Saturday, August 31, 2013


This week’s parsha comes near the very end of the book of D’varim and begins on Moses’ last day on earth.  Moses is struggling to make sure the people will have all the tools they need to move into the land of Israel and continue as a coherent and strong nation, living by Torah and the guidance it teaches.  Some of what he tells them is harsh.  But, like a good parent with a child, Moses knows that a little bit of reality to consider is good for any transition.

And there are some serious transitions to think about.  Not just in the Biblical narrative but we read this portion at the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  It is a sort of last chance to hear the words that should help us make our own journey into a new year.  Will we make Torah a part of how we choose to continue growing as individuals?  As families?  As a community?  We will ask ourselves that next week as we stand in shul and hear the familiar words that sung out. 

This parasha includes a powerful statement to the Israelites.  Moses gives them a choice, follow the mitzvot and live or do not and die.  He commands them to choose life.  Much has been written on what this might mean.  Is it a simple behaviorist idea or something more?  That is for us to decide. 

But it is clear that it is difficult to fully understand what the Torah is asking of us, and as we leave the wilderness and the connection to God through Moses, it will get difficult to maintain the energy and dedication without some support.  But Moses throughout this time wanted to make the Torah something the people would keep close to their heart and on their mind.  In fact he says the Torah is not far away, it is not in the heavens, it is here with the people.  It is something that will remain with the people as long as we continue to learn from it.  One way of looking at this is that Torah is something for us to continue to struggle with, chew on, and find meaning in.  It is a document that grows with the people.  It is a document that defines us as a nation and we find our meaning in it.  However it is not static, it is not meant only for the people in the wilderness but it belongs to all of us.  In fact tradition teaches us that it is up to us to find meaning for ourselves. 

Stories in the Talmud are often used to help us understand what the Torah is meant to mean to us.   One particularly well-known story that relates to this parsha comes from  Bava Mezia 59b. The story is a discussion over the ability to make an oven kosher when it had become unkosher.  While almost all the sages felt it couldn't be, Rabbi Eliezer, a lone voice but a great scholar, disagreed:

The rabbis argued over the rules and nine stood apart from Eliezer. 

Frustrated he said to them, “If the halakha is according to me, let that carob­tree prove it.”

The tree outside the House of Study uprooted itself and moved several yards and replanted itself in the ground.  But the nine said, “We do not learn Torah from trees”. 

Rabbi Eliezer then said , “If the halakha is according to me, may that stream of water prove it.”

The stream of water then turned and flowed in the opposite direction.

The nine said , “We do not decide Torah based on a stream of water.”

Rabbi Eliezer, continuing in his frustration, said  “If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of the House of Study crumble before us.”

The walls of the House of Study began shake and collapse, bending inward. Rabbi Joshua then rose up and yelled to the heavens,  “We are arguing Torah as we are charged to do, why do you interfere?” 

Was walls stopped and stood in their bent state.   But a voice from the heavens came and could be heard by all.  

“Why do you disagree with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakha is correct according to him.”

"Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, 'It is not in the heavens'  quoting this week’s Torah portion.  (Deuteronomy 30:12).

Rabbi Nathan later met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, “What was the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing in that hour?”

Elijah responded that at that moment God was dancing through the heavens and laughing saying, “My children have defeated me.”  

Clearly the ancient Rabbis found a way to help us better see that the Torah is ours to understand.  God wants us to make meaning out of it through our continued struggle.  It is not meant to be the stimulus-response prescription, the Torah starts a conversation, we must continue with it.  We must keep up our end of the dialogue.  When we stand in shul next week, let’s see if we can make that happen.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ki Tavo

Busy busy week.  Hope you have a chance to enjoy.

Ki Tavo is a Torah portion with a lot to say about the people of Israel and what they must do when they cross the Jordan into the land.  Moses is coming to the end of his life and finishing his career by continuing the final teaching.  Moses is said to know the failings of the people that will come in the future and the way they will be distant from God.  But he seems to try to inoculate them from the most severe retribution of God with a series of laws and functional rituals including writing down the Torah on stone. 

