Was Sarah Right to Drive Her Maidservant Hagar from Her Home?

The Chapter of the Bible in Which Four Nations Are Born

If the first chapters of Genesis explore the universal origins of humanity, this week’s Torah reading of Lekh l’kha (Genesis 12-17) turns to a more particularistic narrative. Beginning with God’s command to Abraham to uproot himself from his father’s home and travel to an unknown land, it caps the command with a divine promise:

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great.
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.

To this, God adds: “I will assign this land to your offspring.”

But there is one problem: Abraham and his wife Sarah are unable to have children.

Thus, the very beginning of the Jewish people’s existence is framed within the context of marriage and of marital discontent. If Sarah can’t conceive, the fulfillment of God’s promise is in jeopardy. Both Abraham and Sarah must struggle to reconcile that promise with their immediate reality. Although they will ultimately overcome this and other tests of faith, Sarah’s conduct in particular has been subjected to censure in both traditional and more modern Jewish sources.

The full essay appears in this week’s Mosaic Magazine.

 

5 Things I Learned About Marriage While Reading Genesis

Genesis famously offers two “versions” of Adam and Eve’s creation. The first, in the first chapter of Genesis, is a broad overview: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

The second chapter of Genesis presents a more detailed narrative: God forms the man Adam from the dust of the earth (adama), Adam dwells in Eden for a bit, and then God proclaims that “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” Afterward, God borrows a rib from Adam when he is sleeping, which he fashions into a woman. This act has profound symbolic significance, which Adam himself relates in a kind of poetic mode: “This one at last/ Is bone of my bones/And flesh of my flesh./This one shall be called Woman (isha)/For from man (ish) was she taken.”

In examining the verses of both creation stories, we learn important lessons about not only the origins of human beings and our relationship to our creator, but also about what marriage should involve.

Embracing Genesis’ messages about marriage may require departing from certain sacred cows of modern Western life. But Genesis suggests that the tradeoff is worth it. Here’s my take on it:

Read the rest at the Forward.

S.Y. Agnon and the Orthodox Reader

This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine

agnon_smiles

 The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.

Click here for the full article

Were the Ancient Israelites Required to Appoint a King, or Simply Given the Option?

The monarchy begins twice.

 

This week’s Torah reading of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) concerns itself, more than any other, with political matters. It begins with the commandment to appoint “judges and officers in all your gates,” and ends with the laws of war. As is true throughout Deuteronomy, many of the precepts found in Shoftimare repetitions or elaborations of injunctions from previous books of the Torah. But one passage stands out both for its significance and for its novelty:

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the neighboring nations,” you shall surely set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.

Most surprising about this verse is its ambiguity: is appointing a king a requirement, or simply an option? And that’s not all: to the modern Western reader, accustomed to constitutions, the setup appears counterintuitive. One would have thought the Torah would prescribe a particular regime, and that the people would have some say regarding who, exactly, should rule. Instead, the people are to choose the form of government—evidently a monarchy—but the monarch himself is chosen by God…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine

Crazy Beautiful Startup: A Review of The Wedding Plan

 

In the Summer 2017 issue of the Jewish Review of Books, I review The Wedding Plan, the latest from Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein.

theweddingplan-cur

Excerpt:

Born in New York and raised in Israel, Burshtein currently lives with her family among a small cluster of Hasidic families in the predominantly secular Tel Aviv. Early in her career, she worked in the ultra-Orthodox cottage industry of films made by and for women, but when Fill the Void came out she crossed over to the international film festival and art house cinema scene, without losing touch with her initial audience. It was possible to enjoy Fill the Void as the tale of an unexpected love story amid tragic circumstances in an exotic setting, but it also spoke to her original audience. That film’s soundtrack was punctuated by a modern Israeli rendition of the song  “Im Eshkacheikh” (If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem), which is often sung under the wedding canopy. For those conversant with Jewish tradition, the song powerfully expressed the connection between the film’s plot and the tension between joy and tragedy already evoked in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself.

