Adulting through Chanukah, part 2

In “Hanukkah for Grown-Ups,” Marianne Novak describes “adult initiative” needed to see rebellion as “the only viable option for the future of the Jewish people.” The previous post here noted a parallel with Psalm 30’s moments of terrifying uncertainty, as well as some challenges involved in relying on “a small section of the Jewish community to see” the way forward in terms of political action. (Details on Novak and publication below; see also previous “Thirty on Psalm 30” post.) But “adult initiative” comes in many forms. And below are a few related thoughts from another teacher.

How Big Was the Miracle?

Why do we celebrate eight nights as a “miracle,” when we are told that there was available purified oil “sufficient for one day’s lighting” (B. Talmud Shabbat 21b): Wouldn’t that make the additional seven nights miraculous but the first night ordinary?

Since Joseph Caro (16th Century, Safed; mystic and codifier of laws) posed this question — now often called “Beit Yosef’s Question” — many responses have been offered. Most of those I’ve read — and here are 25 answers distilled from many more — focus on the legal/logistical aspects of the question.

I am more interested in a more basic question…what Novak describes as the miracle of Jews seeking to rededicate the community through “being conscientious and thoughtful Jewish adults.” That, it seems to me, is the miracle of the first night: a group of Jews deciding, in less than ideal conditions, to create light where there was none in the faith that it would grow.

Hanukkah and Year Round

In his book, Seasons of Our Joy, Rabbi Arthur Waskow summarizes the two, sometimes apparently contradictory, aspects of the holiday:

  • “the standpoint of the Rabbi,” on the one hand, focusing on Zechariah’s “not by might…but by spirit” rather than “insurgent politics”;
  • “the standpoint of the Maccabee,” on the other, emphasizing “human courage and doggedness” and the “need to organize…to build might and use power…”

He then suggests that we see Hanukkah (using his spelling from here on for simplicity) as a time of darkness of both sun and moon, both military and cultural disaster, on the one hand, and spiritual darkness on the other:

The miracle at the Temple came at a moment…when even military victory had proven useless because the Temple could not be rededicated in the absence of sacred oil….

The real conflict is not between the Rabbi and the Maccabee, between spiritual and political, but between apathy and hope…

Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a time for accepting both the Maccabee and the Rabbi within us, seeing them as different expressions of the need to experience despair and turn toward hope. Seen this way, Hanukkah can become a resource to help us experience our moments of darkness whenever they occur throughout the year– and strike new sparks.
— Waskow (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), p. 100

This view of Hanukkah brings us back to Psalm 30, as Psalm of the Day, prompts us to acknowledge darkness and weeping which “tarries for the night” as well as joy that “comes in the morning.” Moreover, Psalm 30 can be part of Hanukkah as a resource for the whole year, reminding us in the daily liturgy to acknowledge the darkness, insecurity, and weeping we and/or others in our community may be experiencing before we move on to celebrating:

You turned my mourning into dancing;
You loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
So that my glory may sing praise to You, and not be silent;
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to You for ever.
— verses 12-13 (1917 JPS slightly adapted)



24 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).


NOTE:
A bio for Marianne Novak appears at Maharat Yeshivat, where she is in the class of 2019. Her dvar torah was published as part of The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance‘s “Shema Beoklah: Hear Her Voice” series. Earlier installments in the series are available online. publication is available

BACK

Ki Teitzei: Productive Erasing

2

NOTE: In conjunction with this dvar torah, I produced a four-page set of background materials. For the purposes of this post, I added hyperlinks to all sources not directly quoted in the dvar proper. But the source sheet was actually designed to stand as its own, so it might prove useful to download the PDF as well: Ki Teitzei sourcesheet (PDF)

I learned something in preparing for this week’s portion that changed my perspective on several things, and I hope I can convey it in a way that at least makes sense and maybe also gives you a new way to look at some things. I prepared a source sheet with bits of Torah, later parts of the Hebrew bible, notes from Talmud, medieval and later writings. We’re not going to follow the material in order, and I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m hoping you’ll be willing to follow me on a somewhat meandering path. As it says in one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs:

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
— Scarlet Begonias, Hunter/Garcia 1974

Ki Teitzei and Commandments

We’ll start with a few words about this week’s portion. It contains a wide range of commandments. Some I think most of us would agree are sensible, kind and just: building houses so as to prevent accidents, returning lost property, and paying promptly for hired work. A few – like not wearing mixtures of linen and wool – are so hard to explain that they’re often put into the category of decrees to follow even if we don’t know why. Several are quite disturbing, like an order to obliterate whole peoples and a commandment to bring a rebellious child to the town elders to be killed.

All these commandments – the worrisome, the crazy-sounding, and the easy to accept – have been the subject of thousands of years of discussion and the source of many ethical directives, as well as mystical teachings, sometimes both woven together. This portion is one that reminds us that

  • A) Jewish tradition rarely, if ever, accepts a text entirely at face value; and
  • B) texts that trouble us today almost certainly troubled our ancestors, too.

It’s a relief to know, for example, how the ancient Rabbis read the verse about the rebellious child: They looked carefully at the language and decided that use of the singular expression, “voice” for two people means that these conditions apply only if a child disobeys two parents who speak identically, at once, and the parents are alike in appearance and stature; this, the Rabbis declared, was so unlikely that such a case never happened and never would. Instead, they said, the verse was put there for study purposes only.

So that is one commandment that no Jewish community observes. But there are others in this portion that many Jews do observe – and that fact can complicate study for Jews who don’t observe in the same way.

After more than a century of distancing itself from all ceremonial and ritual commandments, the Reform movement shifted gears with the 1999 Platform, saying: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.” See below for a few words from the 18CCAR-logo85 and 1999 platforms and a link to the full texts (and/or p.3 of PDF); I think it’s worthwhile to review these things from time to time.