Moses gave the Israelites a chilling prophecy of the horrors that would come upon them if they were to reject God and the Torah. This section is called the Tochacha, the Admonition.  It reads:

"If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching that are written in this book, to reverence this honored and awesome Name, the Ruler your God, God will inflict extraordinary plagues upon you and your offspring, strange and lasting plagues, malignant and chronic diseases."        Deuteronomy 28:58-59

That is some scary stuff.  Moses, speaking for God, is giving a real serious threat.  This threat has reverberated through history in the form of people seeing many illnesses, both global and personal, as divine punishment.  Even after we began to understand that reasons behind plagues, diseases and disasters, people have looked to God as the cause.  One must look no further than the news in the midst of catastrophe to hear voices that blame victims of pain and disease for moral failings. 

In my youth is was HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  In high school I began to read about the disease, which was mainly seen in the promiscuous homosexual community.  Almost immediately there were those preaching and teaching it was God’s punishment on people who committed what they saw as a sin.  However they couldn’t explain the rise of the disease in children, hemophiliacs and the equal opportunity of being inflicted in Sub-Saharan Africa.  If HIV was God’s punishment, it was not nearly targeted enough to the right people.  However, what this thinking did so as I grew from high school to college, was create a barrier to knowledge among those who were vulnerable to the biology of the disease, but felt immune because in their minds they were “living right”.  As an advocate for AIDS education, I was stone walled not by fear of discussing sexuality, but by those who felt it was a disease of the sinful.  This was true through a good deal of the 1980s and saw shades of it even later.  What is interesting is this week, a pornographic actress tested positive for HIV.  An industry that regularly tests, place a moratorium on filming until all the actors are tested.  Right away the chorus of God’s retribution on the industry started. 

So the question is, is this how God operates?  Clearly in the Torah God sends plagues and death on the people for disobedience.  In fact God seems to kill some Israelites for fairly minor infractions.    But in today’s world we look at disease and disaster and don’t think first of God’s wrath as the ancients seemed to do.  We don’t see God as a vindictive character who kills entire communities, or demands the destruction of a people for moving away from God.  We see the lines of Torah in the context of the day. 

The troubling nature  of these, and many lines of the Torah, should not cause us to reject its teaching but to find a way to make the Torah our own.  We can strive to get beyond these words that sound so uncomfortable on our modern tongues and look to the entirety of the scroll for how it can fit into our lives.  Even here in Ki Tavo, Moses is hoping that with such harsh language the people of Israel, free of his leadership and their direct connection to God, can still use the Torah to do what it is intended.  To guide the people to build a just society.  One were people operated for the betterment of each other and took to heart the idea that they are responsible for the earth, themselves and their neighbor.

The Torah was written in a time and at a place that was so very different from ours.  The people were seeking to understand God in the world, just as many of us are doing today.  The ancient ancestors did a lot of the heavy lifting and left as a starting place, but that is what it is, a starting place for us.  It is our turn to make meaning out of the words and how they speak to us today.  Try not to stumble over the lines that you are unable to rectify in our modern world.  Acknowledge them. Think about why they are there.  And continue to turn it.  We can find new things in each generation, and we owe it to our ancestors to continue that tradition.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ki Teitzei

Ki Teitzei is always the alarm clock that means my life is going back into full active mode from summer.  The High Holy Days and the start of Religious School are on the way.  Time to write will obviously be a little more difficult for a week or two but I will try to keep up.  So here is an attempt at a bit of Torah.

This Torah portion is a dense one.  It contains 74 of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.  There is a variety of laws here and many due with everyday life.  The Torah does that.  It gives us rules that define without question those things we can and cannot do.  So I was thinking of this the other day when I got into a discussion about a particular violation of Torah.

In discussion about what is Jewish I stated that all things Jews do are Jewish, which was immediately responded to with "what about eating pork".  I thought about that and well I am not sure that eating pork is completely non-Jewish.  At least not for some Jews.

Before I explain that let me be clear that I do not eat pork.  While I try hard to keep kosher and do so in my home.  Even if I have make some concessions when outside of my home, I keep a form of kosher that means I don't eat non-kosher animals, shellfish etc.  For me pork itself is a big one.  I can't eat it. Quoting Rabbi Richard Hirsh on a Reconstructionist approach to Kashrut I read this:

I was enticed by the meaning inherent in the surrender of former favorite foods. A verse from The God of Daniel S., an introduction to Reconstructionism written by Rabbi Alan Miller, resonated strongly:

". . . He had simply woken up one day to find that he could no longer eat with impunity an animal whose flesh his ancestors had resisted eating to the point of death."

