Torah Study Notes 1-25-14

January 25th, 2014
p. 513
What we call the Ten Commandments are actually revelations – not commandments – because they are obvious. There is nothing there – except for one commandment – dealing with Shabbat – that the people didn’t know. How do we know these things? What you already know becomes transcendent when “revealed” as coming from God. The Israelites can’t handle it directly so ask Moses to act as an intercessor. This is a combination of well known tropes: who can face God and survive is a question posed by other ancient religions. Gods were powerful and dangerous. One obeys the commandments – follows the rules – as a source of protection against the hardships and difficulties of the world. This is justification by law or sacrament. Paul rebelled against this notion and argued that salvation comes not from law but from grace. Grace here means an acceptance of the oneness of God. Islam generally follows Christianity in this regard but adds the faithful community as a divine manifestation of grace. Protestantism broke that link with divine will and so turned to Hebrew Scripture. They even emulated Judaism by setting aside Sunday as a day of rest and worship – instead of Saturday. SF: The Constitution is derived from natural law which comes from God.
21:1 “When you acquire a Hebrew slave” … etc. Until recently the Israelites have been slaves in Egypt so it is important to them to have rules as to the conduct of slavery. See the work of Emmanuel Levinas. and
Levinas derives the primacy of his ethics from the experience of the encounter with the Other. For Lévinas, the irreducible relation, the epiphany, of the face-to-face, the encounter with another, is a privileged phenomenon in which the other person’s proximity and distance are both strongly felt. “The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.”[7] At the same time, the revelation of the face makes a demand, this demand is before one can express, or know one’s freedom, to affirm or deny.[8] One instantly recognizes the transcendence and heteronomy of the Other. Even murder fails as an attempt to take hold of this otherness.
Following Totality and Infinity, Levinas later argued that responsibility for the other is rooted within our subjective constitution. It should be noted that the first line of the preface of this book is “everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.”[9] This idea appears in his of recurrence (chapter 4 in Otherwise Than Being), in which Levinas maintains that subjectivity is formed in and through our subjection to the other. Subjectivity, Levinas argued, is primordially ethical, not theoretical: that is to say, our responsibility for the other is not a derivative feature of our subjectivity, but instead, founds our subjective being-in-the-world by giving it a meaningful direction and orientation. Lévinas’s thesis “ethics as first philosophy”, then, means that the traditional philosophical pursuit of knowledge is secondary to a basic ethical duty to the other. To meet the Other is to have the idea of Infinity
Later, slavery is done away with as articulated in the rabbinic literature. Polygamy similarly disappears.
21:7 “When a parent sells a daughter as a slave…” The obligations of a master who marries a slave are food, clothing and conjugal rights.
21:12 “One who fatally strikes another person shall be put to death.” Modifications of the basic rule but death is the penalty.
21:18 Capital punishment is only extended to a loss of life. Injury calls for recompense. Nothing that is written here is absolutely needed in order to have a well organized society. LL: It could easily be argued that our society is based on the rule of law – not on religion. PG: Absolutely but where does the authority for the law derive? Look at what is going on in the Ukraine. LL: It is a Compact between those who are governed – an agreement – to “…form a more perfect union…”


Shabbat Tzedek – Celebrating Civil Rights and Social Justice

The following is a repost of an article published in by RAC.

Each year at this time we honor the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and more broadly, the civil rights movement. As Jews working toward a more just society, we know that the vital work of the civil rights movement is not complete, and are called at this time to renew our commitment to this work. This year in particular, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are cognizant that we must confront our own civil rights challenges today. From protecting voting rights to criminal justice reform, from ensuring equal treatment for LGBT Americans to affirming the rights of the disabled, there is still much work to be done.

In June of 1964, 17 rabbis joined with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States. They were arrested as they peacefully protested racial injustice in that city and across the country. In their cell, they jointly authored a powerful letter describing why they had gone to St. Augustine and risked arrest. They came, they wrote, because they “could not stay away… could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means… [and] could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood.” Jews have long been involved in the struggle for civil rights, and the rabbis at St. Augustine personified our commitment to bringing about a more just society, then and now.

Read Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine, St. Augustine Florida, June 19, 1964.

For more than 50 years, the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. has been the social action arm of the Reform Jewish community, leading us in the sacred work of Jewish social justice and legislative activity.

Torah Study Notes 1-4-14


January 4, 2014

p. 406

10:1 PG: Justice is always the proper combination of mercy and punishment. That is the conflict that runs throughout the Torah and a very important element of the promulgation of the Torah as a foundational text for the formation of a just society. This can also be understood as a contest of wills and a contest of gods; the struggle to accept the oneness of God. LL: Remind us of the social advantage of having one god. Clearly the advantage of polytheism is the separation of good and evil. SN: the Hebrews at the time seem to accept that other societies will have their own gods. PG: See the work of John Hick who made arguments in favor of polytheism.

