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Archive for May, 2008

We Had Slaves? Who Knew?

Posted by rabbiart on May 26, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

The biblical story undeniably includes Hebrew servants; their treatment is described right at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim. “Servant” is a better translation than “slave” because only labor was owed by the servant to the “master”.  The relationship was not like slavery in, for example, the pre-Civil War American South.

This mitzvah is unusual in that it does not mandate or forbid one specific act. Instead it is comprised of provisions in three major areas, as set out in the parshah through verse six.  The length of the servant’s term and family status, provision of wife to the servant, and separation conditions are described.  If the male servant does not want to leave his family (where he came into servitude single), then he must have his ear bored, and commit to a lifetime of service.  This seems cruel to the 21st century sensibility. Yet writing in the 1300s, our author sees the tradition as kind and merciful, just as the tradition sees itself.

How can this be?  The servant had rights! He could pay off his term and exit early, should he acquire the necessary funds.  The master was required to provide food, drink, bedding and shelter, according to the midrash.

This is a law that is in effect only in certain times and places.  According to the Torah and rabbinic interpretation, only a male Israelite can have bondservants, and only in a time when the Jubilee year is in effect. The laws of bondservant treatment require the Jubilee year, because the bondservant goes free when the jubilee year occurs.  The jubilee year is in effect only when the Land of Israel is occupied by Israel.

Sefer HaHinuch gives us a wonderful explication of the reasoning for this mitzvah.  “if someone violated [this law] and did not treat a servant as it is written concerning him, he would thus disobey a positive precept and teach himself to be cruel, and would practically attest about himself that he is not a Jew, for they are the compassionate sons of compassionate fathers.”


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BaMidbar – And now a word from our “host”

Posted by rabbiart on May 25, 2008

We begin with a tribal census of males over the age of twenty, organized by patrilineal line. It is taken on Iyar 1 in the second year of the wilderness wandering. A leader of each tribe makes the count along with Moshe. All those able to serve – כָּל-יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל (kol yotzei tzava b’Yisrael “all who go out in service among Israel”) – are counted.

The commentary Orech Hayim observes that the phrase כֹּל יֹצֵא צָבָא (kol yotzei tzava) is repeated after each tribe is counted, as if to say that all of the members of that tribe are fit to go out. This is miraculous, he says, because it is not possible, that out of all these people, there would be no one is unfit. (Of course the pshat reading of the text is that they only count those who are fit).

Although the service here is understood to be military, the word צָבָא simply means a large gathering or collection; often translated as “host” or “hosts”. As a verb it means to “join” or “follow along with.” A midrash suggests several different kinds of hosts. The creation story labels heaven and earth to be, collectively, hosts. וַיְכֻלּוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-צְבָאָם Israelite males over twenty form a host, as do Levites.

The tribe of Levi is not counted in this particular census. They were taken by HaShem in exchange for all the dead first-born of Egypt, in the moment of the plague. They are assigned a different and special set of responsibilities.

The phrase יֹצֵא צָבָא (yotzei tzava) occurs in connection with each tribe. All of the tribes go out to serve except the Levites. In contrast, Levites go in to serve.

מִבֶּן שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה, וְעַד בֶּן-חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה–כָּל-בָּא, לַצָּבָא, לַעֲשׂוֹת מְלָאכָה, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

The tribes go out to serve at age twenty, but Levites serve only from age thirty (to age fifty). Only the twenty plus Israelites are counted, but the Levites are also counted from a month old (biblically, thirty days was the point a baby was considered viable, so this is tantamount to counting all the Levite males.)

We see in this parshah the outer world and the inner world, both in service and by implication, in our individual orientation.  The Israelites go out into the world in pursuit of Torah, and yes, sometimes this means conflict and self-defense.  The Levites go inward – in to the tabernacle – in pursuit of Torah.  The nation – and individuals Jews – are only complete when we serve both outwardly and inwardly, and the parts of our service are in harmony with each other.  When behavior and belief – na’aseh v’nishma – combine in us, then we are bringing the Torah to life.

