Archive for August, 2012

August 30, 2012 11:33 am CDT

Ki Teitzei–Permeable boundaries

If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.  (Deut 23:24-25)

This text is about boundaries and neighborliness.   Can I step on your lawn without stepping on your toes?  What should I give, and expect to receive, as a matter of common courtesy, before it becomes an imposition?  We have all been taken advantage of at some time or another.  Has the experience made us too wary?

Robert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Perhaps.  But only if those fences have doors, only if you can touch them, lean on them, talk over them, and retrieve the errant frisbee without a reprimand or a scowl.   Most people who come into our vineyards do not come with a container.  They just want a few grapes.


August 30, 2012 11:31 am CDT

Ki Teitzei–The triumph of interest

You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent . . . . so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess. (Deut 23:20-21)

The term used here for “interest” is neshekh ; elsewhere in the Torah another word for interest, tarbit or marbit is also used.  Some interpreters think this refers to two different kinds of interest, neshekh being deducted in advance, tarbit / marbit being added at the time of repayment (so, e.g., the JPS translation).   It’s more likely that the two terms both refer generally to “interest” from different sides of the transaction. Neshekh, meaning bite, was the term used for the exaction of interest from the point of view of the debtor, and tarbit or marbit, meaning increase, was the term used for the recovery of interest by the creditor.

This prohibition has not been upheld in practice from biblical times onward.  In the prophetic books, the creditor (nosheh), far from giving free loans, is often described as exacting and implacable (cf. 1Sam. 22:2), and the prophet decries those who have “taken interest and increase” and forgotten God (Ezek. 22:12). Nehemiah had to rebuke the noble and the rich for exacting interest, “every one to his brother” (Neh. 5:7).

By the time of the Talmud, spiritual leaders of the Jewish community decided it was better to regulate the practice than ineffectually oppose it, so various legal subterfuges were found to square the practice of charging interest with the biblical mandate.

August 22, 2012 10:30 pm CDT

Shoftim–A Prophet like Moses

[Moses recounts the circumstances under which he was asked to serve as the messenger of God’s Torah.  After they heard the Ten Commandments, the Israelites said,] “Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God any longer or see this wondrous fire anymore lest I die.” Whereupon the Lord said to me, “they have done well in speaking thus.  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people.” (Deut. 18:16-18)

If we’re going to believe that the Israelites did well, we have to remember the power of the encounter at Sinai that shook them to the core.  They said at the time, “we have seen this day that man may live though God has spoken to him. Let us not die, then for this fearsome fire will consume us. For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak out of the fire, as we did and lived? ”  (Deut 5:24-26)

They experienced God directly, full to their capacity. And then they asked Moses, whose capacity was greater, to help them fill in the blanks and clarify the details.

It’s easy to lose sight of this interdependence, and opt for a religion based solely on experience or solely on authority. Both are necessary; they can and should coexist.

We must understand God raising up a prophet like Moses along the same lines. The prophets are an extension of our own conscience. That is the only way to legitimize their authority. The tests of a true prophet given in this passage do not seem to me to be very helpful. Anyone can invoke the name of God (Deut. 18:20). If we wait to see whether the prophetic prediction comes true (18:22), chances are the crisis, the moment of opportunity, will have already passed.

The prophets are spiritual friends whose sensitivity sharpens our sensitivity as iron sharpens iron. They don’t flatter us, but do us the kindness of shaking us out of our complacency.

August 22, 2012 10:25 pm CDT


I’ve come across these two approaches to the Divine, direct and mediated, in works that I’ve been reading this week; the context in both cases is the idea of devekut, cleaving to God.

The first work is a work that I’m cataloguing, Yosher Divrei Emet  by Meshullam Feibush Heller of Zbarazh, a seminal figure in the early Hasidic movement.  Devekut as direct mystical union with God was central to the Hasidic spirituality.  “Because of their devekut , they think of themselves as nothing, and so are very great indeed.  They are like the branch of a tree that realizes it is part of one organic unity with its root. . . . It’s like a single drop of water fallen into the sea.  It has returned to its source.  It is one with the ocean.  Now it’s no longer possible to identify it as an independent thing in any way whatsoever.”

