Category Archives: The Torah

Not in God’s Name: Rabbi Sacks Confronts Religious Violence

Dear Josep,


Let me just give a little context here for our blog readers: when I heard about the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, I checked in on Josep to make sure he and his loved ones were okay. As I pointed out then, it was a bit of a weird, if not unexpected (see the last line of that post), role reversal. Josep was safe, but understandably feeling pretty fed up with the state of affairs, and we discussed the situation a little. Over the course of the conversation I mentioned that I’d been reading a book by one of my favorite Jewish leaders of our time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:¬†Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. (And here’s a shout-out to my friends Shimon and Mandy Detwiler, who not only lent me their copy, but also graciously excused me for spending a large chunk of last Shabbat at their home with my nose buried in it instead of paying attention to them.)

I had been thinking I might write a blog post about the book when I was done reading, and Josep said I should write one so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing. ūüėõ And, well, I finished the book yesterday morning, so here we are.

But I’m going to say again, Josep, that I really don’t think I can do it justice. The ideas Rabbi Sacks discusses are very complex and nuanced, and they just don’t work as soundbites–as befits any really wise and thoughtful discussion of this topic. I still recommend reading the whole thing. And to that end, I shall hereby announce that other thing we discussed: Josep’s Reading List! This is a new page on the blog website that will feature a list of titles I have recommended to you over the years–including links to my short stories at the end–for your convenience and that of our blog readers who happen to be bookworms like us!

Now, back to¬†Not in God’s Name.

The main goal of the book is not necessarily to explain why religious violence happens, but to provide a theological approach to confronting this phenomenon. The book seeks to answer these difficult questions: “Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?”

Now, I say these questions are difficult knowing that you, and the vast majority of Westerners, do not think of them as difficult at all. Of course the God of Abraham doesn’t rejoice in holy war or want us to hate people or terrorize our enemies! I think Rabbi Sacks is trying to help Westerners understand, however, that the fact that they see that answer as a given is part of the problem.

Modern Westerners don’t understand what drives Muslims, Christians, or Jews to interpret our holy texts in a way that drives us to violence. They solve this problem by saying: well, what these terrorists are practicing isn’t¬†real Islam. What the Christians did during the Crusades wasn’t¬†real Christianity. What Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein did wasn’t¬†real¬†Judaism. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it, they would argue: “People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’… It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.” I, myself, have expressed a similar view.

Rabbi Sacks points out the problem with this approach: “When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms. This is not a recipe for peace but for war.

It may seem obvious to a Westerner that God wants us to be peaceful, and religious people from all three Abrahamic faiths will points to key texts in our holy books that support this: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “If anyone¬†killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land–it would be as if he killed all mankind…” (Qur’an 5:32)

But it is just as easy to find texts in those and other religious sources that seem shockingly intolerant and violent. I’ve seen memes about such verses from the Qur’an and the Bible all over social media. For the most part, we have traditional interpretations that moderate the ideas expressed in these verses, but extremists have been interpreting them differently for centuries. Who am I, as a Jew, to say which interpretations of Islam are the “correct” ones? And who’s to say that my interpretation of “Blot out the memory of Amalek” is correct, while Baruch Goldstein’s interpretation of it was incorrect? Just because something “feels better” or aligns better with modern humanist doctrine doesn’t mean it’s true.

Rabbi Sacks puts the argument of the book as simply as he can in these words: “There is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.

So what is that connection, and how should we, as religious people, approach it?

Altruistic Evil and Pathological Dualism

The question of why people commit any kind of violence is something we have discussed in other (off-blog) contexts in recent months. Rabbi Sacks, of course, delves a lot deeper, drawing on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists exploring this question. Looking at humans from a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes as much sense for humans to be violent toward each other as for lions to be violent toward hyenas. Being altruistic and compassionate toward members of our own group has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because we are much more likely to survive if we cooperate; but we are also wired to be hostile, even violent, toward other groups, since they compete with us for resources and may threaten our survival. This is human nature.

Rabbi Sacks brings up two key phrases to help us understand religious violence. The first is¬†altruistic evil. He defines this as “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”. As we discussed off-blog, it takes more than poverty and desperation for people to murder innocent women and children who are not actively threatening them. For people to do this, they must be driven by a belief that those innocent people really¬†are a threat to them–through their mere existence. The easiest example to draw upon, of course, is Nazi Germany. The Nazis drew on the anger and unrest of Germans after their defeat in WWI, and desperation and poverty were certainly a part of that, but the main thing that drove them to commit genocide was the deeply held belief that the Jews had corrupted the natural order of the world. They believed they needed to kill us–all of us–to bring about their idea of utopia. The same is true of Daesh and other manifestations of radical Islam. These people believe that their values, their culture, their way of life, are under existential threat, and the only way to protect these things is to kill every man, woman, and child who represents or somehow perpetuates the destructive forces that threaten them–from Mosul to San Diego.

The second key phrase is¬†pathological dualism. Dualism is a worldview that divides the world into two opposing forces: “children of light” and “children of darkness”. Rabbi Sacks brings historical examples of people from Christianity and Judaism adopting dualistic theologies. In these worldviews, the “children of light” represent God’s will in the universe, while the “children of darkness” represent some other, evil force that must be destroyed or overcome for God’s will to be victorious. This is, of course, strictly opposed to the basic concept of monotheism. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is no force in the world that can challenge or defeat God. Believing otherwise is heresy according to the prevailing mainstream view in all three Abrahamic faiths. However, Rabbi Sacks points out, movements that believed in this view emerged during times of despair and disillusionment. Dualism is an easy way out of the difficult question of Divine justice. How can a just God have done something that seems so unjust? Dualists answer by saying that it wasn’t God at all; it was the Satan, or some other force that is fighting God. They can’t hold the idea that a God who is purely good could also be responsible for bad things that happen. It’s a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking.

Dualism is not only expressed in theology; it is expressed in completely secular contexts as well. The Nazis were also dualists. Their world was divided into desirables and undesirables. There were no shades of gray. There was no acceptance of the idea that people are complex and each individual should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.

This dualistic view of humanity does not only express itself today in places like radical Islam and white supremacism. I see it on the liberal left, too. I see it on my Facebook feed when friends write things like, “If you voted for Trump, please unfriend me”. If you are so disgusted by the “other side” that you no longer wish to engage in conversation with someone based solely on a political decision they made last November, you are expressing a dualistic worldview. And that’s without even getting into BDS and the pathological demonization of Israel that has become a pet project of the left. To many people on the left, saying I’m an Israeli settler is basically the same as saying I’m a Nazi–and that confession is likely to inspire a similar response: disgust, horror, and a complete unwillingness to see me as a person in my own right with some views they may strongly disagree with. That is pathological dualism. To those people, I am an irredeemable child of darkness.

This, argues Rabbi Sacks, is the precursor to dehumanization. The next logical step is that the “children of darkness” must be defeated, or destroyed. It is not a very long road from there to altruistic evil. To deny that your own group is capable of reaching this point is classic in-group bias. “Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others. Henry Tajfel, one of the pioneers of social identity theory, showed how deeply this runs in even the most trivial of groupings. In one experiment he divided people into groups on the basis of the mere toss of a coin, yet they still rated the members of their own group as more likeable than the others, despite the fact that they had never met one another before and knew that they had been selected on a purely random basis. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”

There are, and always will be, extremists in our midst who are willing to commit altruistic evil. The question is whether we, as a group, allow that to happen–and perpetuating a pathologically dualistic worldview is one way we enable it.

Sibling Rivalry

“Yet we are still missing a piece of the puzzle,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “The phenomena we have described thus far–identity, splitting, projection, pathological dualism and the scapegoat–are general. They could affect anyone… They help us understand violence but not the fraught relationship between the Abrahamic faiths… What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children to a common father, to such animosity for so long?”

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks devotes a major chunk of the rest of the book to exploring the concept of sibling rivalry. Historian and philosopher Ren√©¬†Girard argues that violence is born in something he termed¬†mimetic desire–wanting to have what someone else has because they have it. Mimetic desire is why, when one child is given a toy or a snack, suddenly all the other children around want the same thing. This phenomenon is all too familiar to me as the mother of three boys! We have a natural desire to have what other people have. This desire can lead to violence. Girard argued that we can see this most clearly in the natural jealousy siblings have for one another; how siblings not only desire to have what the other has, but on a deeper level, to be what the other one is. This, says Girard, is one of the primal sources of violence.

All one needs to do is glance at the first book of the Bible to see this idea reflected in Scripture. Genesis is basically a meditation on sibling rivalry. The first murder is a fratricide: Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. Every step along the way from Abraham to Joseph involves a story, or several stories, about sibling rivalry. Rabbi Sacks points out that the most essential disagreements between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be reduced to an argument over Abraham’s blessing: who was chosen? Who is most worthy of God’s love? But this problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, obviously started long before Christianity or Islam ever came about. The problem is documented very clearly in the book of Genesis itself. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (or Ishmael over Isaac in the Qur’an); Jacob over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph over his brothers.

But what if, ventures Rabbi Sacks, we have all been reading these stories wrong?

What if, on close inspection, the Scripture is telling us a different story entirely?