Shabbat Shalom

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Beef – It’s What’s For Dinner

Posted by rabbiart on May 24, 2008

The subject of food first comes up in the Torah when HaShem tells Adam and Eve what they can have to eat. They are told:

God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed–to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so…. (Breshit, 1: 29-30)

And it was the day that G-d said was “very good.” At that time, humankind lived in a vegetarian universe. Humans eat only grain and fruit, and animals do likewise. Food comes up again in the story of eating of the forbidden tree, but let’s skip over that story, which is not really about food, and move ahead to the aftermath of the flood, where meat eating is sanctioned. Noah is told:

“Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Breshit 9:3-4)

The only rule at this point is not to eat the blood; kosher butchers are not required. Eventually, we get the complete rules of kashrut, including rules for proper killing of animals, and handling the resulting meat so that there is no danger of consuming blood. Eventually we get kosher butchers, the institution of the mashgia-ach, and in the last ten to twenty years – kosher meat and poultry at the local supermarket. All we have to do is look for any of the many hechshers that indicate kosher food.

You may know what has been “recently” uncovered at AgriProcessors of Postville, Iowa. It was all the rage when first purchased by Aaron Rubashkin. A number of stories were published about the arrival of kosher-keeping Orthodox Jews in a small plains state town. The business grew until AgriProcessors and their distributors were supplying over 60% of the beef and 40% of the kosher poultry products distributed in the United States. The employee count grew to over 800, but many of them were undocumented workers, and sure as day follows night, poor treatment followed. Somewhere a descendant of Upton Sinclair may be writing an unhappy postscript to The Jungle.

Sub-standard treatment of animals and workers led K’hal Adat Jershurun, their certifying agency, to pull their certification on April 16 of this year after a long effort to identify and improve conditions at the plant. The federal government swept up 400 illegal immigrants in a raid on May 12. There have been over three dozen safety violations in 2008 alone. Leading jewish organizations have issued letters and petitions calling on Mr. Rubashkin to change business and kashrut practices.

“We ask the following:

1. Pay all of your workers at least the federal minimum wage.
2. Recommit your company to abide by all federal, state and local laws including those pertaining worker safety, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and the rights of your employees to collective bargaining.
3. Treat those who work for you according to the standards that Torah and halakha places on protecting workers–standards which include the spirit of lifnim meshurat hadin, going beyond the bare minimum requirements of the law.”

Otherwise, says the petition, the undersigned will stop patronizing establishments utlizing AgriProcessors products as of June 15.

Here’s the salient paragraph from the United Synaogue statement in this matter.

New York, NY ( May 22, 2008 ) – In light of continuing disturbing allegations of unacceptable worker conditions at the Agriprocessors Plant in Postville, Iowa, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly is united in calling for a thorough evaluation by kosher consumers of the appropriateness of purchasing and consuming meat products produced by the Rubashkin’s label.

There have been two major responses to issues at the intersection of business practice and kashrut. One is the “eco-kosher” movement; the other is the “hechsher tzedek”. The philosophy of the eco-kosher approach is to expand the definition of kashrut to encompass more than just whether a given food-stuff is “on the list” and has been slaughtered appropriately. Fair-trade coffee is a good example of eco-kashrut. In determining if coffee is eco-kosher, one considers where the coffee is grown, how the workers are treated, how the land is treated, harvesting methods and so on. All of this goes into whether or not the coffee is kosher.
The second approach goes with the label, so to speak of “hechsher tzedek.” The hechsher, which is in fact on the label, certifies that the product has

“met production benchmarks consistent with Jewish ethical standards, including how companies treat their employees. Hekhsher Tzedek will serve as a supplement to – and not a replacement for traditional certification of kosher products.
The creation of the accompanying seal will ensure that not only are kosher products rooted in the proper Jewish methods of inspecting and slaughtering animals, but that the food is produced in a way that demonstrates concern for those human beings who are involved in its production.”

This approach takes the mitzvot that apply to business practices and applies them to kashrut. For example “You should not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a citizen or a stranger”. (Devarim 24:14-15 ) or “Not to do wrong in buying or selling.” (Vayikra 25:14)

What is Kashrut about?
It worked originally to separate the growing Jewish nation from other cultures. It is a way of imposing order on the universe and a way of being mindful of what we eat. Some have suggested that the highest form of Kashrut would be to follow G-d’s original intention and keep a vegetarian diet.