As the 1999 platform suggests, even if we don’t observe particular commandments, studying them can remind us that our tradition is richer and deeper, and sometimes stranger, than a quick reading or online search might suggest. I say “strange” both in the sense of “not known before” and in the sense of “odd” or “out of place,” because Torah teachings from one Jewish culture can seem quite strange to Jews from another community. This is especially evident when we’re talking about commandments that are carefully observed by some Jews but practically unknown by others.

For Jews who don’t observe family purity laws or kashrut, for example, details of these laws might seem irrelevant, old-fashioned, or preachy. But many Jewish teachings, including most from previous centuries, assume knowledge and interest in these areas. So skipping over all such teaching means missing a lot. There’s a great deal to be learned in foreign Torah territory, and different sets of assumptions are not necessarily meant to be inhospitable. The key, I think, is to do some advance planning to make the most of the trip. And that’s what I hope we can do this morning, as we head into possibly unfamiliar landscape in search of new perspectives on Amalek, on repentance and making changes in the world.

leftfield
Left Field: insurancenewsnet.com

The first bit of background might seem out of left field for exploring Amalek,
Consider, however, that throws from deep in the outfield can have a big impact on the game.

Work and Shabbat

In Genesis 2:2, God ceases God’s melachah, creative work, and rests on the Sabbath. (Verses and more details below and/or page 3 of PDF.)

In Exodus 31, God is giving instructions for building the Tabernacle, and the People are told that melachah, creative work, is forbidden on the Sabbath in imitation of God’s rest.

Later Jewish tradition, beginning with the Talmud, lists 39 categories of melachah – like tying knots, bleaching, spinning, and carrying things –
based on the kind of work that was needed to construct the Tabernacle.

One of the prohibited kinds of melachah is “mocheik al m’nat lichtov” – erasing with the intention to write something new in that same place:

…Erasing merely to blot out what is written is a destructive act, and destructive acts are not forbidden on Shabbat by Torah law. Melachah is constructive activity, similar to God’s creative acts when forming the universe.

So what form of erasing is prohibited on the Sabbath? “Mocheik al m’nat lichtov” — erasing with the intention of writing again. One’s intention must be to clean the surface in order to write over the original letters. This type of erasing is a positive, constructive activity, and therefore is incompatible with the special rest of the Sabbath day.
— “True Erasing” from Rav Kook on parashat Ki Teitzei
(See also Language Note below; source #17 on PDF)

infieldThis is where that throw from left field reaches the infield, as Rav (Rabbi Abraham Isaac) Kook explains that this is the kind of erasing required to obliterate Amalek’s name.

Remembering Amalek

So, now let’s take a few moments to remember Amalek, as we’re told to do
at the close of this week’s portion.

There are five biblical texts dealing with Amalek on the source sheet (sources 1-5 and below). Amalek appears a few more times in the Torah and later in the Tanach, but these are the most important ones for our story this morning.

We recall that Amalek is the grandson of Esau and great-great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Esau is the one who was tricked out of the first-born’s blessing by his twin brother, Jacob, who becomes Israel. That makes him our family, too, however thoroughly estranged.

In Exodus, Amalek launches an unprovoked attack on the Israelites in the wilderness, and God declares war with Amalek from generation to generation. In this week’s portion, we learn new information about that incident: that Amalek had attacked the weakest stragglers and that Amalek did not fear God.

Later, the Book of Samuel and the Book of Esther each reference more generations of Amalek and Israel as enemies – we are becoming more and more distant cousins, but still family. Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman suggest that we view the two peoples as “connected to each other like conjoined twins. If I assault my twin, I am wounding myself….”

And that brings us to “My Brother Esau.” This song captures an important idea, shared by many Jewish teachers, about the relationship between Israel and Esau, and by extension, Amalek. The lines “the more my brother looks like me,” and “though he gave me all his cards,” in particular, touch on the thread of Jewish teaching that sees Esau and Amalek as other aspects of ourselves, like Jacob and Yisrael are sometimes understood as two aspects of one individual.

Obliterating Amalek

Returning to this week’s portion, we are told:

  • to remember זָכוֹר
    Remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people;
  • to blot out the remembrance תִּמְחֶה
    Wipe out the descendants of Amalek from under heaven
    תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; and
  • to not forget לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח
    Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities/ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.

These are usually understood as three separate commandments, following Maimonides.

Over the centuries, Jews of many different belief systems have struggled with whether, and how, those commandments – especially the one to wipe out a whole people – still apply. See, for a really helpful and accessible summary,  “Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?”

Professor Golinkin, like Nechama Leibowitz and others before him, focuses on the two new statements in this week’s portion: that Amalek did not fear God, and that he attacked the vulnerable. (See below for excerpt and link to the full article; p.2, PDF.)

Many teachers see the joining of these in the text as evidence that failing to care for the weak is a failure to fear God, and vice versa.

plateFinally, now, that throw from left field makes it all the way to the plate.

In Exodus 17, there are two odd spellings that caught the attention of commentators: “Throne” is spelled with two letters instead of the usual three – that is, keis, instead of kisei – and God’s name is spelled with only two letters – yud-hey, instead of the four-letter name. (p.1 PDF or below)

Completing God’s Name

In many different readings, Amalek represents attempts to erase God’s name, either by unethical behavior that harms the image of God in others or by trying to remove “Yisrael,” a nation which contains God’s name. The latter is Rav Kook’s view:

We are charged to replace Amalek with the holy letters of God’s complete Name. We must restore God’s complete throne – i.e., God’s Presence in the world – through the special holiness of the Jewish people, who transmit God’s message to the world.

Rav Kook says we can see from these shortened words that all is not right with God’s name in the world after the encounter with Amalek. And this means that simply erasing Amalek’s name won’t put things right.

Returning to the concept of melachah, some erasing is just destructive.
And, even though it might seem contrary to the spirit of Shabbat,
destruction is not actually among the 39 categories of prohibited action.
Only creative acts.