He devotes Part II of the book to exploring that question, through a careful analysis of the text of Genesis. This was the part that really blew me away. Because those stories had always bothered me on some level. It always seemed so unfair. Why should only one of the brothers be chosen to receive God’s blessing? Is it really true that Ishmael and Esau were unworthy? Wasn’t Joseph kind of an insufferable brat who got what was coming to him?

Does God Play Favorites?

I’ve already passed the 2,000-word mark on this post and I obviously will not be able to recount Rabbi Sacks’s entire analysis of Genesis. I want to focus on just one of those stories that spoke to me most deeply: that of Jacob and Esau.

The story I learned as a child went something like this: Jacob was the kind and gentle twin, and Esau was the wild, hairy, and course one. I mean, look how stupid he was–he sold his birthright for some lentil stew! But for some reason Isaac–who was blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically–favored Esau, while Rebecca, who was clearly in the right, favored Jacob. Jacob then stole Esau’s birthright and his blessing, at the encouragement of Rebecca, and that’s how he became the father of the chosen people.

What Rabbi Sacks points out about this story totally blew my mind. Jacob didn’t actually need to “steal” any blessing.¬†The blessing Isaac was going to give to Esau was never meant for Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob-dressed-as-Esau with power and wealth. He later blessed Esau himself with a similar blessing. As Jacob was leaving to flee his brother’s wrath, Isaac gave him yet another blessing–a blessing to inherit the land of Canaan, and to have many children.

Abraham was never blessed with power or wealth; he, too, was promised the Land of Canaan and children “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. Isaac meant to give Jacob Abraham’s blessing all along.

Jacob’s story is essentially the story of a younger brother who wanted to have what his brother had–to be what his brother was–and who eventually learned that that’s never what he was meant to be. It’s the story of a man who came to appreciate his own gifts and destiny, and then–in the climactic scene of reconciliation with Esau–essentially¬†give back¬†what he took, which he now understood was never meant for him. That is when his name symbolically changed from Jacob–“He who follows”–to Israel, “He who wrestles with God”.

Throughout this section of the book, Rabbi Sacks consistently shows that God’s “choice” of one sibling over another is not actually an expression of overall preference. The other sibling is also appreciated and blessed in his own right. Of Ishmael the Bible says explicitly that “God was with him”. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are chosen not for their superiority, but for their specific traits: the fact that they were¬†not strong and self-sufficient like Ishmael and Esau were. God blessed Ishmael and Esau with¬†power; he blessed Isaac and Jacob with¬†responsibility.

In other words: no, God does not play favorites. God loves and blesses each one of us according to our unique abilities and traits. We don’t have to fight over God’s love. His love is infinite.

Realizing this is the key to overcoming our “Abrahamic sibling rivalry”–and, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, we have already seen historically that this is possible. The Catholic Church has undergone a complete revolution in the way it relates to other religions and to Jews in particular in the past few centuries. In the wake of the Holocaust, some deep soul-searching on the part of the Christian world has led to a dramatic change in Jewish-Christian relations. “Today, after an estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more often as friends–even (in the word selected by recent popes) ‘brothers’–than as enemies.”

Rabbi Sacks points out that one of the factors that seems to allow this to happen is the separation of religion from political power. We saw this in Judaism 2,000 years ago when the Hasmoneans lost power to the Romans; we saw it in Christianity with the secularization of the Western world in the last few centuries. I don’t know how or when it will be possible with Islam, but I have a theory: Islam is currently in its 15th century. Christianity wasn’t particularly tolerant in its 15th century. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and maturity.

What Then Must We Do?

“We must put put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

“Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan… all the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”

In my words: we are not only fighting people. We are fighting ideas. We can kill people with guns and bombs; we can’t kill ideas that way. We need to fight ideas with ideas. We need to empower moderate voices to give young Muslims everywhere a hopeful, powerful, and peaceful alternative to extremism; an alternative that helps them preserve their identity and their values as Muslims without using hate, scapegoating, or dualism.

“Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.”

Stay safe, brother.

With love,


Friendship in Judaism (In Tribute to a Decade of a Strange and Wonderful Friendship)

Dear Josep,

Mo’adim l’simcha! (Roughly, happy holidays. Just smile and nod.)

Aside from being the second day of Succot, it has come to my attention that today is also the tenth anniversary of the day we met.

…No. I do not expect you to have noticed this.¬†ūüėČ No matter what Facebook may claim,¬†“friendversaries” are not really a thing. Usually we have no way to know the exact date of the beginning of a friendship.¬†But ours began in a very specific context, and I happen to have concrete evidence of that event: the newspapers we wrote during the conference. They are dated the 19th, 20th, and 21st of October, 2006, which means we met on the 18th.

You see, just for kicks, I dug up the PDFs of those newspapers from the depths of my Gmail history… and¬†I noticed something amusing. The first issue was compiled¬†during the months leading up to the conference–as in, before you and I had met.¬†The editor assigned me some short articles on various topics, and asked me to write a longer feature article on the topic of my choosing. I chose to write, of course, about Spain’s Jewish past and crypto-Judaism in modern times. (What else?!)

So, if you open the paper to page 3, you find the first section of that article, alongside a column by a certain Josep… about religious life in Barcelona.

This is the very first instance either of our names appear in the byline.

True story.

excerpt from newspaper

And here we are, ten years later, still discussing religion, with me still taking up the vast majority of the space on the page. ūüėõ

I wanted to mark this occasion, as is my wont, with a discussion of the concept of friendship in Judaism!

Well, the first thing, the most famous thing, is the line that is usually translated thus: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). But the word in Hebrew often translated as “neighbor” is actually ÷∑◊®÷Ķ◊Ę, which translates far more accurately as¬†“friend.”

There are a few questions one might ask about this verse. Firstly, how can God command you to “love” someone? Isn’t “love” a feeling? You can’t command someone to be happy or sad or angry, can you?

So… no, actually. Love isn’t just a feeling. It was Mr. Rogers (who was a Presbyterian minister in addition to child psychologist and TV personality) who said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

…There you have it. When the Torah commands us to love our friend or to love God, it doesn’t mean we should¬†feel love, it means we must¬†practice love. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler argues that the root of love is giving: that we create love by giving to another. We give to our fellow man¬†in many ways, many of which are listed explicitly in the Torah; and we give to God by following His commandments and giving to His other creations.

So why does the Bible say, “as thyself”? Obviously, the plain meaning is that you should care for your friend as much as you care for yourself. But there is another idea there: you have to love and accept yourself before you can truly love and accept someone else.

Let’s take a look at stories of friendship in the Bible. The most famous and obvious example is the “bromance” between¬†David and Jonathan.

A little context: before King David came to power, King Saul ruled the Kingdom of Israel. Jonathan was his eldest son, the crown prince. But while King Saul hated¬†David and tried to kill him, knowing he was destined to supersede him, Jonathan and David became soulmates. The Bible puts it in the strongest and most poetic of terms: “Jonathan’s soul was entwined with David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”¬†The only other time this kind of language–the “intertwining of souls”–is used in the Bible, is when Judah tells Joseph about the love their father has for Benjamin: “And his [Jacob’s] soul is entwined with his [Benjamin’s] soul.”

Usually when the term “soulmates” is used people interpret that romantically. I used to think of it that way, too. But I don’t anymore. I believe that people have more than one “soulmate”–people with whom you develop a deep and inexplicably powerful bond, that can defy space, time, and circumstances. The friendship between David and Jonathan was such a bond. Jonathan was the heir to the throne; it would have made perfect sense for him to join his father in ridding themselves of “the competition.” But instead, he risked his very life to save David’s.¬†There’s an incredibly powerful moment in Samuel I chapter 20, after Jonathan had worked out a way to find out, once and for all, his father’s intentions with David, and after he delivered the message that David¬†must flee:

And David arose from the south; and he fell upon his face to the ground three times, and prostrated himself three times. And they kissed one another, and wept one with the other, until David wept greatly.¬†And Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace! For we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘May the Lord be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.”” ¬†(Samuel I 20:41-42)

Tragically, this was very likely the last time David and Jonathan ever spoke. David spent the next few years on the run, and Jonathan died on the battlefield with Saul.

So we see in this story that Jonathan practiced love for his friend by giving to him–everything from his right to¬†the throne to his own life.

The Talmud also has a great deal to say about friendships. In Ethics of the Fathers, one rabbi¬†recommends “a good friend” as the key to living an honest and good life. There are many stories about friendships in there, too. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gebirol, a famous Sephardic poet, said: “If you ask about a person, ask who his friends are. For every person does what his friends do.” (I wonder if this is the source for the common saying, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.”)

There seems to be common agreement among the Sages that friendships with good people can make us better people.

Well, I can definitely confirm that our friendship has made me a better person in a variety of ways.

So… happy friendversary, Josep. ūüėČ It’s a pleasure and a privilege to know you.¬†As you wrote in your dedication on my copy of the book: “I hope to be¬†arguing with you for many decades to come!” ūüėõ



Diversity of Language: A Biblical Punishment?

Dear Josep,

Praise the Lord. September 1st is upon us.

This summer has been ridiculous. Just ridiculous. I can’t even. I just. Ugh. And¬†All the Crappy/Annoying Things are¬†not over yet. But at least the kids are back in school now. Thank. God.

