Monthly Archives: September 2016

Nitzavim 5777: Returning from Exile, Accompanied by the Divine

Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy returns to themes explored back in Chapter 4—alienation from God, exile, and then return. Exile as presented here is both physical and spiritual in nature. This passage reflects a period after the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen, and the southern kingdom was imperiled (though Ramban voices the traditional view that the entire passage is predictive, not descriptive). Exile was not a theoretical possibility for our ancestors, but a constant fear. Exile was both a physical and a spiritual experience—the divine presence was believed to be more palpable in the promised land than in other places with their foreign people and foreign gods. This conviction is implicit in the coduct of Jonah when he seeks to flee from the presence of God. And yet the same story undermines this assumption, demonstrating that Adonai is God of all the land, the sea and the sky, and as such is concerned with all people, and also with plants and animals.

Back to our passage in Deuteronomy 30, it seems to imply that not only will Israel suffer exile, but so too will its God. Verse 30:3 has an odd phrase, ושב…את שבותך, which literally means that God will “return with your return” (JPS translates, “restore your fortunes”). The Rabbis understood the phrase to mean something like, “God will return together with you returning.” Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai says (b. Megillah 29a) says that God loves Israel so much that God goes into exile with them, and will return together with them in the future.

Exile was for our ancestors a dreaded outcome, but they could anticipate its end, and even its rewards. In those distant places where Jews have been exiled or chosen to settle, there have always been “blessings of assimilation,” to quote Chancellor Gerson Cohen and now Chancellor Eisen in his recent address. Wherever the Jewish people has traveled it has both lost and gained. Paradoxically, we have sometimes felt closer to God when far from the Land. Exile and return are the great dramas of Israel history, both physical and spiritual. As the Torah and the Jewish year draw to a close, the anxiety of alienation from God motors the Jewish impulse to return. Study of Torah and performance of mitzvot are our means of transportation in the essential journey back to our ideal selves and our Creator. Continue reading

Re’eh 5776: A New Meat to Eat?

All summer I have been thinking about meat. No, it is not just the smell of BBQ, but it has been my research project to investigate the status of cultured meat for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. I have almost completed the first draft of this responsum, though it seems that each day I discover new facets which require investigation and reconsideration. Parashat Re’eh plays a significant part in this project since several of the key considerations are derived from several verses in our portion.

Cultured meat entered public awareness in 2013 when Dr. Mark Post of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands announced that his lab had created and cooked a $325,000 burger (actually 250,000 British pounds—we have a better exchange rate now, so the price has already fallen!). They biopsied cells from a live cow, isolated the stem cells and used them to cultivate muscle cells, which were eventually reproduced and formed to develop tiny fibers of muscle tissue, which were finally gathered and layered into a product resembling ground beef. I have been emailing with Dr. Post to check the accuracy of my understanding, and he put me in touch with an Islamic scholar from Malaysia who is doing a parallel investigation of the Halal implications of cultured meat. So, lots of people are trying to make sense of this still theoretical product.

While the process of making cultured meat may sound unnatural, wasteful and even repulsive it has strong defendants. Some say that this product would be more ethical, since it would be meat without animal suffering; it would be more healthful and more environmentally sound to produce. But would it be kosher? Continue reading