Similarly, Rav Kook explains, the mitzvah is not simply to obliterate Amalek so that there will no longer be any more Amalekites in the world. That would be a purely destructive act.

The destruction of Amalek must have a productive goal. We must obliterate Amalek, with the intention of ‘transforming the world into a kingdom of the Almighty.’

Rav Kook, in The Moral Principles, tells us that Amalek’s name is to be erased only from under heaven. Meaning that somewhere, however twisted, there was a good intention in Amalek that should be recognized and not destroyed. This effort requires a “lofty state of purity,” which Rav Kook doesn’t think too common. But the aspiration is still instructive, especially, for Elul. (See source #9 below; p.1, PDF)

Elul Thoughts

So much of the advice around teshuva focuses on one-way apologies and single-handed attempts to change our behavior. One-way changes are important for our souls and, no doubt, to those whom we’ve wronged. But we live in relationships and community. And Rav Kook’s two teachings on Amalek together suggest that it’s not enough to beat down evil urges or repair individual wrongs. What we need to do is to approach places where we, as individuals or groups, have allowed the non-God-fearer’s name to appear and erase it with the intention of writing something better. Destruction – even of an evil, in ourselves, or in a relationship, with a brother or an enemy – is only half the task. The real God-imitating work is in destroying in order to rebuild something better in ourselves, in our relationships and in the wider world.

Now, let’s return for a moment to the wider concept of melachah and Shabbat. Like most of us here today, I observe Shabbat in a way that does not involve understanding details of the 39 different categories of melachah associated with building the Tabernacle, and avoiding them on Shabbat. So, I don’t usually worry about whether a particular kind of writing or erasing is allowed on Shabbat. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Looking at Rav Kook’s very specific teaching, however, shifted my understanding of Shabbat. For a long time, I’ve endeavored to avoid computer and internet, work-related calls, and money-related talk on Shabbat. This helps me separate the Sabbath from the six days and also to explain what I do and don’t do on Saturdays to other people. But I don’t avoid kindling, travel beyond my neighborhood, or many other forms of melachah, including many kinds of creation.

And I realized just a few days ago that I had really missed the main point here. There’s powerful value in making Shabbat with my husband, in our own way. But I am now paying more attention to the concept of ceasing to create because even God took a day off from essential, productive, maybe enjoyable, activities –rather than because it suits me in some ways to take a break.

…That brings me to this short story by Sharon Strassfeld, and to this note: What-, who-, or however we envision God — or even if we don’t really think of God at all — it’s important to consider, especially as we enter the high holidays season, that we’re not God. (Story also in plain text below for those who don’t do graphics; p.4, PDF in graphic form.)

bow_Strassfeld

Erasing and Learning

Finally, consider this verse from Pirkei Avot, mentioning “machok,” blotting:

לִישָׁע בֶּן אֲבוּיָה אוֹמֵר, הַלּוֹמֵד יֶלֶד לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר חָדָשׁ.
וְהַלּוֹמֵד זָקֵן לְמַה הוּא דוֹמֶה, לִדְיוֹ כְתוּבָה עַל נְיָר מָחוּק
Elisha ben Abuya said: When you learn as a child, what is it like? Like ink written on clean paper.
When you learn in old age, what is it like? Like ink written on blotted paper [a sheet from which the original writing has been erased]
– Avot 4:25 (or 4:20)

Until a few days ago I thought this was the saddest Mishnah I’d ever seen. This is the only place where Elisha Ben Abuya‘s name appears. Everywhere else in the Talmud, he’s referred to as Acher, “the Other,” for complicated reasons, relating to this week’s portion, that led to his becoming a heretic and a symbol of rabbinic failure.

I kept thinking about Elisha Ben Abuya’s struggles with community and faith. And the idea that he saw adult learning as such a difficult, messy process – like trying to write on parchment that was already used and scraped off – broke my heart.

But then, in studying this portion and Rav Kook’s teachings, I had a new idea:
Maybe all he’s really saying is that anyone who is trying to learn something and is not a small child – whether we’re 12 or 13 or 55 or 85 – is probably erasing some previous, maybe erroneous or partial, understanding of the world. And that is not sad at all. In fact, as I just learned: writing, as well as erasing with the intention to write something new, are both understood as creative work that imitates God. This is what I think we have to keep in mind as we move through Elul and into the Days of Awe.

Our job is not to aim for a clean slate – apologies for mixing metaphors with all that parchment scraping – but to work with what is already written, to make corrections where need be, and to keep trying to write a better story for this new year and beyond.

I hope this made some sense.
Please feel free to contact me if anything was unclear.
With best wishes for a productive Elul and high holiday season.

NOTE: The text above is a dvar torah given at Temple Micah (DC) on August 25. Micah live streams and archives services, so video can be found at Temple Micah (dvar torah about about 50 minutes after the service began). As mentioned above, the four-page source sheet is meant to accompany this drash but also stand on its own. Ki Teitzei source sheet (PDF).

BACKGROUND SOURCES

Amalek in Biblical Text

[1] Amalek is great-great grandson of Abraham and Sarah:

And these are the generations of Esau the father of a the Edomites in the mountain-land of Seir….And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek….
–Gen 36:9-12

[2] In the wilderness, Amalek attacks Israel, who prevails; God declares war against Amalek, “from generation to generation”:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim….And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה
אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם
And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’
וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד
עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, [throne of the LORD]
מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר –Exodus 17:8, 13-16

See also Language Note below.