Soooo. Obviously I’ve had a lot on my plate and very limited time to be engaging in my beloved pastime of rambling at you about Judaism. I’ve been scribbling down half-baked ideas, but having had a few minutes to myself this morning, I finally managed to work one into a coherent post, and here it is.

The other day, my Parisian friend Aviv asked me if he could ask a question about the Torah. I said, ‚ÄúSure!‚ÄĚ and he wrote the following very interesting thought:

In Sefer Beresheet [the Book of Genesis], it’s told that when the humans wanted to create the Tower of Babel, Hashem punished them by making 70 languages (that made the thousands of languages of today), and so the humans could not make the tower because they couldn’t understand each other. It’s also said that in the Messianic Days, the world will have only one language.

But I wonder if having several languages is not also a blessing of God. Because it has a role in the culture of each people in the world, it creates jobs, like translation, and there are people like me and you and a lot of others who love to learn languages. So I wonder if this punishment for diversity is not at the same time a blessing, or a good thing for humanity.

I responded,

That story is a very strange story in many ways. Why would God get angry about people building a tower and ‚Äėtrying to fight him‚Äô? It‚Äôs just so ridiculous, it‚Äôs like if I were to punish my kids for telling me they were planning to run away and find new parents. So what was the real sin here, and how was the punishment a fitting consequence for the sin? Just a few of the other questions one asks looking at the story.

‚ĶOh wait, you were looking for an answer, not more questions? Hahaha‚Ķ welcome to Judaism. ūüėõ

I told him I’d like to think about it some more, and that maybe I’d write a blog post on it. So, here it is!

First off, let’s read the Biblical text describing the story of the Tower of Babel.

All the earth had but one language and the same words. As they migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there. And they said to one another, ‚ÄėCome, let us make bricks and fire them.‚Äô And they had bricks as stone, and asphalt served them as mortar. They said, ‚ÄėCome, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.‚Äô God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of Adam had built. God said, ‚ÄėAs one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, and as of now, nothing is preventing them from doing that which they propose. Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another‚Äôs speech.‚Äô And God scattered them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth, and from there, God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

 (Genesis 11:1-9)

There are many commentaries and Rabbinic legends that embellish this story. Someone who attended a Jewish day school like I did may be surprised to see how short this passage is and how many details we were taught about this story are not actually in the text of the Bible. What we are taught as children is that the building of the tower of Babel was a sin, and the creation of different languages, a punishment for the sin. But simply looking over the text, that is not the obvious meaning, or to use the Hebrew¬†term, the ‚Äúp’shat.‚ÄĚ Here‚Äôs what I see as the simple and most obvious meaning of the passage.

To me, it seems to be describing a stage in human development. People are learning to make and use bricks and mortar to build things instead of just stone. And they are starting to build cities. They propose building one big city for all of them, and a great tower that reaches to the top of the sky.

A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III
A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III

God sees what they are doing, and for reasons not entirely clear from the passage, sees a need to stop this process. His solution is to ‚Äúconfound the speech‚ÄĚ of the people so they would stop understanding each other. As a result, they stopped building the city and scattered over the face of the earth.

It is not entirely obvious from the passage what ‚Äúconfounding their speech‚ÄĚ means. We have come to understand it as meaning that multiple languages were created. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 10th century Provence) is the go-to commentator for p’shat interpretation, and he describes it this way: ‚ÄúThis one asks for a brick, and that one brings him mortar, and the former attacks him and injures his brain.‚ÄĚ I have a distinct memory of my second-grade teacher teaching us that very colorfully. It‚Äôs a cute origin story, for sure, but‚Ķ what are we meant to learn from it?

And is it true, as Aviv asked, that God ‚Äúpunished‚ÄĚ them with diversity? Hasn‚Äôt Judaism always celebrated diversity? Even when we started out as a nation we were divided into twelve distinct tribes!

When I have questions like these,¬†I open my trusty Chumash Mikra’ot Gedolot, which includes all the major commentaries (called perushim in Hebrew)¬†alongside the Biblical text.

Mikraot gedolot

I found the commentaries of Or HaHayim (Rabbi Haim ben Attar of 17th century Morocco) and Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz of 17th century Prague) particularly relevant.

Both explain that the people were trying to stay together. ‚ÄúOne language and of the same words.‚ÄĚ There was uniformity here. The purpose of the tall tower, Or HaHayim explains, was so that the people would stay within sight of the tower, and always be able to find their way back to the city. But God had commanded Adam to ‚Äúgo forth and multiply and fill the land.‚ÄĚ He didn‚Äôt want them to stay together in one place. He wanted them to spread over the face of the earth.

Kli Yakar says that their objective in building the city and the tower was to keep the peace. ‚ÄúIf we all stay the same, we will have no reason to fight with one another.‚ÄĚ It kind of reminds me of the idea of communism, or John Lennon‚Äôs ‚ÄúImagine.‚ÄĚ No countries, no different cultures, nothing to divide us, and that way we will all be able to sit together and sing kumbaya around the campfire!

Now, Kli Yakar emphasizes, it‚Äôs not that God didn‚Äôt want there to be peace and harmony among the humans. But, he says, he saw that this way of maintaining peace and harmony was going to backfire in a major way, and he brings a passage from the story to show this: ‚ÄúCome, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.‚ÄĚ Kli Yakar explains that though they seemed uniform in their apparently noble goal of maintaining peace, each of them actually had his own interests at heart: this one wanted wealth and honor, this one wanted lots of food, this one wanted lots of sex, etc., ‚Äúand through this comes discord, both because they do not have one [common] goal‚Ķ and because each of them has a desire to ascend above his fellow‚Ķ because of this, separation of these groups is better than their gathering, as it is said (Psalms 92:10) ‚ÄėAll those who act in iniquity shall be separated‚Äô‚Ķ but the righteous‚ÄĒtheir gathering is good, for their purpose unites them, because they have only one goal, and they become as one by His hand, as it is said (Psalms 119:165) ‚ÄėGreat peace for the lovers of your Torah.‚Äô But not for those for whom the external goal is the primary one.‚ÄĚ

So, the creation of the different languages and scattering the peoples throughout the world wasn’t so much a punishment, as a way to prevent humanity from reaching the same point it had before the flood: violence and discord.

And the Kli Yakar seems to be saying that in principle, unity is a good thing, but only when the people are truly united with a common, unselfish goal. When people join together with others in the hopes of achieving only their own interests, it will end badly.

In other words: There are no shortcuts to peace.

Peace cannot be imposed on people who care only about themselves and their own interests.

The prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are rich with imagery of people–not just Jews, but everyone–gathering¬†together to serve God. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have universally accepted beliefs of specific details, and I’ve never heard the concept that we will go back to speaking one language. But I think the idea is that when the Messiah comes, we will finally be ready for the true unity we lacked when the Tower of Babel was built.



Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

Lush Pastures and Valleys of Shadows: Psalm 23 from a Jewish Perspective

Dear Josep,

I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on¬†something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. ūüôā

But I want to start by telling you about an¬†extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is¬†a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.

Berger¬†is a Lubavitcher¬†Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.

My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about¬†buying you¬†a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be¬†my favorite.

Psalm 27, Moshe Tzvi Berger
So I bought it for myself!

The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.

This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. ūüėČ )

Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.

I think when we’re¬†done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original¬†Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.

A Song¬†of David…

Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.

…God is my shepherd, I will¬†not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by¬†tranquil waters He leads me.

What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.

I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter¬†yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the¬†Tree of Life, a symbol for¬†the¬†Torah, as we have discussed.

The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi. Photo by yours truly.

Many of the great figures¬†in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.

When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.

He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.

Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.”¬†We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…

This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone¬†from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over¬†either side.

“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, ◊Ę◊ě◊ď◊ô (imadi). “With me” is ◊Ę◊ě◊ô, imi. The word¬†imadi¬†comes from the root ◊Ę.◊ě.◊ď., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”


…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

◊Ę.◊ě.◊ď is also the root for the word ◊Ę◊ě◊ē◊ď, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in¬†these words: ◊©◊Ď◊ė (shevet), “rod,” and ◊ě◊©◊Ę◊†◊™ (mish’enet), “staff.”

Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?

The word¬†shevet¬†implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word¬†mish’enet comes from the root ◊©.◊Ę.◊†, as in ◊ú◊Ē◊ô◊©◊Ę◊ü, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.

This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.

The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.”¬†You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”?¬†What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?

The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.

You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.

If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature.¬†But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.

I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.

However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is ◊ď◊©◊†◊™,¬†dishanta. The root ◊ď.◊©.◊† can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The word often translated as “overflows” is ◊®◊ē◊ô◊Ē (revaya), from the root ◊®.◊ē.◊Ē/◊ô, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word¬†dishanta.

So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.

Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.

“The length of days”¬†is a direct translation of¬†◊ú◊ź◊ē◊®◊ö ◊ô◊ě◊ô◊Ě (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”

The word translated here as “dwell” is ◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô,¬†shavti.¬†But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ◊ô◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.”¬†Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above,¬†yeshovev, the same way).

