Torah Study Notes 5-31-14

May 31, 2014
p. 923 – Numbers
4:21 The duties of the Gershonites under the direction of Ithamar, son of Aaron the priest. LL: Why are these various groups being created? It appear to be a caste system and anti-democratic. PG: Remember that someone has taken a group of stories and tried to make them into a coherent whole to promote a theme. Sometimes the account tells us what went wrong. This again is written post-exilic. The tribal system has likely disappeared but the priests and Levites remain. There is no hierarchy inherent in the tribes. The a-teleological reading is the tribe as extended families. But here they are no longer endogamous – marriages have taken place across tribes and they have lived as a people in Babylon. This recitation is less the issue of family than distinguishing out the priests and Levites. The tribes have become known as “Jews.” There is a military overlay here that is likely a residue from the ordering of the tribes out of Egypt. Here the clans are created “out of whole cloth.” Pre-exilic, there was a sharp division as to who should properly become priests – was it hereditary from the Aaronites or the role of the Levites? Here the Aaronites have won. SF: The underlying message is that everyone has a role in serving and loving God – in a structured and ordered fashion. PG: However, ultimately the tribes became the source of dissention and problems in Israel. SF: The tribal structure is just surface – the deeper meaning is how you approach learning to worship God. PG: There is a natural human tendency to social affinity. Leadership is exploiting those tendencies for a specific purpose. SF: But we no longer need the tribes – we have the playbook. AF: When you have a responsibility there is a concomitant assumption of authority – the necessary power and control to carry out that responsibility. PG: Here we will have kings, prophets, judges elders and priests – all interacting in a confused and messy fashion. Post-exilic we have just priests and they are stratified. Remember that it is the scribes – usually former priests – who are observing, recording and creating these writings. It might be that they were trying to preserve some of the pre-exilic “messiness” so as to create space for individual freedom while having the rudiments of order. There is always a balance to be achieved between order and freedom.
4:29 “As for the Mararites…” Duties are again described in detail for this clan. LL: All these duties are clearly ceremonial and don’t necessarily bespeak the role of the individuals in the larger world. PG: In some temples the various ceremonial honors are auctioned off as a fund raising mechanism. Vassar is a “free congregation” in that we do not allow this or the purchase of seats. Central Synagogue in New York still sells seats.
4:34 The size of the Kohathites, Gershonites and Mararites are set forth by number.
4:36 The number of the Levites. The total of Cohanim and Levites is generally representative of the number of the first born who will be redeemed. The numbers are constructed precisely for that purpose. There is a certain play with numbers here and elsewhere in the Torah in the sense of creating a cosmology through numbers. PG: Two of the great terms in mathematics are “irrational” and “imaginary” numbers.
5:1 Certain sick people are to be removed from the camp. LL: The entire issue of ritual impurity has been previously addressed – could this be medical? PG: Note that this instruction was immediately carried out. In this context the suggestion is that there was spiritual impurity behind the physical expression. Impurity could be ritually removed. The rabbinic literature is full of close examination of all of these rules – with numerous exceptions and caveats. SF: If one becomes impure in the process of doing a good deed that kind of impurity is easily expunged.

Fannie Berlin Fund Brings Jewish Studies Scholar to Lecture at Vassar Temple


(Pictured above: Linda Cantor, Joel Kelson and his daughter, Dr. Corwin Berman, Rabbi Paul Golomb, Debbie Golomb, Jennifer Sachs Dahnert)

Thanks to the generosity of Vassar Temple Sisterhood’s Fanny Berlin Fund, which was established by Dr. Doris Berlin-Acker Z’L to honor the memory of her mother, on May 18th Vassar Temple hosted a lecture by Dr. Lila Corwin Berman. Dr. Corwin spoke to Jewish migration patterns in the USA and how, despite moving away from cities in post WWII, Jews have remained invested in urban life, and have emerged as the consummate urban dwellers. The presentation was titled, “The City and the Jew: Reflections on Leaving & Returning.”

