Genesis doesn’t have many witticisms. It has ironic laughter (“What? Am I going to get pregnant at the age of 90?”) and defensive sarcasm (“What? Am I my brother’s babysitter?”) and passive aggression (“What’s 400 shekels between old friends like us?”). But witty wordplay is rare.
So it’s surprising that one of the more brooding and athletic characters, Esau the bloody hunter, gives us a great instance of eloquent punning, and in a moment of high drama, too. Continue reading “Jacob and the Cosmic If”→
Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket?
As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.
That may be because the first Thanksgiving had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). Or maybe because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for “thanks” (Judah), and our word for “blessing” – beracha – is related to the word for “knee” – berach – which we take in the posture of gratitude. Thanksgiving also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle for pennies (isn’t that the universal tradition?). Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.
The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. Puritans believed the Anglican Church had introduced too many impure practices. They sought to return Christianity to its roots in the Jewish Bible. America, in their narrative, was the Promised Land. They consciously imitated the Jews by trying to establish both a Holy Land and an earthly utopia, free from tyranny. They called it the New Eden. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were at least as attached to the Old Testament as the new one.
A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”
They also imbibed the message of that Hebrew Bible: the human soul is enslaved to no earthly power.
“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.
In the Bible a powerful king of the Philistines, Avimelech, harasses Isaac and his tribe in what is now Gaza by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac retraces his steps and re-opens the wells. He thrives and grows wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac,” submitting to him to ask for a peace treaty.
The lesson is the stuff of Hollywood: eventually, the huge and powerful bow to the superiority of the small and brave who stick to their mission and their authenticity.
On this Thanksgiving, my personal gratitude is for the few and the just who still overcome the mighty and many, just as the movies promised me when I was a kid. I’m thankful that the very sign we have a soul is our yearning to be free. Its our connection to a divine force beyond forced bondage to any terrestrial thing.
In the 1950s, you would think Crown Heights was populated by a gallery of rogues, scoundrels and losers with terrific names like shikker, shnook, shlepper, shmendrick, shnorrer, shlemazel, goniff,mamzer, or my favorite, vance. One of the most chilling, because I wasn’t sure what it meant but it was always muttered darkly, was epikoros. My grandmother pronounced it with her thick Polish inflection, chapikoiyris, but you could also hear apikoros or apikorsis.
Over time, I realized the word referred to Jews who actively flouted any Jewish observance, a heretic or at least someone who went off the path – the derech as they say in Hebrew – in a serious way. But the word had a long history before it hit the streets of Brooklyn.
Epikoros originates as a Jewish curse at least as far back as the Talmud. The sages single out the epikoros as one of the four kinds of heretics, Jews who lose their immortal souls, an eternal death sentence. But the word sticks out because it doesn’t sound like anything Hebrew and doesn’t have any precedent in Aramaic. It obviously seems to refer to the great Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE). Continue reading “Why Does the Epikoros Lose His Soul?”→
Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”, and to his great-granddaughters, Noa and her sisters.
At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.
On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy, a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view. Continue reading “Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy”→
(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day.I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Some connections across the whole text are so well-hidden it seems improbable that an author deliberately placed them there for later discovery, although we could always argue they are the result of gazing at the text too long and over-interpreting it like obsessive graduate students. The traditional approach by Jews to reading the Bible even promotes it. Assume nothing is there by accident because its author is Divine and utterly intentional. Every word, every letter, the cuts between words, the rhymes and puns and cross-allusions, even the decorative marks on individual letters, carry meaning. Also the Torah is frugal. If something seems weird or extraneous, it’s up to us to figure out why. So when we discover hidden meanings and parade them as proof of a divine Author, a skeptic would argue it’s tautological: of course you did because you assumed they’re there.
However, there are some allusions and connections that are provably impossible. They couldn’t have been intentional because their meaning only become clear when we make new discoveries about the world much later than even the latest possible composition of the Bible. Some of these are archeological, like Merenptah’s Stelae describing the plundering of Canaan and of Israel that wasn’t discovered until the late 19th century. 
Part 3: A Fertile Hybrid: Torah’s Quantum Theo-biological Solution to Darwin’s Problem
“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon,Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3
“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to make meaning. It creates skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired poetry.
The default assumption of Judaism is that there is only one Torah. It is eternal and immutable because God is its Author. Yet slowly revealing and understanding the meaning of what God told Moses on Sinai is also the essence of Judaism. Clearly, our understanding of the Torah evolves over time, dancing with the God of Becoming Who constantly creates the universe. Along the way, thousands of years of commentary, without challenging the integrity of a God-given Torah, worry the bone of precisely who composed the Torah at which point. How and when did Moses transcribe God’s words? How did it look? How were its chapters, verses, words, and letters laid out on the page? Did the layout change?