Our Bodies, Our Souls: Tazria-Metzora 5778

Pity poor Rabbi Akiva. He had a difficult youth and a dreadful death, but at least he enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, right? In Bavli Sanhedrin 38b Reish Lakish claims that God gave Adam the First a preview of all the sages to come, and when he reached Akiva, Adam rejoiced in his Torah, and mourned over his death. That is high praise, yet on the same page, Rabbi Akiva is on the receiving end of a stinging put-down, as he is elsewhere in the Talmud, specifically when other sages feel he is being too fanciful in his textual interpretations. Each time they tell him, “Confine yourself to negaim [the identification of blemishes] and ohalot [the rules of corpse contamination]!” The former is the focus of our double portion this week, but first let’s examine an aggadah that gets Rabbi Akiva into trouble.

The presenting issue is a mysterious Aramaic passage in chapter seven of Daniel, in which God is described as the “Ancient of Days,” sitting on a throne made of fire, supervising an apocalyptic battle of beasts which may represent the various empires that oppressed Israel. Especially puzzling is the reference in verse 7:9 to plural “thrones,” and later, in vs.13-14, to a “son of man” who comes before the Ancient of Days and is described as having dominion. This passage was of intense interest in ancient apocalyptic literature—the son of man was associated with Enoch, or with the angel Metatron, with the second throne indicative of a second power in heaven (שתי רשויות). This was obviously a destabilizing concept—indicative of a dualistic theology that either pitted divine forces of good and evil against one another, or exalted a messianic human figure to divine status. Dualistic thought was seen as deeply threatening—this was the explanation given for the heresy of Elisha b. Abuya, but it also almost ensnared the great Rabbi Akiva. Continue reading


Drinking on the Job, Playing with Fire: Shmini 5778

I recently had the privilege to respond to a lecture delivered at JTS by Seth Waxman, the former US Solicitor to the Supreme Court. He presented three current cases, one of which (McCoy vs. Louisiana) he himself argued, in his 80th appearance before the court. Afterwards we continued his discussion of halakhic principles at stake in these cases, and one thing clearly emerged as a common ground between the two systems. Frequently the key to a good decision is not the verdict itself but the reasoning that leads to it. After all, it is the reasoning that will remain active within a legal system long after the parties are gone. It is essential that justices not only reach wise conclusions, but that they do so through reasoning that will set positive precedents for future decisions.

Mr. Waxman and I discussed the much anticipated case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which hinges on two separate considerations—would compelling a business owner to create a wedding cake for a gay couple violate the cake owner’s free speech or free exercise [of religion] clause of the First Amendment? Whether the court finds for or against Masterpiece, it will make a great deal of difference how they do so—by finding that he is an artist, and artists may (or may not) be compelled to create their art, or by finding that his religious beliefs entitle him (or do not entitle him) to discriminate against others. The implications for free speech and religious liberty for all people will be enormous, and difficult to anticipate. May the justices judge with wisdom and care!

The activity of adjudicating, called הוראה or instruction in Jewish sources, is one of the most consequential responsibilities available to a person. For this reason, we are especially concerned with the education, integrity and also the sobriety of a judge. If there is doubt about the state of mind of the judge, then there is doubt about the validity of the judgment, and if the judgments of a nation’s courts are invalid, then the entire society’s moral standing is imperiled. We learn this important lesson indirectly from our portion, Shmini, which includes one of the most tragic and mystifying stories in the Torah, the sudden deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu on their first day of service in the tabernacle. Continue reading

Guns and Moses: Shabbat HaGadol 5778

Americans have become desensitized to the phenomenon of gun violence and explosives that can suddenly and indiscriminately mar and destroy innocent life. Somehow mass murder has come to seem normal, and our political class is quick to rehearse the same tired lines about thoughts and prayers for the victims, denunciation of the perpetrators, and claims that on a policy level, nothing substantial can be done. But when 17 children were murdered in the gun attack at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last month, something finally seemed to shift.

It has not been the adults, but rather the students from Parkland and across the nation who have led this stirring of consciousness and activism. It is challenging but also appropriate that the March For Our Lives rallies in DC and 800 other locations will be this Saturday, Shabbat HaGadol.  Many of our synagogues have made Shabbat arrangements to allow teens and families to participate in the rallies, as has USY, connecting the themes of this special Shabbat with the crisis of gun violence that plagues our nation.

There is no single explanation for the naming of this special sabbath as Shabbat HaGadol, but the consensus as expressed in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 430:1) is that it recalls a miracle that occurred on the tenth of Nisan, just before the Exodus. According to the rabbis, the Exodus on 15 Nisan fell on Thursday, so the tenth was Shabbat, and it was on that day that every family began to defy the regime of Pharaoh and prepare publicly to worship God. This combination of defiance and dedication preceded the liberation, and it is the same combination that many teens are demonstrating in demanding that the plague of gun violence be contained. It was the killing of children that characterized the depravity of Pharaoh, and it was only when his cruelty rebounded and struck his own home that he agreed to release the Israelites. We too are stricken by the loss of so many children and are duty-bound to support the teens who are marching for their lives, and for the soul of this nation. Continue reading

Mind this–Intention Before Action on the Field of Sacred Play: Vayikra/HaHodesh 5778

My baseball career ground to a sudden halt 39 years ago during spring training. It was March 1979, and I was signed up to play in the Sandy Koufax division of our town’s Little League. But that month was also my bar mitzvah, which our family marked with my first trip to Israel. I was supposed to read Vayikra at the “Wailing Wall,” and so I missed two weeks of spring training. The coach wasn’t happy: “No practice, no play.” I can’t really blame him. I was a sloppy player in right field, neglecting to cover my mitt to secure the ball (“One Hand Dan” was not meant as a compliment), though I did have a pretty good throw to make up for the dropped fly balls. Still, it is ironic that my choice to put prayer over play cost me my position, davka in the league named for a pitcher who refused to play on Yom Kippur.