But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture¬†my own suggestion: maybe ◊©◊Ď◊™◊ô is from the root ◊©.◊Ď.◊Ē/◊ô, as in ◊©◊Ď◊ē◊ô (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be¬†captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”

Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that¬†metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.

Just a thought.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 27

I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here¬†is a quote from¬†Psalm 27¬†for comparison:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God¬†is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened?¬†When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell…¬†One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”

A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.

Any insights to add?



Impostor Syndrome and the Burning Bush

Dear Josep,

Well… as you know, the past few weeks have been pretty crazy, and I’m having what researcher and author Bren√© Brown calls a major “vulnerability hangover.”

It’s what happens when you do something really brave, something that involves exposing yourself to¬†vulnerability and taking a risk, and then afterwards when you step down,¬†you look at yourself and go, “WHAT did I just DO?” and all you want to do is crawl under your bed and not come out for a good few weeks.

Yesterday my father-in-law arrived with a little stock of the books, and I got to hold one¬†for the first time. It was sooo bizarre. Was it like that for you too?! Like, there’s a book in my hands. It’s a book, and I wrote it. What.

My dear husband found me standing there in a daze staring at the pile of books, and took this picture…

After the kids went to bed I sat down with one of the copies and wrote you a dedication. But not before Googling “how to autograph a book.” (Yes. I literally Googled it. Don’t laugh, I got some good tips! ūüėõ ) I’ll have to apologize for the mess of scribbles all over your title page… I was emotional and my hand was shaking. I’d been dreaming of that very moment for a long time.

Today I started trying to work on building my author website (well, author/translator/premarital counselor/whatever-the-heck-I-am-these-days website). And I found myself at such a loss. I¬†mean… I’m a content writer,¬†you’d think I should be able to write content for my own website! But I also suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome.

Have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome? Caltech Counseling Center defines it as “a collection of feelings of¬†inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that¬†the opposite is true.”

I have a beautiful example. You don’t know this, but LtJ was actually not the only book that came out this month with my name in the byline. A poem of mine was published in an anthology called¬†Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. During the process of preparing it for print, the editors sent us the biographies we had originally submitted to make sure they were still up to date. Mine started off with “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that?¬†Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me¬†that the bio in question was for a¬†poem. That¬†I wrote. That was going to be¬†published. In a¬†book.

How ridiculous am I?!

Thankfully, I am not alone in my ridiculousness. Studies show that about 70% of the population suffers from some degree of Impostor Syndrome. In fact, arguably the most important figure in the Jewish faith suffered from it, too.

I’m referring, of course, to Moses.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the scene whether Moses encounters the burning bush and first hears God speak to him.

This is how it goes down: Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, right? And he comes across a really strange sight–a bush that is in flames, but is not being consumed by the fire. So he stops to check it out, and God calls to him and tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” He then explains to Moses who He is and tells him that He wants Moses to go to Pharoah and¬†tell him to let the Israelites go.

So, let’s just imagine for a second this happened to you. God Himself appears to you in a burning bush and tells you to go to the Prime Minister¬†of Spain and tell him to let Catalonia secede from Spain. ūüėõ What do you do? Do you start asking questions? Do you tell God He must have made a mistake?! No! You say “Yes sir!” and get moving! (Make a note of this!¬†ūüėõ )

But that’s not what Moses did: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 4:11) ¬†God tells him not to worry, that He will be with him. But Moses is not convinced, and argues that the Israelites won’t listen to him and won’t believe him. So God reassures him further and gives him the turn-the-staff-into-a-snake trick to help prove that Moses was really speaking on His behalf.

But then Moses keeps arguing!¬†He’s not a man of words, he’s got a speech impediment, couldn’t God just send somebody else? And God’s like, “Dude, I KNOW. I’M GOD. I gave you that speech impediment, remember?!¬†Have your brother talk for you if you have to, but GO!”

Seriously. God Himself appears to Moses in a spectacular feat of pyrotechnics and what does Moses do? He argues. He protests five times in that one encounter.

“Seriously, Moses. You’re pushing it.”

He truly did not believe he was worthy of the task–even in the face of “information that the opposite was true.” Like, for instance, GOD HIMSELF telling him he was worthy.

Boy, he¬†had¬†it bad…

And maybe it was precisely this¬†that led God to select him for this task. As I’ve mentioned before, the unique thing about Judaism as a religion is that it does not attribute its revelation to a single person, but rather to a whole nation. A week and a half from now, when we read the Haggadah and retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are not going to mention Moses’s name even once. The Sages left his name out of the Haggadah on purpose: because the miracles of the Exodus should be attributed to God alone. If Moses had been a little more vain, he might have taken advantage of his position of power to create a cult of personality around himself.

Actually, right after the sin of the Golden Calf, God offered to destroy the Israelites and make Moses and his descendants into a nation instead! And what did Moses say?

“Please! This people has committed a grave sin… please forgive them. But if not, erase me now from the book You have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

God grumbled back “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!” (Exodus 32:33), but I’d like to think that God was secretly smiling to Himself… in a metaphorical sense, of course. This is exactly why He had chosen Moses.

Surprisingly,¬†Impostor Syndrome¬†can actually be a predictor of high achievement. It’s the people who¬†don’t suffer from it–people who think they know exactly what they’re doing–who are more likely to be frauds.

Maybe God should have mentioned this to Moses from the bush. ūüėČ

Anyway–I’m looking forward to getting that copy to you!

Much love,


How to Deal with Offensive Rabbinic Texts–and Not Be a Jerk About It

Dear Josep,

The other day my friend Yehoshua sent me a question that he thought might be a good discussion for the blog. He says [my explanations in brackets]:

“A friend of mine shared a video of some women mocking a charedi [ultra-Orthodox] rabbi who was giving a daf yomi shiur [Talmud class]. The sugya [topic¬†of discussion] was in Ketubot 75a, and was discussing physical deformities, which if not disclosed prior to marriage would be grounds for divorce without a ketuba [meaning the husband wouldn’t need to hold to the marriage contract and pay the wife the money he committed to paying her in the event of divorce]. At some point, the Gemara starts discussing women’s breasts: how much of a gap between them would be considered a physical deformity, and then continues to discuss if a woman’s breasts are significantly different in size from other women’s. In this video photos of naked women with clearly Photoshopped breasts were displayed next to the rabbi’s head while he was discussing the passage. I found this to be extremely offensive, while at the same time I understood why whoever created the video was offended by the rabbi and chazal [the Sages]. How do you explain the Gemara to a non-believer who encounters these types of passages? How do you respond when someone creates an offensive video that mocks a passage in your holy texts, which on the surface is actually offensive? I’d appreciate your input on this.”

So there are two issues here, and I will address them separately.

#1: How to Criticize Someone’s Religion Without Being a Jerk

The first issue is that someone made this video with the sole purpose of offending and shaming, and not with the purpose of starting a conversation.

Look, whoever made this video: I understand that you found this class ridiculous and offensive. But mocking and offending people who think differently from you is not a mature or productive way of critiquing their ideas. Only cowards use shaming and ridicule to prove a point. All you are doing is making yourself look like a jerk.

If you want anyone to actually take you seriously and respect you and your opinions, you’re going to have to be willing to engage in a respectful conversation. That means:

  1. Not automatically assuming that you are superior to the person you are criticizing. Because you aren’t. And even if you were, being condescending only reflects badly on you and makes everyone less likely to respect you.
  2. Being genuinely open to hearing the other side. Start from the assumption that they have something valuable to say. Be curious. You might learn something.
  3. Criticizing the idea, not the person or people who stand behind it.
  4. Not discounting the value of an entire religion, religious text, or system of ideas because of one aspect of it you don’t like. It’s called, “not seeing the world in black and white,” also known as “thinking like¬†a mature adult.”
  5. Not using wording¬†or imagery that is offensive to the person with whom you are engaging. The message that conveys is that it’s not okay for their religious texts to offend you, but it’s okay for you to offend them.¬†I¬†believe we call that, “being a hypocrite.”

Now. Let’s pretend what happened here was that someone wrote my friend Yehoshua an e-mail that read:

Dear Yehoshua,

I came across a video of a rabbi teaching a class about a passage in the Talmud that discusses women’s bodies in a way I found very offensive. It disturbs me very much to think that the religion you practice is based on texts that discuss women’s bodies this way. Assuming, based on what I know of you, that you are a person who respects women, I wonder how you can reconcile your respect for women with the ideas discussed in this text.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Skeptical Secular Person

#2: Dealing with Offensive Passages in Rabbinic Texts

I discussed my thoughts on Torah passages that I find hard to swallow in my post, “Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can.” The thing is, there I was discussing texts that we believe come straight from God.¬†When we’re talking about rabbinic teachings, the belief that “God knew what He was doing, even if I don’t understand, and maybe part of the purpose was to make me question and struggle with this” doesn’t apply that well. One can argue that God gave the authority to the Sages to make rulings (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and therefore whatever they say is basically the same as what He said, but the distinction between Torah law (d’orayta in Aramaic) and rabbinic law (d’rabbanan) is one that is recognized in halakha. While we do see following¬†mitzvot d’rabbanan in general as being a¬†mitzvah d’orayta, there is more wiggle room within their application. One of the important principles of halakha is “safek¬†d’orayta l’Šł•umra, safek¬†d’rabbanan l’kula“–when there is a question or uncertainty¬†in halakha, if the matter concerns a Torah law, the tendency is to take the more stringent view, whereas our tendency in the case of a rabbinic law is to be more lenient.

