JTS Ordination/Investiture Address 22 Iyar 5777 / 5.8.2017

In April of 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the journal Nature describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This molecule of life was arranged in a double helix structure comprised of four nucleotides symbolized by the letters A, T, C and G. Aided by the photographs and analysis of a Jewish scientist named Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick explained how the four letters are arranged in pairs—A with T, C with G—and in their arrangement along the strands of DNA, how they form a genetic code from which proteins are created, and all organisms are formed. They are the letters of life. Each nucleotide is indispensable, but in isolation, they are powerless. Only in their combination do the components of DNA assume their great ability to fashion life in all of its diversity and wonder.

What scientists spent much of the twentieth century discovering and describing was similar in a sense to the intuition of our ancient Sages of blessed memory. They too believed that life was formed from building blocks, and that these could be identified with a letter code, specifically with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Talmud at Brakhot 55a, Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav that Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle in Exodus, knew how to combine the letters used by God to create the world. Continue reading

Emor 5777: Do Kabbalistic Intentions Add or Detract from the Omer?

The Mishnah famously proclaims that one must not stand to pray unless they have first focused their mind (M. Brakhot 5:1). Curiously, the Talmud pairs this instruction with a similar rule not to separate from a friend except with the proper focus of mind (B. Brakhot 31a). The Sages daringly compare the encounter of a person praying to God to the encounter between two friends. And just as one owes God the respect of proper intention when standing in prayer, so too do we owe one another proper respect when parting ways—we want to remember each other well, and to view each other not just as acquaintances but as a cherished friends and teachers. For this reason, the Sages say that when parting, one ought to share a teaching of halakhah, literally a guide for walking, so that their friend will remember them on their way. As we complete this academic year then, here is a word of halakhah that also relates to the mitzvah of counting the Omer of which we read in Parashat Emor.

Each night of the Omer season it is our custom to recite Leviticus 23:15 as an intention (כוונה) before the counting: “הנני מוכן ומזומן–Here I am, prepared and ready to fulfill a positive command, as it is written: And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” In this way we signal our serious intention to count the Omer and to connect the counting to its biblical source. We are very careful about the count, even though the original context for this mitzvah is a sacrificial rite which has been dormant for two millennia. The Torah’s intention seems to have been to remind the farmer of his or her dependence on God as a way of motivating the sharing of produce with the poor (see 23: 22), but the mitzvah today has evolved into a meditation on theology. Continue reading

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777: Loving all Life, from Humans to Plants

If you want my nomination for the top phrase of the Torah, it would clearly be Leviticus 19:18b, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” The Torah’s core message is that we are responsible for one another because we share one Creator. God brings us into being, and God demands that we take care of the other. Does “love” mean tender emotions, or perhaps fair treatment? A bit of both. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch calls this “the intended climax of humanity,” when people transcend their selfish instincts and instead identify with God’s love of all. So much follows from this command, which is the foundation of social ethics and law, and yet what literally follows, the prohibition on mixing seeds, is quite a puzzle.

Leviticus 19:19 follows the command to love your neighbor “like yourself” with a demand to keep everything in God’s world in order—plants and animals and even clothes are all to be kept in neat categories. A plausible link between verses 18 and 19 is some sort of species loyalty—people should take extra care to love other people, and only other people. So too with other animals and plants—they should “love” only their own kind. God commands people to love each other, and as God’s custodians, people must likewise keep God’s other creatures in species purity and distinction. Continue reading

Tazria-Metzora 5777: The Courage to Recover from Death to Life

Jewish consciousness in the coming months will be dominated by major anniversaries related to Israel–the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of the UN partition vote, and then, next April, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence. Each of those markers has complex associations which we will consider in due course. To frame these words of Torah I would like to consider not the 69th birthday of the State of Israel, but rather the state of the Jewish people 70 years ago, in May 1947, before the UN vote and before the State was declared. What was Jewish life like in 1947?

During WW II between 11-20 million people were displaced, many of them Jews; many, of course, were not only displaced but murdered. At the end of the war the conquering armies tried to repatriate the refugees back to their countries of origin, and 6 million or so people were returned “home,” but over a million could not or would not be repatriated; many of these were Jews. By 1947 there were about 850,000 displaced persons living in DP camps, a number that gradually subsided over the next five years, though the last camps were closed only in the late 1950s.

For the Jews of Europe, 1947 must have seemed particularly hopeless. Over a millennium of Jewish life in Europe, much of it robust and secure, was now in shambles. Families were splintered and destroyed; Jewish villages and urban communities were blotted out. America remained out of reach for most refugees, and the British blockade on Palestine kept many Jews from reaching the land of Israel. Jews had been persecuted by Christians, and also by Muslims, for many centuries, and the desperate hope placed by many in socialism had failed to create a universal sense of brotherhood and solidarity. Religious faith was at a nadir, and the simple claim that God would be a the guardian of Israel seemed ludicrous. Continue reading

Shmini 5777: Ostrich Eggs and Miracle Meat

It might have been Parashat Shmini that put the idea of becoming a rabbi in my head. No, not the part about the two young priests getting zapped, but rather the detailed laws of kashrut. I grew up eating “glatt treife,” but by the time I was 13 I bought into the kashrut system as a way of cultivating self-control and awareness of the potential for holiness in every bite. I was one of the only teens who regularly attended services at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, NJ (one of the others was named Benjamin Sommer), and somehow I got invited to make a presentation each week to the b’nai mitzvah. My presentations grew increasingly elaborate, no doubt trying the patience of our distinguished (and terse!) Rabbi Andre Ungar, reaching their apotheosis with an impassioned plea for kashrut one Shabbat morning. Weirdly, the congregation applauded, and my grandparents (who did not keep kosher, though Nana waited an hour to serve ice cream after eating meat) kvelled. Well, it took another decade to sort things out, but that is a decent origin story for my rabbinate.

