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, June 30, 2009

The Bow in the Cloud

Congregation Beth Am Torah Study 6/27/2009 –R.Janet Marder

Genesis 9:16 – 21

The traditional and contemporary views about the 'Rainbow as a Sign'.

God sees the ‘bow in the cloud’ whether man sees it or not.
Rabbi Abraham Iben (Ibn) Ezra – “God makes the rainbow appear in the sky even though it is not really there....” It is created by man’s eye – how we perceive the light through moisture. But Ben Ezra says the rainbow is always there. Always visible to God.

In Warsaw Ghetto on the walls – “ I believe in the sun even when it is not shining…”

Leon Kass – Rainbow is a symbol of reassurance to humans. Asks why is this reassurance needed while they are rebuilding a life? People require hope and posterity to be a reason to rebuild. There would be no reason to follow the laws if there was no hope for a better future. Needs hope for a motivation to build the world and have an obligation for justice. A purpose to life. The sign is required forever when despair threatens us.

Prometheus – gave ‘blind hope’ in Greek mythology.

Ephemeral Nature of the Rainbow – Hope is also ephemeral. Natural hope fades. Cosmic order is finally not inhospitable of human dreams & aspirations (the foundation of Mordichai Kaplan’s theology.)

Remember the covenant for the future is the motivation for rebuilding. The cosmos is benevolent to humans.

Reminded of the work of Ann Frank –
"I can’t build hope on foundation of confusion misery and death. . . . Look to heavens and think it will all come right this cruelty too will end. Peace and tranquility will return.” (1944)

Derive a sense of order from looking at the cosmos.

Not apply to other forms of natural destruction.

Rabbi Marder quote: “It is a human story. You need to look for the ethical and spiritual teaching of what the word is trying to convey. They are teaching that our efforts have meaning now. It is less about the future”

Words are about nature. God will not destroy the world again. Not about humans. We need reminders that things will get better when there is despair.

Like a parent who has the potential for anger but learns to control the anger. Sometimes they need a reminder of that.

Contemporary interpretation of the rainbow:

1. Gilgamesh epoch flood Narative different: Ishtar necklace in the sky becomes the rainbow as a reminder. In this story it is not related in any way to a covenant or any moral dimension.

2. Kabalistic interpretation – Eli Munk – continuous spectrum of colors reflect devine attributes. Ezikiel vision of God – like the bow of God. 7 fold goodness radiating from God’s presence.

Sim Shalom prayer in morning liturgy. Light of Peace – 7 gifts to come to us through the light of God’s face:

7 colors represent the projection of attributes of God’s – symbols in 7 colors of rainbow.

Today symbol of diversity and inclusiveness – R. Brad Artson – Am Jewish Univ. LA
Multicolored symbol of peace. Reminder of our need to build coalitions with others. Our of flood is a new commitment to life and to peace. Now a symbol to us multicolored spectrum of human understanding. Symbol of all people unifying.

Rainbow Flag – designed in San Francisco – Freedom Flag – red always on top :
Red – Life
Orange – Healing
Yellow – Sunlight
Green – Nature
Blue – Harmony
Violet - Spirit

Link about rainbow from Science to Literature to art

Poetry & Song:
Rainbow Connection – Muppet Movie - by Kenny Loggins
Someday we will find it
the Rainbow connection
the Lovers Dreamers and me.

Wordsworth Poem – 1802 – My Heart Leaps Up
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Intimations of Immortality - Children closer to nature and to God than adults.

“the child is father of the man…”
“Splendor in the grass”
the whole poem.

Whitman poem:
I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

v. 18 New Narrative – a time lapse - list of the sons of Noah
Plant a vineyard – make wine – grandchildren… at least 2 years after the flood.

The order that the sons are listed not by age but possibly by level of wisdom!
Shem, the youngest, - ancestor of Shemites / Semites – Know the order from Genesis 11:10 Shem was 100 years old – in Ch 7 Noah was 500 when he had children and 600 when flood came.
Political significance.

Samson R Hirsch – what do we learn: all 3 sons of Noah are survivors – represent different types of people but worthy of saving have equal responsibility to become good humans.

Mention of sons by name after the flood – now revert to pre-flood behavior. Eldest learned nothing although older.

Ham – only one to cohabit on the Ark & fathered a son. (men and women separate on ark) Effected the listing of the names in the story.

Ham will have a more prominent place in the story later.