[3] Two details about the Exodus story appear in this week’s portion:

…how he met you by the way, and smote the hindmost of you, all that were enfeebled in your rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God…–Deut 25:18

[4] Enmity between Amalek and Israel persists:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not…

And Saul smote the Amalekites…. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. –1 Sam 2-3, 7-8

[5] Agag’s survival, contrary to instruction, led to the Purim story:

After these things did king Ahasuerus promote Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and advanced him, and set his seat above all the princes that were with him. –Esther 3:1

BACK

[8] THRONE and NAME
“Why is the word for ‘throne’ shortened, and even God’s Name is abbreviated? God swore that His Name and His Throne are not complete until Amalek’s name will be totally obliterated.” – from Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 11; Rashi

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim….And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.
And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Adonai-nissi. And he said: ‘The hand upon the throne of the LORD: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.’
וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד
עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, [throne of the LORD]
מִלְחָמָה לַיהוָה, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר –Exodus 17:8, 13-16

BACK

[9] from The Moral Principles

The degree of love in the soul of the righteous embraces all creatures, it excludes nothing, and no people or tongue. Even the wicked Amalek’s name is to be erased by biblical injunction only “from under the heavens” (Ex 17:14). But through “cleansing” he may be raised to the source of the good,* which is above the heavens, and is then included in the higher love. But one needs great strength and a lofty state of purity for this exalted kind of unification.
– Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), The Moral Principles.
Ben Zion Bokser, trans. Paulist Press, 1978, p.137

*Kook believed that an evil deed is an impulse that at its highest source of origin was good but became distorted and went astray. The first Ashkenazi chief rabbi in pre-state Israel, he published on ethics and mystical teachings.
BACK

[11]

Amalek and Jews Today

Over the centuries, Jews have argued about whether, and how, those commandments still apply. Many interpreters have identified Amalek with one real life enemy or another, historical or contemporary, from ancient Rome to the Soviets or Nazis; Jews have called other Jews “Amalek,” and some Christians have seen themselves as “Israel” and their enemies, including Jews, as “Amalek.” Others have said that Amalek no longer exists or taken a metaphorical view. – Summarized from Golinkin (citation below).

The 20th Century teacher Nechama Leibowitz explores Deut 25:18 in the context of Torah passages mentioning fear of God, or lack thereof. She notes that each passage focuses on caring for the most vulnerable among us, or failing to do that. Therefore, she writes:

“Amalek” against whom the Almighty declared eternal war is not any more an ethnic or racial concept but is the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and defenseless in every generation.

Golinkin quotes Leibowitz and concludes:

In our day, this is perhaps the most important message of the Amalek story — not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their actions. In the State of Israel, there are many strangers and stragglers — new immigrants, foreign workers, as well as innocent Arabs and Palestinians. Some Jews learn from the story of Amalek that we should hate certain groups. We must emphasize the opposite message. We must protect “the stragglers” so that we may say of the State of Israel: “surely there is fear of God in this place”.
“Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?”

Prof. David Golinkin is president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; highly recommend this thorough, readable article.
BACK

[12]

“My Brother Esau”

Words by John Perry Barlow; music by Bob Weir.
First performed by Grateful Dead in 1983:

Esau holds a blessing;
Brother Esau bears a curse.
I would say that the blame is mine
But I suspect it’s something worse.
The more my brother looks like me,
The less I understand
The silent war that bloodied both our hands.
Sometimes at night, I think I understand.
…It’s brother to brother and it’s man to man
And it’s face to face and it’s hand to hand…
We shadowdance the silent war within.

These words are alternative wording, maybe Bob Weir forgetting lyrics as written or creating new ones, March 1983:

Esau tried to move away
A marvelous disguise
Where every street is easy
and, there’s nothing to deny
Though he gave me all his cards
I could not play his hand
Made a choice
Soon became a stand

Full lyrics and annotations here.
BACK

[13]

Work and Shabbat

Work/Service/Worship = Avodah. (Creative) Work= Melachah:
וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
And on the seventh day God finished His work [melachto] which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. – Gen 2:2

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever does any work [melachah] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת
Six days shall work [melachah] be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever does any work [melachah] in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

וְשָׁמְרוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת לְדֹרֹתָם, בְּרִית עוֹלָם
Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.

בֵּינִי, וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–אוֹת הִוא, לְעֹלָם:  כִּי-שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ,
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ
It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.’ – Ex 31:14-17

Later Jewish tradition, beginning with the Talmud, lists “forty minus one” categories of melachah – like tying knots, bleaching, spinning, and carrying things – related to building the Tabernacle, as prohibited on Shabbat. (There’s a 40th category, which is Creation with a capital “C,” but people cannot imitate God in that way, so that’s not included among the prohibitions.)

Very nice resource on this can be found at Ask Moses.
BACK

[14]

Reform Movement and Commandments

1885 Pittsburgh Platform
…We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only the moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization….

1999 Platform
…We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modem, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times….

…We bring Torah into the world when we seek to sanctify the times and places of our lives through regular home and congregational observance. Shabbat calls us to bring the highest moral values to our daily labor and to culminate the workweek with kedushah, holiness, menuchah, rest and oneg, joy….
Full text at Reform Platforms at CCAR
BACK

[16] Strassfeld’s short story:

When I was a teenager, I began reading philosophical works. I concluded that God did not rule the world that in fact we and God were partners. One Yom Kippur in consonance with my new thinking I decided not to “fall korim” (prostrate myself) for the aleinu prayer. My zaydee, who had eagle eyes even for the upstairs women’s balcony, asked me to take a walk with him during the break in services. He wondered, he told me, why I hadn’t fallen korim. I explained that it was a “neue velt” (literally, a “new world”) now and the old-fashioned ideas of God ruling everything and people scurrying around to do God’s command no longer made sense. Zaydee listened and then asked thoughtfully, “Sherreleh, tell me more about this neue velt. I did, telling him all about the things I had been reading and thinking. When I finished, my grandfather said to me, “This new world you speak about I understand. But there is one thing I don’t understand. In this new world, if you don’t bow before God, before whom will you bow?”
– Sharon Strassfeld. Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother. NY: Scribner, 1998