Anyway. There are a few things I think it’s important to take into account when approaching problematic passages like the one mentioned in the video.

1) Historical Context

These passages were written hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Respect for women was not at its pinnacle in that day. You have to understand that up until extremely recently, marriage was primarily a financial transaction. The Jewish institution of marriage was progressive for its time in that it acknowledged women as being more than just property, granting them certain rights. But it wasn’t what we think of as the ideal, egalitarian¬†marriages today. In most cases, the bride and groom were not friends or acquaintances before they were betrothed. In many cases they only saw each other briefly before the wedding. For their purposes, this passage in the Talmud discusses¬†a financial transaction under false pretenses. Being physically healthy/not deformed was important information in that context, and hiding a deformity was considered dishonest conduct. The discussion here is to draw the perimeters around what qualifies as a deformity so that a man wouldn’t just randomly decide that he doesn’t like how his wife looks and¬†claim that she is deformed so he could divorce her without giving her compensation.

This doesn’t make it okay. It doesn’t mean the passage isn’t sexist and objectifying. It is. It just means that you can start from the assumption that they were doing the best they could with what they had at the time. Shakespeare’s¬†The Merchant of Venice is rife with¬†antisemitic tropes. Shakespeare¬†had most likely never met a Jew in his life; he was reflecting an idea within his society of what Jews were. He even made the character of Shylock somewhat complex with his “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” That doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t make the play less antisemitic. But it makes me more understanding and forgiving of Shakespeare for doing the best he could with what he had.

2) The Nature of Talmudic Discourse

Remember how I mentioned that the word “Talmudic” has two definitions in the English dictionary–one being “of or relating to the Talmud” and the other being “characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting”?

Not to mention, "prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men." Detail from a painting by Austrian painter Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}
Not to mention, “prone to causing fistfights between old bearded men.”
Detail from “A Controversy Whatsoever in the Talmud”¬†by Carl Schleicher (1825-1903) {PD}

If the Sages are arguing over exactly how many degrees ¬†below the horizon (and¬†from which vantage point, and from what elevation!) the sun must be to count as “sunset”¬†… why shouldn’t they be arguing over what might be considered a deformity at the same level of detail? No topic is off-limits for discussion in halakha. The major issue we have with this passage is that it’s an intimate discussion of a woman’s body in a way that is objectifying. But the Talmud is full of dispassionate discussions of various parts and functions of human anatomy and physiology–male and female–because halakha permeates absolutely every aspect of life and every detail is important.

Moreover, sometimes the Talmud brings ridiculous and extreme examples that no one in their right minds would actually believe could happen.¬†Sometimes this is a rhetorical device by which the Sages sort of “frame the perimeters” of a halakha. Sometimes it’s there to make a different point altogether, or address another kind of situation in a roundabout way. I¬†highly doubt that anyone¬†ever in the history of Judaism walked up to a rabbinic judge and held a ruler up to his wife’s chest to get out of paying her for a¬†divorce, and I doubt that the rabbis who sat around debating this actually thought they’d ever see such a thing happen.

3) The Talmud Is Not the Final Word

Jewish law did not start with the Talmud, and it doesn’t end with the Talmud either. In fact, the compilation of the Talmud itself was a capitulation. There was originally a prohibition to write down the Oral Torah, precisely¬†because the Oral Law¬†was supposed to be a continuous¬†discussion between teacher and student–not¬†doctrine set in stone. (If you have no idea what I mean by¬†Oral Torah, click here.) The way the modern application of halakha works is that it filters down from the Torah, through the Talmud, then through the rabbinical authorities of each age, right down to the rabbis making halakhic decisions right this very second.¬†The final word in halakha ideally¬†belongs to a living person.

Inevitably, there were ideas that came up in the past 2,000 years that didn’t pass the test of time, but are still preserved in our ancient writings. The Talmud also says that a women burning her husband’s food can be grounds for divorce.¬†Obviously, that is not applied today. It¬†is only one of many ideas in the Talmud that are not applicable in modern halakha (according to mainstream Orthodox Judaism).

One might ask what value there is in preserving these problematic passages, and why we don’t discard them. Or even if we don’t discard them–why are we still discussing and teaching them, if they are rejected by most halakhic authorities today? It’s a good question, and I think the answer is that we don’t like to get rid of things. ūüėõ Especially not rabbinic writings, because we see them as having inherent value, even if we find elements of them problematic or offensive today. This passage in general is a discussion about a financial transaction¬†under false pretenses, and there is a lot¬†of important information and ideas in¬†it even if some of them¬†make our stomachs turn. As to whether we should be teaching them, that’s a judgement call on the part of the particular school or teacher.

The bottom line is, these kinds of passages make most¬†modern Orthodox Jews uncomfortable too. Some respond to them with apologetics; some just ignore them; and some, like myself,¬†face them, struggle with them, and ultimately accept them as part of an imperfect system that we believe is the best we’ve got. Some, unfortunately, use them as a basis for their own backwards, sexist, racist etc. worldviews. Like anything, it depends a lot more on the person reading than on the text itself.

Yeah, I know that makes this issue about as clear as mud. Welcome to Judaism. ūüėõ



Do you have any questions or thoughts you’d like me to address in a letter to Josep? Feel free to ask in the comments, use the contact form, or just shoot me an e-mail at letterstojosep[at]gmail[dot]com.

Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can

Dear Josep,

I was asked recently whether I had written anything for the blog on the status of women in Judaism. I gave an ironic smile and said, “Oh, heck, no. I’ve been avoiding¬†that can of worms.”


I brought my can opener.
I brought my can opener.

I’ve been avoiding it because… well,¬†volumes have been written on the topic of women and gender in Judaism from every possible viewpoint and perspective, and I don’t feel I have anything groundbreaking to contribute to the conversation. Furthermore, my views on the topic are¬†somewhat conflicting and in flux–sometimes I feel one way strongly, and sometimes another, and sometimes neither.

But you are not part of any of that discourse, so I might as well just give it to you straight, and then discuss my thoughts on it afterwards.

The Torah asserts¬†a fairly non-politically-correct, but in my opinion, actually-correct idea: that men and women are built differently. Now before everybody jumps on me, that isn’t to say that one gender is better than the other, or that some men aren’t built more similarly to women, and some women, more similarly to men. It means that in general, the biological difference reflects a mental and spiritual difference, too. And the differences in the requirements of halakha in regards to men and women, are meant to reflect those differences.

However, as we all know, society has been abusing those differences since the dawn of humanity, and some of the differences between men’s and women’s roles in society are the result of misogyny and abuse of power.¬†Sadly, there are¬†some aspects of Jewish law that probably reflect that¬†as well.

Practically speaking, the difference is this: women have fewer halakhic requirements, and therefore halakhic privileges, than men. We are exempt from commandments¬†that are anchored to a certain time of day, and a few others. They include many of the external and public ritual observances, such as prayer, putting on tefillin, studying Torah, and the like. While that means we have less halakhic “responsibility,” it also means that we can’t be as involved in those rituals as¬†men are. For example, because we are not required to study Torah, and therefore hearing the Torah reading is optional for us, we can’t read the Torah for a man to fill his obligation, because he needs to hear it from someone who has the same level of obligation as him. When it comes to the reading of the¬†Scroll of Esther on Purim, on the other hand, ¬†women and men are equally obligated, and therefore a woman could theoretically read it for a man and fill his obligation.¬†But because of issues of modesty, it is very rare for a woman to read megilla for men (even though it is permissible). In communities that have megilla readings by women, they are¬†usually for women only.

So, historically, the combination of lesser obligation and modesty issues led to¬†women being¬†marginalized in the synagogue, and left out of the houses of learning altogether, until quite recently. Women were generally¬†your typical homemakers and child-bearers, and female leaders were very rare.¬†But they did exist! Miriam, Moses’s sister, had a prominent role among the Israelites. Deborah the Prophetess (Judges 4-5) led a war against a Canaanite general.

Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.
Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.

Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion in Hebrew) was a Hasmonean queen who brought relative peace to Judea under her rule. A woman called Bruriah is quoted as a sage in the Talmud, and was respected for her vast knowledge. And today, there are quite a number of rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who are regarded as great spiritual leaders.

Still, as a general rule, women have a more traditional role in Jewish society, and the laws of modesty tend to focus more on women’s requirements than men’s. There is no denying that sometimes that can be stifling, if not discriminatory.

However. There are a few howevers:

Unlike most other religions, the heart of Judaism is not actually the external rituals observed¬†in the synagogue, but¬†the laws observed in the¬†home, namely kashrut, Shabbat, and family purity. The observance of these laws has always fallen mostly in the domain of women. Moreover, having children and raising them as dedicated Jews has a lot of importance to us. Therefore, women have actually had a very central role in Judaism. That’s one of the reasons Judaism is passed down through the mother, not the father or a combination of both.