What I loved about baseball, and continue to appreciate as a spectator, was what some people find oppressively tedious. It is a ritualized activity with precisely defined players, props and motions. The ball is in play for only a few minutes of the 3 hour game—one study found an average of 18 minutes of ball in play, meaning that it is 90% standing around. And yet the intense attention of participants and spectators alike infuses those moments with great drama and significance. Games that have constant motion such as hockey and basketball are lively but, to my mind, far less dramatic. As a pitcher prepares to throw, each side seeks to align intention with action; what happens next may change the course of the game, but it all begins in the mind.

It is not a far stretch to compare the slow pace and sudden activity of the baseball diamond with the rhythms of religious ritual, especially in the sacred service described by Leviticus. When we read these verses visually, trying to imagine where each party stands, then deeper layers of meaning can begin to emerge. For example, regarding the burnt offering we learn that the priest brings the animal to the entrance of the tent of meeting—this is apparently the spot between the altar and the sanctum—where he pauses, placing his hands upon the animal’s head and leaning on it. This action activates divine favor, and the subsequent slaughter delivers atonement. Continue reading

From Mishkan to Mitzvah: Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778

There are many shiny objects in the double reading which draws the book of Exodus to its dramatic conclusion. Ancient images of silver, gold and copper flash in the mind’s eye, gemstones sparkle in the breastplate of the high priest, and fine fabrics of blue, purple, crimson and linen adorn the coverings of the tabernacle and the vestments of its priests. More brilliant than all of these riotous colors is the divine glory, which in the final verses enters the tabernacle and is so overwhelming that even Moses can no longer withstand its radiance. Color and light symbolize human devotion and divine response—this parashah is made for the movies.

And yet, all of the visual cues are only indications of something deeper and more subtle. They point to an internal alignment between the people and their God. It is not just a matter of the people’s generosity that impresses this reader. It is something more fundamental, more daunting but also more accessible. The people obey the Lord’s command. Over and over, Parashat Pekudei includes the phrase , “as the Lord commanded Moses” (כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְקֹוָ֖ק אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה). The sages counted 18 instances of this phrase in our portion alone. This phrase appears 60 times in the Torah, so common that it is easy to ignore. But the claim that God issues commands which the people fulfill is the essential architecture of Jewish spiritual life. Continue reading

Purim 5778: On Kashering Hands for Pesah

A beraita quoted in b. Pesahim (6a) states that one must commence study of the laws of Pesah 30 days before the holiday; the practice as codified in the Shulhan Arukh (OH 429:1), and the Mishnah B’rurah (SK 2) is that study should begin on Purim itself. In order to safeguard JTS’s reputation as a center of halakhic stringency, I thought I would address a topic that is often neglected to the detriment and indeed peril of the kosher consumer: namely, the protocol for kashering one’s hands before Passover.

As you know, ceramic utensils are considered porous and therefore are impossible to kasher for Pesah. What, however, about the skin of our hands? You will recall from high school biology that the skin is a semi-porous membrane that absorbs and emits various substances. Try chopping an onion or crushing some garlic—your hands will reek for hours or even days. If you chop jalapeno peppers, remember not to rub your eyes! Indeed, the laws of kashrut recognize the special status of spicy foods as דבר חריף, capable of transferring flavor to a second utensil even without the application of physical heat. A knife or board that has had onion or garlic chopped on it will be considered to take on the kashrut status of any other food substances exposed to that surface at that time.

Obviously there is no avoiding a d’var harif on Pesah, since we have a mitzvah d’oraita to eat maror. Handling any spicy foods and then hametz renders the hands hametzdik. Touching Passover foods with hametzdik hands contaminates them and makes them forbidden to eat or even own on Pesah. It’s a bit like the myth of King Midas—whatever you touch becomes inedible. You can sell your hands for Pesah, of course, but this is complicated since you must then “make kinyan” by lifting the pen with your teeth. So, if selling your hands is not workable, how about kashering them? Not so simple. Continue reading

Zakhor 5778: Hear the Voice of Esther

I recently had a first meeting with a prospective convert and her partner. Introducing the importance of Torah study to Jewish identity, I rolled open my Megillah on the desk before them and began to share the story of Purim. It’s not often that one observes a first impression of Esther, but this woman had never heard the Megillah before, and her eyes widened with horror and outrage at the repellent and yet familiar behavior of nearly all of the men in this story. “Tell me that the King gets punished,” she said, but no, the king remains in power. The absence of justice, I noted, points to the absence of God, who is unmentioned in the Megillah, a dark and frightening book, despite scenes of comic relief. This darkness highlights the one point of light, which is the courageous speech of Esther in confronting two men who treat her like furniture.

Sadly, even Mordecai is guilty of manipulating Esther when he sends his niece to seduce the king. This is captured well in a skit from the Israeli comedy series, “The Jews are Coming,” in which Esther objects to her uncle’s plan, saying, “you want me to be a whore?” The more he insists that it’s not like that, the more problematic his plan becomes.  True, his motivation is positive, and even though he doesn’t really have an actual plan at the beginning, it works out for Esther. Still, Mordecai’s insistence that she remain silent at his command, and then speak at his word reinforces the sense that she is his puppet, not a person endowed with moral agency. Continue reading