Torah Study Notes 9-29-18

September 29, 2018

The Hebrew Bible is made up of three parts – Torah, Prophets, and Readings. It is called the Tanakh.

Ecclesiastes is one of the Readings – Many authors, probably written around 300 BCE. Traditionally attributed to King Solomon – Song of Songs and some psalms are attributed to him as well. Ecclesiastes is the Greek word for congregation. It is a man looking back over his life and trying to find meaning. Note the different versions and translations. Life is fragile and cyclical. The futility of existence. Materialism. LL This is intelligent, refreshing and provocative. The Hebrew word “Rurah” is translated variously as “wind” or “spirit.”

Enjoyment is a gift of God. This is one of the positive notes. “Do what is good…” Part of the “wisdom literature.”  Like Psalms.

Seems to glorify pleasure. Compare Epicurus.  See Harold Kushner “When all You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.” and


Ecclesiastes is studied during Sukkot – part of the life cycle as is Pesach and Shavuot. We are about to enter a period of dormancy and death. The light is leaving. Withering. The booth is temporary to remind us of the transience of beauty – and life.  Accept impermanence.

Thomas Wolfe wrote:

“[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”[1]

For more see:


Torah Study 9-22-18

Page 1400

Biblical poetry.

Jerry Slate joins the group.

Moses is about to die. The Hebrew here is very challenging. This is one of the two major poems in the Torah. Dating is also challenging. See commentary of Jeffery Tigay. Sometimes called the Torah’s lawsuit. There is a treaty and witnesses. This doesn’t mention many of the items covered in Deuteronomy. The focus here is not on exile – which is the focus of Deuteronomy. D was likely written considerably after the Babylonian exile and after the annihilation of the Northern Kingdom. This more likely 12th to 11th C, B.C.E.  . A copy of this poem was found at Kumaran and is mentioned by Josephus as part of ancient Jewish life.  Note the presence of merism – describing two extremes – and parallelism. LL Was this chanted? Consider the Rabbinic Voice. See NYT article.

“…The voice is the intricate product of a multi-pronged historical process.

According to this explanation, the voice is a side effect of a life of intense religious study. Because neither the Torah nor the Talmud is punctuated, students learn to add intonation with vocal emphasis. Which is why so many rabbis end sentences on a rise.

“Long ago, that phrasing was translated into everyday language by Ashkenazi Jews, then brought into English,” Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, told me. “It’s so common that even newcomers to the community pick it up,” she added, presumably meaning mothers-in-law, converts, Hollywood agents, “sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly.”

32:4 The imagery here is of parent and guardian. This describes the relationship between G and Israel.  See the Woman’s Commentary here. There is nurturing here. Possible woman author?

See line 8 which is “divisions of humanity” in a later edition of Plaut. This seems to be more reflective of modern Reform ideas – rather than divisions into race as in this translation. See Dr. Weiss commentary on this section – G allocates lesser deities to other peoples.  See “…no alien god alongside.” In the service there appears the phrase “there is no other god like you…” Monalatry is not pure monotheism as we think of it today.

32:15 We have just heard about the blessing of the land; the people grew fat and course – bloated and engorged. “You neglected the Rock who begot you.”  “I will hide my countenance from them.”

32:19  Gods reaction is punishment. Here are warrior images. Verse 20 – hiding God’s face. Because they have pushed God away. “Let God shine his countenance upon you..” is a phrase at the end of the service. The same word in Hebrew for “face” and “countenance” suggest and intense presence. The word is used by God when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai.

