Friday, July 30, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Shalom, faithful readers!
Thursday, July 15, 2010
This coming Shabbat we encounter the first parsha of the book Devarim, the beginning of Moses’ final address on the banks of the Jordan. The Hebrew name of the book of course derives from the opening sentence, “these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel….” The English name, Deuteronomy, has its origin in the Greek translation (Deuteronomium = second law) of the Hebrew phrase that occurs in v. 17:18, “mishnei hatorah”, usually rendered in English as a “copy” or “repetition” of the Torah. The Sages refer to the book as Mishneh Torah. (Mishneh Torah is also the title of a halakhic compendium by Moses Maimonides.) Indeed at first glance a great deal of the content seems to be a rehash of laws already delineated in the preceding books, although there are some new ones, and some of the old ones are cast slightly differently.
When viewed through a modern critical lens, the actual Mosaic authorship of Devarim may be in doubt. But theologically speaking, the weight of classical rabbinic opinion, though by no means unanimous, favors placing this book in a somewhat special category, because Moses functions as the author, not just the stenographer. Devarim is consistently stylistically different from the first four books; notably absent is the previously commonplace phrase, “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” In just the first 5 verses of this book are these 3 phrases: “these are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel,” “Moses addressed the Israelites…” and “Moses undertook to expound this teaching.” Moses speaks here in the first person. Midrash points out that the three books after Breishit all begin with the letter vav, (and), indicating that each is a continuation of the book that precedes it. Not so Devarim, which is understood to be the introduction of a new speaker. Contrast the opener, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel…” with the last sentence of Shemot occurring immediately before: “these are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites…. “ The idea is that Moses is now speaking his own words, recounting history and lending his interpretation and explanation to his listeners. He is not just repeating Torah, he is teaching it (in 70 languages, no less, according to Rashi.) For the first time Moses is not simply a passive conduit of the word of Hashem; rather he has evolved from the reluctant leader “slow of tongue” to the eloquent rabbeinu. (This interpretation also holds that although Moses initiated the words, it was divinely ordained that they should be inscribed as part of the of written Torah.) In a figurative sense Devarim can be viewed as the bridge to an oral tradition (which ultimately gets written down), a hallmark of classic Judaic study and learning.
As Rabbi Perlin points out in her URJ commentary this week, when we study Devarim, “we get to know [Moses] better through what he picks and chooses of memories and laws to impart to his people, to us.” We may want to consider what differences arise in his recasting of laws and history compared to their earlier representations for what it can tell us about the man, or alternatively about those who felt these words should be attributed to him.
One last thought. In his Commentary on the Torah, Elliott Friedman notes, “when the Torah pictures Moses ending his life in words, he imitates and prefigures the transformation of the human experience of God that will occur in the Bible.” In other words, as Torah reveals our story, miracles and obvious physical manifestations of divine presence occur with decreasing frequency over time. Eventually these events are not apparent to us and we come to experience the word of God through the words of Torah, recited, studied and celebrated publicly and privately.
I look forward to continuing that process with you this coming Shabbat.
...So do we!
Friday, July 9, 2010
WRT Torah Study
July 10, 2010
Matot: Num 30:2-32 Mas‘ey: Num 33-36 Middle Third: Num 32-33:49
I will provide you with three tools which I hope will help you in your study of this double parasha: 1) a brief summary, highlighting the middle third of the parasha which we will concentrate on; 2) seven questions for you to consider while you read Matot- Mas‘ey; and, 3) a map from the excellent Oxford Bible Atlas. The seven questions arise either from the Torah text or from reading respected, scholarly, historical accounts of these events in Ben-Sasson’s History and in Encyclopedia Judaica. I will seek your help in trying to answer these questions—and more—during our study this upcoming Shabbat, or on the weblog. If 7 questions are too many, then focus on the first 4, or even just one of particular interest…….David S
Vows and oaths—obligations for independent men, dependent women & independent women
God-commanded vengeance on the Midianites; Moses’ anger at the sparing of Midianite women; dividing the booty; levy for Levites and God, through the priests
Re’uvenites, Gadites, and ½ Menashites (Machir) negotiate a deal with Moses to remain East of the Jordan in Gil‘ad (Trans-Jordan) in return for leading the Israelites in their conquest of the Promised Land
Moses’ record of the Israelites’ marches from Egypt to the plains of Mo’av along the Jordan (more detailed than in Khukat)
Chapter 33:50 – 35:8
God’s instructions to Moses for the Israelites to conquer and divide Canaan
Chapter 35:9 – 35:34
God’s instructions regarding the Cities of Refuge
Marriage implications of God’s ruling on the land holdings of Tzelofekhad’s daughters (which was described earlier in Chapter 27; note: Tzelofekhad was a descendant of Machir)
Seven Questions to Consider While Reading the Parasha
- Why did the Re’uvenites, Gadites & ½ Menashites (Machir) want to stay in Gil‘ad?