BACK

LANGUAGE NOTES

כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה
אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם (Ex 17:8)
[6] נִמְחָה – to be obliterated, forgotten, destroyed, or eliminated
מָחָה – to erase [or wipe, as dishes], to obliterate, to blot out the memory of ; (literary) to wipe away, to dry (tears, sweat)

[7] OED: “Erase” is a newer (17th Century) than “blot” (15th Century). “Erase” may have come from older word “arace,” to uproot. A “blot” in backgammon is a lone, vulnerable piece. BACK to Exodus 17

[17]“Mocheik al m’nat lichtov”
to erase, to delete ; to blot out – מָחַק
eraser, rubber – מַחַק
BACK to Rav Kook on erasingBACK to Elisha Ben Abuya

Citations:
Waskow, Rabbi Arthur O. and Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman. Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2011. p.155 BACK

More on Acher [Aher, “The Other”], Elisha Ben Abuya:
“A Path to Follow” Ki Teitzei, note on how a verse this portion led is said to have led to Acher’s heresy.

Different stories about Elisha Ben Abuya from the midrash. Much more in the Fabrangen blog on related topics.

A warning about dualism as the four enter Pardes

See also “Daughter of Acher
BACK

Strange and Familiar

Exploring Babylon Chapter 23

Although just published (May 2018), Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was completed in 1931, based on work begun in the 1920s. Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon relates the story of a West African and his experience, before, during, and after U.S. slavery. Some of the content, as well as story of its publication, shed light on #ExploringBabylon.

Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) was born in Benin, West Africa, around 1841. He was captured by Dahomian warriors and temporarily held in a barracoon, before being sold to slavers. He was then transported to the U.S. on the Clotilda, the last known trans-Atlantic slave ship. At age 86, Kossola granted Hurston interviews that became Barracoon. The long trail from Hurston’s work to publication is related in the current volume by its editor, Deborah G. Plant.

One reason the publication did not appear back in the 1930s was Hurston’s refusal to rewrite Kossola’s vernacular speech in more standard English. I find that listening to Hurston’s voice helps set the scene and prepare the reader for her rendering of Kossola’s speech:

Kossula ceased speaking and looked pointedly at his melon rind. There was still lots of good red meat and a quart or two of juice. I looked at mine. I had more meat left than Kossula had. Nothing was left of the first installment, but a pleasant memory. So we lifted the half-rinds to our knees and started all over again. The sun was still hot so we did the job leisurely.

Watermelon halves having ends like everything else, and a thorough watermelon eating being what it is, a long over-stuffed silence fell on us.
— Hurston, Barracoon, p.40-41


Songs and Names in a Strange Land

Oluale Kossola (Cudjo Lewis) explains the naming of his children:

“In de Afficky we gottee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for the father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.

“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. One name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.72-73

Kossola describes for Hurston the funeral of the first of his children to die:

“We Christian people now, so we put our baby in de coffin and dey take her in de church, and everybody come look down in her face. Dey sing, ‘Shall We Meet Beyond De River’. I been a member of de church a long time now, and I know de words of de song wid my mouth, but my heart it doan know dat. Derefo’ I sing inside me, ‘O todo ah wah n-law yah-lee, owrran k-nee ra ra k-nee ro ro.’ [not translated].”
— Kossola, Barracoon, p.74

Exiles in Babylon believed they would one day return home, meanwhile pining: “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4). Kossola seems to ask, instead: Can we ever sing our own songs in this land from which there seems no escape?

Strange, Familiar, Tales

This parable, among several Kossola shared, was told after the death of his wife:

“’You see Ole Charlie dere. S’pose he stop here on de way to church. He got de parasol ’cause he think it gwine rain when he leave de house. But he look at de sky and ‘cide hit ain’ gwine rain so he set it dere by the door an’ go on to church. After de preachin’ he go on home ’cause he think de parasol at Cudjo house. It safe. He say, “I git it nexy time I go dat way.” When he come home he say to one de chillun, “Go to Cudjo house and tellee him I say sendee me my parasol.”

“’De parasol is pretty. I likee keep dat one.’ But I astee dem all, ‘Is it right to keep de parasol?’ Dey all say, ‘No it belong to Charlie.’

“’Well,’ I say, ‘my wife, she b’long to God. He lef’ her by my door’
— from Kossola’s parables, Barracoon, p.92

This tale comes from a medieval collection of midrash:

[Rabbi Meir is at the house of study, and Beruriah is at home, when their two sons both die suddenly on the Sabbath. After Meir returns home and the Sabbath comes to a close…]

“Rabbi,” she then said, “some time ago a deposit was left with me for safe-keeping, and now the owner has come to claim it. Must I return it?”

“Can there be any question about the return of property to its owner?” said R. Meïr, half astonished and half indignant that his wife should entertain a doubt.

“I did not care to let it go out of my possession without your knowledge,” replied Beruriah, seemingly in excuse, and, taking him by the hand, led him into the room in which the bodies of their two sons were lying on the bed. When she withdrew the cover, R. Meïr broke out in tears and plaints. Gently Beruriah reminded him of his answer to her question about the return of a treasure entrusted to one for safe-keeping, adding the verse from Job (i. 21): “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
— from Proverbs 964, Yalkut Shimoni
as quoted in the Jewish Encyclopedia

I would be very interested to learn if Christian lore includes stories similar to the tale about Beruriah and Meir (2nd Century CE) and Kossola’s early 20th Century parable.

Strangeness in the Story

One more note from Deborah G. Plant’s comments:

In face of Kossola’s recollections, the social constructions of “My People” and “Africans” were deconstructed by the reality of ethnic identifications, which not only distinguished tribes and clans but also generated the narrative distance and the ideological difference that rendered one ethnic group capable of regarding another as “stranger” or “enemy,” and allowed that group to offer up the “Other” to “the Trans-Atlantic trade.”