The other thing that strikes me is that eating is an essential act for life, and when eating animals, takes a life with feelings and emotions.  An animal must die for us to eat it.  Knowing the rules of Kashrut helps me understand the importance of how the animal is respected when raised as kosher food.  It also makes the act of eating holy and frankly the the Torah's laws are designed to make our actions all holy.

So how can I argue a blatant violation of Jewish law is a Jewish act?  I would argue the blinding following a commandment is not Jewish.  Judaism has always been about making meaning out of life and understanding that meaning through Torah.  If not eating pork has no meaning to someone, following that law is not more Jewish than not following it.  In fact consciously saying that a Torah prohibition, that hurts no one else, can be violated with a serious argument that it might allow for Judaism to survive and be integrated into the greater society.  This was the argument that drove the development of the Reform movement.  For me, people who eat bacon are no less Jewish.  In fact some are proud that their brand of Judaism allows them to enjoy pork as the for them prohibition no longer makes sense.

When I think of this I think of two anecdotes that happened several times from tour guides while on the   New York trip with our 10th graders.  In the Bialystoker synagogue, the zodiac is painted on the ceiling   and instead of a crab for Cancer there is a lobster.  The guide says, the Jews of the shul were so Kosher they didn't know the difference between a crab and a lobster.  At Temple Emanu-El, a large Reform synagogue and one time center of Reform Judaism.  It clings to  Classical Reform ideology and service.  In the back, the granite floor of the main sanctuary has an apparent fossil of a lobster looking ancient creature.  The guide is proud that the shul has this there as a single that their Judaism is not attached to the ancient dietary laws.  Both places are Jewish, both are not my kind of Judaism and both value their own "lobsters" for very different reasons.  Who is to say that those aren't Jewish?  

I think we have to be careful when we say something is not Jewish.  Judaism, while governed by the wisdom of the Torah, is about our understanding of what the Torah means to us.  People make meaning out of what they can and that is the essence of Judaism.  When we don't think about what the Torah means to us then we risk giving up on Judaism all together.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Let's Talk About Sex....

The other day I taught a class on Jewish sexuality.  In an hour and a half I wanted to touch on some of the myths that are part of the folk stories of Jewish sexuality.  It was a brief overview of a tiny slice of what tradition says.  In fact I purposely chose quotes to show the sex positive side Jewish tradition and I don't apologize for that.  I think too often we ignore some of the real earthiness that is part of our tradition.  The frame I chose was to respond to myths that we generated as a class.  So I wanted to point to two arenas that I personally have run into in my work.  

The first is a common and weird myth that is often used to make Jews seem unusual and foreign.  There is a myth that Jewish couples have sex through a hole in a sheet.  There is little evidence about where this came from but some think it is due to the fact that laundry hanging in traditional Jewish neighbors would include a Tallit Katan, a four-cornered tunic with a hole for the head that is used to fulfill the mitzvah of tzittzit.  Seeing these an ignorant person might see them as sheets with a whole and thus the story.  But we are unsure.  This myth is persistent and I have heard it several places and even from some non-Orthodox Jews.  While public modesty in the Jewish tradition is important, sex between men and women who are married is a very open thing.  Sensuality is powerful and desire is seen as a gift of God.  In fact we are obligated to enjoy each other.  

So this quote makes the sheet seem ridiculous:
“There must be close bodily contact during sex. This means that a husband must not treat his wife in the manner of the Persians, who perform their marital duties in their clothes. This provides support for the ruling of Rav Huna who ruled that a husband who says, ‘I will not perform my marital duties unless she wears her clothes and I mine,’ must divorce her and give her also her ketubah settlement [the monetary settlement agreed to in the marriage contract].”
(Talmud, Ketubot 48a)

The slam on the Persians not withstanding, this clearly looks at that power of physical aspect of sex.  Modesty is for public, sensuality is for private and that divorce is forced in this case means it is serious. 

