Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers

In this month’s Jewish Action I review Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s new-ish Bamidbar anthology.

Excerpt: Beyond offering specific insights, Zornberg presents an expansive framework for reading Tanach that sets her apart from nearly every interpreter out there. Her books are a true illumination of the Talmudic maxim which describes the Torah: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). Zornberg highlights the remarkable potential of Tanach to reflect upon, and in turn be illuminated by, many of the deepest questions and concerns raised in continental philosophy, postmodern criticism and the field of psychoanalysis.

The full review may be read here

Return and Repentance in Modern Jewish Literature

Please see the Jewish Review of Books for the full column. Or Mosaic’s summary here.

….The word for repentance in Judaism, teshuvah, translates literally as “return.” A secular Jew who becomes observant is deemed a ba’al teshuvah, literally a “master of return.” Or, in modern Israeli parlance, a chozer be-teshuvah, which we might translate as a “returner to returning.” (His Christian equivalent is described as undergoing conversion or, in certain circles, as being “born again”—both of which are more radical than returning.) The word teshuvah implies that no great break is needed on the way to spiritual renewal. Rather, moving forward is a process of getting back in touch with what was, in some sense, there all along, though what you return to might be neither the religion of your great-great-grandfather in the Pale of Settlement nor that of an affable Chabad outreach rabbi half your age. Return need not be to any discernible prior place at all. The Talmud writes that God created the possibility for teshuvah before creating the world (Nedarim 39b). Return is a state of mind….

The Ambivalence of the Biblical Attitude toward Laughter

Jewish history has not always been characterized by laughter, but in Genesis it evokes the freedom and joy of a life in partnership with God.

Last week’s Torah reading of Lekh-L’kha (Genesis 12-17) tells the story of the birth of Abraham’s elder son Ishmael. By contrast, this week’s reading of Vayera (Genesis 18-22) has at its center the birth of his younger son Isaac. I say “by contrast” because, from the very start, beginning with the circumstances of their birth and their respective names, the text makes the difference between the two boys especially stark. Nor are these differences just a matter of literary curiosity; rather, they present divergent ways of relating to God.

Read the rest at Mosaic Magazine.

The Kabbalah of Birds’ Nests

The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could

Robert Frost (“The Exposed Nest”)

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Is a biblical commandment against taking a mother bird with her young intended to teach mercy, or is it about something else?

For the full article see this week’s Mosaic Magazine. .

On the Great Hebrew Poet Rahel

In his essay on the poet Raḥel, Hillel Halkin offers a fascinating study of her too-brief life (1890-1931), her poetics, and the unique place she occupies in the Hebrew literary landscape. Certainly, against the background of the pioneering Zionist ethos of her time—nationalistic, idealistic, and collectivist—the intense individualism of Raḥel’s verse stands out. No less deeply committed to the Zionist enterprise than other poets cited by Halkin, notably Uri Tsvi Grinberg and Avraham Shlonsky, she devoted herself mainly to the exploration of such seemingly inward emotions as sadness, longing, humility, and self-doubt.

The study of poetry on its own terms is a noble literary ideal, but it is difficult to read the poetry of Raḥel without also ruminating upon the personal circumstances, especially the disease to which she would eventually succumb at the age of forty, that may account for the themes of suffering, loneliness, and longing that run through her work. It is perhaps for this reason that Halkin in the end deems her to be, with emphasis on both adjectives, a “great minor poet”: that is, one who deals with localized themes, seemingly without obvious public import, but who nevertheless addresses them with a clarity and virtuosity that ensures he or she will never be forgotten—as, in Israel, Raḥel has indeed never been.

Yet might this major/minor distinction, which Halkin applies with subtlety and generosity, ultimately be something of a false choice?

Read the rest of this response in Mosaic Magazine,

Whose Museum of the Bible Is It?