“One thing impressed me strongly from this three months of association with Cudjo Lewis,” Hurston writes. “The white people had held my people in slavery in America. They had brought us, it is true and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on – that the white people had gone to Africa, waved a red handkerchief at the Africans and lured them aboard the ship and sailed away.” [footnote]
— Plant, editor, Barracoon, p.124-125

Hurston’s struggle, comparing what she learned from Kossola with what she’d been previously taught, is reminiscent in some ways of David W. Stowe’s comparison of the Exodus story with that of Babylonian Exile.

NOTES

Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960)
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Foreword: Alice Walker. Editor: Deborah G. Plant
NY: Amistad (HarperCollins), 2018.
Interviews were conducted in 1927. Book was completed in 1931.
More on this volume from HarperCollins
Short, clear background piece.
NPR story about the publication
BACK


Footnote in Barracoon cites Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press [1942], 1984. p. 200
RETURN

Computing Failures and Babylon

1

Exploring Babylon Chapter 16.2

Attempts to calculate the end of exile — by both Belshazzar in Babylon and Ahashverus in Persia — have something powerful in common with the People’s behavior in at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Torah portion Ki Tisa (Ex 30:11 – 34:35).

Moses Bosheish!

I love spots in the Torah where translators disagree. When a Torah verse is translated by different sources in very different ways, it’s a reminder that translation is never straightforward and that no one translation can tell the whole story, even if scholars agree on what it is. Differing translations are also frequently a clue that more is going on under the surface of any one translation. We have a powerful example in Ki Tisa:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”
וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.
– Ex 32:1, JPS Tanakh, 1985

Based on language alone, there are at least three obvious ambiguities in this verse:

  • Did the People demand gods, plural, or one god? “Elohim” works both ways in Hebrew, referring to God or to human judges, and scholars argue for both possibilities in this context. Because there was ultimately only one Golden Calf created in the story, translators usually employ “god,” singular;
  • What kind of leadership are the People expecting from Aaron? When Moses went up the mountain – which is back in chapter 24 – he told the people that Aaron and Hur would be in charge in his absence. But we have no mention of earlier interactions with the interim leaders – and then there’s the odd failure to mention Hur again, which lead some midrashim to suggest that things were already so dire that Hur had already been killed by the agitated crowd. Still, the language could mean the people are standing opposite Aaron to speak to him or that they are gathering more aggressively.
  • Finally, what, exactly has Moses done to upset the People so severely? A common translation is that he “delayed” or “was so long” in coming down. Robert Alter says he “lagged.” And Everett Fox chooses “shamefully-late.” These three versions reflect a spectrum of angst: something taking “so long” could possibly be neutral or positive, even if excess is implied; “lagged” leaves less room for a non-negative interpretation; and “shamefully-late” might leave room for a positive explanation – helping someone with an emergency concern, for example, rather than forgetting or procrastinating – but it’s still obvious that whoever is waiting is distressed by the delay.

Regardless of translation, commentators spend a lot of energy trying to devise some kind of explanation for the People’s behavior that prompted what comes next: the quick turn to idol worship, Moses destroying the tablets, God threatening to destroy the whole People, and three thousand killed in camp.

004-moses-golden-calf

from freebibleimages.org

 

Shame and Delay

It doesn’t help translation or interpretation that the word central to this narrative, “bosheish,” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Torah and shows up only once in the Tanakh.

Sisera’s mother, who doesn’t yet know that her son the general, was killed, wonders why his chariot bosheish (Judges 5:28). It’s a heart-breaking scene that might shed some light on the kind of anxiety the People were experiencing.

The related word “bosh,” translated as “shame,” is more common, appearing 106 times in the Tanakh, according to my concordance. Aviva Zornberg, in her discussion of this portion in the Particulars of Rapture, mentions one instance in particular, another verse in Judges, from the odd story of King Eglon, whose servants wait for him ad-bosh, “until they’re ashamed,” after he has been stabbed and retreats to his room, possibly to relieve himself, only the servants soon learn that he is dead(Judges 3:25). Another indication that bosh and bosheish are associated with very troubling – even life and death – situations.

I don’t fully grasp the biblical connection between shame and being late. But I think we’ve all experienced the peculiar state of waiting for someone who was expected at a certain time, terrified that something awful happened and equally, simultaneously ashamed at likely making a mountain out of a molehill.

With this in mind, some Golden Calf midrashim put part of the blame on Moses for being unclear about his return, when he went up the mountain, thereby causing unnecessary angst. The Talmud puns on bosheish and the word for “six,” saying that Moses had announced he would return by the sixth hour – noon, by Talmudic accounting – after 40 days. But the People miscalculated his expected return, because Moses failed to specify that the day he went up did not count as a full night and day.

Uncertainty and ha-Satan

And then, the midrash continues, the satan took advantage of the ambiguity and the People’s concern to convince them that Moses was dead. Thus, they’re so quick to look for another way forward.

There are similar stories, in midrash, in which the satan shows up. At the Akedah, for example: Sarah knows nothing about the journey Abraham and Isaac are taking, so the satan can convince her that Isaac is dead. I have not made an extensive study, but I notice that one key element in Jewish stories where Satan shows up is a disturbing level of uncertainty that can be exploited. The satan even convinces God to test Job based on uncertainty (about Job’s faithfulness). So, I’d to concentrate on the uncertainty in the Golden Calf story.

One way I look at this Torah moment is akin to being on a roadtrip with strangers to parts unknown, when the driver disappears behind a creepy truck-stop: Is he seeking directions or obtaining supplies? In need of privacy – to relieve himself, or meditate, or whatever? Or, given that we’re all relative strangers, can we rule out that he might be doing something nefarious that we’d rather not witness or involved in something that could get us all into terrible trouble?

