Monthly Archives: February 2019

Missing Miriam: Ki Tissa 5779

I feel sympathy for Aaron. While his brother Moses is enjoying a one on One visit with God on top of Sinai, Aaron faces a restive crowd below, desperately trying to hold them off. As Rashi notes, Aaron’s suggestion that the people surrender their jewelry was a delaying tactic until Moses would return, but the people readily relinquished their gold. If you look at Rashi’s description of how the calf was made, you see an unusual amount of Aggadah—Aaron tossed the metal in the fire, but magicians came and used charms to fashion the form, or perhaps it was the prophet Micah who somehow had a divine Name with him, and used it to try to summon Joseph (“the ox” based on his blessing in Deut. 33:17) to rise from his coffin to save the day, but it backfired, and out came the calf. Continue reading

Pennies for Heaven: Terumah 5779

PushkeHow do you feel about fund-raising? For many people it is an unwelcome task, but pause to consider the expression, which refers to the elevation of money towards a higher purpose. That is the literal meaning of the word תרומה. Most Bible translations render it simply as “offering” or “donation,” but a few preserve the literal sense as in, “raised-contribution (Everett Fox), “elevation offering” (JPS, Robert Alter at Ex. 29:27), or my favorite, “heave offering” (KJV also at Ex 29:27, et al). These translations of תרומה preserve a sense of the physical act—a person takes an ordinary object and lifts it up both physically and symbolically, so that it can serve the needs of the altar, of poor people, of the community and ultimately of God.

Already in Deuteronomy (12:17) the word תרומה refers to general donations to the future Temple, not only to the original tabernacle, and this is how the rabbis came to understand the commandment. It was forbidden to eat crops until the תרומה had been separated for the priests, and tithes for the Levites and the poor. This practice of self-restraint, of giving to others before taking for oneself, is itself a form of elevation. Physical desires are made secondary to moral, communal and spiritual values. Judaism does not insist on an ideal of self-abasement here, but it does demand that all Jews expand their sense of responsibility to share resources for the sake of communal worship and social solidarity. As Proverbs says (14:34), “Righteousness (צדקה) exalts a nation.” Continue reading

From Mishpatim to MobileEye. Who is Responsible? 5779

Autonomous VehiclesIs a person liable for damage caused by their property? For example, if I direct an autonomous vehicle to drive me to the store, and the car runs over property or injures or even kills an animal or a person, is it my fault? Can it be partially my fault? How should we decide? Such questions are a focus of my new responsum on artificial intelligence, which is still in draft form.

As with all questions of technology, a starting point is to look for precedents, and it happens that most of them are linked to our portion, Parashat Mishpatim. This Torah portion is the basis of Hilkhot Nezikin, the laws of damage. In Jewish law, a distinction is made between damage a person causes with their own body (נזקי גופו), and damage that is caused by their property (נזקי ממונו). Our portion discusses some cases of direct damage, as when one person assaults another or steals their property. However it also considers cases when a person is not careful with their property. Perhaps they create a hazard such as a pit on their property or a roof that lacks a parapet. Maybe they set a fire that burned out of control and damaged a neighbor’s crops. Or perhaps they own animals which cause damage. How to determine liability? Continue reading