32:26 The other nations gain confidence by virtue of the peoples misconduct. There will be a terrible punishment but the people are not entirely wiped out. The punishment is not forever – it is a cleansing process. There will be redemption. Chastising with love is the traditional explanation.   LL This sounds retrospective. It is a description of what happened to the people and their survival. PC: How does this help us ethically? Rabbi – Not the intended lesson here by the writer at the time. If we were writing this today it would be different. PC: Can we come away that punishment in anger is morally wrong? Rabbi – that is not what it is saying. Anger can be a positive force. AS: There is a common notion that ours is a vengeful God. Christians argue that theirs is a loving God. CL later: Read Bart Ehrman’s  book The Triumph of Christianity – How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World; and  Ehrman points out that Christianity aggressively destroyed the other religions of Rome and there was considerable struggle, as well as anger and violence, within the faith itself as is evidenced by the letters of Paul.

LL: It is also worthwhile to note that a Freudian interpretation may be that the Torah is to some extent a discussion with ourselves and others. See:

“…in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.”

“He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.”


Torah Study 9-15-18

September 15, 2018

Page 1436

Haftarah readings. See references to Assyria – this has to do, in part, with the Northern Kingdom. It has been conquered but there is still hope of return.

14:02 Attributed to Hosea.

Very poetic. Images for an agrarian people. A promise to take the people back after they have turned away. This was delivered orally. LL: There is an unfortunate tendency to think that we are smarter than people in ancient times. Not so. This biblical poetry suggests a more erudite group who could use and understand metaphor. It is not entirely clear exactly what ‘iniquity” refers to here. Is it apostasy? Or is their an assumption of iniquity arising from the loss to the Assyraians?

7:18 Attributed to Micah. You will subdue our sins and cast them into the depths of the sea. Hence, the modern ceremony of casting away one’s sins.  This is a loving and forgiving G.   Is the sin cast out or subdued? The former is more of a Christian notion and the latter Jewish. Our tendency to sin is inherent – part of being a human being – and must be controlled. Note that the theology here is of omniscience. God is all powerful and is equally responsible for good and evil. Compare the Book of Job which is chronologically later. Some early rabbis say Job was among those who returned from the Babylonian exile in 538 BCE, which was about seven centuries after Moses supposed death. Others note that the book is written in a strange form of Hebrew, in archaic language, In any event it is a theological treatise or discussion. See:

21:15 Sound the shofar of Zion. Sanctify a fast day….I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive it to a land parched and desolate…never again to be put to shame. LL The word “shame” is problematic in its implication. Why should we care what other nations think? To be shamed suggests blaming the victim. Job is not shamed – he is steadfast. See Milton Steinberg and Harold Kushner on a more limited theism. God “withdrew” to create the universe. See: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

AF: What was the role of the prophets? Rabbi: They were often outsiders who challenged authority. Note that the rabbi’s developed the notion of an afterlife in response to the diaspora and martyrdom of leaders like Akiba. Remember that Judaism is more than monotheism – it is ethical monotheism. The rabbinic model is that love can make us better as a people.


Torah Study Notes 9-8-18

September 8, 2018

See Plaut page 1373

This is the last reading of the year. Rabbi’s frequently select a parsha that relates to the New Year. This week and next week are two of shortest parsha. See Nitzvaim page 1372.

29:9  A commitment to enter into the covenant for future generations. See Commentary at Deuteronomy 5:3.  “…even the stranger within your camp…”  Refers to the stranger who has chosen to dwell with them. Note: That there is no provision for conversion in the Torah. Note “…with its sanctions…” This focuses on Sinai as the source of the covenant rather than the Abrahamic covenant.  The former is people focused with laws. The later is tribal. Consider the story of Ruth – amid “ alien corn.” The Orthodox approach to conversion is very different than the Reform.

29:15 This is again a restatement of the previous recitals. “… a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood…” The Eternal will never forgive them

29:20 The devastation attendant to tribal apostasy. “The Eternal uprooted them from their soil in anger…”

29:28 Note the distinction between concealed and overt acts. What does this mean? The footnote re a later insertion is not really an explanation. “Concealed acts” are actions that no one sees but G. Will you be punished by G? See Rashi on this point. We are responsible for enforcing adherence by those who publicly flout the law. We are responsible for one another. Generally, the Torah does not dwell on internal thoughts, with some exceptions “You shall not covet” “You shall honor your father and mother…” This section does not address evil thoughts. Consider Woody Allans “Crimes and Misdemeanors”  where he addresses the angst of conscience. God will exact the punishment. Noel: My thinking drives my behavior. How are we to separate our thoughts and our behavior. Consider when the thoughts are expressed and are covered by modern law as “free speech.”  See also 17…whose heart is even now turning away from the Eternal our God. Rabbi: A thought must be associated with an overt act in order to be punishable by the community. We have previously discussed the distinction between intentional and unintentionally acts.