In November 2017, the newly constructed Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, DC. It is reportedly the most technologically advanced museum ever built in the United States, and it is the largest privately funded museum in the country. The majority of the financial backing for the museum, which is free to the public, comes from the Oklahoma-based Green family, founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores and champion of Christian causes. Despite its backers’ beliefs, the Museum of the Bible goes out of its way to make religious Jews comfortable. To take one of many examples, a visitor must strain his or her eyes in order to see the term “Old Testament” used anywhere in the museum. Instead, it is almost always the “Hebrew Bible” or even the “Jewish Bible”—a signal to Jews that their Torah has not been superseded by Christianity. All of that said, the Museum of the Bible is not a Jewish museum, nor should it be mistaken for one. Nevertheless, Jewish visitors who remain aware of the limitations inherent in such an enterprise have much to gain from the Museum of the Bible. Indeed, somewhat paradoxically, a visit to the museum provides an opportunity even for literate Jews to learn something about the impact of our central sacred texts on the wider world and can have a profound impact on our sense of Jewish pride and religious mission.

Please see the Summer 2018 Issue of Jewish Action Magazine for my review of the new Museum of the Bible and its relevance for the Jewish visitor.

Why the Menorah Is the Most Enduring of All Jewish Symbols

At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of B’ha’alotkha (Numbers 8-12), the Bible gives instructions for the daily kindling of the menorah.

The menorah has long occupied a prominent place in the Jewish imagination. From the time of its placement in the inner courtyard of the Tabernacle in the desert and later of the Temple in Jerusalem, to its rekindling after the Maccabees’ defeat of the Seleucids, to its central position on the Arch of Titus in Rome, to its modern repurposing as the emblem of Jewish revival by the state of Israel, few Jewish symbols have been as familiar or as evocative.

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Fray Juan Ricci (17th Cent.) Sketch of the Menorah as Described in Exodus

And yet the Bible leaves unstated the significance of the menorah and its seven branches, its importance to the Temple, or its meaning and purpose with respect to the relationship between God and His chosen nation and perhaps beyond. On these matters, an examination of five key scriptural passages can shed light.

The full article may be read in Mosaic Magazine.

Leviticus, Leonard Cohen, and the Paradox of Rest

The final two Torah portions of Vayikra/Leviticus, Behar and Behukkotai, conclude a book largely oriented around rituals relating to the Mishkan or Tabernacle of the desert, the template for the future Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Many of Vayikra’s laws concern purity and impurity as they pertain to sacrificial worship in the Mishkan. Yet, the book’s final chapters extend this concern outside the precincts of the Mishkan, to encompass the sanctity of time and of place more broadly. The beginning of Parshat Behar discusses the sanctity of time in regard to the seventh day of each week, the Sabbath, the day of rest. Then, using similar language, the text introduces Shemitah, the requirement to allow the land of Israel to rest every seventh year. In fact, the language of “rest” punctuates the entire ending of Vayikra. Immediately when the Israelites enter the Land of Israel, God ordains that the land itself will observe a “sabbath of the Lord” (this referring to Shemitah).

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The commandment to rest, both individually and nationally, does not appear for the first time in Vayikra. Both the commandments of Sabbath and of Shemitah appear earlier in Shemot. A comparison of the respective presentations of these commandments in each book sheds light on the paradox at the heart of what it means for the Jewish nation to rest as a society founded upon God’s order.

Read the full article in The Lehrhaus

Welcome to the Jungle: Shababniks Meet the Spotlight

This article appeared yesterday on The Lehrhaus. The first episode of Shababnikim may be viewed with subtitles here.

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Sarah Rindner

Israel has produced several fabulous television series in recent years, perhaps especially those which depict fictional lives of religious Jews. These include the iconic Srugim, which tracks the Friends-like relationships between a group of single friends navigating the South Jerusalem “national religious” dating scene. The entertaining, if somewhat melodramatic, Kathmandu follows the legitimately exciting lives of a Chabad couple living and working in Nepal. Shtisel, both hysterically funny and understated, set a new bar for subtlety and depth in exploring the dynamics of a rather dysfunctional but wholly endearing hasidic-haredi family in Jerusalem.

Shababnikim, one of the latest additions to the mix, is a slickly produced and fast-paced series that chronicles the adventures, both external and internal, of four twenty-something denizens of an elite haredi yeshiva in Jerusalem. The aesthetics, four studs sauntering off to some irrelevant destination with the backdrop of a throbbing rock soundtrack, recalls the HBO series Entourage. The substance spans the gamut from romantic comedy to profound observations about Judaism, the relationship between the religious and secular worlds, and what it means to be a man. In other words, it’s the kind of series that could only exist in present-day Israel, and it’s the invention of a talented religious graduate of the Ma’aleh film school named Eliran Malka.

For the full review see here