of them are imagined. PG: A people has to move from tribalism to states and then to nations. In this country we had tribal violence as well – between two English speaking peoples in the American Revolution. And later between the North and South in the Civil War. (See Daniel J. Elazar’s excellent essay on the influence of the Diaspora on Jewish political thought at:
30:6 What does the word “delight” mean here?? PG It is something different than the delight of human beings. LL: There are several places in the Torah where the reaction of God is mentioned – even how God “feels.” I find this anthropomorphism interesting because it suggests the goals of the redactors.

Another School Year Begins at Vassar Temple

Blowing the Shofar

Blowing the Shofar at Sunday morning Religious-School services.

Following on the heels of Wednesday night, which saw enrollment triple over last year as we began a newly designed program, grades K-6 started their religious-school year this morning, too. And the Temple was hopping.

The familiar mixed with the new as four new teachers (two of them our own high-schoolers) and three new teacher aides joined our veteran teachers in welcoming both returning and new students. The day was marked by reunions with Temple friends, class time, snack, and finally a worship experience that included preparations for Rosh Hashanah and blowing the shofar.

Next week we’re on break so people can prepare for Rosh Hashanah. Then everyone returns on Sept. 23, the first Sunday of 5773.

Welcome back!


Kindergarten students learning about Rosh Hashanah

Second Grade

Second grader studying Hebrew.


A teacher aide preparing snack for the younger students.

Sixth Grade

Sixth graders discuss Jewish values with their new teacher.

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah

Students help the rabbi prepare the Bimah for Rosh Hashanah.

Ice Cream

Wednesday-night students take an ice-cream break.

Men’s Club Spruces Up Vassar Temple

Sprucing up Vassar TempleThe Men’s Club is at it again. After fixing up Classroom #4, the men worked this morning to brighten up the Vassar Temple exterior.

The newly painted sign at the entrance is easier to read, and now forms part of a freshly landscaped corner of the lawn.

Thank you to everyone who helped!

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Torah Study Notes 9-8-12

August 8, 2012


28:1  provides the context “If you obey the Eternal your God…

28:7  The blessings for the believers. PG: This is standard boilerplate – the rewards that flow from the notion of keeping the faith. But is this just campaign promises?  LL: The best prophets, we have learned, are those who look back. Here this is likely post-exilic. PG: This was likely promulgated two or three generations after the Babylonian captivity. Things are likely going poorly and the writer is looking back to better times – saying they can be restored if faith is regained. We have been given a body of work – instructions as to what needs to be done in order to have a prosperous society. Consider the time of Hezekiah when the Assyrians were knocking on the door and were rebuffed. How was that possible? AF: This brings up the issue of human nature – when times are good they tend to be less attentive to their faith. HF: How do we know when these parts were written? PG: It is theoretical. See “Etched in Stone” which focuses on the Ten Commandments and raises this same question. The author argues that it is virtually impossible to decide conclusively when any of this text was put to paper. You have to find an event, concept or neologisms that suggests a date. One can also argue from silence – the absence of mention of some important event or concept. We also look at writing style – with the assumption that an archaic style denotes an older date. But sometime writers adopt an archaic style which makes dating even more difficult. We find it logical to find the Deuteronomist text to have been written toward the end of the Davidic Kingdom of Judah. The narrative sets this with Moses speaking to the Israelites prior to living on the land. But much had transpired since that time and the writer/redactor is well aware of that. This text, it is believed, becomes widely distributed only after the return from exile. LL: This all suggests the importance of the written word at the time. It was so rare as to have an elevated status in society. PG: Note that there are instances in the text where God speaks to Moses and Moses speaks to the people but tells them something else. The Torah is a very sophisticated writing that starts with two different versions of creation. We are told, in effect, that truth is not the mapping of Torah in a literal way – it is an interactive process of exploration.

28:13  Do not turn to the worship of other gods. What does deviating to the right or left mean? It could have originally been an agrarian term about keeping the oxen in a straight path.

28:15 Now with the curses that arise from disobedience. This is a reiteration of the negative of the blessings that were given earlier.  LL: This is setting up a dangerous idea: that only the righteous and holy will succeed. There were strains of Protestants that equated earthly success with sanctity and the Satmar’s accused the rest of the Jews of loss of faith as a reason for for the Holocaust. AF: There is also a suggestion of the slave mentality here – do your job and you will be rewarded. PG: Keep in mind that at the time this is being promulgated the people were still very aware of the Babylonian experience and were seeking to rebuild. They needed a roadmap. LL: This suggests an elite, literate group that had access to other literature – perhaps a library – who decided that they were going to write a Constitution – almost like the Founding Brothers in the United States. PG: This raises the question as to who was writing and why. Some of them may have been Court writers – Leviticus privileges the priests and Deuteronomy privileges the King. The question was – would the monarchy be restored in the post – exilic period.

28:20  More curses. – in exquisite detail.  This is hyperbolic language but may also describe the situation of the Israelites at the time. The land was devastated – like a dust bowl.

28:25  Oy. But very poetic – almost a literary reflection of the ten plagues. PG: There are literary echoes here from other portions of the Torah. Particularly the descriptions of the suffering of those whose land was taken by the Israelites.