We start the new year with a sense of reflection as to our sins. The Hebrew for sin is “arrow” and refers to missing the mark.


Torah Study Notes 8-18-18

August 18, 2018

Rabbi Altman

Plaut – page 1300

Shofrim means “Justice” and this parsha focuses on judges, priests, kings and laws. The priests were primarily in Jerusalem and the sacrifices were to feed them. There is a warning here about practicing magic and divination. Last week was about false prophets. This section is on cities of refuge.  This concept is first mentioned in Numbers.

19:1 …so that any killer may have a place to flee…See the accidental death with the axe head in the grove of trees. This is an example. The Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud gave more examples. The “blood avenger…”  This was usually a family member, but it is also believed by some scholars that someone could be hired for this purpose. The killer had a place to flee and be safe prior to trial.

19:8 “…you shall add three more towns to that three… “ It is unknown if such cities ever were in fact established.

19:11 “If a man lies in wait and strikes a fatal blow… you shall show him no pity…Thus you will purge Israel of the blood of the innocent, and it shall go well with you.” See page 64 and the story of Noah. At that time the earth was filled with violence and the flood was man’s punishment.

(See: Steven Pinker’s. A History of Violence- https://www ) It is Pinker’s thesis that violence has actually considerably decreased since ancient times.)

See also Genesis 5 re the creation if man in the image of G: “For your blood guilt I will require a guilty person…” This is not nuanced here. It is the underlying principle that, because we are created in the image of G, there cannot be murder. This was a revolutionary notion for the time according to some scholars. Turn to page 479 verse 13 “You shall not murder.” is the broad principle from the Ten Commandments. Thereafter there are “case studies.” See page 514 verses 12 through 14. “One who fatally strikes another person shall be put to death…” followed by some specific examples. The killer here is masculine. There is no indication that the cities of refuge were available to woman. There is a distinction here for accidental and premeditated death. Here the altar is a place of refuge but not available to the intentional killer. Many of these sins and consequences were later modified as to the punishment by the Rabbis in their interpretations. LL: This is analogous to originalism vs interpretation in Constitutional Law. See also page 1124 for a reference to cities of refuge.

Numbers 35:6 The towns assigned to the Levites. ‘The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger… so the killer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly.”  Later, the Sanhedrin became the “assembly” who passed judgement. Deuteronomy restates much of this.

35:13 Six cities – three beyond the Jordan and three in the land of Canaan. What follows is numerous examples of what constitutes murder with iron, stone, wood.  This deals with intentionality. See: Rise Up and Kill Them First by Ronan Bergman -.  This is the secret history of the Shin Bet and Mossad assassination programs. The title is from the Talmud “If someone should come to kill you rise up and kill them first.”

35:22 Remaining in the city of refuge. When the killer may be protected. Note the power of the high priest.

35:29 The testimony of witnesses. There must be more than one for a conviction of murder or, indeed, any capital crime.  Note verse 33 –“… you shall not pollute the land… for blood pollutes the land… “ Remember that this is written in Babylonia and the Israelites were disenfranchised. The Talmud says that a Sanhedrin that decrees death once in seven years shall be discharged, or even every seventy years according to the Rabbi being quoted. There was great concern about the death sentence. Judaism is about using the Torah as a starting point and then refining by argument and discussion. See Essay on The Pursuit of Justice on page 1308.