Now another myth is that sex is suppose to be only about procreation.  Indeed the first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply and Judaism has always had a very strong aversion to sexual practices that have no chance of procreation.  However sex in the Jewish tradition has never only been about procreation, in fact much is written about the recreational aspect of sex.  Sex and the pleasure that comes with it was seen a slice of the world to come and when done in the context of marriage it is called holy.  But sex does not have to be simple or in today's vernacular vanilla.  Maimonides in the 12th century who was seen as being diverse in his view of sexuality as a whole, including some very restrictive views on masturbation and homosexual behavior wrote: 

"A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he wishes with his wife. He may have intercourse with her at any time he wishes and kiss her on whatever limb of her body he wants. He may have natural or un-natural relations,(meaning oral and anal sex) as long as he does not bring forth seed in vain. However, it is a sign of piety not to show too much levity but to sanctify himself at the time of intercourse… A man should not depart from the way of the world and its custom because its ultimate purpose is procreation. (Mishnah Torah Issurei Biah 21:9)

So you can see that Maimonides strives to show that how you have sex is about how you find pleasure but he continues to point out that sex is a holy act and that it should be about procreation.  But just because procreation is reason, all the other pleasures of physical contact should not be discounted.  It would be like eating is limited only to that which gives us the energy to live, but food as a sensual pleasure is not only permitted but may well be encouraged for many reasons. 

But Jewish tradition doesn’t speak in one voice.  Sexual play that may in fact include forms of pleasure that do not necessarily result in the possible pregnancy may be allowed if the intent is to pleasure and not to avoid the possible pregnancy.  Citing Er and Onan show a clear distinction between “spilling one’s seed” and purposely avoiding familial duty to impregnate your wife for whatever reason. 

The issue of un-natural relations (biyah lo kedarkah) is particularly difficult form a Jewish perspective. Un-natural relations refers to any sexual activity in which semination does not occur in the traditional place, (Rassi on Yevamoth 34), such as oral sex, anal sex, or what the rabbis termed "threshing within and without" (premature withdrawal). Talmudic sources talk freely about such activity, permitting it under certain circumstances between husband and wife. Nonetheless there is a concern with the wasteful spilling of seed, which Judaism forbids based on the biblical story of Er and Onan. Tosefot raises this contradiction and cites the position of Rabbi Isaac to resolve it:

"It is not considered like the act of Er and Onan unless it is his intention to destroy the seed and it is his habit to always do so. However, if it is occasional and the desire of his heart is to come upon his wife in an unnatural way, it is permitted. (Tosefot on Yevamoth 34)."

In this conversation over time we see a real discussion that is so common in the Talmud and its commentary over the centuries.  Sex is not cut and dried in Judaism but there are two things to keep in mind.  Sex is seen as a wonderful gift and expression of love and that sex is as much about pleasure as it is about baby making.  Volumes can be written on what the tradition says about sex and who, how, when, where and why.  Many have.  But the biggest thing to keep in mind is that Judaism does not see sex as something that is a necessary evil or some how wrong.  It is a wonderful thing, something holy, and frankly a slice of heaven.   An hour and a half wasn’t enough time to explore even a small part of it.  Perhaps we need a new volume to be written.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


So this week I spoke on food for an interfaith group and sex for a Jewish Adult Ed Class.  It was fun. I love teaching Torah, I love thinking about it.  So here are some of those thoughts laid out.  

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, discusses, among other things the laws of Kashrut, keeping Kosher.  This is one of several times in the Torah what we eat as a people is laid out for us.  Certain animals are allowed, others forbidden.  Certain parts are allowed and of course the prohibition against the eating of blood.  All this led the Rabbis of the first few centuries of the Common Era to come up with a wide ranging system of eating that currently includes kosher homes having separate dishes for meals that include milk and those that include meat, a seemingly endless number of official organizations to deem food acceptable, each with their own mark and of course, the endless conversations about which of those organizations gets it right enough. 

But for many modern Jews, keeping kosher has lost meaning for them.  Their theology doesn’t include a God who lays out laws to be simply followed.  Others see this as a system designed to keep us apart from our neighbors, something that is no longer a value for many.  Even more so, not eating certain foods, as a rule, does not make some people feel more Jewish, in fact it makes Judaism feel less comfortable.   So I am often asked why I keep kosher if I don’t do it because of the simple fact that “God said so”. 