Kashrut in its original intent does not seem to be about justice. But without justice Kashrut seems devoid of meaning and hollow. Applying justice to kashrut makes perfect sense.

Our Torah portion this Shabbat begins with the phrase em behukotai telechu – if you walk in my laws. That is the ultimate challenge that the Torah makes to us – whether at the customary age of celebrating Bar Mitzvah, or at any point in our lives. As we congratulate this year’s B’nei Mitzvah class, let’s remind them, and each other, that we are B’nei Mitzvah every day of our lives. So each day we have to determine how to walk in G-d’s ways. Applying justice to whatever we do, is a good way to start.

Shabbat Shalom

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Posted by rabbiart on May 22, 2008

Even with the triennial cycle, we read almost the entirety of Parshat Bechukotai. When we review the list of aliyot, we immediately notice that the third aliyah is thirty seven verses while the rest of the aliyot are three or four verses each. Why is this? Because the contents of the third aliyah show what will happen if the behavior of the jewish people takes HaShem out of HaShem’s “happy place” with us. The aliyah starts our pretty good in verses ten and eleven as it continues the theme of how good things are when the Jewish
people observe the laws of the Torah. We have more food than we can possibly consume, foreign armies do not even cross our land much less attack us, and we can sense the presence of HaShem among us.

But starting with verse fourteen we get a vivid picture of what will happen if we ignore the teachings of the Torah. It is not a pretty picture; featuring disease, enemies, futility, barren land, empty harvests; the list goes on until in verse thirty three we are warned of dispersion and exile. But in verse forty, when we recognize our failings and confess our transgressions, which leads to the beginning of reconciliation described in verse forty two.

וְזָכַרְתִּי, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי יַעֲקוֹב; וְאַף אֶת-בְּרִיתִי יִצְחָק וְאַף אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אַבְרָהָם, אֶזְכֹּר–וְהָאָרֶץ אֶזְכֹּר.

I will remember my covenant with Jacob, my covenant with Isaac, and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.

Here we have the explanation of why the third aliyah is of such length; so that no aliyah will have only negative content. When the order of the aliyot was established, no aliyah was established with only “negative content.” So some aliyot are very long, so that they can end with a consoling or encouraging message. In that spirit, let’s examine a small piece of the “bad stuff” and another piece of the aliyah that has – in modern terms – some good positive reinforcement.

In verse fifteen we read “if you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant.” Rashi gives us a description of the breakdown in Jewish society that this verse contemplates. (Words in brackets are added to make Rashi’s cryptic
language easier to understand.)

“[This refers to one who] denies the main tenet [of Judaism, namely, that God is the Omnipotent Creator of all existence .] Hence, [this verse has enumerated] seven sins, the first leading to the second, and so on, until the seventh, [and the process of degeneration is] as follows: [First, a
person] does not learn [the Torah]; then, he [subsequently] does not fulfill [the commandments]; he then despises others who do [fulfill them]; then, he hates the Sages, prevents others from fulfilling [the commandments], denies the [authenticity of the] commandments and [finally] denies the very omnipotence of God.

(thanks to our
friends at Chabad for the

online translation of Rashi; this passage can be found at

Rashi eloquently describes how the absence of Torah study inevitably leads to losing our connection to HaShem. Once that happens, all the evils of this aliyah are sure to follow. But before the aliyah ends we have hit rock-bottom and the connection is restored. How does this happen? In verse forty the remaining Israelites will “confess their iniquities and their fathers’ inequities and how they failed to walk with HaShem.” What causes this change of heart and confession? Rashi is silent on the matter, but in the next verse he suggests that HaShem will have sent HaShem’s prophets with us into exile, and kept us from becoming like “all the other nations.Anyone who makes even a casual review of Jewish history will quickly see that the Jewish people have never become like other nations. Perhaps the only question is whether that has been out of conscious choice, or the “special treatment” that Jews have
received through most of our history. Or both.