Torah Study 8-4-18

August 4, 2018


Presiding: Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Statements were requested by Rabbi as to why SF, PC and LL are attending Torah class. Sam gave a very in depth reply with the focus on learning to become a better person; Paul seeks intellectual companionship and learning “With people smarter than me.” I expressed my interest in religion as a historical force on humankind generally and in Judaism and the Jewish community. This is Rabbi Altman’s second Torah Study class at Vassar Temple

Page 1232

Deuteronomy -Eikev

9:4: Moses explains why the people are being given this land. It is the covenant with A, I and J. They are reminded that the people before them have been wicked and therefore are to be ousted. But they could be ousted as well. This is a demand for ethical behavior in addition to a demand for monotheism. This also has to do with the nature of gratitude. Is good fortune our doing? Or are there other forces involved. If they do not follow these commandments the land will spew them out. (LL: Much of this section is written in the first person. Moses is speaking and refers to himself as “I” These are sermons and speeches delivered by him.) SN: It is unfortunate that many if not most of the benefits inuring to the Israelites come at the expense of other peoples. Rabbi A: We cannot look at all of this through a modern lens. It is sacred text. PC: Looks like G fell down on the job here in terms of delivering on his promises. So much human suffering.  SF How are we not despairing here? We do it by ethical learning and improving ourselves. LL This is proto Judaism. We live in a rabbinic world.  Judaism has evolved into an intellectual process of examination of text and self.   SF Morning prayers asks that G treat us with compassion, mercy and justice etc. But that is about how we should treat one another.

9:8 An account of M’s experience on Sinai. See Essays starting on page 1241. This recitation repeats the account in Exodus 31 et sec. The incident of the Golden Calf.  Was M right or wrong in smashing the tablets?  Did he have a right to do that? See Midrash handout from the Babylonian Talmud, Exodus and Deutronomy. In M’s view the people broke the covenant and therefore were no longer entitled to the laws. G commended M for his action. See text from Exodus – referring to the “oral law” comprising Halakha, Midrash and Aggadah. The fact that M writes the second set of tablets indicates a partnership between G and M and hence between G and Man. SF: In Mussar anger is one of the highest forms of idolatry. SN Anger can motivate us to do good things. SF Maimonides talks about countering anger by doing the right thing – here that would be carving the second set of tablets. Rabbi A:  It is believed that M came down the mountain the second time on Yom Kippur.   LL: This section repeats the account in Exodus from 30:12 et sec.

From Wikipedia: Deuteronomy is traditionally seen as the words of Moses delivered before the conquest of Canaan, a broad consensus of modern scholars see its origin in traditions from the Northern Kingdom brought south to the Kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Assyrian conquest (8th century BC) and then adapted to a program of nationalist reform in the time of Josiah (late 7th century BC), with the final form of the modern book emerging in the milieu of the return from the Babylonian captivity during the late 6th century BC.[3] Many scholars see the book as reflecting the economic needs and social status of the Levite caste, who are believed to have provided its authors; those likely authors are collectively referred to as the Deuteronomist.


Torah Study Notes 8-26-17

August 26, 2017

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Discussion of Zionism and the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state.

In Israel, one cannot marry without the cloak of a religious organization. There is no civil marriage. The only form presently recognized is orthodox Judaism. It is unlikely that this will change without violence. It is the only country in the world that has existed without stable and recognized borders – with the possible exception of Kashmir.

Page 1294

16:18 the appointment and standard of conduct for magistrates. What is justice in this context? The standard is no partiality and no bribes. Society must be organized on an impersonal basis. Rhode Island is a good example of a small polity where everyone knows everyone else. Result: frequent corruption. It is recognized that there is a tendency to corruption but how is it to be contained? Jacques Derrida

pointed out that most gifts are given in expectation of something in return.  Marvin Fox    – writing about Jewish organizations and fund giving pointed out the importance of peer pressure. The scales of justice balance punishment and mercy in the context of criminal law. Where was justice in Les Miserables?