Maimonides has a very different take on devekut.  As some of you know, I’m deeply involved in a writing project based on his Book of the Commandments.  In dealing with the mitzvah of cleaving to God, Maimonides quotes the Rabbis of the Talmud, who ask “Is it possible for a man to cleave to the divine presence, seeing that it is written, ‘for the Lord by God is the devouring fire?'” Rather, Maimonides explains that this mitzvah enjoins us “to mix and associate with wise men, to be always in their company, and to join with them in every possible manner of fellowship: in eating, drinking, and business affairs, to the end that we may succeed in becoming like them in respect of their actions and in acquiring true opinions from their words.”

August 15, 2012 10:19 pm CDT

Re’eh: Family pride

“You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.” (Deuteronomy 14:1)

The connection between these two sentences is not spelled out, but I think Rashi has it right: the high station of the Israelites demands a dignified appearance. I have long been struck by the appeal to family pride in this verse, the idea that Israel’s relation to God imparts a nobility that they themselves should respect.

This verse is timely for me because this week my mussar reading and self-examination focuses on the trait of humility and its relation to honor.   The readings have run the gamut from “Honor destroys both the body and soul” to the exhortation to take “pride in the awareness of the greatness and elevation of your soul, [which] is not only proper, but an obligation.”  The reading I found most helpful was from a  forward-looking 19th century rabbi,  Menachem Mendel Leffin.  In his seminal Cheshbon HaNefesh (Accounting of the Soul), he states that the way to acquire the trait of humility is to “always seek to learn wisdom from everyone.”  I love this.  It avoids entirely the self-deprecation that keeps the focus on self.  Rather it turns to the other and looks to see how he or she can become a teacher.

August 15, 2012 10:17 pm CDT

Re’eh: “. . . because of the dead.”

“You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.” (Deuteronomy 14:1)

Deuteronomy has in mind mourning rights of a kind that are found in many societies. But when I read this, I also think about the way that we can disfigure and twist ourselves out of a misplaced allegiance to the past.

Judaism is a traditional religion, which is one of the things I love about it. Yet one can make a distinction between “tradition” and “traditionalism,” as Church historian Jaraslov Pelikan does.  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”  (from a 1989 interview focused on his then-new book The Vindication of Tradition)

August 8, 2012 11:22 pm CDT

Ekev–Molten calf redux

Moreover, the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him; so I also interceded for Aaron at that time. (Deuteronomy 9:20)

The story of the molten calf is retold here in Deuteronomy 9, with some interesting differences. For one thing, we learn here of God’s anger specifically directed at Aaron, so that Moses has to intercede for him as well.

Ancient interpreters have long sought to shield Aaron from blame in this episode, so it intrigued me to see Jeffrey Tigay (in the JPS Torah commentary) take a similar line using the tools of modern scholarship: “Aaron’s intentions in making the calf were probably not idolatrous since he, at least, intended it only as the Lord’s pedestal.”  This is in keeping with what we know of ancient Near Eastern iconography, where a god in human form is represented at standing on a bull. It also means that the calf, on this understanding, is quite similar to the cherubim, the winged beasts that served as the throne of God on the ark of the covenant.

This raises some interesting questions, more questions than I have time to answer tonight.  Is one person’s pedestal another person’s idol? Or perhaps, what was once a pedestal becomes an idol as the form becomes fixed and inflexible over time. In this regard, it is significant that the Torah refers, not to a golden, but to a molten calf.

We don’t have lots of statuary, but we do have lots of words.  We should remember that even our truest thoughts about God, our most hard-won conceptions, are at best a pedestal, a warm-up act, a kind of straight man to the wordless zingers of the One.  As a penultimate exercise, theology, philosophy, spiritual reading, the great mystic texts . . .  these all have great value, but when we set them up as the Ultimate, we fall into idolatry.

August 8, 2012 11:18 pm CDT

Ekev–Moses’ Ark

I made an ark of acacia wood. (Deuteronomy 10:3)

These seven words (four in Hebrew) are all that Deuteronomy has to tell us about the ark. This stands in stark contrast to the stories in Exodus and Numbers, which go into great detail about the construction of the ark, beautifully rendered by expert craftsmen, and the many ways that the ark serves as a symbol of God’s presence.

For Deuteronomy, the ark has a much less mysterious function. It is simply a chest, receptacle, to contain the tablets of the law. No skilled artisans are necessary; Moses’ own woodworking ability seems to be up to the task.

Deuteronomy doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on the ark. Perhaps it fears that the ark, like the calf, could become an idol.