Maimonides observes that there are certain days that all Israel fasts because of the tzuris that has happened to them “in order to awaken the hearts and open the paths of teshuva. This (our verses) a hint of our bad deeds, and the deeds of our ancestors that are like ours now, until it cause them and us these very
same tzuris. In light of these deeds, we should immediately do teshuva, as it is said “They will confess their sins and their the sins of their ancestors” (verse 40)

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Mitzvah 41 – No Big Steps

Posted by rabbiart on May 22, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of their appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover Mitzvah 41: Not to stride by steps to the altar

Let’s start by confessing puzzlement as to how this mitzvah might be observed in our day. Shemot 20:23 says not to climb in steps on the altar, so as not to expose “nakedness”.

וְלֹא-תַעֲלֶה בְמַעֲלֹת, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תִגָּלֶה עֶרְוָתְךָ, עָלָיו.

It might be helpful to picture the people wearing robed or toga-like garments in order to understand what is meant. We no longer have the un-hewn altar, nor do we wear clothes that would expose our nakedness should we climb up any kind of steps.

According to Rashi there is no concern for actual exposure, but only the suggestion of it from taking too wide a steps. So the design of the steps should allow for narrower footsteps as one ascends or descends. In other words – tzni-ut (modesty). The immodesty of wide steps in turn detracts from the attitude of awe and reverence the altar requires. Sefer HaHinuch specifically states that there should be no levity whatsoever.

According to Rashi there is no concern for actual exposure, but only the suggestion of it from taking too wide a steps. So the design of the steps should allow for narrower footsteps as one ascends or descends. In other words – tzni-ut (modesty). The immodesty of wide steps in turn detracts from the attitude of awe and reverence the altar requires.

The midrash says the proper way to walk is with a demure heel to toe pace, undoubtedly with a respectful attitude. The Shulchan Aruch describes the proper posture for the Amidah. While reciting the Amida, one should place his right hand over his left hand, and place them over his heart. He adds that one should stand in a manner that reflects fear, awe and trepidation. The Shulchan Aruch further notes that it is improper to place one’s hands on his hips as he prays the Amida, as this posture would be an expression of arrogance.

All of this would seem to suppress an important mood and emotion – joy. If we have to reflect fear and trepidation, and avoid levity, and walk demurely, how can we rejoice?

Rashi’s concern is not for actual exposure, but improper appearance. The Shulchan Aruch similarly warns against improper expression or attitude. Sefer HaHinuch warns against any levity. But look at the content of the siddur, perhaps especially on Shabbat. Many prayer texts speak of joy; take the easy example, the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat. HaShem’s gift of the Torah is interpreted as an act of love. There is plenty of room for expressing our joy – and in rejoicing with each other. We need only take care to not let it get out of hand.

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California Supreme Court Gets One Right

Posted by rabbiart on May 17, 2008

In 1954 – or thereabouts – the songwriter Sammy Cahn wrote these lyrics for Frank Sinatra:

Love and marriage, love and marriage
They Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother
You can’t have one without the other

Love and marriage, love and marriage
It’s an institute you can’t disparage
Ask the local gentry
And they will say it’s elementary

Growing up in the sheltered atmosphere of 1950s white suburbia, these lyrics would have made perfect sense to me. Love and marriage equalled Mom and Dad. If I had known them then, it equalled Uncle Eddy and Aunt Jean, who held hands their entire married life. I think I would have understood the lyrics even though I was only five years old when Sinatra introduced the song to families gathered in the living room to watch a television production of Our Town on the big old console television. You know, the one with a knob on it that you used to change channels, even though there weren’t that many channels to choose from. And you actually had to get up out of your chair and walk across the room to do it. – Oh, the horror. – (Uphill, both ways, and in the midwest, through the snow.)

My how the world has changed!

Thursday afternoon, actually while I had Sinatra playing over the Internet, I received a telephone call from Sue Nowicki of the Modesto Bee. She was calling local religious and civic leaders to gather reactions to the California Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional to limit “marriage” to opposite-sex couples. I have to say that my quote in the Bee was not taken out of context, and is pretty much word for word what I said to Sue.

“I haven’t yet read the ruling, but anytime a society moves in widening the scope of civil rights to more people, I think it’s highly likely to be a good thing”.

