Chavarah- Jewish Community Learning

A blog of Jewish study and traditions. Notes from classes: Torah Study with Rabbi Marder, Toledot and Shabbaton as well as other details found of interest.

IF you want to be part of our Chavarah email group let me know at

Monday, October 30, 2006

Genesis - A different and powerful view

Guest Torah Study leader: Yehezkel Landau, Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations, Hartford Seminary.

webpage about Yehezkel Landau

This was a WOW session after 11 pages of notes I have so much to include and so much more I want to research, it was a session of details that make a difference in how you can look at these familiar parts of our story in different ways. And in ways that might have the influence to change attitudes toward others as well.

I will start at the end of this study session.

There is different way to read Genesis. Or actually an interpretation of the details that give a lot to think about. Much of Genesis is about sibling differences and the problems they create. Cane and Able, Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau all present a common thread through the book. Rabbi Marder did a sermon on this topic that was quite memorable and hit close to home for me because my two sons do not get along:

Sermon: Dwelling Together

And Yehezkel Landau’s teaching, especially about Isaac, brought that back to mind. Isaac was a peacemaker in his family but you have to read carefully and draw conclusions different from what we may have seen before to understand. It is all about the place. Beer Lahai Roi," the well of living sight," the place Hagar named because it was there she heard God’s word, Genesis 16 when she learns she will have Ishmael and he will have a ‘nation’.

This place is mentioned several times, Genesis 24:62 when it mentions that Isaac had been there just prior to meeting Rebecca. Could it be that he had been there to see Hagar? Could it be that Isaac encouraged Hagar to return to Abraham now that Sarah had died? In Genesis 25:1 Abraham takes Keturah as his wife. There is midrash that this is so in both Jewish and Islam interpretation - a few examples follow:

Midrash on Hagar Keturah connection - Jewish
Another Midrash on Hagar Keturah connection - Jewish
Midrash on Hagar Keturah connection - Islam

And once again this place, Beer Lahai Roi is mentioned in Genesis 25:11. Isaac lived near there. Could it be that Ishmael was also living there? Could it be that the brothers were reconciled? The midrash that interprets this offers Isaac as a real peacemaker and as an example of brothers live together in peace despite family difficulties.

Does this interpretation change your vantage of the story? Does it make a difference? It is a story that was handed down orally for generations before it was written as Torah. Details could have been lost. Did we miss a major point along the way when this detail was not a major focus in liturgy? These unread details could confirm the reconciliation of brothers as a key message. Rather than the focus on the discord between brothers throughout Genesis, we should focus on the reconciliations.

There is so much more there... WOW!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Importance of the Family Name

Deuteronomy 25:5-7 - The importance of the Name. This part focuses on how important the continuance of a person's name was. It reviews the need for a childless widdow to have a child by the brother of her dead husband in order to continue the family name. And also it was important to keep the property within the family.

This presents many issues for modern day thinking. But back in Biblical times it was definitely not "Love then marriage".

(discussion led by David Mayer Levi)

OK so Larry asked: "Do you think this is a reaction to the Judah story?"

That started a tangent to the topic and explored the Judah - Tamar episode back in Genesis.

There is so much on this topic on the internet I thought I would just put in a few links to interesting articles:
Chabad Article on Levirate Marriage.
See about the Seal of Judah he left with Tamar.
Commentary by R. Reiss.
Importance of Names.
Details about Judah and interpretation.

We also started to explore the similar story as it relates to Ruth and Boaz. (Another way these stories fit together with the 'law')

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Secular Humanism and Attitudes toward Animals

The mention of Secular Humanism when discussing 'Dennis Prager's question about saving the stranger or your dog' inspired me to go look up more about this philosophy.

There is a "Council for Secular Humanism" and I found an article on their site: secular humanism on animal rights.

Certainly we established that animals have souls. Animals are important to our world and our survival ( insects too - and don't kill insects on Shabbat).

Are animals equal to humans?
What is it that raises humans above animals?

It is our ethical notion that makes humans different. The Jewish view is that humans need to be protectors of animals. However there is a hierarchy that brings humans above animals based on our wisdom and ethical values. Our ethical training should make us respond to situations with the knowledge that we must take care of the animals and yet know that human life is more important.