[Recently an Dr. Corwin Berman had an article published in Sh’ma Journal called “The Death and Life of Jewish Neighborhoods.“]

The lecture was well attended by visitors from the community and other temples, as well as Vassar Temple members. Dr. Corwin offered fascinating thoughts and facts regarding Jewish demographic, social, culture, and political patterns. The audience was attentive and engaged and the feedback was all extremely positive. This event was excellent example of the fine adult education programming which Vassar Temple is known for.

Vassar Temple’s adult education programs are free, open to the public, all faiths, and inclusive. If you’d like to know what is coming up you can visit us and see “what’s happening” on our home page. We also encourage you to like us on Facebook. Or call the temple office at 845.454.2570.

Dr. Lila Corwin Berman is Associate Professor of History at Temple University. She holds the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History and directs the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. Berman received her B.A. from Amherst College and her Ph.D. from Yale. She is author of Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (2009), a finalist for the Jewish Book Council’s Sami Rohr Prize. Dr. Berman is completing a new book titled Jewish Urban Journeys Through an American City and Beyond that has received support from the National Endowment of the Humanities and the Ameri`can Council of Learned Societies. She has also published articles in the Journal of American History, Jewish Social Studies, American Jewish History, Religion and American Culture, the Forward, and Sh’ma.

Rabbi Golomb Blesses new MidHudson Regional Hospital in Interfaith Chapel

Chapel Blessing Photo

Vassar Temple was honored by Rabbi Golomb’s participation in the ceremony transitioning the former St. Francis Hospital to the new MidHudson Regional Hospital of Westchester Medical Center on May 12th. The theme of the ceremony was “bridges”, not only between geographic regions, but also between communities, from past to future, and from legacy to new technology. Hospital staff and administrators were in attendance as were town, city, and county officials. Along with clergy from three other faiths, Rabbi offered a traditional blessing for the new enterprise. Following the ceremony, he also participated in a worship service in the hospital’s new interfaith chapel,for which he was asked to read from a sacred text. His choice for this occasion was the 30th Psalm, which begins with the phrase “a song for the dedication of the house.”

Torah Study Notes 5-17-14

May 17, 2014
p. 865
26:3 “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe… “ The promise of benefits accruing from following the laws. Is this in the nature of a bargain – a contract? Or more of an exhortation? Experience tells the people that periodically the rains will fail. Note again that this text is post-exilic. See Steve Martin in Leap of Faith a film based on The Rainmaker where he plays an evangelist – faith healer. Where the miracle doesn’t happen it is arguably because of insufficient faith. Consider also the challenge to that notion in the Book of Job. Or Harold Kushner on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. But also see:

26:6 They will not be conquered – an invading army shall be routed regardless of their size. Again, this is after the invasion and destruction of Judah by the Assyrians.
26:11” I will establish my abode in your midst…” Were the Israelites highly militaristic? Cleopatra’s bodyguard was comprised of 300 Israelites. PG: There was a suggestion in Egyptian literature, written in Greek about the 3d C BCE, that Israel had invaded Egypt. It is considered by Egyptians a counter-weight to the account of Exodus. Note that there are also pre-exilic references to Egypt in Hebrew literature. See Albrecht Alt’s work on this subject.
26:14 Bad things will happen if you do not keep the law. The curses take up much more space than the blessings. Note that the text does not distinguish or tell us which are the most important commandments – nor does it suggest what happens if you obey most but not all. Are the punishments of equal severity regardless of the extent of the transgression? There is no reference to 613 rules or to Torah per se. That did not happen until Talmudic times. The rabbinic sages said “On the whole – be good.” AF: Are many of the rules sub-sets of the ten commandments? PG: That is a philological discussion/argument that continues to this day. Note the parallel structure that indicates poetry. However, the rabbinic view is that everything has significance – nothing is wasted.
26:18 PG: The are fundamentally two types of punishments – how nature will treat us and how we will suffer socially. Note the distinction between the narrative context and the time when the text would actually have been read. There is a clear difference between the way that parents read to their children and how the child later reads the book on its own. There is a different leadership approach when dealing with a mature and immature group.
26:21 “If you remain hostile to me…” The punishments grow more severe. Israel was devastated by Nebuchadnezzar and that was within the historical memory of the readers/hearers. There is a misorah that tells which word were infrequently used. The Hebrew word here that is translated into “decimate” is likely a rarely used word.
26:23 “And is these things fail to discipline you…” Things will get worse.
26:27 And worse. This resonates because the text is being read after the exile and the Israelites returned to find their land in ruins. PG: What causes the greater anxiety – the blessings or the curses? The question as to how to live a virtuous life can be unnerving. When things go wrong there is some instruction from failure as to what must be done differently – the basis for improvement. LL: Some react to anxiety by collapsing. Not everyone can redouble their efforts. (Note the half tone letters indicating the paragraphs in the Hebrew text.)
PG: What is being presented here are the issues of both social connection and maintaining a relationship with God. Social justice is paramount in order to create a stable society that can withstand the harsh realities of the less-ordered societies around them. LL: Sadly, there are many forms of government and social order that can be stable over long periods of time but are not just societies. The Pharaohs ruled for millennia.

