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.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

From Light to Knowledge to Opportunity

Genesis 3:21 – 24

Torah Study 8/23 –Rabbi Janet Marder

Light – clothed in light. The role that light plays in our tradition is significant.

William Wordsworth:
THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.


Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

read the whole poem at this link:

We spoke of the tradition to capture light in our fingernails during Havdallah!
We raise our hands and hold our fingernails in the direction of the light -- in our nails, one of the few parts of the human body that continue to grow even into our old age, the light is reflected. This is a remnant of the light that we were clothed in when we were created in Eden.
another link to answers to this question

The purpose of religion: To recapture wonder:
Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13)

Heschel's essay "Death as Homecoming" excerpts:
As Heschel writes...

"The greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for external life prior to our descending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. He has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but a here now."

We then discussed the “Trees” and the implications of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life.

Two philosophies about this:
Brandeis Professor Marc Brettler
Said that the “to know” was a sexual reference and with the ‘tree’ humans acquired sexuality.
book: Brettler, Marc Zvi. "Introduction." The Jewish Study Bible Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Jewish Publication Society.

There is the problem with potential overpopulation – thus we are mortal individually but not collectively as a species. “expelled from the garden so the planet can be sustained” We were willing to pay the price of mortality to have knowledge.

This led to a whole tangent discussion on our purpose beyond reproduction and raising our children. R. Marder cited that this is a reason to take note of the 5th commandment!

The other philosophy is from Professor at Hebrew University, Michael Rosenak's book, Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge opens a lively conversation with the stories and laws of the Torah. "What is worth knowing? “Why is the Tree of Life problematic?”

It seems that God didn’t want them to know about evil but with this act, God learned also of man’s choices.

The Tree of Life and Knowledge become one.

Then we spoke of Eric Fromm's 'You Shall Be As Gods' (Author of Art of Loving also)
A more humanistic approach – distinguishing between good and evil celebrates human autonomy.
It marks our evolution into humanity.

Book mention: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Thus Adam & Eve were expelled from the garden into a life as ‘farmers’.

They left the garden into the East – a symbol of rebirth.
To the Rising Sun – a positive image.

The way back is not available – guarded by the Cheribum
Which led to a discussion of exactly what Cheribum are:

Winged creatures who support the Throne of God, or act as guardian spirits.
book of Ezekiel describe the "four living creatures" (Ezekiel 1:5) as the same beings as the cherubim (Ezekiel 10). Each had four faces - that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (Ezekiel 1:10; also 10:14) - and each had four wings. In their appearance, the cherubim "had the likeness of a man" (Ezekiel 1:5). These cherubim used two of their wings for flying and the other two for covering their bodies (Ezekiel 1:6,11,23). Under their wings the cherubim appeared to have the form, or likeness, of a man's hand (Ezekiel 1:8; 10:7-8,21).
more imagery :

literal illustration

link to astrology

A Rabbinical view:
Estrangement from the garden is temporary – we can return through study of Torah!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

God the Tailor

Torah Study 8/15 with Rabbi Sarah Wolfe

Genesis 3:21

God makes garments of skins for Adam & Eve...

Did God kill an animal to make clothes for them?
Why did God make the clothes rather than having them make their own clothes?
Didn’t God just punish them for disobedience, and why now he is giving them gifts?

These and other questions were posed by the group as we explored this verse word for word.

We explored the term k'tonet – which is used for the description of the clothing that God made for them.

It is a tunic type garment. This is also the term used for Joseph’s coat and again when describing the priestly garments.

IT is also interesting to know that this term is used to describe the covering of the Torah.

There are several web references of interest:

interesting blog entry from One Dude's Questions

AISH commentary on this

Velveteen Rabbi

And a really interesting Christian site with a different perspective

There were other interpretations reviewed.

One interesting one has to do with the letters in the term for skin and light:

“There are a number of people who believe that before Adam and Chava (Eve) sinned, they had bodies of light or bodies clothed with light, and that as a result of their sin, they lost their body/clothing of light. When examining the Hebrew language, this is not hard to see.

The Hebrew word for "Light" is "OR" (variant: 'or), spelled "aleph vav resh" - rut
(Remember, Hebrew is written from right to left)
The Hebrew word for "Skin" is also "OR" (variant: 'or), but is spelled "ayin vav resh" - rug

The concept of man having a body clothed with light is not unfamiliar within Judaism as we can see in the passages of the Midrash Rabbah and Zohar. . .”

read more of this

The discussion continued with references to the need for clothing and its relation to modesty and also as protection (especially for the reproductive parts of the body because that was the important command – to multiply).

The ‘charitable’ act of giving clothing starts with this verse.

Praise to God for “clothing the naked” is part of the morning prayers.
Boruch.....Mal-bish Ah-ru-mim.
"Blessed are You… Who clothes the naked."

Clothing is another way to differentiate humans from other animals.