Unless the instruction before he disappeared were dramatic and very specific – like “give me ten minutes and then come after me” or “wait twenty minutes and then take off, no matter what” – how do we decide what to do and when, as his return is delayed? If the driver left someone else in charge, do we automatically trust them? If relationships among other travelers are stronger than links to a leader, will factions develop? How long do we wait before declaring “enough is enough” and commandeering the car or going our own ways?

I suspect that most of us, at some point, have been in a situation of uncertainty and some gravity which forced us to decide, for safety and sanity, if and when to bail.

Maybe there was also a God factor, that is, a situation in which someone claims to speak for God and all involved have to decide whom to trust, how to discern divine will – assuming such is even possible – and how to move forward, individually and collectively.

Most of this portion does not offer the best model for handling such situations. It does remind us, however, of how frightening uncertainty can be – on our own and within a community – and the Golden Calf story warns us of how dangerous it is to let that fright convince us to jump to conclusions and then launch into action, thinking that we know the answers.

The Perils of Calculus

While the ancient Rabbis had compassion for the People’s precarious state of mind, they had no sympathy for, in essence, trying to out-calculate God.

The futility of this is also decried in Rabbinic writings about predicting the expected end of the Babylonian Exile and rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. One such attempt is by Belshazzar in Babylon. He calculated that the time of exile, prophesied by Jeremiah, was complete but the Jews were not yet rescued, so God had abandoned them (Daniel 5). This results in the “writing on the wall,” followed by Belshazzar’s death and the conquest of Babylon by Persia.

In midrash to the Book of Esther, Ahashverus in Persia tries to avoid Belshazzar’s error with his own calculations, planning to similarly celebrate the Jew’ abandonment by God, because the Temple is not yet reconstructed. But his calculations also fail, and, after a number of reversals, it turns out that “the Jews had rule over them that hated them” (Esther 9:1). (See B. Megillah 11b).

The Golden Calf story and these midrashim about Babylon and Persia all seem to point to Jewish tradition warning against trying to guess the future or what is going on with other people.

A Suggestion

So, what are we supposed to do when faced with uncertainty?

We have a strong suggestion in the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident: God teaches Moses how to pray when in trouble, telling him to recite the 13 divine attributes:

…יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת
“merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth”
– Ex 34:6

When faced with uncertainty and fear, the way forward, the portion tell us finally, is not to try to out-calculate or second-guess God or other people but to call on God’s attributes and work to help them become manifest in our world.

These remarks were prepared as a dvar torah for Hill Havurah
Calf from FreeBibleImages.org

Babylon: the Earthling and the Tower

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 2.2

What did the Talmud mean by calling an apparently obscure town in then-contemporary Babylon the source of the first human’s “buttocks”? And what, if anything, can we learn from the remark?

Babylon makes several appearances, directly and indirectly, in the early chapters of Genesis:

  • Bavel” first appears directly in a genealogy list identifying Nimrod, descendant of Noah through Ham, as the founder of Babylon (Gen 10:10);
  • the Tower of Babel story appears in Genesis 11:1-9, with the name “Bavel” linked to God’s confounding of language and scattering of peoples;
  • as discussed in “Babylon and the Beginning,” the Babylonian Captivity, that is, exile of Israelites during the 6th Century BCE, is read into Gen 1:2; and
  • Babylon, as a geographic and cultural location for rabbis of the Talmud, enters commentary on the creation of the first human (Gen 2:7-8):

 

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The dust of the first human [adam ha-rishon] was gathered from all parts of the earth, for it is written, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance” [N1], and further it is written, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro through the whole earth” [N2]. R. Oshaiah said in Rav’s name [N3]: Adam’s trunk came from Babylon, his head from Eretz Yisrael [N4], his limbs from other lands, and his buttocks (Soncino: private parts), according to R. Aha, from Akra di Agma [N5].
— Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 38a-b
adapted from Soncino translation
Notes below


The Earthling

Rabbi Meir’s comment — specifying the dust used to create ha-adam (Gen 2:7) and explain where the earthling was before being placed in the garden (Gen 2:8) — is frequently cited to support the egalitarian message that all humans, from whatever land, come from one source. It also celebrates both diversity and unity of humanity.

Rav’s further specifics — from a time when Babylon was growing in importance as a center of Jewish life, while Zion was still the metaphorical “head” — can also be understood more generally to speak to our divided, or blended, natures.

Similar concepts are found in the 12th Century Yehuda HaLevi poem, “My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West,” and even 20th Century pieces, like “I left my heart in San Francisco” (Cory/Cross, 1953; popularized by Tony Bennett). The quintessential verses of Psalm 137, with its many interpretations over the centuries, continue to add layers to the idea that portions of our being remain in Babylon and Zion.

Before getting to R. Aha’s comment, here is an attempt to illustrate some of the divisions and blends we might embody in Exploring Babylon. This is the second project I’ve posted based on ideas in Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry; here’s the first. And here is a completely different visual approach to Torah.

earthling




Notes:

N1: Ps. 139:16. Many commentaries relate Psalm 139 to the creation of the first human; some attribute the psalm, or part of it, to Adam.
BACK


N2: “The eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth,” is similar to language in Zech 4:10 —

עֵינֵי יְהוָה, הֵמָּה מְשׁוֹטְטִים בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ.
which are the eyes of the LORD, that run to and fro through the whole earth.

— and identical to part of 2 Chronicles 16:9 —

כִּי יְהוָה, עֵינָיו מְשֹׁטְטוֹת בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ
…for the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth…

The Soncino translation cites Zechariah. The Koren/Steinsaltz translation cites Chronicles.

