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

Sharing Sinai with all that lives: Yitro 5779

eagle in akWhat is the significance of Sinai for animals? This might sound like a strange question—the theophany was for people, right? If anything, we might say that animals were instruments in the form of sacrifices—those brought by Yitro at the start of the portion, and those described by God in the Decalogue postscript about earthen and stone altars. It is true that animal sacrifice is part of the covenant made between people and God, and yet I’d like to suggest that animals have a larger stake in Sinai.

Animals surround the great revelation on the mountain of the Lord. God states at the outset (19:4) that Israel was brought out of Egypt “on eagle’s wings.” The revelation itself was accompanied by the sound of a ram’s horn: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” This conjures a mingling of divine, human and animal sounds during this revelation. Still, the audience of the revelation was human, right? Continue reading

Dissonant Beauty by the Sea: BiShalah 5779

jaffaIt’s awesome to discover something precious where you don’t expect it to be. I had that feeling this week when I found a theory of music and a celebration of diversity in the introduction to a 19th century halakhic code. More on that below. On this Shabbat Shirah I’d like to know how the song of the sea actually sounded. Was it one voice united, an antiphonal call and response, some sort of harmony or even dissonance?

The Song literally begins, “Then Moses and the children of Israel would sing this song, and they said, saying” (Ex 15:1). It’s a curious verse, starting with the yud of yashir, which makes this historic moment seem incomplete and ungrammatical. Rashi’s theory is that this yud indicates not tense but an internal process that precedes action—the song that wells up from the heart before finding voice in the throat. He gives several other examples where an apparent future tense appears when the past tense belongs, with no “vov-conversive” in sight, and claims that the yud is playing a distinct role. It is drawing our attention to thought that precedes action. For Rashi, this grammatical insight is the true meaning (peshat), and is preferable to the wilder midrashic reading that this verse “proves” the doctrine of resurrection (purportedly the future tense indicates that Old Man Moses still has a song left to sing, even today).

I am moved by Rashi’s theory of grammar and psychology. We often think of music as an external experience—sound waves made by voices and instruments reaching the ears of the assembled. Yes, it is that, but first it is a thought, a feeling, an emotion. Thanks to Rashi we appreciate the silence that precedes the song. It begins inside with wonder, relief, and joy. And then these emotions burst out into audible song. Still, what did the song sound like? Continue reading

Becoming Conscious: Shabbat Bo 5779

How do you explain consciousness? The inner sense that each of has of being alive, of making decisions, of directing our bodies, of remembering, of feeling, of knowing—where does all of this come from? Why does it ebb at times of sleep, and return when we awaken? It is horrifying to imagine being alive and yet permanently unconscious. Self-awareness is definitive of human experience, but what is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean? These are ancient questions, and are central to Jewish thought (see below). Yet until recently they were outside the realm of scientific inquiry since consciousness seems subjective and impervious to measurement. Neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists have lately focused their attention on the nature of consciousness. We know quite a bit about how brains work, we can explain how inputs and outputs relate, we can even point to regions of the brain that are associated with different conscious states (such as fear and anger with the amygdala). But what about consciousness itself—what is it?

Philosopher David Chalmers discusses this subject in a TED talk, noting that consciousness may be our defining human quality, and yet we do not have appropriate ways to define it. He proposes some “crazy ideas,” such as that consciousness is a fundamental feature of existence, just like mass or energy. More controversially, he relates the idea of Giulio Tononi that consciousness may be a universal feature of all existence, including inanimate particles such as photons. The more complex the intellect, the more it can integrate information, the greater the consciousness. Tononi uses the letter Phi to symbolize this measure of consciousness. The radical concept is that while humans might have high levels of Phi, there is no aspect of the universe that is devoid of consciousness. Even inanimate objects may integrate information and thus be identified as conscious.

I can’t vouch for the neuroscience, but the idea that consciousness suffuses all existence is familiar to religion, certainly to Judaism. In Tikkunei HaZohar we encounter the memorable expression, leit atar panui minei, “no place is empty of [God].” A mystical reading of “Ashrei” [Psalm 145] from Maharam Shik understands the unbound grandeur of God (ולגדולתו אין חקר) as a reference to consciousness (ידיעה)—it suffuses the universe. God’s greatest gift is the sharing of consciousness. Think of experiences of understanding—moments when an idea took hold in our mind or where you helped another person, young or old, to grasp a concept—that is a moment of joy. At such moments we feel more alive, which is to say, more conscious, since our minds have connected to other minds, and perhaps to the universal mind that we identify with God. Continue reading

The Peekaboo Menorah–Hanukkah 5779

Happy Llamakka

My favorite student sweater this week said “Happy Llamakka,” and of course featured a picture of a Jewish llama. I don’t recall any llamas in the Talmud’s discussion of the festival of lights, but there is a camel that lights the city on fire.

Here’s the scene: a camel laden high with straw is led through the narrow streets of a city. Some of the straw pokes into a window, where there’s a lamp, the straw catches fire, and the camel carries it down the street, torching everything in its path. This is the Jewish answer to Godzilla—or perhaps to Joe Camel, the infamous cartoon character used to entice kids to start smoking. Who is responsible for the damage done by this dangerous camel? Continue reading

Torn with grief; Turning back to life: VaYeshev 5779

The most primal ritual of grief in our tradition is the rending of garments. The word “rending” is too pretty for the violent tearing of fabric with its distinctive sound and sensation. And the timid substitution of ripping a centimeter of black ribbon is far from the original concept. If you want to know what is intended by kriah, the tearing of one’s garments, just look at Genesis 37: 29-35.

When Reuben realizes that Joseph is gone, he tears his garments and says something incoherent to his brothers, literally, “the child is not, and I, where am I going”? A few verses later it is Jacob who receives the terrible news about his beloved son and immediately tears his garments, putting on a sack, and mourning Joseph “for many days.” In truth, he will never stop.

After the calamity and their dramatic responses of tearing clothes, Reuben and Jacob are never again quite the same. Reuben has lost his leadership, and the one time he tries to advise his father (42:37), his idea is foolish and is ignored by his father. Jacob will be bitter until the end.

The tearing of garments is not only  a symbol of grief. It indicates something much deeper, like a wound, a gaping hole in the soul. Indeed, when the Talmud seeks to define mental illness, using the category of shoteh, the sages offer three symptoms—a person who wanders alone at night, who sleeps in a cemetery, and who tears their garments. When a mourner tears garments in response to the death of a relative, it is as if to say, “I am crazy with grief, don’t try to talk with me, because I am not me without them.” Halakhah stipulates that a mourner must tear a least a hand-breadth of cloth in their garment—front and center, starting from the throat and down to the heart—as a way of acting out their grief. Continue reading