Clothing is part of preparing Adam & Eve to go out into the world outside the garden.

Like a parent giving new clothes to children going to school.

Then the humorous comments:

  • So this is why there are so many Jews in the fashion industry.
  • This is the first Marketing project – because it started a whole industry of clothing.
  • And the idea the maybe the clothes were part of the punishment!

Moving on to the next verse: 3:22

“God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil”
(some versions not referencing good and evil but “knowing all”.)

More Questions to explore:

  • Who is “US”?
  • Why is God plural?
  • What is knowledge?
  • What is the different view of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge?
  • Why did God create a Tree of Knowledge anyway?
  • What about the reference to Torah as the “Tree of Life”?

The emergence of humans from the ‘garden’ has many messages about the evolution of humans into a world of increasing knowledge and understanding.

Is it possibly referring to humans collectively rather than individually?

I am sure we will explore this much further next session.

Monday, August 11, 2008

On Dust...

Howard's notes from August 9th:

Genesis 3:19, "sweat of your brow" - this refers to man's labor that lasts until death. How ironic! Man was originally a divine creature, but see what happens if you disobey. Another irony: in previous verses, men rule over women; now, work rules man. As Leon Kass puts in in his The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis , man's labor is for a lifetime while women's labor is only in childbirth.

Aryeh Kaplan's view (in his commentary to Genesis 2:17-18) is that reproduction and mortality are linked.

3:19, "dust" as a theme appears many times in the bible and ritual.

  • Ash Wednesday - a reminder of human mortality and the body's perishability
  • Jonah 3 - at Nineveh, the king sat with ashes as a way of repenting
  • Job 2:8 - he sat in ashes for boils...
  • Job [end of book] - he can't understand God because he is merely "dust and ashes."
  • Psalm 103:14 - said at Yiskor service: man's ashes and God's presence...
  • In these contexts, "ashes" refers to a crumbling of the physical body, not the residue of burning. "Dust" is the earth to which we return on physical death.
  • Ecclesiastes

• verse 3 - man's physical fate is the same as for animals: return to the ground
• verse 9 - It's better to be alive than dead; when dead, you're nothing. In life, you are aware of impending death. Therefore, enjoy life with all your might, especially the simple things that give pleasure.
• [end of book] - a verse that is said the the burial service; the spirit survives although the body dies
    Notions about afterlife are post-biblical. Provisions about returning to "dust" appear to be a deliberate way to distance the Jews from Egyptian ritual and practice that was designed to prevent returning to dust, i.e., mummification.

3:20 - the woman gets a name [it's about time!] following verses about death. According to Leon Kass, hope springs from death as the creation of new life so that "Eve" is seen in a new light. The name "Eve" [Chava in Hebrew, related to Chai, life] is not derived from man (eesh to eeshah)

Yehuda Amachai's A Child is Something Else - we launch a child like a rocket to the future, to places you [parents] never will see.

A Child Is Something Else Again
By Yehuda Amichai

A child is something else again. wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he's full of words,
in an instant he's humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They've already placed their bets on him
but he doesn't know it. He scratches his body for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They're training him to be a polite Job,
to say 'thank you' when the lord has given,
to say 'you're welcome' when the lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I'm still trembling.

A child is something else again: on rainy spring day
glimpsing the garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

Kass on children - parents' desire for a better life for children is the engine to sanctify life; this also applies to a better life for all children in the world.

Only humans recognize their mortality...

Adam's body is punished for making a bad choice, but his soul is unaffected.

Cremation - Rabbi Marder's source is from, article by Naftali Silberberg - Reasons for not being cremated include the reverence for the body and memory of the Holocaust. Burning is a deliberate destruction of the body; the Nazis did this. Usually, ashes from cremation cannot be buried in Jewish cemetery. However, if the cremation was done against the will of the deceased or the deceased was misinformed about cremation, the ashes can be buried.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Anat Hoffman - Women of the Wall

Anat Hoffman, one of the founders of Women of the Wall and someone who continues to fight for justice and equality in her capacity as Executive director of IRAC (the Israel Religious Action Center) visited Beth Am this week.

In a city where women are traditionally consigned to a subordinate role, Ms. Hoffman led in the battles for the right of women to pray at the Western Wall and for women's equal pay for equal work. She is promoting the film, Praying in Her Own Voice, which documents the contentious struggle of Women of the Wall for the right to wear prayer shawls and read aloud from a Torah scroll — acts that are permitted by Jewish law, but are fiercely objected to by the Orthodox authority that has jurisdiction over this national symbol and public space.

Praying in Her Own Voice

Anat Hoffman had many wonderful things to teach us at Beth Am this weekend.
Just a few quotes from her speech show her wonderful insight that has marked her journey to represent women's right to pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem:

"SHEMA is a powerful word. It takes the discipline, 'Shema', to save all aspects of life in Israel."