It is funny; keeping kosher is one of the pillars of what makes me feel Jewish.  The way I see it, food is an essential part of life that we have the most control over.   Keeping kosher makes me think about everything I eat.  It makes the act of eating holy.  Not because I am following a rule of God, or the Rabbis, but because I bring consciousness into the act of eating.  Am I perfect at it?  No.  Do I sometimes eat things whose Kashrut is questionable even with lack standards?  Yes.  But most of the time, the food I take in has at least had some thought put to it so it links to the larger ideals of my faith and tradition.   Kashrut centers me in a way that even davening does not.  It is an active choice of finding Godness in the most mundane and necessary action, providing my body with energy.  And of course that was one of the most important goals of the Torah, it was not about blind obedience to God or the words on the page, the Torah is about meaning making.  For me Kashrut allows for that. 

In the modern world, Jews and non-Jews mingle, share meals, and even worship together.  A way of eating that separates us from our neighbors is a difficult thing to inject in our greater culture that begs for unity in diversity.  While everyone eats Barbeque and you have tuna salad on a paper plate you stick out.  But a line can easily be drawn between shunning the food of others and eating a pig’s blood sausage.  I personally not such hard lines about where I eat but struggle with what I eat when I am sharing meals outside of a kosher environment.  I don’t worry as much about the plate it is served on or the grill it is cooked on.  I tried to maintain a level of my own observance but will sacrifice even that for the sake of not be offensive, especially if an effort was made.  Once, at a Jewish Educators conference, a local hot dog vendor purchased kosher hot dogs knowing that he would have so many Jewish people in his catch area.  He did not have Rabbinic supervision; frankly he probably knew nothing about that.  He didn’t kasher his grill, nor did he stop selling other links.  I don’t even remember if the buns were parve.  What I do remember is seeing terse warning signs about this guy.  It made him sound like he was attempting to be deceptive, like he wanted to cheat the Jews who wouldn’t know better.  The last line of the sign was THEY ARE NOT KOSHER.   True, by halachic standards they weren’t, but here was a man who put himself out to try to be welcoming to Jews and while he may not have gotten it all right, he did what he could.  I raged the hot dog stand.

Even more so, when I think of keeping kosher I think of all those who fought for the right to be Jewish at times when their faith was under siege. In researching for a talk I gave on Jewish food I stumbled on an article by Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a great leader in the Reconstructionist movement.  Talking about his own kosher journey he spoke about those things that struck him about the idea of keeping kosher in a modern world.  He quoted a verse from God of Daniel S.: In Search Of The American Jew., an introduction to Reconstructionism written by Rabbi Alan Miller: ". . . He had simply woken up one day to find that he could no longer eat with impunity an animal whose flesh his ancestors had resisted eating to the point of death."  That is a big vote from the past.  If we think about what our ancestors gave their lives for so we can live as Jews, it seems that it might be something to at least contemplate as we go along our daily lives.  It is stunning that this is a far more persuasive argument than that of “God said so”. 

But I want to be clear.  Keeping kosher, like any mitzvah, has to have real meaning to the person doing it.  I never shun or look down on those that don’t keep kosher. I find it worse to practice something without meaning, than to not practice it.  It doesn’t make you any less a Jew or a person.   I have great Jewish friends that love bacon double cheese burgers, shrimp cocktail and sausage.  They find meaning in their Judaism from other aspects.  If we argue that making concessions in our own practice for the sake of the larger community is a value, we must also feel comfortable with allowing our Jewish friends to practice the shared faith in their own way.  That does not mean we must lower our own personal or even communal standards because most of us “don’t follow that” but it does mean that we shouldn’t make someone feel bad for how they choose to practice.  One’s Judaism is personal and how one chooses to express it much be left to him or her. 

Kashrut was one of the things the early Reform movement saw as a stumbling block for many to feel Jewish and part of the new post-enlightenment society.  Thoughtfully they saw those rules as non-binding and thus, in my opinion, allowed people to retain a Jewish identity while also having a foot firmly planted in modern world, in many ways saving Judaism from becoming a much smaller and less vibrant civilization.  It should be noted that I know several Reform Jews that strive to find a way to maintain a level of Kashrut in their daily lives even if it would not meet halachic standards. In that way they honor the tradition and isn’t that what we hope we all do as Jews?

Again, as we see the Torah as a guide to life, the very essence of life should play a central role.  Food, a basic need, becomes holy through our thoughts and actions.  Being holy can take on many forms.  Finding your way to do it is in the Torah, all you have to do it open it up.