Monthly Archives: November 2016

4 Existential Questions Worth Asking on Thanksgiving

Published by The Forward, Nov. 22, 2016

Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of American holidays. It recalls the Torah’s instruction that “when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (Deut. 8:10). Thanksgiving calls on Americans not to hoard the earth’s bounty, but rather to share with “the stranger, the orphan and the widow who are in your community” (Deut. 16:14; see also 24:19-22 and 26:10-12). As with Jewish festivals, the focal point is a family meal featuring traditional foods that connect Americans to their nation’s origin story.

Some families include a benediction or holiday songs, but this festival is also an opportunity for deep conversation about the blessings and challenges of contemporary America. Just as the Passover Seder leads us to consider the meaning of oppression and liberty, Thanksgiving has the potential to prompt discussions about the promise and the perils of liberty in our land.

This year many Americans feel a mixture of blessing together with deep foreboding regarding troubling political developments. Some families enjoy easy political consensus, while others are divided and either approach such topics with anxiety or avoid them altogether. Here then are four questions for Thanksgiving designed to clarify the issues of the day, guiding us from gratitude to generosity, and from satiety to action:

1) We are thankful for the earth’s bounty, but concerned about risks to its ecosystems. What is our responsibility as stewards of the environment?

2) We are grateful for the bounty of our holiday table, but mindful of the food insecurity experienced by many Americans. What is our responsibility to feed the hungry?

3)We are thankful for our nation’s democratic values and institutions, but concerned about threats to the freedom of conscience and its expression. What is our responsibility to safeguard “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

4) We are thankful for the diversity of America, a nation of native peoples and immigrants from across the globe, but concerned about escalating rhetoric that threatens minorities. What is our responsibility toward the stranger in our midst?

VaYera 5777: I Will Fear No Evil

Fear is the sharpest of two-edged swords. In psychological terms, it triggers the fight or flight response, either clarifying the mind to organize effective action, or causing a person to flee or even freeze in place.

In Judaism fear is likewise a nuanced phenomenon. It is often viewed negatively as a trait that can lead to cowardice and lost opportunities. In Parashat Va’yera (Gen.18:15), Sarah’s fear leads her to deny laughing in response to news of her pregnancy, and earns her a rebuke from God. Throughout the Bible God is concerned that the prophets will be incapacitated by fear, frequently telling them, “Do not fear” (אל תירא).  Last week God told Abram not to fear, “for I am your shield” (Gen. 15:1). Jacob will likewise be told not to fear when running from home and descending to Egypt (Gen. 26:24 and 46:3).

The most common explanation for the reason not to fear is that God has not abandoned the prophet, but is “with” them, offering them protection, blessing and reward. Divine companionship is the ultimate shield against fear, as Psalm 23 so beautifully states, “I will not fear evil, for You are with me.” The fear of Jacob/Israel becomes a theme within prophetic literature, especially in Jeremiah. The entire nation is comforted but also warned not to allow fear to cause them to abandon hope in their future and to cease in their efforts to serve God. Continue reading

Lekh Lekha 5777: Moving the Matriarchs from Objects to Subjects

How dashing and heroic does Abram appear in his devotion to God! With alacrity he relocates upon command, risks everything to rescue his captive nephew Lot, and circumcises himself and all of his household males at the end of the portion. Yet there is also a moment in which Abram appears craven and insensitive, namely the passage in which he “realizes” that his 65-year-old wife Sarai is beautiful, and instructs her to be abducted, “that it go well with me, and that I may remain alive because of you.”

This sister-wife story has troubled commentators since antiquity, especially since it is a thrice-told tale, with two parallel versions related to Abimelekh in Genesis 20 and 26. Modern scholars have noted that the abduction of a hero’s wife is a theme in ancient literature, from the Ugaritic tale of King Keret and his wife Hurrai, to Homer’s Helen of Troy. In all of these cases, a woman plays a narrative role but only as a beauty object. The man who can control such a woman has virility and power; the husband who loses control of his wife is humiliated and requires revenge.

Reading these stories this week, when a strong woman has lost her bid for the presidency, and a man who has been accused of molesting 12 different women and has been heard boasting of such exploits is now our president-elect, we must look more closely at what Phyllis Trible calls “Texts of Terror”. The great scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky z”l dedicated a chapter called “The Disposable Wife” to this subject in her 2002 book, Reading the Women of the Bible. Continue reading

Noah 5777: A Tale of Two Dystopias

Does it feel lately that the fate of the world is at stake? If so, the Torah seems intent to validate and deepen our concern. Here we are just days before one of the most disconcerting elections in American history, and we have also arrived at Parashat Noah, the original dystopian tale.

In fact, our Torah portion includes two dystopias, each of which relates to a distinct constellation of political fears. The first presents as a natural catastrophe—rising flood waters that will wipe out all human habitations on land—but which the Torah ascribes to the consequence of human irresponsibility. A flawed hero manages to salvage what can be saved and rebuild society, but only after it suffers grievous losses.

The second calamity is more of an imagined disaster than a present threat, one in which fear-driven policy leads to self-inflicted damage. The builders of the tower of Babel are terrified of being dispersed across the land and losing their identity. They respond by building a huge skyscraper to “make ourselves a name,” but are instead dispersed both physically and culturally, becoming estranged and distanced from one another.

It would be simplistic to draw an analogy between the two calamities of Parashat Noah and the two sets of fears expressed by our political parties. Still, it seems that Hillary Clinton voters are not infrequently concerned about calamities such as climate change, warfare, and failed economies—catastrophes that are caused or exacerbated by human misconduct and which have the capacity to destroy entire cities, if not nations. In this they are like Noah and his family. Donald Trump voters, on the other hand, resemble the builders of the tower. They are animated by fears of immigration and lost hegemony, both cultural and financial. They respond with support for a literal tower builder whose famous name is their rallying point to strengthen and concentrate their cause. Continue reading

Bereshit 5777: Only One Immortality at a Time

You know what demands keen knowledge? Naming things. The ability to observe and identify one’s environment is no small task, and yet Adam is capable of naming every animal, even before eating from the tree of knowledge. The Torah seems intent on clarifying that it was not knowledge in general that God sought to keep from Adam, but a special subset of knowledge.

One of my Bible professors once explained that the expression, “tree of knowledge of good and evil” may not indicate moral knowledge but rather the complete gamut or range of knowledge. Before the forbidden fruit—ignorance; after it—omniscience. But this theory is immediately belied by the narrative context—Adam is quite knowledgeable before the incident, and rather clueless afterwards.

Rather, this narrative seems most interested in Adam’s acquisition of a special kind of knowledge—it is what William Blake called a song of experience—an echo of a seismic shift when tasting the fruit of longing leads to deeper expressions of desire. Desire for forbidden foods, for possessions, and of course for sex are all implicit in the story of this Eden-ending snack. Continue reading