The court acknowledged that California law affords a domestic partnership “virtually all of the same substantive legal benefits and privileges, and imposes upon the couple virtually all of the same legal obligations and duties, that California law affords to and imposes upon a married couple.” It then went on to say “The question we must address is whether, under these circumstances, the failure to designate the official relationshp of same-sex couples as marriage violates the California Constitution”

“One of the core elements of the right to establish an officially recognized family that is embodied in the California constitutional right to marry is a couple’s right to have their family relationship accorded dignity and respect equal to that accorded other officially recognized families, and assigning a different designation for the family relationship of same-sex couples while reserving the historic designation of “marriage” exclusively for opposite-sex couples poses at least a serious risk of denying the family relationship of same-sex couples with equal dignity and respect.

Let’s look at some of the reasons given for opposing the expansion of the definition of marriage; the will of the people, the threat to the institution of marriage, and violation of established religious tradition. The court itself addressed two of the three. (1) The will of the people does not always govern; we used to have laws forbidding inter-racial marriage, requiring separate entrances and even segregated drinking fountains. Simply because a majority of people believe something does not make that belief correct or even desirable. (2) I don’t see how same sex marriage threatens the institution of opposite-sex marriage itself. It seems like there is a whole class of people saying “we think so much of the institution of marriage that we want to partake of it.” How is that a threat?. As the court said in its decision “permitting same-sex couples access to the designation of marriage will not deprive opposite-sex couples of any rights and will not alter the legal framework of the institution of marriage, because same-sex couples who choose to marry will be subject to the same obligations and duties that currently are imposed on married opposite-sex couples.”

Finally, what about the religious tradition of marriage as between one man and one woman? We often hear the argument advanced “the Bible says that marriage is between one man and one woman.” Whose Bible? Which version? The Tanakh? The Christian Old and New Testaments, the Koran? The Bhagavad-Vita? As a society, do we want to go down the road of trying to impose our religious beliefs on people who don’t share them? That never really works out very well.

One of the quotes in the Modesto Bee reads like this: “’Clearly it’s against a biblical understanding of marriage. Our laws don’t reflect God’s standard for us and God’s definition of marriage. It will be interesting to see if our state will decide (in November) to uphold a biblical definition — do we believe in what God says or do we make up a new definition?’”

In point of fact, the Jewish bible does not define marriage; it merely describes various marriages while telling the story of our people. There is our founding patriarch Abraham – he had one wife and one concubine. His son Isaac fits the one and one model, but his grandson Jacob had two wives and two concubines. If anything, we find passages in the Torah that accept polygamy and proceed to regulate it.
In biblical times, polygamy was permitted. The Bible, in tolerating polygamy, gives evidence that the practice had long been an accepted social institution when these laws were written down. In the patriarchal age polygamy is regarded as an unquestioned custom. While the Bible gives a reason for the action of Abraham in taking Hagar for an additional wife and, in the case of Jacob, for having Rachel as a wife besides Leah, it only proves that polygamy as well as concubinage, with which it was always associated, was among the mores of the ancient Hebrew people (Gen. 16:1-4; 29:23-28). The same attitude is revealed in the episode of Abimelech and Sarah (Gen. 20:1- l3).
Polygamy was such a well established part of the social system that Mosaic law is not even critical of it. We find only certain regulations with respect to it; as, for example, if a man takes a second wife the economic position of the first wife and of the children she bore must be secure; and, in the case of inheritance, no child of a subsequent marriage is to be preferred over a child from the first wife. Other regulations were that the high priest could have only one wife and that a king in Israel should not have too many wives (Lev. 21:13; Deut. 17:17; Ex. 21:10). The last injunction, however, was of no effect. David had seven wives before he began to reign in Jerusalem, and an extraordinary number of wives and concubines has been attributed to Solomon (II Sam 3:2- 5, 14; 5:13). In connection with David, the prophet Nathan did not denounce the king for adding Uriah’s wife to those he already had but for the means he employed to secure her (II Sam. 12:7-15).

(Preceding two paragraphs quoted from

Not until the 11th century did Rabbenu Gershom issue his thousand year ban against polygamy. If it was against our Bible, no ban would have been necessary.