The Soncino notes add that, perhaps, this teaches “‘equality of man’, all men having been formed from one and the same common clay.”
BACK


N3:Rab, or Rav (Abba Arika), was a leading teacher in 3rd Century CE Babylon. He came from a prominent family in Jewish Babylonia and was a disciple of Rabbi (Judah the Prince, or Yehuda ha-Nasi), redactor of the Mishnah and major leader of Jews under Roman occupation, before returning to Babylon to teach. Rav founded the academy at Sura and helped establish what became Babylonian Judaism. The other major academy of the time was at Pumbedita (see N5 below).
BACK


N4: The Soncino notes that Eretz Yisrael was considered “the most exalted of all lands,” and so is linked with the head, as the “most exalted” body part.
BACK


N5: A Babylonian town (also spelled: Akra d’Agama, Akra de-Agma), which some sources situate near Pumbedita, where a Talmudic academy was established in the 3rd Century CE. Also possibly a low-lying area, and/or in the south of Babylon. More on this town and R. Aha’s comment…
BACK

Akra de-Agma in the Notes

Louis Ginzberg’s reference to the above passage includes a parenthetical remark: “Akra de-Agma (a town in Babylon, notorious on account of the loose morals of its inhabitants).” The Soncino notes on Sanhedrin 38b quote this remark without elaboration or any further source. (See Legends of the Jews, Vol 5:15, Jewish Publication Society, 1925). Meanwhile, numerous teachers of the last century cite this remark on loose morals of Akra de-Agma as fact, but I can’t find any independent sources that suggest anything of the kind.

The name “Akra di Agma” appears also in Baba Batra 127a, while “Akra” and “Agama” are mentioned as two neighboring locales in Baba Metzia 86a. Both of these passages mention the place(s) in the context of rabbinical life, without any commentary on the morals, loose or otherwise, of the inhabitants.

Steinsaltz adds this marginal note to San 38b:

Akra de-Agma. This is apparently the name of a Babylonian city, perhaps in the south of the country. According to the [Shulkhan] Arukh this was a lowly place, either from a physical or ethical standpoint, and for this reason it is said that from here the dust used to create Adam’s buttocks was taken.

Combining the Soncino and Steinsaltz notes might suggest that Ginzberg was relying on, or extending, something in Shulkhan Arukh (16th Century code of Joseph Karo). But it still seems like something else might be going on with Akra de-Agma.


Three hypotheses:

On the one hand, this teaching is so specific in its place names. And, we know Akra de-Agma is near the academy at Pumbedita, while Rav’s academy was based in the town of Sura. So, I can’t help wondering if there’s some sort of in-joke involved in identifying ha-adam‘s buttocks (or “privates”) with a rival academy — like Harvard students calling New Haven a hick town or Howard alumni talking trash about Hampton.

On the other hand, this teaching is speaking of ha-adam and so suggesting what it means to be human in a wider sense. In this more symbolic context, I wonder if Akra de-Agma somehow became a synechdoche for the many ways Babylon itself — by the time of the Shulkhan Arukh and later centuries — came to mean danger and wildness, particularly of a sexual nature.

Finally, George Carlin’s “FM & AM – The 11 O’Clock News” comes to mind:

It’s 8 O’Clock in Los Angeles
It’s 9 O’Clock in Denver
It’s 10 O’Clock in Chicago
In Baltimore, it’s 6:42!

Could it be that Akra de-Agma was the Baltimore of Babylon?

In that case, I think, the composition of ha-adam rishon, the first earthling, might be tied up with the Tower or Babel theme: Will humanity be of one speech or idea — “devarim ahadim,” as at the start of the Babel story — or be “scattered over the face of the earth” as the people fear and ultimately experience, at the close of the story?

What can we take from the story of ha-adam rishon and the Tower of Babel to help us avoid either extreme?

Stay tuned. And share your thoughts, too.

BACK

Power, Language, and Settling: Questions from Joseph’s Story

The Joseph story, which begins in this week’s Torah portion raises questions about language, about power and how it is used, and about the possibility of learning an entirely new narrative about a story of which we are a part:

  • How does the language we use, even inside our own heads, affect the way we view an encounter?
  • How does the way one individual is described affect our views of others who share some background with that individual?
  • What does it mean for one person or group of persons to have power over another? Is it as changeable as a garment? Do we recognize when we are wearing a garment of power?
  • Do we sometimes pretend a sense of brotherhood when it suits us and drop it when it doesn’t?
  • Can we, today — like the biblical Joseph — create circumstances that lead to a “dizzying awareness of new narrative” that leads to different action?
  • Do we, as individuals or as part of a collective, try to settle for our own peace, even if we know others are suffering? How hard do we, like the biblical Jacob, work to remain oblivious to strife before us, even if we helped engender it?

Finally: what does this portion say about “living in the midst of history” and entering the eight days of Chanukah, designed to bring us out of the lowest level of light?


Continue Reading

A Category Struggle: Source Materials Update

This past Shabbat I included a passage from one of my favorite teachers, Alicia Ostriker, in a dvar Torah. I was asked to share the bibliographic information and maybe some other resources providing women’s commentary on Torah. As a result, I decided to update my source materials. And, in the spirit of my chosen NaBloPoMo topic, I am offering here 30 such resources, with annotations:

Female Scholarship (but not particularly “feminist” or focused on women)
Feminist Scholarship on Torah
Women’s Torah Commentary
Women’s Midrash and Creative Commentary
Miscellaneous Related Resources
My Writing (shameless plug)

Please note that categories here are somewhat arbitrary and do overlap. Nor was it clear to me whom and what to include. Nehama Leibowitz, for example, is a category in herself: She’s one of the few and probably the first female scholars universally cited and taught; her work, however, is not particularly focused on female characters or themes in the Torah, and I don’t think she considered herself a feminist.

Some of these resources are treasures for me, material I that has moved me, shifted my practice or perspective. Some are included because they’re often cited or because they’re part of the whole feminist Jewish history. The list is not even trying to be comprehensive. However, if you have a resource you treasure and want to share, please post it in the comments or contact me, songeveryday at gmail.com, to share a guest blog.
Continue Reading