- Livestock country? Weren’t Israel’s sons all herdsmen?
- Afraid? Then why volunteer to lead the conquest in the van as khalutzim?
- Security reasons? Some historians acknowledge the Israelites were more successful militarily in the hill country; their enemies in the plains had military technology advantages
- Economic reasons?
- Post-facto rationalization of their historical presence in Trans-Jordan?
- Why does God let the Re’uvenites, Gadites & ½ Menashites (RG½M) settle outside the Promised Land?
- Is this a reward or punishment?
- History shows that despite the Torah’s account of Israelite conquests in Trans-Jordan, the conquered Moabites, ’Amorites, and ‘Ammonites survive and continue to make war on the Israelite presence East of the Jordan. Clearly, then, the RG½M were most exposed to foreign attacks from the East
- Post-facto rationalization of Israelite presence East of the Promised Land?
- Was this “deal” the Torah’s way of harmonizing fraternal discord?
- How has internal, fraternal discord undermined Israel over the millennia?
- Ancient examples? RG½M vs. Moses & the remaining Israelite tribes; Efrayim vs. RG½M in Gil‘ad; the Jewish Rebellions; etc.
- Modern examples? Mitnagdim vs. Hasidim; Ashkenazim vs. Sephardim; German Jews vs. Russian Jews; Haredim vs. secular Jews; Zionists vs. post-Zionists; Israeli Jewry vs. Galut Jewry, living in the “extended Trans-Jordan”; etc.
- What was the real purpose of this RG½M-Moses deal?
- What is the reason for the repetition* or legal dance in the structure of this conditional contract?
- Pretend you are Moses’ General Counsel. Reread 32:29-30. What’s your reaction to these terms? Assuming it is no mistake, what is going on?
- Why is ½ Menashites (Machir) not introduced until 32:33? Were they an afterthought or a later insertion?
- Is the deal securing fair compensation for different real estate preferences? Or, is the deal securing Israelite unity amidst fractured tribes and clans?
- How and when was Trans-Jordan historically settled by Israelites?
- Did it occur as described in the Torah?
- Was Gil‘ad/Trans-Jordan settled as an Eastern expansion from the Promised Land?
- Why do we have another (more detailed) chronology of the Israelites’ trek out of Egypt through the Wilderness?
- Product of multiple authors/redactors?
- Supports the Exodus story with facts on the ground so to speak, despite the absence of scholarly, extra-Scriptural corroboration of a massive Israelite exodus or a single-campaign conquest
- What was the real significance of the sections on the daughters of Tzelofekhad, given that they were descendants of Machir (½ Menashe) and, therefore, potentially with a ceded claim to a share in the Promised Land?
- Sounds attractive to a 21st Century Jew reading from a gender neutral Torah translation
- But, is there really something else going on? Is this about women’s rights? Or, is this about tribal integrity?
- Note: Joshua 17:3-6 implies Menashe’s “daughters”—including those of Tzelofekhad—inherited a portion of the Promised Land, apart from the Trans-Jordanian Machirites. Joshua 22:7 implies ½ Menashe gets Bashan, while the “other half” receives their portion of the territory West of the Jordan.
* Conditional contract structure:
- Moses gets angry at RG
- RG proposes deal
- Moses restates the deal, including a penalty for non-compliance
- RG repeats the deal
- Moses commands El‘azar, Yehoshua & tribal heads: if they comply, then they get Gil‘ad; if they don’t comply, then they get their portion of Canaan
- RG reiterates their commitment to the deal
- Moses gives RG½M the Kingdoms of Sikhon, Og & Bashan
- RG (re)build cities in Trans-Jordan; Machir goes to Gil‘ad and conquers the Amorites there
Plaut cites 4 basic principles from Shulchan Aruch: 1) condition must be stated twice—once positively and once negatively; 2) the positive condition must precede the negative; 3) “if” must precede the “what”; and 4) the condition must be fulfillable.