A similarly poignant countertext in The Wedding Plan is the hymn “Eshet Chayil” (Proverbs 31), which is traditionally sung each Friday night before Shabbat dinner. Like the film itself, it sings the praises of a faithful “woman of valor.” Early in the film, Michal confesses her desire for a husband to sing “Eshet Chayil” to her, and the film closes with a rendition of the song. While the traditional performance of the song presupposes a husband to sing it, the woman of valor’s husband is not really described in the hymn. It is she who takes care of all of her family’s needs, engages in complex business ventures, cares for the poor, elevates her husband’s standing, and is, consequently, cloaked in strength and majesty, as well as wisdom and kindness. In incorporating this song, Burshtein places her idiosyncratic heroine in the tradition of great Jewish women, but not without some gentle irony. How far, after all, is Michal from that desperate bachelor who proposed to her, and every other woman, on the first date?

Click here to read the article in full

Parshat Korach: The Bible’s Coalition of Complainers

botticcelli2c_sandro_-_the_punishment_of_korah_and_the_stoning_of_moses_and_aaron_-_1481-82
The Punishment of Morah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron (Sandro Botticelli, 1482)

…Koraḥ’s conglomeration is thus a distorted mirror-image of the Israelite encampment itself: less a collection of distinct subgroups united in service of a common goal than representatives of different tribes united only in insurrection. One is reminded of John Milton’s confederation of devils and pagan deities who inhabit Satan’s underworld in Paradise Lost: a “promiscuous crowd” with disparate grievances and ideologies who find common cause in the rebellion against God. The debates among these parties, described by Milton as “words clothed in reason’s garb,” vividly recall the grievances of Koraḥ and his mob…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine

Love and Kingship: The Book of Ruth and Jerusalem Day

As temperatures rise and flowers bloom, we can feel the holiday of Shavuot approaching – perhaps our sweetest holiday – when the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue. For a unique and even paradigm-shifting reading of Ruth, I highly recommend Rising Moon, by Rabbi Moshe Miller of Jerusalem. It is one of the most fascinating books of modern biblical interpretation I have come across. Rising Moon is structured like a drama in four acts, reflecting Ruth’s four chapters. It weaves together Biblical, midrashic and Kabbalistic sources, along with a wide range of insights from outside Jewish tradition – Adam Smith, Charles Darwin and the novel Dune all make key appearances. This eclectic mix of sources is employed to make a provocative claim about about the Book of Ruth in particular and about the history and destiny of the Jewish nation more broadly.

Continue reading “Love and Kingship: The Book of Ruth and Jerusalem Day”

Why Does the Bible Require New Mothers to Atone after Childbirth?

The sections on purity and impurity in the book of Leviticus—which make up nearly a quarter of the book—are some of the most difficult for the modern reader of the Bible. The laws are complicated, the terminology obscure, the theological or moral message (if there is one) far from obvious, and some of the details (leprous houses, impure females) seeming logically or morally suspect. Even for the religiously observant Jewish reader, these passages, dealing with areas of halakhah rendered moot until the ultimate restoration of the Temple, may have little resonance.

One of the most confounding of such passages appears at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of Tazria (Leviticus 12-13). Here God tells Moses that when a woman gives birth to a child, she is impure for several weeks, after which she must offer two distinct sacrifices: an “olah,” or burnt offering, and a “ḥatat,” or sin offering…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine.

Moana and the Call of Jewish Destiny

This article originally appeared on TheLehrhaus.Com

Animated Disney films, with all of their fantasy and froth, often contain some deep ideas or archetypes. Moana, the latest offering from Disney studios, is no exception. Moana, the protagonist whose name means “ocean” in several Polynesian languages, is a girl who is destined to assume leadership of the fictional South Pacific island of Motunui. Yet she feels drawn to the sea. She undertakes a series of adventures along with a demi-god “trickster” named Maui in order to restore equilibrium to their increasingly imperiled natural environment. All of this is set against a mash-up of pre-modern Polynesian traditions and myths that, according to scholars and critics, is accurately and respectfully depicted. The film’s animation is gorgeous—like Moana, the viewer also feels the call of the shimmering Pacific ocean and expansive sky. All in all, it is an enjoyable film, setting aside some of the pagan elements which go with the territory.

moana-singing-boats-shore

More interestingly, the film also breaks from, or improves upon, the typical Disney formula whereby a princess is stuck in some sort of repressive environment but yearns to break free. The central expression of this trope in Moana is the song “How Far I’ll Go,” composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame:

Continue reading “Moana and the Call of Jewish Destiny”