August 2, 2012 12:13 am CDT


“Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Deut. 6:4

This verse is known as the Shema from its first word, which means “hear, listen.”  In Judaism, this statement is not just considered a truth, but a mitzvah, a sacred responsibility.    In fact, accepting the responsibility of the Shema is so important that it is referred to as “taking on the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”  By doing so, one acknowledges a sole, unique, single God.

Throughout history, this verse has been the cardinal statement of Jewish monotheism.  “In the face of polytheism it meant that the Divine is one, not many; in the face of Zoroastrian and Gnostic dualism it meant one, not two; in the face of Christian trinitarianism it meant one, not three; and in the face of atheism, one and not none.”  (based on Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism)

Prof. Theodore Gaster, a great twentieth century scholar of religion, once told a group of listeners about a man who asked him to teach his son something about Judaism.  “Just teach him the unity of God,” he said.  The father was probably thinking about monotheism in the sense we have just described.  But Gaster realized how complex the subject could be, which is why he raised an exasperated eyebrow as he told the story.

Beyond the affirmation of monotheism, there are other philosophical and mystical implications of God’s unity that resonate strongly throughout Jewish tradition.   Maimonides himself is the best known representative of the philosophical tradition.  For him this mitzvah affirms “a single source of existence and first cause.”  This is the language of Aristotle, whose philosophy was systematically integrated with the theology of the three great monotheistic religions in the Middle Ages, a synthesis best articulated in the works of Averroes (for Islam), Maimonides (for Judaism) and Thomas Aquinas (for Christianity).

That God was “one” in this philosophical tradition meant not only that God was unique, but that God was indivisible, “so that no composition whatever is to be found in him, and no possibility of division.”  This obviously rules out God actually having the bodily parts and physical attributes that are mentioned in Scripture, so that when it speaks, e.g., of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” we must understand it as a figure of speech.   But it also rules out any change or variation within God, so that to speak of God as “merciful” or “jealous” is just as metaphorical.   Thus Maimonides concludes, “If someone believes that He is one, but possesses a certain number of essential attributes, he says in his words that He is one, but believes Him in his thought to be many.”   This understanding behooves one to be very circumspect in speaking of God, and makes a dazzled silence more fitting and reverent than a loquacious praise.

The cloak of mystery in which the philosopher wraps the being of God is not so much removed by the mystic as it is thrown over the entire world.  Many forms of Jewish mysticism assert that all of reality is one, and all of reality is God.  God is not only source, but the substance of all existence.  As the Jewish mystic known as the Sfas Emes wrote in a letter to his grandchildren, the “deeper meaning” of the Shema is that “there is no Being other than God.  [This is true] even though it seems otherwise to most people. . . . Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God Himself. . . .  Because of this, every person can become attached to God wherever he is, through the holiness that exists in every single thing, even corporeal things.”

These are the kind of philosophical and mystical implications that hover in the air as we say the Shema.  They are not dogmas that Jews are required to believe.  But in taking on this mitzvah we find ourselves wrestling with these implications, as Jacob wrestled with God.

August 1, 2012 11:59 pm CDT

Vaetchanan–Unity, future tense

There is an active aspect to the Shema that is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.   When we perform this and other mitzvahs, we are said to “unify the name” or “unify [God].”  Perhaps this idea derives from the prophecy in Zechariah, “And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name shall be one” (14:9).  This suggests that in some sense God and God’s name are not “one” yet, but that something needs to happen to make it so.   Just as in language a word is not fully “one” unless everyone agrees on its meaning, so God’s unity needs to be acknowledged in order to be effectual.

Reciting the Shema is an act of bearing witness. This is underscored visually in the traditional way that the verse is printed: the last letter of the first word (shema, “hear, listen”) and the last letter of the final word (echad, “one”) are printed bolder and larger than the others, and these two letters together form the word ed, “witness”).    In the book of Isaiah, YHWH admonishes Israel “You are my witnesses, and I am God” (43:12).  An ancient interpretation sees these roles as radically dependent on one another:  “When you are my witnesses, then I am God, but when you are not my witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.”  Bearing witness to God’s unity actually enables the reality it describes.

Like the Shema,  Zechariah 14:9 is featured prominently in traditional Jewish worship.   Where the Shema is recited towards the beginning, Zech 14:9  is proclaimed towards the end in a prayer called the Aleinu, a word which can be translated, “it’s up to us.”