Jean Val Jean and Jabert clearly had different notions of justice. One of the over-arching themes of Deuteronomy is that the people are entering a land that they have no right to other than that G has given it to them. They are displacing another people. Where is the justice? This is saying that there is no natural right to the land without the establishment of a just society.  The forensic evidence suggests that the people of Israel actually organized indigenously within Israel itself. The flight out of Egypt is a construct. A group coalesced into a political unit about 1000 BCE around the time of David.  Until the Assyrian invasion there were primarily border conflicts with the Edomites, Moabites etc. Deuteronomy is a retelling of “back history.” For example we know virtually nothing about the history of Vassar Temple? We know the names of the founders from the articles of incorporation but not where the Torah scrolls come from. What did the composers of this scripture know about what occurred before the year 1000? Probably very little so they constructed a back story. See Noah Harari and Sapiens as well as Homo Deus.

This is mixture of retrospective constructs and some traditional “facts.” The notion of the displacement of an indigenous people is a particularly odd construct – but it is what led them to be forced out that is the theme here of Deuteronomy – idolatry.  In Leviticus the land is even more important in terms of establishing the identity of the people.  The term “Zion” meaning “…a marked place.” does not appear in Deuteronomy. It is a weaker term than a “promised land.” See David Aaron in Cincinnati

who is very skeptical of anything that is pre-exilic. But we have actual evidence of a Davidic monarchy that cannot be ignored. The Redactor was active about the year 500 – after the exile to Babylonia. There is a built-in dialectic in Torah about what makes the people a people – is it the land or is it inherent in the people. It is unresolved. PG: the various forms of Judaism are not “denominated” as they are in Christianity – they are movements. Some are organized and some are not – like JewBu’s. But they are not denominations. They are informal aggregations.     We identify by association with the Jewish Federation. Jews for Jesus is not included. BN is shameless when it comes to staying in power – using demagoguery. We may see some riots and violence when the time comes to change administrations in Israel.

Torah Study Notes 8-5-17

August 5, 2017
Page 1188
3:23 Moses here describes the negative things that have happened during the exodus – including G’s injunction that Moses shall not enter the promised land. LL Note the recent report in NYT about the people of Lebanon being genetically identified as descended from the Canaanites.
Why is Moses being “punished?” This refers to the incident of drawing water from the rock – where he struck the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed. Moses here blames the others for all of this as he passes leadership to Joshua. Is there a connection here to the notion of original sin as it is viewed in Christian theology? This is clearly not a Jewish idea – in Judaism there is no community responsibility for the sins of ancestors. Each person is born with their own propensity to sin. What is our responsibility as a society for the “sins” of others? Mental illness has alternatively been seen as either externally induced or internal – consider the Dybbuk.
3:28 Moses recalls the incident at Ball-peor; sacrificing to alien gods in concert with the Midianite woman. All were wiped out in a plague as punishment. The injunction that one should not “add or take anything away…” from the Torah. However, consider the Talmud – which is extensive commentary and contains many rabbinically created rules. This instruction as to not adding or subtracting is more likely a reference to pagan rituals. Even today the Hasidim have been adding new regulations to the conduct of woman as a way of control. AF: There is an analogy to computer architecture that stays the same. LL: How are the various sects of Judaism dealing with transgender and LGBT issues? RB: The Reform movement has tried to be adaptable – the ultra orthodox have greater difficulty. Modern orthodoxy is different and likely to be more adaptable.
4:5 A light unto the nations. Make these words known to your children and your children’s children. The Ten Commandments etc. Make no sculpted images and don’t bow down to them. LL This seems to enjoin keeping and creating human or animal images of any kind – as is the practice in Islam. CL It is almost impossible to suppress the human urge to create images. LL: Do we not worship art? SF: The impulse to create is divine inspiration. The muse is the Eternal. See footnote 8 and Essay page 490.
4:21 Now the Eternal was angry with me on your account and swore that I would not cross the Jordan… A warning as to what happens when and if they worship idols. RB: The notion of a God that one cannot see or touch is original but divine feminine imagery is effectively suppressed by this idea. Has anything as grand as this ever happened… heard the voice of God? See: for an analysis on the development of monotheism in ancient Israel. Consider the brief reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton as well who tried to introduce monotheism in Egypt.
4:41 Then Moses set aside three cities to the east side of the Jordan to which a killer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow… without being hostile to the victim. LL: This notion of cities of sanctuary is still referenced today on the issue of immigration.