And so it is to kashrut that we turn, but in a very strange way. The Torah’s code is reasonably specific about the criteria for kosher mammals and fish, but as for birds, all we get is a long list. What distinguishes the “impure” birds listed in Leviticus Chapter 11 (and Deut 14) from edible avians is not specified, though many have noted that the banned birds are all predators (yet I suppose that worms consider chickens to be predators). We can’t really say for sure what each listed species corresponds to in modern identifications—is a nesher really an eagle, or perhaps a vulture? (…”and I shall bring you on vultures wings” doesn’t have the same ring).

For today what really interests me is the ostrich, which is identified here as בת היענה. Literally, this could be read as “daughter of the ostrich,” though BDB suggests (p.419) perhaps “daughter of the desert or steppe.”  In other words, it is a bird that dwells in the desert, as ostriches tend to do. The rabbis, however, took its name literally and they asked, why does the Torah mention the ostrich’s offspring? Continue reading

Vayikra 5777: Wholeness after Error

The world of Leviticus can be disorienting, especially in the chapters which focus on the details of the korbanot, the sacrifices with all of their bloody and smoky mess. Upon closer examination, each of these ancient forms of worship is recognizably connected to a modern mode of worship. We too approach God at times with awe, uttering words of praise that have no agenda other than worship—this is how I understand the olah or burnt offering. We too approach God at times with gratitude for the blessings of our lives—this is how I understand the shlamim, or wholesomeness offering. And we too approach God at times from a sense of brokenness—either accidental or intentional—and seek in our divine encounter the path back to wholeness. This is how I understand the various forms of hattat or purification offering. These categories connect to the three modes of the daily Amidah—praise, petition, and thanksgiving—and they establish a balanced theology of worship.

Still, this carefully ordered structure must contend with messy missteps, including the most frustrating form—those that are not intentional or even negligent, but truly innocent. In chapter 4 there is discussion of mistakes—what if a person sins by mistake? What if a priest sins by mistake? What if the entire people sins by mistake? The first two cases are expected, but how is it possible for the entire nation to sin by mistake? At some point isn’t there safety in numbers? Apparently not.  At Lev. 4:13 the Torah says, “If the entire congregation of Israel sins, and a matter is hidden from the eyes of the congregation, and they do one of the commandments which should not be done, and they sin….” Restitution involves an ornate and bloody ritual of expiation for the sin of the community.

The Torah’s concern seems clear enough, but it takes some interesting interpretive twists in the classical rabbinic and then medieval and mystical stages to reflect later concerns of Jewish spirituality. The rabbis do not take the Torah literally to mean that the entire nation of Israel sins—rather, in Midrash Sifre, “the community” refers to the high court, the Sanhedrin. From this understanding, the Talmud in tractate Horayot proceeds to consider the culpability of individual judges/sages for the mistakes of the high court. At some point a judge cannot follow the majority but must assert independent reasoning and teach that which is right. It is complicated, however, since a judge who steps out of line is at risk of being deemed a zaken mamre—a rebellious elder—and put to death. This passage reminds us of the importance of selecting judges of high integrity, ones who are courageous enough to stand up against a mob, but who are not simply stubborn on principle and unwilling to listen to the wisdom of their peers and of the public. The rabbis seem less concerned with the spiritual state of the entire nation, and more with the integrity of its judicial elite—hence the entire people of Israel comes to mean the entire judiciary. Continue reading

Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777: Moses, a Successful Failure

Moses, as a leader, is a successful failure. His highlights reel is pretty impressive—liberator, warrior, logistics coordinator, judge and prophet. And yet many things that Moses seeks to accomplish are utter failures. He fails to reshape the liberated slaves into a dignified and free people; he fails to deliver them to the promised land; he fails to create harmony even in his own family; he fails to realize his personal desire to enter the land.

There is tragedy to these failures of Moses, and yet somehow they are necessary and even redemptive failures. If Moses got everything right, then how could anyone else ever assume the mantle of leadership? Our double portion of VaYakhel-Pekudei closes out the book of Exodus on the heels of his most spectacular failure—the golden calf and the destroyed tablets. But in Leviticus, the dedication of the tabernacle will be marred by the deaths of his two nephews, Nadav and Avihu. In Numbers, he will face a rebellion from his Levite tribe led by Korah, and also suffer the indignity of being criticized by his own siblings Aaron and Miriam. In Deuteronomy, a “book of rebukes,” he will be forced to foretell future failures and punishments of his people. Painful as these incidents surely are, each set-back and tragedy clarifies matters and allows Moses and the people of Israel to learn that the covenant is not, in the end, about Moses or any other individual. Individuals will always fail, but strong communities will ultimately prevail.

This message is found in two verses related to the architect Bezalel, one in each of our portions. In VaYakhel (35:30), Moses presents Bezalel to the people as a wise master builder. He says, “See, the LORD has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.” The second verse from Pekudei (38:22) says, “Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur of the tribe of Judah did all that the LORD had commanded Moses.” Continue reading