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

 

The Problem with the Tablets

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“For Cecil B. DeMille,the revelation at Sinai was a purely solitary affair. Charlton Heston’s Moses ascends the mountain on an individual spiritual quest; he hears the Ten Commandments as the Israelites are preparing to worship the golden calf. The scene certainly captures part of the biblical narrative, but it ignores entirely the collective and communal aspect of the moment, as well as the tension between the people’s desire for direct knowledge of God and their quite correct fear of what such knowledge entails. It also ignores the all-important prelude to the revelation: the covenant between God and Israel, for which Moses is nothing more than a go-between.”

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

 

 

Rachel and Her Children

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One way of telling the story of rabbinic Judaism is to say that it was born in a conversation between Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Roman general Vespasian, in the shadow of a besieged Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan had feigned death in order to be smuggled out of the walled city in a coffin despite the opposition of the Jewish zealots, who were not interested in negotiations with the enemy. Vespasian, impressed by Rabbi Yochanan’s bravery and his prediction that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome, asked him what he wanted. Rabbi Yochanan’s famous answer was “give me Yavneh and its [Torah] sages,” thus establishing a center of Jewish learning independent of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight transformed the brick-and-mortar reality of a Temple-centered Judaism into the port- able diaspora-ready religion with which we are familiar, and thus granted a powerful second wind to a Jewish nation that might have been otherwise brought to its knees by Roman oppression.

Dara Horn’s mind- bending new novel, Eternal Life, takes place from the perspective of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s heretofore unknown mother Rachel. Rachel embodies a gruelingly literal interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s lofty project. Like a Judaism that endures beyond destruction, Rachel cannot die because of a vow she took at the Temple in order to save an ailing Yochanan. With the Temple’s destruction she is left in this liminal state, along with her lover, Elazar ben Haninah, the son of the high priest and the child’s real father. The novel, and Rachel and Elazar’s occasionally intersecting lives, span the centuries between Second Temple Jerusalem and modern-day New York…

To read the full review please see the Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

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

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 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