Once you get past the legalese, the judicial syntax, the arguments based on religious tradition, the issue boils down to precisely this; dignity and respect. It’s not that there is a serious risk – as the court said- of denying members of a same sex relationship the same dignity and respect afforded to opposite sex relationships. It’s exactly what the people opposing this decision want; to deny dignity and respect to same sex relationships; to make their participants, in the words of the court, “second-class citizens.” If we believe that all of us are made in the image of G-d, and if we wish to do G-d’s will on earth, then should we not respect and honor each and every human being who G-d has made. And respect the choices that each person makes. What would be the harm in that? How does that threaten the marital institution? As my favorite quote from the Bee reads
‘There’s a lot of people with a lot of strong emotions, but my contention is that if you’re not in favor of same-sex marriage, you shouldn’t have one’
— Marian Martino of Modesto, who popped the question to her partner of 28 years minutes after she heard about the court ruling
Do all people love, and want to be loved? I hope so. I don’t know what Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen were thinking when they wrote these last two verses, but the sentiments expressed apply to anyone and everyone who is now, has ever been, or will be in love with another of G-d’s human creatures.

Try, try, try to separate them
It’s an illusion
Try, try, try, and you will only come
To this conclusion

Love and marriage, love and marriage
They go together like the horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can’t have one, you can’t have none, you can’t have one without the other!

No Sir!

The Supreme Court got this one right.

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Take a Break – בהר

Posted by rabbiart on May 14, 2008

The final two parshiot of Vayikra are read together except in leap years. (Leap years occur seven out of every nineteen years.) This being a year, we read Behar this Shabbat and Bechukotai next Shabbat. The sidrot
will be joined in a way, because we will be celebrating the B’nai Mitzvah of two of our young people, one each Shabbat.

One of the mainstays of our tradition is that we were chosen to be a “light unto the nations.” The primary topic of Parshat Behar is the establishment of the Jubilee Year.

Echoing the rhythm of the world’s creation, we are told to work the land for six years, but “the seventh year shall be a shabbat shabbaton for the land, a shabbat to Ado-nai”.

וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה

The jubilee year is the inspiration for an act in the U.S. Congress to provide 100 percent debt cancellation to over sixty countries in the global south. The act, entitled The Jubilee Act for Resopnsible Lending and Expanded
Debt Cancellation (HR2634) passed the U.S. House of Representatives 285-132 in April. There are sixty seven countries that would benefit from global debt cancellation. Of them thirty-four voted on the 1975 Zionism is Racism U.N. General Assembly Resolution. Of the thirty-four nations voting, six sponsored the resolution, another twenty voted in favor, and six abstained. One wonders how the people of these countries, most of whom are ardently anti-Zionist and anti-Israel, would feel knowing that the very idea of debt cancellation comes to them by way of the Jewish bible.

If you appreciate irony, you can follow the progress of debt cancellation in Iraq here. Better yet, here’s how it looks in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Individual congregations can back the effort, should ours?

Shabbat Shalom

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Mitzvah 40 – No iron on the altar

Posted by rabbiart on May 14, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover Mitzvah 40: Not to use any tools on the altar
A mitzvah fraught with metaphoric implications. A good thing, since we no longer have altars in the sense meant here, so it would be difficult to observe this commandment; even harder to violate it.

וְאִם-מִזְבַּח אֲבָנִים תַּעֲשֶׂה-לִּי, לֹא-תִבְנֶה אֶתְהֶן גָּזִית: כִּי חַרְבְּךָ הֵנַפְתָּ עָלֶיהָ, וַתְּחַלְלֶהָ

When you make Me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use your tool upon it, you have profaned (spoiled) it.

The kernel of this mitzvah is that the altar both conforms to and symbolizes its purpose; to be an instrument of forgiveness, blessing and peace. Therefore no “tools of war” are used in its design and construction. Even during its maintenance, the priests exercised care in the twice of year whitewashing of the altar, using a neither a tool nor a mixture that contained iron.

The mitzvah is in effect in all time and places when the Holy Temple is in place.  Since the Temple is no longer standing, this has become a mitzvah that cannot be observed as originally understood.  But are there ways we might bring this mitzvah alive?  Yes.  In our day we build not only altars, but bimot, sanctuaries, even entire synagogues.  We could “look to our tools” and see whether we have engaged in any design or construction practices that cause workers (or contributors) to become ground-down; to suffer from any deviation in “living up to the altar”.