28:36 More of the same hyperbole. This continues through verse 68. We end with verse 69 because a Torah reading should never end with a curse.


Torah Study Notes 8-25-12

August 25, 2012
p. 1298
18:9 Moses tells the people not to pay attention to soothsayers, etc. This is preparatory to telling them about prophets and how to tell which one is real.
18: 15 How to tell who is a true prophet. They who foretell accurately what will happen. We need such individuals in any society. But see the story of Thais as well as the film “Simon and the Desert” by Luis Bunuel. How do we know which oracle is true – or just a voice in one’s head. LL: We have futurologists in our society and they perform a useful function – but they are not linked to any deity. PG: Talking about the future is always a jump from perceptual reality. Where does such information come from? Perhaps induction from the past. Where does perspicacity come from – an evaluative system. Eventually you have to come to the ghost in the machine and decide what you want to call it – “the unknown” or “the spiritual.” EL: How long do we wait before determining if a prophecy will come true? DC: Today we do not use priests or prophets in Judaism. PG: The Age of Prophecy is over. It is no longer necessary. The meta rules are in place – not just the list of 612 Rules. There is no law saying that one must be compassionate. That is a meta-rule and there are many others. RR: Is it significant that this was compiled in the exilic and post exilic period? PG: Yes, in the sense that they were warned before. There is a prophet in Pogo who is unerringly correct because he always relies on the past. CL: Once printing was invented and the Protestant Reformation occurred there was a growth of belief in a direct physical contact with God. Christianity is very varied and is constantly throwing up new prophets – many of them false.
19:1 Set aside three cities – so that any male killer may have a place to flee to. The example of the ax handle. PG: The cities of refuge are also mentioned in the Book of Numbers. RR: Deuteronomy seems to have a lot of loose ends. Did the cities of refuge still exist after the return from exile? PG: We don’t know if they ever really existed. The notion of jail is fundamentally that one can be rehabilitated and forgiven. But society really is not amenable to that.
19:8 When you receive all the land and obey my instructions you can add three more cities to the total to the cities of refuge – which are six in the book of Numbers.
PG: The first thing a prophet does is establish his bona fides by establishing his relationship to God. If they urge the worship of other Gods – something patently immoral – they are not a real prophet. The listener knows what truth is. The prophet is helping you find a truth that may be repressed.
19:11 The role of the blood avenger and moving one’s neighbors landmarks. Who determines guilt? There were judges – elders of the town- but in this instance it is not the state that is executing the miscreant it is the blood avengers. There appears to be no administrative bureaucracy. The Rabbinic literature addresses issues such as capital punishment by making it very, very difficult. Also, once the penal system was fully developed the felon could be incarcerated for life – execution without the axe. The law of Torah is Lex Talionis. The Rabbi’s deal with this by designing compensation for the injured party or their kin. In order to be executed premeditation must be found. The word “rocsach” in Hebrew is used for both murder and execution. The Rabbi’s: To determine that an execution is just the murder must acknowledge that he knew it was wrong and have two witnesses. But there is a lesser punishment – including incarceration where those high standards are not met.
Next Saturday: Lillian Weigert’s wedding in Massachusetts.

Vassar Temple Creates Hineni Fund to Honor Memory of Former President, Seth A. Erlebacher

Hineni Fund in Memory of Seth A. ErlebacherVassar Temple has created a fund to honor the memory of Seth A. Erlebacher, who served as the temple’s president until his untimely death last year. Because education was so important to Seth, the fund will benefit Vassar Temple’s religious school, which now also bears Seth’s name.

Called “Hineni” (Hebrew for “I am here”), the fund reflects Seth’s eagerness to stand up and contribute. So far, upwards of $70,000 has been raised from a wide range of sources, even before the temple’s major fundraising campaign planned for the fall.

Contributions to the fund can be made most conveniently by check, payable to “Vassar Temple” and earmarked for the Hineni Fund, sent to 140 Hooker Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY 12601. For larger gifts or more information, contact Andi Ciminello (845-452-1190 or

Seth left behind his wife and two daughters, and is survived by both of his parents.

More information about the Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School can be found on its website:, or by contacting its director, Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (845-454-2570 or More information about Vassar Temple appears on its website:

Vassar Temple Names Religious School After Former President, Seth A. Erlebacher

When Vassar Temple opens religious school on September 5th, it will be as the “Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School,” in memory of Seth Erlebacher, who served as the temple’s president until his untimely death last year.

Naming a religious school after a person is rare across the landscape of American Judaism. This unique step at Vassar Temple reflects Seth’s extraordinay passion for Jewish learning, his commitment to the temple, and the many ways in which he made his presense felt.

The renaming of the school is complemented by the creation of the Hineni Fund, also in Seth’s memory, to support the school and the work that it does.

Seth left behind his wife and two daughters, and is survived by both of his parents.

More information about the Seth A. Erlebacher Religious School can be found on its website:, or by contacting its director, Dr. Joel M. Hoffman (845-454-2570 or For information about the Hineni Fund, contact Andi Ciminello (845-452-1190 or More information about Vassar Temple appears on its website: