Torah Study Notes 2-25-17

February 25, 2017

Page 513

21:1 These are the rules that you should set before them… starts with the management of slaves. There seems to be no clear segue from the Ten Commandments here. We have moved from general precepts to very detailed rules of conduct in specific situations. This is a self contained legal code. They are setting limits on what was the common practice of slavery at that time. A question of moral relativism here which is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. This seems to be debt slavery which was probably their situation in Egypt. Note that these restrictions only apply to other Hebrews. This has been identified as the Elohim text. Daughters may be sold as a slave but with certain restrictions. Compare Ken Burn’s film on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In 1840 America woman had virtually no rights.

Who is enforcing these rules at this time? Recall that there are provisions for protection of worker’s rights in Leviticus. See:

21:12 One who fatally strikes another person…there is reference here to sanctuary cities which are described later. Note the phrase “act of God.” We assume it means “by accident.” It is unclear here why the translation assumes only a male killer. Again, this is likely a humanization of existing practices. See Mishpatin at Plaut page 511.

21:22  When individuals fight… tooth for tooth etc. The rabbis argue that this is not literal but rather monetary – a value is assigned to each part; a question as to how much the victim will settle for. Here a fetus is not classified as a living person but rather as the property of the husband. RB has this memorized because of her work with Planned Parenthood. In the traditional Jewish community one does not say Kadesh for a child who dies in miscarriage. See Essays at page 526. “Assessment of the age and origin of this law code…depends on how one views its relationship to the laws of the ancient Near East, of which we now have extensive knowledge. There can be no question  that a number of these laws were familiar to Israelite society, either by way of patriarchal traditions formed in the Mesopotamian past, or indirectly through the practices of the nations with which the Israelites came into contact – especially the Canaanites after the conquest of the land.”

21:24  What happens when your ox gores someone. Note that an ox is a very valuable animal. Note also the concept of “muad” meaning “in the habit of.”  One can put themselves in a situation where harm can be expected to ensue but even a trespasser is subject to some protection. These laws are clearly designed for a settled farming community – rather than a nomadic society. That is why it is generally agreed that  they were likely written much later than the time of the events described. There is a close relationship between this text and the laws of Hammurabi.

21:33 When a person opens a pit… very detailed rules on dealing with livestock. Monetary compensation by a thief for theft of a sheep. Note the reference to tunneling at night or in the day. The rabbi’s argue that there is an expectation of an armed confrontation at night. During the day it is more likely that no one will be at home. Or is this reference to “tunneling” a fair translation?

The companion Haftarah here is Jeremiah 34:8-22. In that prophet’s time, the ruling classes of Judah, who had released their slaves as a tribute to God, reversed their previous release once the threat of the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had passed. They reneged on the promise they had made. This tells how Jeremiah dealt with that reversal.

1st night Seder on April 10.


Whose stories are we not hearing?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s Shabbat sermon on parashat Yitro. Crossposted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal
of what he saw,
of what he heard,
of what it all meant to him.

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t—
I’m always holding a baby,
one of my own,
or one for a friend,
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down.

And then
as time passes,
the particulars,
the hard data,
the who what when where why,
slip away from me,
and all I’m left with is
the feeling.

But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute.

My brother is so sure of what he heard—
after all he’s got a record of it—
consonant after consonant after consonant.

If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying.

This poem by Merle Feld gives us a personal perspective of one of the most important collective experiences of the Jewish people: Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Because this moment, captured in this week’s Torah portion, was such an important part of the Jewish story, rabbis have spent centuries arguing about exactly who was there, who heard what, and who said what in response.

For instance, some rabbis argued that this historic gathering was not limited by the bounds of the space-time continuum. Therefore, it included the future prophets of Israel, the souls of those yet unborn, and the souls of future converts to Judaism (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). One rabbi imagined that the bellies of pregnant women became like glass, so that the fetuses in their wombs could affirm their commitment to the covenant (Midrash Aseret Ha-Dibrot).

But oddly enough, some rabbis argue over whether or not women were included, and whether they received all commandments, or just the most basic ones. One progressive amongst these rabbis concluded that the women must have been addressed first because they were “prompt in fulfilling the commandments” and would “lead their children to the study of Torah” (Exodus Rabbah 28:2).

Modern feminist scholars point out that Moses’ instructions to the people seem to imply that women were not to be included at all. This exclusion, they argue, did not come from God, but rather from Moses’ own biases. While God instructs Moses to make sure the people “stay pure,” Moses tells the people—or at least, the men—“Do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19: 10-15). In doing so, Moses has implied that “people” means “men,” and that “pure” and “woman” cannot exist in the same space.

Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote that “At this defining moment of revelation, Moses has introduced into Israel both gender exclusion and the separation between sexuality and spirituality. Two major concepts—and they are not divine” (Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, pp. 70-72). Judith Plaskow puts it more simply, “At this central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible” (Contemporary Jewish Theology, pp. 255). Given that, last week, the Torah amplified the voices of women–singing, dancing, and drumming on the shores of the sea– their silence here is almost audible.

And while these contemporary voices point out the exclusion of women from the Sinai narrative, these aren’t the only voices that we aren’t hearing. The Torah would have us believe that close to a million people were standing at Sinai. Surely they did not all have the same experience! But we only really hear about Moses, and God, and the Israelites as a collective entity. The experience of the individual is lost.

For instance, my friend Matan Koch once gave a brilliant sermon about the phrase “standing at Sinai.” Matan uses a power chair, and while he can make it go up and down when asked to “rise for the Barchu,” he cannot physically stand. He asked us to consider what his fate might have been at Sinai. Would God have miraculously enabled him to stand for the giving of the Torah? Would his fellow Israelites have propped him up to a standing position? Or would God have accepted him as he was, a person who cannot stand and therefore enters the covenant in a seated position?

All of this got me thinking about whose stories we might not be hearing, at Sinai, and now.

In a recent interview, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discussed her now-famous quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” This quote is beloved by activists and feminists everywhere. Some of us even have it printed on tote bags. But Ulrich had not meant for her words to serve as encouragement for revolutionary behavior. She had had actually been talking about the difficulty of her own research into the lives of ordinary women in the 19th century. All she had to work with were the journals of a handful of “well-behaved” women, because the patterns of their everyday lives were not considered newsworthy. Nor did the men around them take note of their behavior, unless it was erratic.

I have long been obsessed with stories, both real and imaginary, about people ordinary and extraordinary. In addition to my love of biblical stories and midrash on their characters, I enjoy storytelling podcasts and memoirs. Personal stories give me perspectives that differ from my own: such as what it was like to grow up poor in Appalachia and then go to Yale, or how it would feel to travel to Korea to impress one’s future husband’s grandparents.

One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate are the stories I hear when guiding people through the life-cycle. B’nai mitzvah parents tell me what their children were like as babies, trying to escape from their cribs, or tasting solid food for the first time. Wedding couples tell me why they love each other and how they knew it, or how many times their partner asked them out before they said yes. Families preparing for a funeral have the impossible task of telling me their loved one’s entire life story in about an hour, but they do it with tenderness and humor. These are the stories of ordinary people, everyday stories that rarely get told outside the inner circle of a family. There are many commonalities, but each one is different, and learning each other’s stories is vital to building meaningful relationships and sacred communities.

In the world we currently inhabit, our struggle to build these relationships is twofold. First of all, we might be too plugged in, too busy, or too uncomfortable to sit down with people in our circle to ask questions about their lives.

Our second challenge is that, even if we were to uncover the life stories of everyone we knew, we might still not hear the stories of those beyond our circle. We are a nation made up of diverse opinions and life experiences. This can cause a lot of tension between those who hold different viewpoints. What would it be like if everyone in our nation took the time to hear the stories of individual immigrants, refugees, people in poverty, people in business, people in law enforcement, those who live in East Coast cities and those who live in the rural Midwest, people of color and people of privilege, people from different religions, and, most of all, people from opposing political parties?

So while I try not to make a habit of telling you what to do, I’d like to suggest three action items to consider over this long weekend:

First of all, we can ask a loved one to tell us their story. The StoryCorps website and app have great lists of questions to ask.

Second, we can find someone in the synagogue that we don’t know very well, and make time to meet with them and learn their story. We’ve been talking a lot about how we might navigate these tumultuous times as a community. Sometimes we will be called upon to act together, sometimes to support one another. But what if the synagogue was a place where we could experience the stories of those who are not like us? Because even if we are all part of the Jewish community, we are not all the same.

Finally, we can seek out opportunities to hear the stories of those whose experiences and opinions might be different from our own. You might find them online through StoryCorps or The Moth, but also in our community. For instance, we are working with our Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighbors to create joint programming where we can get to know each other better.

We also have an opportunity to hear stories on Saturday, March 25th, when the TMI Project will be hosting an evening called “Black Stories Matter” in Kingston. This is an opportunity to hear about experiences different—or perhaps not so different—from our own in an apolitical setting: just real snapshots of pivotal moments in other people’s ordinary lives.

There are those who believe that the Torah was given in 70 languages, so that everyone in the world could understand (Shabbbat 88a). One rabbi suggests that, just as manna tasted different to every Israelite, so the commandments sounded different to each individual: “Come and see how the voice went forth to all of Israel, to each and every one in keeping with their particular strength [koach]—to the elderly in keeping with their strength, to young men in keeping with their strength, to the little ones in keeping with their strength, and to the women in keeping with their strength” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).

The better we know each other’s strengths and stories, the better we can speak to one another in the right language. Because even though the Israelites might each have heard or experienced something different at that Sinai moment, they all stood at the same mountain, they all had to adhere to the same covenant, and they all had to walk through the same wilderness, together. The same is true of us: our experiences may be different, but it is still incumbent upon us to move forward together. Then we might, as Merle Feld suggests, “recreate holy time, sparks flying.”