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Mitzvah 39: No human images

Posted by rabbiart on May 8, 2008

A study of the traditional 613 mitzvot (commandments/obligations) according to their order of appearance in the Torah.

This week we cover Mitzvah 39: Not to make human images, even for decoration
This is a prohibition that may be hard for many people to accept. We have already been told not to make any graven images (Shemot 20:4) in order to keep ourselves from idolatry. That mitzvah was limited to making images for the purpose of worshipping the; this mitzvah is more extensive. It requires that we make no human figures out of anything whatsoever. I suspect that most readers can more easily embrace the prohibition against making manifestations of HaShem than they can against making a sculpture of their neighbor Fred, or Venus, or Apollo. (OK, maybe sculptures of Venus and Apollo are a little too close to the idea of “gods.”)

Study of this prohibition reveals the connection between humanity and the divine. As the Talmud understood it, man, or woman, is made in the image of HaShem. So when an image of a human is made, in this understanding, an image of the divine is also being made, and the border between ornamentation and idolatry begins to be blurred. This mitzvah is considered to be in effect in all times and places, for both men and women. Do you / would you observe it? If you wouldn’t sculpt a human form, would you go look at sculpture? How about sculpture of human forms that you knew were done by non-Jews.

The connection between humanity and divine is in part derived from a re-reading of the text on which it is based. Shemot 20:20 reads “You shall not make ‘itti, with me” but the Talmud reinterprets it as “You shall not make ‘othi, Me. Connecting this verse with Breshit 1:26, where we are told that humanity is made in the image of G-d, results in this tidy little logical chain:

a. Make nothing that is a representation of G-d
b. Humanity is a representation of G-d
c. Making a representation of humanity is tantamount to making a representation of G-d, therefore
d. Make no representation of humanity!

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Parshat Emor

Posted by rabbiart on May 8, 2008

As we continue our reading of Vayikra (“He called” aka Leviticus) we are receiving a major dose of the traditional 613 mitzvot. In parshat Emor we have over 60 mitzvot. The first set has to do with the conduct of a kohen (priest who served when the 1st and 2nd Temples were operating). In particular, who a Kohen may not marry, and under what circumstances a kohen cannot serve in the Temple. These are followed by some particulars regarding animals to be sacrificed, and finally be prohibitions from work and commands to offer the musaf offering on the High Holidays and the Pilgrimmage Festivals (Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot).

The last commandment derived from this parshah is that the Israelites should dwell in sukkot (booths). This is based on Vayikra 23:42-43, where the Torah says the “you shall dwell in booths seven days, all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your G-d.

מב בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים; כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, יֵשְׁבוּ, בַּסֻּכֹּת. מג לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

This is in surprising contrast to the more inclusive reach of the verse that concludes the final episode of this parshah; the punishment for cursing the divine Name. Unlike the mitzvah of dwelling in Sukkot, the prohibitions of cursing, maiming or killing apply to both home-born and foreigner alike. “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born; for I am the LORD your God.

מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם, כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה: כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

Why are gerim not included in the commandment to dwell in Sukkot? They are explicitly mentioned in the “criminal law” provisions of Chapter 24? Rabbinic Judaism does not want them to be excluded from the mitzvah of Sukkot, so it reads the next word “in Israel” to include those who have converted.

When we read the Torah without reference to later rabbinic commentary it appears that gerim have a status of their own which is not identical to born-Jews. Rabbinic tradition interprets ger as referring to someone who has joined the Jewish people. But when we consider the admonitions on treating the ger (stranger) with compassion because we were gerim in Mitzrayim we can easily read the text as saying that ger means stranger, as “we were strangers in the land of Egypt” since we certainly did not convert to the Egyptian religions.

Careful reading of this parshah and knowledge of later tradition shows how our practices and even the understanding of words in the Torah can change and evolve over time. With respect to the ger who has become a Jew by choice, is there any part of Judaism in which she or he should not be included?

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