Ki Tavo 5777: Blessed in Both Directions

Sometimes translations can’t help but make a mess of the original. A prime example is Deuteronomy 28:6, which in Hebrew consists of six poetic words: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּבֹאֶךָ וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה בְּצֵאתֶךָ. JPS requires 15 words to render this in English, “Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings.” Other translations are not much shorter, but they offer a more satisfying, “when you come in,” and “when you go out” (RSV, Alter). Everett Fox, as usual, tries to capture the sound of the Hebrew, but his rendition is still a mouthful: “Blessed be you, in your coming-in, blessed be you, in your going-out.” One challenge for translators is that English lacks the pronominal suffixes and prefix prepositions that allow Hebrew to be so compact.

Another challenge is that the original text is both obvious and opaque. We don’t really know if the Torah intends a simple blessing for arriving home and leaving again, which would basically repeat v.3, “blessed in the city, blessed in the field,” or if the Torah is implying something more elaborate. The phrase could be a merism, that is, an expression which encompasses all possibilities. Hence, “you will be blessed everywhere.” Medieval commentaries consider various options, associating these arrivals and departures either with commerce (looking back to vs. 4-5) or battle (Hizkuni, looking ahead to v. 7), or both. Good for the medieval commentators for offering such contextual readings! (I also like the dressed-up Aramaic Targum Yonatan, which offers, “Blessed are you when you come home to the study hall, and blessed too when you go out to the marketplace”—the rabbinic fantasy life). Continue reading


Ki Tetze 5777: Parapets and Public Safety

The National Society of Professional Engineers maintains a Code of Ethics which opens with the fundamental canon that engineers shall, “Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.” Structures, tools and other features of the built environment may be designed with what is known as “operational morality,” meaning that care has been taken to ensure that both the construction process and the final product are safe. I have been studying issues of machine morality this summer for a new responsum on halakhah and autonomous vehicles, but for today, my focus is on building safety, specifically during the course of construction.

Parashat Ki Teitze contains the following instruction: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8; JPS trans). As is their habit, the sages of Israel take this single verse both deep and wide. They seek to define its parameters—does it refer only to new construction, or also to purchasing or renting an existing structure? Does it matter if the building is singly or jointly owned? If it is intended for private or public use? How high and how wide must a structure be before this obligation is invoked? Practical answers to all of these questions are found in the early midrash (Sifre Devarim, #229), and Talmud Yerushalmi (Sukkah) and Bavli (Sukkah, BM, BB etc.). If there is any reasonable expectation that a person might use the roof, and any danger that they might fall, then it is the responsibility of the builder, owner, or renter to install a sturdy and effective barrier to protect people from danger.

Our sages go further, comparing this verse to a passage in Exodus (21:33-34) which likewise addresses public safety: “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal.” With this comparison, the sages have expanded the Torah’s concern from the narrow one of building a parapet to the much broader issue of public safety. In b. Ketubot 41b, Rabbi Natan asks, “What is the source for the rule that a person should not maintain a vicious dog, or keep a shaky ladder at home? It is the verse (from our portion), “so that you do not bring blood-guilt in your house.” The parapet is just an example of the broader principle—both the building and that which it contains must be made as safe as possible. Continue reading

Re’eh 5777: Doing Right and Good, Denouncing Evil

There is no shortage of specific laws in the book of Deuteronomy—41 mitzvot are found in Parashat Re’eh alone. Yet this book also uses a more general instruction when it offers variants of the expression: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (6:18, 12:28, et al). This is the opposite of the warning issued early in the portion, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases….” The contrast sets up an opposition between individual conscience, which is considered subjective and unreliable, versus divine instruction, which is universal and timeless. Fair enough, but how can one be sure what God deems right, in general terms?