Fox observes Milgrom’s interesting finding of the sevenfold occurrence of “before YHWH” in this contractual construct: 1) 32:20; 2) 32:21; 3-5) 32:22; 6) 32:27; and 7) 32:29.
* * * * * * *
Khazak, khazak, venitkhazek
* * * * * * *
Sources: The Jewish Study Bible, A. Berlin, M. Brettler, M. Fishbane, eds., 2004; The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W.G. Plaut, ed., 1981; The Five Books of Moses, E. Fox, ed., 1997; A History of the Jewish People, H.H. Ben-Sasson, ed., 1976; Encyclopedia Judaica, 2007; Oxford Bible Atlas, 3rd Ed., 1984; www.chabad.org
Friday, July 2, 2010
The story of the daughters of Zelophehad has been cited as a rare biblical recognition of the rights of women. But, in the words of the current idiom, not so much. However, the story does have much to say about fairness and justice.
The daughters challenge the allocation of land in Israel to households with adult males capable of military service. Because their father had only daughters and clans are identified through the paternal line, Zelophehad’s name and heritage would be lost unless they are granted his share. Adonai agrees with their argument, grants their request and makes a general ruling dictating the line of inheritance, which is to include females under certain circumstances.
Zelophehad’s male relatives are not fully convinced; in Numbers 36:1-12 they appeal to Moses, pointing out that, should the daughters marry outside of the tribe, the land would be lost and the tribal allotted share permanently decreased. Moses agrees and directs that the daughters may marry anyone they choose, but that they must marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. He also makes more general rule that no land allotment may pass from one tribe to another, but must remain bound to the ancestral portion. In Joshua 17, the award of land to Zelophehad’s daughters is confirmed and the tribal tract of land identified.
Considering the entirety of the three passages which mention Zelophehad’s daughters, it becomes clear that the overriding interest being served is the preservation of the integrity of the tribal land grant rather than provision for the welfare of women who lack men in their households. The daughters’ success is not predicated on an abstract sense of equality and justice, but upon the interests of the tribe and clan.
The push and pull of competing claims and interests complicate the original, simple ruling. The allotment of land to the tribes is to be made according to the numbers derived from a census, larger allotments to the larger tribes and smaller to the smaller ones. Direct proportionality is appealing because it represents simple justice, in which tribes with more people get more land. But the census includes only able-bodied males over the age of twenty. What of the exceptions, in which the number of males does not proportionally represent the household? The complaint of Zelophehad’s daughters is addressed, but their right to marry as they choose is restricted after the tribal leaders protest that the ruling hurts the tribe by creating the possibility of losing its land to another through marriage. Does mean that the amended ruling is unfair to the daughters?
The process of determining what is fair and just is subject to a “Zen garden” effect, in that what one observes depends heavily on the viewpoint of the observer. In such gardens, composed of rocks and sand, you cannot see the whole arrangement from only one viewpoint; larger stones may conceal smaller ones nestled behind them, and patterns in the sand on another side of the garden may create the impression of water. As one walks around the edges of the garden, new perspectives reveal different arrangements of sand and rocks.
In my work as a court attorney referee in Surrogate’s Court, I mediated conflicts among family members as to the distribution of family estate property. Invariably, the warring sides were each confident of the essential rightness of their own positions and the essential wrongfulness of their opponents’ contentions. Each party was typically rock firm in their convictions and failed to concede the validity of the other’s point of view. Of course, if they were not fighting, I would not have been mediating, but their stubborn refusal to accept any other perspective on the dispute created problems for everyone.
To observers in a Zen garden, different perspectives can yield vastly differing perceptions. People standing on different sides of the garden would have difficulty agreeing on the number and arrangement of sand and stones unless they personally observe its changing aspects from several points of view. The same may be said of fairness and justice, which are also dependent on perspective. Apparently, simple justice is not simple.