Which brings me to the next “however”: there are aspects of Jewish law that actually favor women over men. Such as what I just mentioned. Another example: the Jewish marriage contract is slanted sharply in favor of the woman.¬†The Torah (Exodus 22:10) specifically¬†requires a husband to provide for his wife, and it specifies: food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. (!) While the husband does expect certain “rights” from his wife, these have much less weight than those three¬†Torah obligations. The entire contract was built to protect women, and though it is far from perfect, it was way ahead of its time.

Also…¬†things are changing, even in the most insular of Jewish communities. It was always accepted for women to have female spiritual leaders, but now that has become a lot more widespread, and there is even a daring movement in the Orthodox world to ordain female rabbis. Whereas many synagogues used to designate one little room in the back with a little window as the “women’s section,” these days it is much more common to have a barrier down the middle of the room, so the women can be close to the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, and follow the prayers more easily. In the communities I have belonged to, women also give talks on Torah topics during the services (where only men used to do that), and generally participate more fully in the ritual aspect of Jewish¬†life. I read from my weekly Torah portion at my bat mitzvah party (instead of at synagogue), and a number of my peers held women’s prayer services for their bat mitzvahs so they could read from the Torah during the service. And I’ve been reading from the Scroll of Esther on Purim during women’s readings since I was in tenth grade.

As Ludwig van Beethoven. What?
As Ludwig van Beethoven. What? ūüėõ1

Personally? I very rarely felt excluded and marginalized as an observant Jewish woman. I grew up in communities where women were respected and valued. But I recognize that I may not be representative of the majority. I mean… I grew up with a mom who is a karate instructor and later became a prominent activist for women’s empowerment and all kinds of other cool things; she is one of the founders of El Halev (the Association for Women in the Martial Arts in Israel). And I followed in her footsteps as a self-defense instructor.2

Basically, I was raised in a household where there was no concept that I was any “less” because I was a woman. My mother always took a very active role in her public practice of Judaism.¬†I¬†went to a high school for religious girls, and they never gave me a sense that I had any less responsibility¬†or a less important place in society than men. For the most part, I am relieved to have a “lesser” obligation towards certain mitzvot, because it gives me more leeway, and freedom to connect to God in a¬†way that suits me. And I connect to the more “feminine” aspects of Judaism and the commandments that have traditionally been¬†embraced as being “women’s” commandments–lighting Shabbat candles, “taking¬†challah” (separating a piece of dough and burning it in memory of a donation to the priests that would have been made in the time of the Temple), and immersing in the mikveh. In general, I grew up with the sense that women are to be respected and revered for our power to bring life into the world; that femininity is a force that is different, but no less powerful, than masculinity, and both are required to¬†bring balance to the world.

I know, though, that there are many who have experienced being a Jewish woman differently.

I have written before that there are things about the Torah that I struggle to reconcile with my own sense of morality. In some senses, we believe that the wisdom of the Torah is Divine and therefore eternal and relevant at every moment in time. In other senses, however, we recognize that some parts of it may have been meant as a compromise with human nature, taking into account the context of the time. For example, in Deuteronomy 22:1-14, the Torah describes a situation of war, in which a beautiful woman is taken hostage by an Israelite soldier.  The Torah permits the Israelite to sleep with her, but only after he fills the following conditions:

  1. He must admit her into his household.
  2. Her head must be shaved and her nails cut.
  3. She must be permitted to wear regular (non-slave) clothing.
  4. She must be given a full month to mourn the loss of her parents.

After all these things, if he still wishes to sleep with¬†her, he may marry her, and do so. If not, he must set her free, and he is not allowed to sell her, because, the Torah says, “he has tormented her.”

…Why would the Torah allow a Jew to “torment” a woman this way?

The Sages teach that during the time of the Bible, and even today (see: ISIS), raping and pillaging as part of war was a matter of course. The Torah accepts that this is the reality, the Sages say, and that this is part of human nature during wartime; however, it seeks to channel this urge more positively. Meaning, it gives the man an outlet for his urge, but only under certain circumstances which place some distance between him and his urge, reducing the harm to the woman somewhat, and discouraging him from doing this in the first place.

But why, one would ask, would the Torah do this? If the Torah recognizes wartime rape as immoral, why not simply forbid it? The Sages would respond that the Torah has to take human nature into account, because if it ordered us to do things that were simply impossible, we would end up rejecting the whole thing.

Okay, well,¬†I recognize the wisdom in taking human nature into account. But why is wartime rape “channeled,” while, say, homosexual relations are completely forbidden? And I think the answer is that the Torah was speaking to¬†the context of its time–when homosexuality was less about love and more about idol worship, and women were still viewed as lesser members of society, if not property.

The fact is that the Torah was daringly progressive for its time¬†in terms of its treatment of women. As far as I know, it was the first religion¬†to grant women any rights at all. (See above about Jewish marriage.) Many of the laws, such as requiring a man to marry a woman if he rapes her, seem cruel¬†and primitive in the context of our time, but actually made more sense in the context of the Biblical period; a woman who was raped was seen as damaged goods and would probably never find a husband to provide for her–pretty much a death sentence for a woman of that period. Requiring the rapist to marry her meant that she would be provided for. “Well, then,” I say, “why not punish rape more severely, and require the community to support a woman who was raped, or offer an incentive to a man who marries a victim of rape?” I have lots of advice for God, you see.¬†ūüėõ

I am not the only person, however, to think that the restrictions in the Torah are sometimes not enough, and that the rules should be adapted to raise the moral standard. The most famous example of this is the ban of Rabbenu Gershom, prohibiting Jews from marrying more than one wife. While polygamy was not prohibited by the Torah, monogamy was generally the norm in Jewish society, and Rabbenu Gershom, seeing how much harm polygamy could cause, made it officially prohibited in the 11th century.

The problem is that this only goes in one direction. We can add restrictions, but we can’t lift them. So if monogamy makes sense, we can definitely forbid men to marry more than one wife. And if slavery is awful, we can toss the laws protecting the rights of slaves and ban slavery altogether. But if, say, it also makes total sense for women to serve as rabbinical judges, we can’t cancel the strong precedent in Jewish law that asserts that rabbinical judges must be male (based on the conjugation of the Biblical passage). It is those types of restrictions or limits that are the source of the most friction in this constant conflict within the heart of the modern observant Jew. Jewish law does change and shift over time and there is importance to the reality on the ground, but¬†there is a strong anchor in ancient texts that may be less relevant to our time… and that’s built in to the system.

So I think that the Torah was meant as a starting point; a blueprint on which the Oral Tradition and the living sea of Jewish law was meant to be built upon. And I think that there are parts of it that are meant to be taken at face value–such as, “Thou shalt not murder”–and others that we are¬†meant to struggle with over time. So maybe God actually likes my “advice,” and gives me–and all people in general–the responsibility to figure these things out, working from the framework laid out by the Torah. And maybe the things we find difficult, we are supposed to find difficult. I don’t know why. But I have faith that God knew what He was doing.

Our¬†anchor in ancient texts and precedents, which in some ways may hold us back, also prevents us from being swept away in the swiftly-changing currents of human ideas. This may be counter-intuitive to the modern thinker, but there is great wisdom in it, because the human sense of morality has shifted drastically over time–usually in a direction of greater morality, but not always. Western concepts of equality and human rights, for example, are wonderful and progressive ideas that are definitely supported by the Torah. Western¬†concepts of sexual freedom, however, can be highly destructive when they get out of bounds–objectifying women, creating an environment where young men feel they have to make “sexual conquests” to be “real men,” etc. When you have a system like ours, trends and ideas are sifted through many filters, considered extremely carefully, before we adopt them as part of our society. So, being slow to change has its advantages, too.

And now that I’ve probably offended or disappointed everyone¬†along the entire religious and political spectrum, I’m just gonna post another photo of 16-year-old me in my¬†Beethoven costume.

You're welcome.
You’re welcome.



1. Dressing up in costumes is a unique tradition of Purim, which I explained in a post about Purim that I had to remove for technical reasons (and will post again next Purim). And I always embraced this tradition with such gusto and creativity, that the photographic evidence of my wackiness is basically the only thing Josep remembered about Judaism from all the e-mails I sent him that year. ūüėõ ‚Ü©

2. Yes, I am a self-defense instructor for IMPACT Personal Safety here in Israel. Click here for more information on IMPACT¬†… and here to see a video of me demonstrating a knee strike on a padded male instructor!¬†ūüėÄ (Don’t worry, he’s well protected!)¬†‚Ü©

Shavuot: On Covenants and Cheesecake

Dear Josep,

The Shavuot holiday coincides¬†with a number of¬†joyful events in my family. In 2008, Eitan and I got married 3 days before Shavuot. In 2009, I gave birth to H the morning before Shavuot. In 2012, I gave birth to R2 right on the day between our anniversary and H’s 3rd birthday! Understandably,¬†the Omer “count-up” has special meaning¬†for us every year. ūüôā

So what is this holiday and what is its significance?

“Shavuot” literally means “weeks”; the word¬†shavua¬†comes from the root sh.v.a., ◊©.◊Ď.◊Ę, which means “seven”. But that same root also means “oath”. Remember how I said that Passover is like the birthday of the Jewish people, and that Shavuot is like the wedding anniversary? The 6th of Sivan is the day God gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai.¬†In the 50 days between the Exodus and receiving the Torah, we went from being slaves to¬†prophets–every one of us.

