Torah Study Notes 7-27-13

July 27, 2013

p. 1251 Haftarah.

From Chapter 55 on it is likely that the Prophet Isaiah has moved with the people back to Israel from Babylonia. This text is likely from the period in Babylon. The connection with the Torah portion is a holistic one: Moses is giving a warning to the Israelites that they will lose the land if they are not faithful – and that is what happened with the captivity in Babylon.

49:14  There is synchronism here –  making points by reference to popular literature or sports. The inscription on the palm of the hands is probably a reference to a well known ritual from another culture. This becomes the basis for a well known Talmudic dictum in the Haftarah that we will read next week “… when all the children are taught, the peace will be that of your children.” Alternative methods of vocalizing the text were adopted that sometime changed the meaning. See footnote 17 where “your builders” is sometimes read instead of “your children.” Note that sometimes the lack of cultural context makes a text “open” in that it is subject to many interpretations. It is “living” text in that is not hemmed in by context.

49:18 “ shall put them on like ornaments…” is metaphoric imagery that may refer to gathering the armor of the enemy on the battlefield.

49:20 Is the speaker in Babylon or in Israel? If the former he is projecting into the future. If the latter he is simply expressing amazement at the appearance of these “children” from Babylonia. SF: Is this post- Torah transcription – written after the Torah was transcribed? It seems to be a reference to Sarah and Hannah – an underlying theme of woman who eventually give birth and are fulfilled. PG: The theme of childlessness and giving birth can be found pre transcription – it is part of the oral tradition   . CL: The prophet is trying to manage expectations: the land may be crowded and chaotic when we get there. PG: Remember that Moses said that they would be going to a land that was developed – recognize how blessed you are. The prophet is coming from a different direction – the land will not be flowing with milk and homey – effort will be required.

49:22 God will fight their battle. Historically  the Jews were freed by the battle between Persia – Cyrus_ and the Babylonians. When this is heard in the synagogue in exile it is expressed via the messianic hope. That will occur by the will of God. Second Isaiah is very important in Christian thought. Note the references to eating of flesh and drinking of blood as wine.

50:1 “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce with which I sent her away.” This is a metaphor where the mother is Israel. The references in lines two and three are to the plagues described in Exodus. They were exiled from the land before and returned once before. See the Cairo Geniza for an explanation of how this material was read in conjunction with Torah – there is a list of all of the prophetic readings and fully a third of them are found in second Isaiah. SF: What are we “returning” to before we die? PG: There is both physical and spiritual exile. We want to try to return from both – Israel physically in the sense that any home can be abandoned. Can you overcome spiritual exile without overcoming the physical exile? LL: Since we are not going to be living in Israel I would hope so. PG:  Jewish thought is based on “both” “and” in which each side can be right. This opposes the Hegelian dialectic. We live in freedom and exile at the same time – that is the reality of life. Completion only comes with the Messiah. The prophet seems to think that the return to the land would be final. Today we know better. The Ultra orthodox and Reform movements were in agreement that physical and spiritual return would take place at the same time. The spiritual return is the notion of having peace of mind. “May God make it so it is always Shabbat.” That will be eating, resting, family without anxiety. CL: That may be desirable for short periods of time – not long term.



Why Learn Hebrew?

Why should people learn to read Hebrew? And why do we insist that children learn it before bat/bat mitzvah?

There are lots of good answers, I think, but unfortunately some bad answers get in the way. In fact, one of the most widespread answers is outdated, and another is simply wrong.

The outdated answer is that learning Hebrew is learning to be literate. That used to be true, but it isn’t any more. As we Jews traveled around the world over the course of 3,000 years, we often used the Hebrew alphabet to read and write: first in Hebrew, then Aramaic, Arabic for a while in Spain, our dialect of German (“Yiddish”), and so on. But now, if a child has to learn only one alphabet, the Latin alphabet is almost certainly a better way to go.

The wrong answer is, sadly, also the most common answer across the American landscape: children have to learn Hebrew to participate in worship. But it’s not true. (Never mind the fact that even if it were, many children would see a win-win here, and opt neither to learn Hebrew nor to go to services.)

The cat’s out of the bag regarding transliteration. People know it’s there. They know that the words of our sacred liturgy can be written in Hebrew letters or in English ones.

A more important though less widely recognized reason to reject this common second answer is that most people learn the prayers by praying, not by reading the prayers in a classroom. (This is why we have expanded worship in our religious school.)

So if Hebrew is no longer the best path to literacy, and if it’s not the only route to the narrow reward of worship, why should children learn Hebrew?

Here are my top five reasons:

  1. Hebrew is part of our heritage, and learning it helps the next generation connect to its past.
  2. Hebrew is part of the eternality of the Jewish people, and this generation has an obligation not to break the chain. A time will come when English will go the way of Greek and Latin. (Not many people know that it was the Muslims and the Jews who brought the classics to a European audience that could no longer read Aristotle or Plato.) But Hebrew is still around.
  3. Hebrew forms a connection with Israel, and can be a stepping stone to a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
  4. Hebrew is fun, particularly for children. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a wonderful puzzle. (If learning Hebrew isn’t fun, something has gone terribly wrong.)
  5. Study for its own sake is part of our heritage. Even if Hebrew had no other purpose at all, it would be valuable because we believe in learning.

I’m thrilled that starting this fall we’ll be bringing all of this excitement, joy, and tradition to Wednesday afternoons at Vassar Temple.

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman served on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City for ten years, and in 2008 he chaired the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, the largest gathering of Jewish educators in the world. He currently directs the education program at Vassar Temple, which attracts Jews from throughout Dutchess County, New York.