"Religious Reform is an oxymoron in Israel"

"Israel is too important to be left to Israelis"

Speaking of Hebrew, the language, she said,"Our language is smarter than the people who speak it."

How to help:

Join ARTZA - part of the dues goes directly to IRAC.

Buy a 'Women of the Wall' Tallit - details on how to do this will follow or email

Learn more about what is happening and spread the word to others you know.

Howard Selznick takes amazing notes all all events and has shared his thoughts with us about the presentation at Torah Study as well as insight from his daughter who has experienced the Women of the Wall directly:

Rabbi Marder introduced Anat Hoffman as a “pistol.” Based on what she had
to say, she was more of a shotgun. Her discussions about Women of the Wall at
Torah Study and Shabbat Services were a series of ugly incidents between the WOW and the intransigent Israeli government that was all too influenced by the religious parties.

The journey of WOW can be likened to the Torah portion Ma’sey, where the colorful place names of the Israelite sojourn through the desert are listed. WOW began with a group of American and Canadian Jewish women who couldn’t understand why women were not allowed to do three “T” (Hebrew “taf”, ת ) activities that men could do at the Western Wall: wear Tefilin, study Torah, and Tefilah (pray) out loud. After all, women are not required to wear Tefillin, although there are no sanctions if they do. A woman touching the Torah does not make the scroll ritually impure. A woman can pray with lips moving but silently, like Hannah at Shilo.

After many petitions, court cases, and thousands of pages of legal materials, the issue is still not completely resolved in nearly 20 years. Anat was almost cynical: this is Israel, among the most innovative technical and entrepreneurial nations on earth and the least progressive for the Jewish faith. What a contrast! In fact, innovations in religious practices invariably occur in the Diaspora, not in the Jewish homeland. Why? It’s those evil religious parties and those evil secular Israelis who don’t care about the evil religious parties who seem to run the religious lives of Israel. There is Orthodox Judaism or secularism. Reform Jews? Hah! They aren’t real Jews but some other religion. The Orthodox cannot fathom the bumper sticker: “there is more than one way to be Jewish.”

Even after her horror stories about government bureaucracy and obstinacy, she still loves Israel. It’s her family. Everyone still loves family members despite their quirks and foibles. If Israel had none of these problems, where would she get her speech materials?

From Joanna Dulkin’s “Shalom from Jerusalem”, 17 February 2002

A piece of news I didn't miss (it helped that I heard directly from a conversation with a friend who was there): the Women of the Wall reached an exciting milestone. The group read Torah at the Western Wall itself, in the women's section, for the first time in its 13-year history. They decided not to wear their tallitot and tefillin (one small step at a time!), but nonetheless were able to conclude the service where they were as opposed to the usual practice of going up to the nearby archaeological gardens [Robinson’s Arch] to read Torah and finish the service. Haviva Ner-David, an Orthodox Jewish feminist scholar, teacher and member of Women of the Wall who read Torah this last Wednesday morning, wrote this over email:

"It was a rainy, cold morning, and there were hardly any other people at the kotel at 7 am. It seemed like a shame to schlep the Torah all the way up to the Rovah as we usually do, especially with so few people around, and especially since there is a plexiglass stand in the Ezrat Nashim [women's section] now with an awning, while in the Rovah we would have had to protect the Torah with umbrellas. So we just read the Torah at the kotel. Only two (out of the perhaps forty or so) haredi women yelled at us (which is a sign, I think, that they are getting used to the idea of women's tefillah), but the police let us continue. Aliza Berger and I read. It was awesome! After 13 years of praying for this day, it really seems like a cause for celebration. A ray of light in all this darkness here in Israel lately."

For those of you who are not familiar, Women of the Wall is an organization of Jewish women that was formed after the International Jewish Feminist Conference in 1988, to fight the legal and sociological battle to allow women to organize in prayer at the Western Wall. Traditionally, women are not counted as a member of a minyan, prayer quorum of ten. With less than a minyan, a group is unable to read Torah publicly or say certain central portions of the service. So it follows that traditionally, an assembly of 10 women is not able to conduct communal prayer. Nowadays, more women's prayer groups are springing up everywhere, but at the end of the 80's, this was a much less prevalent occurrence. So when this incredible group of women held services on the women's side of the Western Wall in December 1988 it caused widespread rancor from both sides, especially the men's side of the Kotel; they heckled, yelled, and threw chairs at the women. Since then, the WOW have fought for and received police protection, and has become a fixture for change in the country and the world (not still, apparently, without controversy, as you can read in their fascinating history at The group, through their continuing presence and court battles, has made it clear that they're not going away. Now, throughout the world there is a critical mass of traditionally observant women who, within the bounds of Jewish tradition, are actively questioning it.

Joanna Dulkin is the daughter of Laura and Howard Selznick. This is an excerpt from her weekly journal written while spending an academic year in Jerusalem. She is currently a cantor at Sha’are Zekek synagogue in St Louis.