Torah Study Notes 7-29-17

July 29, 2017

Page – 1161

Starting Deuteronomy – the second telling or Hebrew D’varim meaning “words.”

This entire book is a statement by Moses to the Israelites. They have crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. There has been a reiteration of where they have been and a statement of laws       ( 70 new ones dealing with living in the land.) “Deuteronomic Theology” is the notion that our continuation in the land is dependent on our good behavior – the punishment will be communal. Rain will be the most common form of blessing. See maps on page 1158. This is thought to be the work of two authors.

1:1 Wandering in the same space for 40 years? See footnote 2. A character building exercise and a way to enter with the new generation that had never been slaves. A spiritual wilderness. Note that “Teaching” is capitalized as an editorial choice as a translation of “Torah.” The description of the land as recited appears to be a large geographical area. It has been suggested that there is an effort here to deny any divinity to Moses. That would be inimical to monotheism. Q -what does it mean here to “take possession” of the land? A system of deeds and land records? Or just military occupation? PC: If this is the land promised to Abraham 40 generations ago the current occupants were squatters. Note the role of the Rothchild family and others in buying up land in Israel. Purchases by “foreigners” were essentially forbidden by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire.

1:9 “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.” This is resonant of Jethro and his father in law who used similar language. The fact that Jethro is not mentioned essentially erases the Midianite origins.  See footnote 16.

1:19 A recap of what led up to entry into the land – the spies etc. “You sulked in your tents…”  Their sin is lack of faith. Joshua shall attend you.  “Because of you the Eternal was incensed with me too…”

1:39 A recitation of the initial attack on the Amorites – that was not authorized by the Eternal. Thus they marched back into the wilderness via the Sea of Reeds. Note that there is detail here that does not appear in Numbers 14. See page 986. Suggestive of a different author with different oral memory. See page 991 discussion re two traditions.


Torah Study Notes 6-24-17

June 24, 2017

Page 1003

16:1 Korah raises a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Note that K is of the line of Rueben. His argument is that everyone should be equal before the lord. LL This has socio-political elements – almost a form of proto communism. Who can encounter God? Why should a small group enjoy all of the emoluments of leadership? But there are also the burdens of leadership. We cannot just look at the glory and benefits. This very issue was one of the key bases of the Protestant Reformation. And is more in accord with the attitudes of rabbinic and modern Reform Judaism. Moses argues that he is God’s choice. He urges them to make fire to divine the truth. See essay page 1001.

Moses remonstrates by arguing that K and the others have jobs as Levites.

16:16 The theory is that we have two stories of the rebellion here – that are weaved together. One reads as a rebellion against Moses and the other against Aaron.  The presence of the Eternal appeared before the community and threatens to annihilate them all. But they cried out “when one person sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” Communal responsibility is an essential tenet of Judaism. LL note: There is a recurring theme in the Torah on this issue. We have Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah and this. In each instance the question is presented as to the liability of all for the transgressions of a few – or even the preservation of the few where the society at large is guilty.

16:23  Moses again says that he is just obeying the Eternal. The earth opens up and swallows them and their household. They went down into Sheol. There is a suggestion here however that rebellion is necessary and justified at a certain level.

17:1 et sec. A plague kills 14,000. God indicates that He can fix this. Moses supports and serves the people. He sees his job to protect the people. But note that it is Aaron who saves the people – denoting a shift in power. It is not until Ezekiel that parents and children are seen as separate from their father – they and wives were merely property.