What to Pray for When You’re Pregnant:

Talmudic Ontogeny

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 3.15.53 PM Please let the babies emerge.

The Talmud (Berachot 28b) suggests prayers you can say in favor of the well-being of a developing embryo or fetus after a mother becomes pregnant.

Within the first three days a man should pray that the seed should not putrefy; from the third to the fortieth day he should pray that the child should be a male; from the fortieth day to three months he should pray that it should not be a sandal;  from three months to six months he should pray that it should not be still-born; from six months to nine months he should pray for a safe delivery. But does such a prayer avail? (Berachot 60a)
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Dung and Divinity:

How the Rabbis of the Talmud Recognize and Preserve the Added Value of Public Spaces

This Sunday I found Divinity in dung.

Bava Kama is a tractate of the Talmud concerning the assessment of responsibility, damages and liabilities. When people cause harm to each other directly, by injury or theft, or indirectly, through hazards that they own like wild animals or open pits or fire that’s gotten out of control, how do judges apportion payments of liability? After all, the thin line between barbarity and civilization lies in the rule of law to exact retribution in place of vengeance.
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When the Talmud Makes You Squirm

Lots of things can make you uncomfortable reading Talmud. Not least is the vertigo from the steep ethical progress we seem to have made in the intervening centuries as we read back to the apparently deficient ethics of the Sages and their times. The Talmud not only accepts slavery, it dignifies it. And the praise for apparent barbarisms of war, of what seems like crude justice, of the treatment and attitude towards women,  all make us reflect on how far we’ve seemed to have come. As allegedly civilized moderns, these make us squirm.

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Black Boxes:

Bondage and Liberation

Putting on tefillin to modern sensibilities seems like the most primitive of Jewish practices. Many of us who have walked the streets of New York or some other major city may have been accosted by a Chabadnik asking us if we were Jewish and if so, would we put on tefillin with them, an encounter that may only have confirmed our notion of how arcane and primitive the ritual is. After all, you bind yourself with almost-raw black leather thongs to hold black boxes – tribal fetishes– in a certain configuration on your head and constricting your left arm so the arm box presses into your heart.  You wind the leather fairly tightly until you are truly bound. Whaaa? The modern media is fond of the image of a Chasid wearing tallis and tefillin when they want to celebrate diversity or tacitly attest to the weirdness of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
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Elijah the Thin-Skinned

The Talmud volume of Sanhedrin ends with an amazing contrast between the generosity of even the most elevated mortal – Elijah – and God’s. And it pivots on the hidden meaning of a most curious word.

Elijah is caricatured by Rabbi Jose as being a קפדן – kapdan– a defensive or easily offended character. Some translate it as “hot-tempered.’

When he hears this insult, Elijah gets deeply miffed, ironically confirming libel against him. Know anyone like that? When he gets accused of being defensive he gets defensive?

Why would the Talmud devote itself to dragging down the reputation of a prophet, and in such a dramatic way to end the tractate?
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Transcendent Writing Machine in Kafka and Pynchon

“Writing is a form of prayer.

– Kafka in his diaries.

We have before us two fictional texts concerning writing machines. Both write directly onto the human body and both are designed to give the subject transcendental knowledge or experience. The first is the Sentencing Machine described in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” The second is Thomas Pynchon’s “Puncutron Machine” described in Vineland. Their comparison illuminates a territory of postmodern metaphysics and transcendent belief that is curiously under-explored in most criticism about postmodernism.
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God Laughs:

at History, at Man

Man plans, God laughs. The world has come to admire the wisdom of the old Yiddish expression. Even our best-laid plans are often doomed to laughable failure in this crazy mixed up world of ours.
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Can There Be Prophesy in Exile? Esther’s Lament

What is the status of prophesy for Jews today? Can we communicate directly with God and speak for Him? Are those who speak with inspiration and profound insight channeling the Divine, or is it soothsaying? Are modern day prophets mistaking personal inspiration for the real thing?
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Perpetual Chanukah in the West:

<Why does the Talmud forbid teaching Greek? -or- Philosophical Violence in the Judaeo-Christian Hyphen

The last page of Sotah brings to a climax the apocalyptic portrait of the decline of Jewish generations, spirit, learning and virtue after the Chorban (the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE). The section, and others like it in Talmud and Jewish literature is called Yeridas HaDoros, “Descent or Decline of the Generations.” In the middle of this lamentation, The Talmud discusses many virtues of Jewish spirit that were lost, and many customs which had to be abandoned, such as the bridal veil and litter and the ritual to cleanse an unsolved murder of a body found between two cities – the eglah arufah.
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Hebrew and the Decapitation of Israel (Sotah)

The last chapters of Sotah are less well known in pop culture. It is seemingly less dramatic part, after the trial of the alleged adultress drinking the bitter water. But there’s plenty of high drama anyway: the Kohen’s rallying cry to the assembled troops about to go to war, the three kinds of war, who is ineligible to be drafted or should be sent home, the filthy nature of Goliath’s mother and her filthy offspring.
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