“Hick has identified with a branch of theodicy that he calls “Irenaean theodicy” or the “Soul-Making Defense”.[26] A simplification of this view states that suffering exists as a means of spiritual development. In other words, God allows suffering so that human souls might grow or develop towards maturation. For Hick, God is ultimately responsible for pain and suffering, but such things are not truly bad. Perhaps with a greater degree of perception, one can see that the “evil” we experience through suffering is not ultimately evil but good, as such is used to “make our souls” better.”

PG:  Here Pharaoh is viewed as the avatar of all of the gods. Monotheism is hidden even in polytheism. If there is a chief god what are the others for? Here, by letting the people go Pharaoh’s divinity is on the line. “Regarding the eradication of evil is god willing but not able or able but not willing.” David Hume.  The Buddhist say that the world is suffering – a cycle of ups and downs without real progress. With a single god who is concerned with human progress evil becomes a challenge that we can eradicate. The mystics would argue that the existence of the world itself is an imperfection – the classic cabalistic response. This is the argument of Hillel and Shumei. See the NYTimes today on the rise of Calvinism.

10:7  What does it mean to have a hardened heart? The courtiers hearts were hardened but here say “let them go.”   Consider “tough love” which also means a certain hardening of the heart. A soft heart would be willing to give in to the moment.  A hard heart means accepting reality. They recognize that ultimately this would end badly either way. The Hebrew word “abed” also has the connotation of being “heavy.”  See footnote in the Woman’s Commentary which relates the weight of the heart to burial practices. Also, see page 366 essay “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart”. In ancient times the heart was considered to be the seat of the intellect.

10:12 The plague of locusts. What is the significance of the rod? This is a gesture that is part of the drama. Again, God is willing here to be revealed to individuals – who in turn address the people. Faith does not involve perception. Only at Sinai does God address the people.

10:16  The west wind blows the locusts into the Sea of Reeds. Compare the repetitive pattern here to that in the Book of Judges where the people are dysfunctional and respond only to external threats. What is the change that happens here?  What role do the plagues play in the Haggadah? Only that liberation was impossible without God’s intercession. Cf the rescue of the people in the story of Purim where Esther and Mordachi are the actors. SF: The purpose of the recitation in the Haggadah is to feel compassion for the drowning Egyptians.  EL:  The Union Haggadah did not have a recitation of the plagues.

10:21  Darkness for three days. But all of the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. Note the lack of warnings here. The midrash describes this as a darkness where one could not see but could feel. It is called a “khamsin” based on the Arabic word for fifty days of sandstorm. See:

10:24 Moses – “You have spoken rightly, I shall not see your face again.” SF: This is a negotiation wherein Moses wants to get to a place where he can take care of his people. PG: A prophet should never expect immediate results. Moses is told at the beginning what will happen – that none of this will work until Paraoh loses his first born.   See Gleanings page 398 with the two songs/psalms that speak of the plagues. The narrative is an amalgamation of the two psalms.


Torah Study Notes 12-22-13

December 22, 2013
p. 346
Exodus is called “sh’mot” in the Torah – which means “names.”
1:1 “…the Israeli’s were fertile and prolific, they multiplied and increased very greatly…” They were situated in a region of the Nile delta known as Goshen.
1:8 Note the hapax legomenon (see: of “shrewdly” which means a single use of a word in a text. The word does not appear elsewhere in scripture. The Hebrew word is “wisely. RR: Why did they stay so long in Egypt? The initial reason for going to Egypt was to flee famine in the east. PG: There were clearly Israelites who did not know Joseph. Note that Joseph’s first son was named Menasha which means “I have forgotten.” Also, the Israelites have become integrated to some extent into Egyptian society so the notion of returning to their own land has been repressed. Contemporary scholarship suggests that the authors of this text were very ignorant of Egypt – particularly Egyptian geography. It has been argued that this was written during the Babylonian captivity and is a metaphor for the escape from Babylon. SN: This is a foundation story and highly politically motivated to support the Davidic line. It starts out with a genealogy and there is more of that as well as what makes a real leader. PG: Judah is elevated at the end of Exodus but up to then that tribe is not greatly mentioned. We also need to note Hermann Cohan’s analysis of nationhood vs people-hood.
PG: The arrivals at Ellis Island, although poor, were already middle-class in the sense that they valued education and had a rich culture. There was a background of study that was prepared for a life of the mind. SF: There is a mindset here, a set of values, that travel with these people.
1: 13 See footnote 15 on the etymology of the word “Hebrew” – “…they were not necessarily related except by common fate, and such may in part have been the case in their Egyptian slavery.” God is introduced here for the first time in the narrative. DC: Strange that they are killing the future workers as well as laborers. But now P has a warped obsession that they will become an army. Note that this is pre-Sinai so there is no “law” or “commandment” pertaining to murder. They are taking an intrinsically moral stand expressed in terms of “fearing God.” DC: Compare to the story of Jane Eyre who is brought up in an unethical household but still has the courage to stand up to power. Here the midwives are rewarded for their ethical attitude. Note the Hebrew word “erah” means awe as well as fear.