In Rabbi Judah the Levi’s philosophical work¬†The Kuzari, he puts forth an argument that is still used in theological debates when discussing the Divine origin of the Torah. (Rabbi Lawrence Keleman gives a wonderful class on this here.) He states that every other religion began through the revelation of a single human being–Islam had Mohammad, and Christianity had Paul. (Yes, Jesus before that, but Christianity as its own religion, as opposed to a Messianic sect of Judaism, basically began with Paul’s revelation.) The thing about individual revelations is that they are impossible¬†to verify. You can either believe that Mohammad or Paul was a true prophet and had a true revelation, or not. A skeptic could easily claim that they were making it up or were clinically insane, and it is very hard to prove or disprove one way or the other.

It gets a little harder to dismiss¬†when you make the outrageous claim that an entire nation stood at Mt. Sinai and personally heard God speak. We’re talking about around 3 million people. It is extremely difficult to argue that 3 million people went simultaneously insane. Or just got together and decided to make the whole thing up and tell their children and their children’s children that they personally heard God speak, and manage to pass that intact story down through every generation for 3,500 years.

Now, this is obviously not a flawless argument–there is no such thing when it comes to theology–but it is a fairly strong one, and certainly differentiates Judaism from the rest of the¬†world’s religions. Only Jews would have the audacity to claim that our ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak with their own ears.

According to¬†Exodus 19-20, the nation gathered at the mountain on the 6th of Sivan, and God¬†gave them the Ten Commandments. (Which, by the way, is a fairly inaccurate translation of that phrase. We have 613 commandments, not just ten, and these ten aren’t necessarily more important than the others. The Hebrew phrase, asaret hadeebrot, is more accurately translated as “the Ten Statements”.) The Israelites were so overwhelmed by the Divine revelation that they told Moses to go up to the mountain and receive the rest of the Torah for them. He ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Tablets of the Covenant.

The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907
The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907

So What’s the Deal with this Torah Thing?

In my “Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club“, I gave two¬†definitions for the Torah, the first of which was: “the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to¬†the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment”.

Now, one might ask oneself, aren’t we talking about faith and a relationship with God? What about¬†this dry, austere collection of legalistic rulings and restrictions is so important and inspiring to Jews that they were willing to¬†sacrifice their comfort, safety, financial viability, and sometimes their lives for it,¬†for 3,500 years?

Here’s where our wedding allegory comes back. The Torah is like a wedding contract. If you take a look at any type of prenuptial agreement, you’re most likely¬†to encounter a bunch of boring legalese. Any kind of¬†contract provides the framework, the boundaries, through which a healthy, prosperous relationship¬†can grow.

A good example of this is¬†Shabbat. If you sat and read through those books I showed you about the laws of observing Shabbat, all you’d see¬†is a whole bunch of things you’re not allowed to do. How stifling and restrictive! But as you saw yourself, all the “thou shalt nots” are not what define Shabbat. Shabbat is so much more than a bunch of restrictions. It is a time outside of time, a space to¬†disconnect from our role as “creators” and enjoy our role as “creations”. We could not fully feel and enjoy this if we did not have a way to clearly differentiate our existence on that¬†day from that¬†of every other day of the week. The laws of Shabbat provide the frame; we fill in the picture. This is, of course, also true about marriage.

So what is the Torah? The Torah is our contract with God and our handbook to creating a just, moral, God-conscious society. God made a covenant with us to use the framework of the Torah to¬†create¬†a better society and raise the spiritual level of humanity to a point where God will be able to reveal Himself to all. He wanted us to do this by serving as an example to the rest of the world, being a “light unto the nations”, as it were. In return, He promised to give us the land of Israel–a land at the center of the world, where the paths of the leading civilizations at the time constantly crossed, meaning that they would all come in some kind of contact with us. He promised to bless us and protect us and provide for all our needs, as long as we kept our end of the deal.

…That didn’t exactly go as planned, but that’s a story for the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av. ūüėČ

Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot is one of the Three Regalim–the Biblical holidays on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Like the other Biblical holidays (Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shmini Atzeret), it is observed similarly to Shabbat, with restrictions on “acts of creation”–with the one exception of certain actions required for making food. (These are called “Yamim Tovim”, literally “good days”, or “Yom Tov” in singular.) In Israel Shavuot is one day long; outside of Israel, it is two days.

Other than that, there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot. There is a custom to express our gratitude and love for the Torah by staying up all night learning Torah. (Eitan likes to note that this custom only came into existence when coffee became¬†widely available…) Many synagogues are specially decorated with flowers and colorful¬†cloths to cover the Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the Torah scrolls.

According to tradition, King David’s birthday and date of death were both on Shavuot. (It is said that dying on one’s birthday is a¬†sign of great righteousness. Moses also died on his birthday.) For this reason, we read the scroll of Ruth during services on Shavuot, which tells the story of David’s great-grandmother–a Moabite¬†convert to Judaism.

Another well-known custom of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. Tradition has it that this is because when the Israelites received the Torah, they were overwhelmed by all the laws regarding kosher meat, and decided to make life easier on themselves by just eating dairy until they were on top of the whole kosher meat thing.

Unlike in most areas concerning cuisine ūüėõ¬†my Ashkenazi ancestors did¬†dairy pretty well. Classic Ashkenazi dishes¬†include blintzes (like fried crepes), bagels (traditionally eaten with cream cheese and smoked salmon), and cheesecake, the latter of which has become¬†the classic Shavuot dessert.

Nom nom nom. by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0
Believe it or not, I was not a fan as a kid. My mom used to get cheesecake from the local kosher bakery for everyone else, and carrot cake for me; I assume because it was the other dairy cake they carried! I came around eventually–especially since Israeli cheesecakes are lighter and milder on the cheesy flavor–but I’m still kind of weird about cheese and sweet things.¬†Especially the combination of chocolate with cheese. :-/
by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0

Shavuot falls on this coming Sunday, which means that us Israelis are in for a two-day Shabbat-Yom-Tov, and non-Israelis are in for a three-day extravaganza.

There will be cheesecake.

Lots of cheesecake.

(So Shavuot doesn’t exactly follow the formula of “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But at least there’s the “let’s eat” part! ūüėõ )



Passover, Part I: Freedom, Education, and National Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dear Josep,

So I figured out why I never sent you an e-mail specifically about Passover, even back in 2007 when I would get concerned notes from you wondering if something was wrong because you hadn’t heard from me in 5 days.

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)


The reason is that it is just not possible to capture Passover in a single e-mail. No, not even a Daniella Standard Size e-mail.

So what we’re gonna do is make it a¬†series. In Part I, I will discuss the general concepts of the holiday. In Part II, I will go into detail about the Seder night and¬†the Haggadah.

To begin, let us turn to the age-old template for Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Does it apply here? Why, yes it does. ūüôā

As you probably know, Passover is the celebration commemorating our freedom from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.
You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.

It begins on the 15th of Nisan, which is the day the Israelites left Egypt, and lasts seven days in Israel. This year it falls on this coming Friday night through the following Friday. It is one of the three “Regalim”, holidays mentioned¬†in the Torah, on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (“Regel” means “foot”.)

All Regalim, unlike rabbinic holidays, are celebrated similarly to Shabbat, with the same types of restrictions, barring a few differences with regards to the preparation of food. Such a day is known as a “Yom Tov” (literally “good day”). In the case of Passover, it begins and ends with one Yom Tov in Israel (two each outside of Israel), with five days of “chol ha’moed” (“the mundane of the holiday”=days that are still part of the holiday, but with much fewer restrictions) in between. That’s a total of seven days in Israel, and eight outside of Israel. (Why is it different outside of Israel? A reason that is long, complicated, and not so interesting in my opinion. ūüėõ But if you insist, Wikipedia keeps it simple.)

The first night (or two nights outside of Israel) is the crux of the holiday: the Seder night. You may have heard of the Seder; it is believed to have been Jesus’s “last supper” (hence the proximity to Easter). As mentioned, we will elaborate on the Seder in Part II.

But first: why is the Exodus such an important event in the history of our people?

There is a vast amount of rabbinic literature that addresses this question, but here’s the simple answer: the Exodus marks the birth of the nation of Israel. The narrative of the Bible, up until that point, follows a number of individuals, or at most a family, and their interactions with God. We became a multitude under slavery; we became a nation, with a destiny and a purpose, when God gave us our freedom.

It is said that God wanted us to be slaves before giving us the Torah to develop our sense of empathy and justice. You can never really understand someone until you’ve experienced his pain. And you can never know and appreciate the true value of freedom if you have never been a slave. Our purpose is to be¬†a “light unto the nations”, to spread kindness, compassion and justice throughout a corrupt world. We could not have done this without first¬†knowing¬†pain, cruelty, and injustice.

The goal of the Seder night is for every one of us to relive the experience of being freed from slavery. It is a multi-sensory, hands-on educational production, and it revolves around passing the message to the next generation. As we’ve discussed, educating children is a very important mitzvah, and the purpose of some of the strange customs on Seder night is to provoke the children to ask questions. Raising questions is a classic Jewish educational method. We even tend to like excellent questions better than we like excellent answers. ūüėČ

So, that’s freedom, and education. “National obsessive-compulsive disorder”?!