Several later biblical figures are recognized for doing that which is right and good—kings Asa and Hezekiah are praised in this way. There seems to be both a negative and a positive element to such virtuous conduct. On the negative side, they destroyed cultic sites which the prophets of Israel identified as false worship. On the positive side, they sought out the instruction (Torah) and commands (mitzvot) of the Lord. Hezekiah is said to have searched for God with all of his heart, and as a result, to have succeeded. So, doing that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord includes both a negative and a positive mandate—to purge what is deemed evil, and to pursue and practice that which is good. Still, how to know which is which? Continue reading

From Kilayim to Kabbalah to CRISPR

I participated in a conference on the new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 at Berkeley on June 18-19, 2017. Below are my remarks, building on the foundation of my 2015 responsum on genetic engineering.

Gene Editing Ethics Workshop convened by Jennifer Doudna and Bill Hurlbut

Panel on Catholic, Muslim and Jewish Perspectives

(Texts displayed as slides; found below)

  1. I’m honored to have been invited to attend this conference and offer some comments on Jewish responses to gene editing. In addition to serving as dean of the JTS rabbinical school, I am a member of our denomination’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. In this capacity, I engage in writing responsa, which are essentially position papers on topics of halakhah, a Hebrew term which encompasses Jewish law, ethics and devotional life. In 2015 the CJLS approved my paper on genetic engineering, which touched on CRISPR/Cas9, but which requires greater inquiry, making this conference especially helpful to me.
  2. In searching for halakhic values and precedents of relevance to gene editing, I identified two discourses in tension, one which we may call preservationist, and the other interventionist. They begin from the same point of origin, shared with most peoples of faith, that life is not only precious but also sacred. The Bible and biblically-based religions go further, declaring human life to be fashioned in the divine image, בצלם אלהים, an ambiguous expression which nevertheless implies that humanity has God-like qualities and therefore great responsibilities. This core principle is the foundation of the special abhorrence for the crime of murder, and is also the basis for the obligation to do what we can to heal illness and extend human life. The idea of the divine image imposes an obligation to preserve human dignity and to prevent humiliation. The belief that life is sacred likewise grounds the prohibition on causing animals excessive suffering, prevents the wanton destruction of trees, and curbs the human tendency to eradicate species. Life is sacred, and humans are charged to be its custodians, a task for which we have proven to be spectacularly inept.
  3. That life is sacred is a point of easy consensus, but the nature of human stewardship proves more divisive. The preservationist school points to commandments such as Leviticus 19:19, the ban on mixing seeds and cross-breeding animals:

Continue reading

Naso 5777: The Problem with Priests

[Written for JTS Torah Commentary]      Modern Judaism has a problem with the priesthood. The notion of hereditary holiness—that one segment of the Jewish people is set apart from others, given ceremonial privileges, and invited to bless the people—conflicts with our egalitarian ethos. The strange rituals of the priests, especially when they are invited to raise their hands in blessing the people, feel magical and irrational. For these reasons, many non-Orthodox communities have diminished or even eliminated the priestly privileges such as reserving the first aliyot for kohanim and Levi’im. On festivals, when priests traditionally ascend to the bimah during the Musaf service and chant the biblical blessings from underneath their tallit, many of our congregations simply assign the role to the leader, regardless of tribal status.

Yet there remain passionate defenders of the priestly prerogatives, and they, too, have their reasons. First, of course, the Torah itself defines an elaborate role for the tribe of Levi and within it, the descendants of Aaron. In our portion this week we read, “And they shall set My Name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” R’ Yehoshua b. Levi states in the Talmud (BT Sotah 38b) that a kohen who refuses to bless the people violates three commandments (for the three times that the Torah instructs kohanim to bless the people).

Beyond the biblical imperative, the priestly blessing also infuses ritual with mystery. Further, it is a deeply meaningful family tradition for many kohanim. Although traditionally women were excluded from the ritual, the CJLS approved a 1994 responsum by Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz called “Women, Raise Your Hands,” which argued that women from priestly families also have the ability to bless the community, and therefore may play all of the liturgical roles traditionally assigned to male priests. These reasons suffice for many of our congregations to continue, restore, or initiate the traditional practice of inviting priests to bless the community from the bimah (dukhening) on festivals. Continue reading

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