Torah Study Notes 2-4-17

February 4, 2017

With Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz

Exodus – The plagues continue. Query: The captivity of the Israelites’ in Babylonia is well documented. They were in fact released and allowed to return to Israel. Is not Egypt merely a surrogate for Babylonia in this account? It is believed to have been written shortly after the return. See:

Page 407

10:1  “I have hardened his heart…”  – in the first five plagues P hardened his own heart. Maimonides  opined that P eventually lost his ability to repent. See Rick Jacobs recent article in the Huffington Post. He appears to be attacking Trump but it is soon apparent that he is talking about this episode from the Torah. It sounds like he is calling out Trump but is actually calling out P. (I could not find this.) Compare Lincoln’s Team of Rivals.  RB: One argubly becomes stronger and sharper by debating with those of different views. Also, policy can be adapted to different views.  The same dynamic applies in personal relationships such as marriage. G is humiliating P and P’s gods. Each plague addresses a different one  of those gods.

10:7  The courtiers now suggest that the Hebrew’s should leave. A question is presented as to what constitutes slavery at that time. How did it compare to slavery in America? From a literary perspective, this is somewhat like a super-hero narrative with a good guy and bad guy. It is usually  more interesting when the characters are complex. This speaks to a time when people wanted a hero and a villain. Read Victor Frankl’s Mans Search for Meaning. chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.

LL This reads like a play with dialog. The writer likely has a variety of intentions: to entertain and to teach via that entertainment. See the The Philosophy of the Torah.

What is “essentialism” – the tendency to say that people are of a certain nature and are therefore designed for specific roles. There is a good deal of this in Exodus and elsewhere in the Torah.

10:12  Hold out your arm over the land of Egypt for the locusts… The Eternal drove an east wind over the land. Why do the locusts come from the east? The other empires were to the east and they periodically invaded Egypt.  “I stand guilty before the Eternal your God.”  The west wind hurled the locusts into the sea of reeds. Compare the Santa Ana winds that impact southern California.  Hold out your arm so that darkness will descend on the land. This could have been a sandstorm. Note that some of the plagues are Egyptian specific whereas others are of general impact. The hail did not strike the Israelites. They had light. Arguably the darkness is of ignorance and depression.

10:24 P said “Go worship the Eternal. Only your flocks and your goods shall be left behind… E shall bring one more plague upon P. The E again stiffens the heart of P. There are clearly issues of free will and predestination here. E apparently knows the outcome and is orchestrating it. “Why?” is a very difficult question.

LL: If this is read as a work of art one would not question the plot line of the author. (RB says she would and does.) If the artist is successful one accepts the artist’s vision and is immersed in the artistic experience and intent. Such an approach does not make the work any less sanctified. It may be more so as we react with astonishment, anger, delight and sadness. A search for historical foundation, for verisimilitude and logic, in my opinion, actually does a disservice to the author and strips away the divinity. The “play” has several messages – philosophical and theological – that touch upon inter alia, morality, ethics, and politics.   The Torah is a work of divine inspiration that has kept its readers transfixed and fascinated for thousands of years.

Fighting the Plague of Darkness

Rabbi Berkowitz’s remarks at the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March. You can watch a video of the speech here. Mid-Hudson welcomed its first refugee family, from Congo, this past Tuesday. The family our community has volunteered to welcome is delayed indefinitely.

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral, 
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands,
For the crime of indifference,
For the sin of silence,
For the closing of borders.
For all that was done,
For all that was not done,
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness
When your children, O God,
Are free and at peace.

From Chaim Stern, editor, Gates of Repentance (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).

This week, the Jewish scriptural readings find us enslaved in Egypt, inching ever closer to that moment of liberation, but with many roadblocks along the way. With Pharaoh’s heart so hardened that even his most trusted advisors cannot sway him, God brings about the ninth plague: “a darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21).

Unlike many of the other plagues, this one fell only on the houses of the Egyptians. What was the nature of this strange and selective darkness? The rabbis tell us that this is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual one, “the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors” (Etz Chayim 377).

This is a story that has recurred too many times in our history. Too many times, we have drawn the curtains and shut off the streetlights, turned off the television and silenced the radio, so that we did not have to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering, so that we would not be held responsible for our inaction.

But we are here this evening to say: we will not give in to the darkness of ignorance and indifference. We will shine the light of solidarity, even in these dark times. Because, as the ancient rabbis tell us, the break of dawn is the moment we can first recognize the face of our friend (Berachot 9b).

We are here tonight, to say to our neighbors, to our faith communities, and to our public officials: We will not let the actions of our national leadership prevent us from seeing the humanity of our neighbors, whether they are our Muslim brothers and sisters living among us now, or our refugee cousins who are, in spite of everything, still hoping to make a home in our community. We will not allow our nation to fall victim to the plague of darkness.

We are here tonight to say to our neighbors.

Our lights have not been extinguished.

Our curtains are not drawn.

Our doors are not closed.

Our ears and eyes and hearts are open:

We see you.

We hear you.

We are you.

We are standing beside you.

We will welcome you.

And we will fight for you!

 Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lirdof tzedek ule’ehov et ha-ger.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through sacred obligations, and commands us to pursue justice, and to love the stranger.