Well… yeah. This is another thing that makes Passover so special, and also such a pain in the neck. Over the seven days of Passover, we are not allowed to eat or possess “chametz“. Chametz means leavened products. That is, any product made out of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) and water that was cooked over 18 minutes after the flour came in contact with the water–therefore beginning the process of fermentation that causes the dough to rise and become puffy.

Um… wait, you say. Is there¬†any¬†type of grain product that is baked in under 18 minutes?!

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

"Shmura Matzo". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Appetizing, I know.
Shmura Matzo“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the bread of Passover, referred to in the Haggadah as the “bread of affliction”. Apt, because it tastes like cardboard, and we are required to eat a fair amount of it on Seder night. (Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s like a very plain cracker.)

So what’s the deal with¬†unleavened bread?

(Good, good, keep up the questions! ūüėČ )

The practical answer is that the Israelites were granted their freedom very quickly and they did not have time to get ready for their trip out of Egypt. The Torah says that they did not have time to let their dough rise for bread, so they made matzot to take on their journey. The prohibition against eating chametz, and the mitzva of eating matza, are both in commemoration of that. There is also an idea that chametz represents the ego, and that on Passover we clean it out of our homes and souls.

So the thing is, you know how obsessive-compulsive Jewish law is about things we’re not allowed to eat… and this applies to chametz too. In fact, it is even¬†more¬†strict than the laws of kashrut.¬†This means that we have to literally kasher our kitchens before the holiday. (Which, as I’ve been trying to tell you all these years, is not nearly as fun as you think it is. ūüėõ ) Most of us have an entirely different set of dishes and cookware set aside specifically for Passover, because not everything can be kashered, and because, again, kashering pots and pans can be a serious pain.

We are also not allowed to¬†own¬†any chametz, which means we have to clean our houses thoroughly (especially us parents of toddlers…) to make sure no bits of crackers/cereal/bread are in accessible places. People (by which I mean “crazy Jewish housewives”) often take this to the extreme and use it as an opportunity to do a very thorough “spring cleaning”… but much of this is not really necessary.

The prohibition against eating chametz also gave way to the most famous of legal fictions in Jewish law. Obviously, getting rid of all one’s chametz can be impractical at best and financially damaging at worst, especially for stores and factories. So we have a rather silly solution: we “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew during the seven days of Passover, keep it covered/hidden during the holiday, and “buy” it back afterwards.

…By the way, can I interest you in some instant oatmeal and maybe a few pitas? ūüėõ

(I kid, I kid. These days we can sell our chametz very easily through rabbis who centralize the “sales” and sell them to a designated non-Jew. We can do this through our synagogue or even on the Internet.)

Well, that’s Passover in a nutshell. Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss the details of the aforementioned multi-sensory, hands-on educational production we call¬†the Seder. ūüėČ

Bona Pasqua!



An Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club

Dear Josep,

Most people who know the basics about Judaism know that our holy book is what we call the Torah. But there is a lot of confusion around this because we have a lot of holy books! The Bible, the Talmud, the prayer books, and a whole slew of rabbinic literature from throughout the centuries.

So in this letter we’re going to make some order in this chaos.

The Torah

This is kind of confusing because the word “Torah” is used to refer to a few different things. It literally¬†means “instruction”, and for the most part, when we use it, we’re referring to the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment. When we say that we believe God gave us the Torah at Sinai, what we mean is that He gave us the Written Torah (which is the first five books of the Bible), and also an Oral Torah, which is meant to be taught from teacher to student and father to son. We’ll elaborate more on the Oral Torah later.

As I mentioned, though, sometimes the word “Torah” is referring to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is also called “the Chumash”, which translates well as “the Pentateuch”.¬†The Torah¬†was first written down as scrolls. During the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in Judea, the leaders of the reestablished Jewish community,¬†Ezra and Nehemiah, established a law that the Torah scroll should be read publicly three times a week. They divided the Torah into weekly portions for this purpose. They did this because Jews at the time were poorly versed in Torah and were forgetting how to speak Hebrew. (They spoke Aramaic.) That custom stuck and is still practiced in every observant Jewish community today. The weekly portion is read from the Torah scroll on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, during prayer services. This is how it looks in an American Ashkenazi synagogue:

This is how it looks at a Sephardi service at the Western Wall:

Ashkenazi scrolls, as you see in the video, are generally wrapped around two handles, and covered with a decorative cloth when not in use. Sephardi scrolls are kept in a special case of wood or metal, wrapped around rods that are turned while the scroll is still in the case.

Sephardi style Torah case "SilverTorahCase" by Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.
Sephardi style Torah case.

SilverTorahCase” by Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.

Ashkenazi style Torah scroll ◊í◊ě◊ú◊ź◊ô ◊Ę◊ô◊®◊ô◊ô◊™ ◊ė◊Ď◊®◊ô◊Ē [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Ashkenazi style Torah scroll
◊í◊ě◊ú◊ź◊ô ◊Ę◊ô◊®◊ô◊ô◊™ ◊ė◊Ď◊®◊ô◊Ē [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
You will notice that they are chanting the words of the Torah in a kind of singing way. This is called “cantillating”. There is a very specific system of notes designated for this purpose, which is marked in the Chumash when it is in book form.

Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.
Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.

In scroll form, it must be written using the same special calligraphy and parchment that we use for the mezuza.

The Tanakh

The word Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), which essentially make up the Jewish Bible or as y’all prefer to call it, the Old Testament. This is the hardcover book I gave you.

Don't worry, we're still covered. ;)
Don’t worry, we’re still covered. ūüėČ

I should mention here the other important scroll in Jewish life:¬†Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, often referred to as simply “the Megillah”. It appears in Writings, and is read from the scroll during the holiday of Purim, which is coming right up. ūüėČ

The Talmud

So remember this Oral Torah I mentioned that was supposed to be passed orally from teacher to student? The reason we needed it was that we needed a system to interpret the Written Torah. There are places in the Torah where God says “do X as I have described to you”, and there is no description in the text. That is referring to this Oral Law. In fact, there is a law that we are not supposed to write down this law, because it is meant to be a “living Torah” that is dynamic and shifts with the new needs and issues of each generation.

But, there was a problem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the great Torah scholars were being killed and teaching Torah was illegal under the Romans. Under these circumstances, it was decided that the Oral Torah must be written down to preserve it for future generations. Rabbi Judah the Prince, an important figure at the time, compiled the teachings into a volume that¬†was completed around the year 200. This book was called¬†the Mishna¬†(which means “teaching”).

Another volume¬†was eventually compiled of analysis and commentary on the Mishna, and this was called the Gemara (which means “study” in Aramaic). These two volumes together, the Mishna and the Gemara, comprise the Talmud (which means “study” in Hebrew).

There are two versions of Gemara; one was compiled in Israel and completed around 350-400. This is called the “Talmud Yerushalmi”–the Jerusalem Talmud. Another was compiled in Babylonia, where the biggest and most important Jewish community was at the time, and it is called the “Talmud Bavli” (the Babylonian Talmud). The latter is the one most widely studied. It is also much longer and more comprehensive.

Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. This is why Jews spend their entire lives studying this thing... By ◊ź◊†◊ô (◊ź◊†◊ô) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. Jews spend entire lifetimes¬†studying this thing…
By ◊ź◊†◊ô (◊ź◊†◊ô) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The rest of rabbinic literature is basically analysis and interpretation of the Talmud. Except….

The Siddur

The Siddur (which means “order”) is the Jewish prayer book, which you have seen yourself at least twice. ūüėČ

This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. ;)
This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. ūüėČ

It has been compiled over a long period. Formal prayer was institutionalized by Ezra and Nehemiah for the same reasons mentioned above–mostly to preserve the Jews’ Hebrew. All traditional Jewish prayer is in Hebrew. The prayer they wrote was the¬†Shmona Esrei, a collection of eighteen blessings that we are supposed to say three times a day. Over time a lot more was added onto it; we read the Shema prayer (discussed in the letter on mezuzot) with blessings before and after, and before that, more blessings, poems, and Psalms. There is a different order of prayers for the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, and additional or alternative prayers for Shabbat and holidays. The High Holiday prayers are so different and long that we have a separate book or books for that, called the¬†Machzor¬†(which means “cycle”, referring to the annual cycle of the holidays).

It is also very common to find a book of¬†Psalms on the shelf or in the pocket of an observant Jew. It’s part of the Tanakh (in Writings), a collection of poem-prayers traditionally attributed to King David.

The Haggadah

The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book exclusively read on the first night of Passover during the Seder (the Passover ceremonial meal; I’ll elaborate in a later letter). It was compiled during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and the text has remained the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. There are a number of precious ancient Haggadot that were created hundreds of years ago and still have the same text we use today.

Such as.... the Barcelona Haggadah. :) This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today.
Such as…. the Barcelona Haggadah. ūüôā This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today. It is a passage from the Talmud telling the story of several rabbis who stayed up all night to discuss the exodus from Egypt on Passover.

Turns out, we are known as the People of the Book for a reason… ūüôā