Torah Study Notes 5-3-14

May 3, 2014
p. 819
21:1 A priest may not touch a dead person with the exception of certain next of kin. This has to do with ritual purity. What is not written here, and arguable much is unsaid, should not be construed as instructive – both on rabbinic and scholarly grounds. The scholars note that we may not have all of the writings of the time and there were strong oral traditions as well. These injunctions are part of the 613 commandments even though they do not apply to everyone – only priests. The number 613 is attributed to a Talmudic sage known as Rabbi Simlai. See: Parsing the word “Torah” into the numerical equivalents of each letter actually yields 611. PG: Approximately one half of the 613 are now irrelevant to our lives because they applied to the role of the priests and the First Temple. It becomes a matter of rabbinic discussion as to which of these might apply to a rabbi or to modern life. Similarly, the prohibition against growing in the seventh year. What if one owns no land in Israel? The rabbi’s creating the Talmud had to look at the intent and try to determine what interpretation would result in a covenantal society. Post Talmud the people had to make decisions on their own. Again, all of this as to ritual purity must be distinguished from the cleanliness that might be healthy or medically indicated. See the Isaac Asimov’s ( story about “teaching” at age 15 by determining an individuals natural ability and then loading them electronically with the necessary information. Those who cannot conform to this process are sent to a Home for the Mentally Challenged where in fact they are allowed to be creative. They ultimately become the creators of the machines that teach and leaders of the society.
21:5 “They shave smooth any part of their heads…” It was deemed important to be able to immediately identify a priest.
21:7 No marriage by priests to harlots or divorcees. Note that there is nothing in the Torah as to how marriage or divorce takes place. This is extensively discussed in rabbinic literature. LL: There is no incentive to divorce if a man can just take another wife. PG: Consider the story of David and Michal where she gets upset as to David’s conduct when the Ark is being brought into Jerusalem. David is angry but he does not seek a divorce. Note that a widow is on her own. She does not automatically return to her father’s household.
21:9 More prohibitions as to the conduct of the high priest – some repetitious of the previous but even more limitations and restrictions. He is the only priest who can enter the Holy of Holies. Note that the daughter of a priest, a “bot cohanim” can marry anyone.
21:16 No one with certain physical “defects” are qualified to become priests. PG: There is a passage in Isaiah that directly contradicts this. Isaiah reflects a more pragmatic approach which might have indicated a shortage of priests. These passages in Leviticus are post-exilic when the Temple was being rebuilt and there was a demand for more priests – it was a job for which one competed. It is recognized that the external appearance may be an indication of the internal – such as moral and ethical considerations. Consider how we dress for a job interview.
PG: In the very first verse of this parsha the Hebrew word used is “emor” which is “to talk.” In the last verse the word is changed to “daver.” The difference is a subtle one – the later refers to speaking with authority. It is more than a casual conversation. We are reminded that Moses is constantly translating what he has received from God. LL: All of this ambiguity and lack of clarity makes for much “spirited” discussion.