Secular Humanism according to Wikipedia:
is a humanist philosophy that upholds reason, ethics, and justice and specifically rejects rituals and ceremonies as a means to affirm a life stance. The term was coined in the 20th century to make a clear distinction from "religious humanism". A perhaps less confrontational synonym is scientific humanism, which the biologist Edward O. Wilson claimed to be "the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature".

wikipedia has some good basic information about this philosophy..

A view of Simchat Torah

At Torah Study Today R. Marder read a view of our holiday, Simchat Torah, from the diary in 1663 by Samuel Pepys:

. . . "to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. " . . .

'More references to the synagogue in his diary'

and we wonder how people get different views of Jews!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Consider the Animals

Deut. 25:4 - Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.

And once again this amazing class takes a seemingly "unrelated to today" bit from Torah and spends the entire hour discussing and reviewing the Jewish attitude toward treatment of animals and makes it very relevant.

Reviewing texts starting from Genesis when we know that animals and humans share the same blessings. (Gen 1:22) The animals and people both have souls. On to discuss how humans went from being vegetarians before the flood to being allowed to eat the meat of animals after the flood and Noah. On to the story of Jonah and how the city of Nineveh was spared in part due to the innocent cattle that was there. And then there is Psalm (145), "God's mercy on all God's creatures". And Proverb 12:10 :A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.

We talked about the "scapegoat" that takes our sins at Yom Kippur "Surely he hath borne our Griefs and carried our Sorrows; Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD and afflicted." (Isaiah 53:4) and "And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited." (Leviticus 16:22) Certainly this is an example where the animal should have been treated better.

And the superstition / tradition of 'swinging a chicken over the head'and reciting a prayer asking that the chicken be considered atonement for your sins.

We also discussed the tradition of not wearing leather on Yom Kippur because of the need to kill an animal to get the leather. And that you do not say the she-he-heyanu prayer over any leather shoes or clothing. (and you do say it when you get other new garments.)

I found interesting links on Jewish values relating to animals:

Animal Activism

'Be Compassionate toward Animals'

A Talmudic story: "According to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi suffered for 13 years from excruciating tooth pain, because a calf, while being led to slaughter, tried to hide behind his coat. Rabbi Yehuda sent the calf away with the words “Go, because for this you were created.” Rabbi Yehuda’s toothache ceased only when he prevented his daughter (some say housekeeper) from chasing away a family of rats that were nesting in his house."

You are also supposed to feed your animals before yourself!

We also discussed if hunting for sport is considered ok in Jewish Values - NOT - this was confirmed in an 18th century Responsa by R. Landau who deemed sport hunting as cruel to animals. The only hunters in Torah (Esau & Nimrod) were not descended from the patriarchs.

And of course the rules of kosher slaughter were reviewed where the rule is to do it in such a way not to inflict pain and suffering. There is some controversy about this question as well.

And to end the hour, R. Marder read from Dennis Prager's* survey of teens asking: "Would you first save the dog you love or a stranger if both were drowning?"
Article by Dennis Prager: The case for Judeo-Christian values: Human Worth
*Dennis Prager hosts a national daily radio show based in Los Angeles

And another hour of learning left a buzz in the room as the discussion and thoughts about animals and our compassion toward them continued. While we can find examples of cruelty to animals in our tradition, the reality is that Torah and the commentary lean toward the consideration of the animal's feelings and wellbeing.

Friday, October 06, 2006

39 Lashes - Rules

Corporal Punishment - Is it OK or not?

I think that the most significant clarification in the Torah study on Deuteronomy 25:1-3 is the actual rules that go with the limitation of lashing as punishment.

1. The lashing must be done in the presence of the judge
2. The number of lashes must be proportional to the crime
3. The upper limit while being 40 was changed to 39 and also has the added limitation that it can be stopped if deemed to be causing excessive pain and suffering and to insure survival.

It was the Rabbis who changed the law from 40 to 39 for a few reasons. One is that there may be an error in counting and it would be wrong to go over 40 "making a fence around Torah". It was also thought that 40 lashes would be enough to kill a person. The Rabbis added a higher level of sensitivity to the law by changing the number to 39 and emphasizing sensitivity to the rules.

There is the question of what punishment becomes the best incentive for changing behavior? Moral rehabilitation should be the result of punishment. Torture is not OK. Any corporal punishment must be used with sensitivity to this objective.

Researching this passage further via internet I found that there is even a music band by the name of 39 lashes! And Google finds many references to the song in Jesus Christ Superstar!