(some commentaries change it to Ham being the youngest son)

V.19 “Branch out over the world”
Hirsch – from this they spread out –
3 sons of righteous man, Noah – 3 different in character sons can come from the same father
Word ‘branch out’ from same word ‘hammer’ that shatter things. This is the origin for all human cultures and behaviors.

“It is an obscure story”
This is the “cliff notes” version of the story – not the WHOLE story!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rainbows - Signs and Promises

Genesis 9:8 – 17 R. Jennifer Clayman

Never Again..

Hebrew words
Keshet – Bow – Rainbow – קֶשֶת
Ot – Sign -

Other Signs of the Covenant
Exodus 12:13 – blood on houses a sign – relating to the plagues –
Gen 7:11 – circumcision as a sign of covenant of the people –
Deut 6:8 – bind the words as a sign on hand and a symbol before eyes

Nacham Sarna - JPS Commentary on Rashi pg 62 – “My Bow” existing natural phenomenon and now becomes a symbol. No other celestial body is similarly endowed as a symbol in the Bible ….
It is the only time that anything in nature becomes a sign of a Biblical event or a covenant.

Ezekiel – mentioned. – radiance about God like the rainbow equivalent to God’s presence.

But is in mythological reference to a bow and Babylonian Astronomy bow plays a role.

Significance of the rainbow is significant as a symbol of reconciliation. A bow / symbol of war transformed to a symbol of piece.

Blessing on Rainbow emphasizes the point of remembering the covenant and God keeping promises.

Cant touch rainbow because it is a one sided covenant – in this case it is God’s promise – God is the only one who has to do anything in this particular covenant. It is an unconditional promise.

Can never approach a rainbow. As a covenant you can’t fully approach it as well. It is part of the difficulty of approaching God as well.

Kabalah – reference to the colors of the rainbow – 7 colors – 7 attributes and 7 spherot.

J version and P version of the stories may have different facts – contrasting versions within the text – J version perspective from the ‘other kingdom of Judah’ - this text
P version more interested in using God as transcendent and less involved with people’s lives. (not sure about this particular text)

Link to Global Warming as the other side of this covenant when floods may return.
- another view that this is not linked – it is assurance that you can have children and not fear that they will be lost to another flood.

Not a promise of no punishment – just not to destroy the world again.

v17 Hebrew See Keshet and Remember – remember responsibility as well as the promise.

Artist perspective: What does the shape and colors of the rainbow mean? A symbol/sign of life.
Psychologist interpretation: colors vs darkness of depression. Uplifting after darkness.
Political use: Rainbow flag sign of the Gay Pride movement – 1978 – Baker – inspired by song Over the Rainbow (written by Jews) – became popular after Harvey Milk Assassination – represents the diversity. Rainbow Coalition – is a symbol of diversity.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Value of Life

Torah Study 6/13 led by Rabbi Janet Marder

Source text dealing with the topic of suicide. Genesis 9:5
“ And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.”
9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Focus on Humans made in the ‘image of God’

God recognized human propensity for aggression and forbid the taking of human life.

It is a Talmudic interpretation that forbids ‘harming oneself’ and a prohibition of suicide.

Tractate Semahot is the source for practices on death and mourning. Gives specific instructions on what cannot be done in the case of suicide.
Not to tear the clothing or the crea ribbon. No eulogy. But you do recite the blessing for those who mourn because that is about the family and not the person who died. They wanted to avoid giving honor to one who committed suicide as to suggest that this was honorable or hold this as an example to the community.

Later suicide was justified based on extreme distress.

Masada – a question of the justification in this case. And was it suicide or martyrdom?

CCR – the reform response is to focus on the objective give comfort to the family and those who mourn and follow their wishes.

Focus on the value of life.
“Put life ahead of faith.”
“Heroic death is now less glamorized.”
“Your life is not your own”

Verse 5 – on suicide Verse 6 – on capital punishment

A look at the literary structure of the verses.

‘dam’ and ‘ha adam’ - adama – connection blood – human - earth
Similar sounds.

Kiasmos (Kosmos) - a symmetrical literary style (from Greek letter shape like X)
Literal: “Sheds blood of man by man his blood shall be shed” - bookended
Structure reflects meaning – talionic punishment “in kind”

The verse gives a clear prescription for capital punishment. However interpretations in Talmud make it very difficult to implement.
Makes it very difficult - Akiva and Tarfon – strongly opposed to capital punishment.
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel responds, “[to Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva] would have been increasing the murderers in Israel.” – held a different view that capital punishment should be an option.

There is clear text and interpretations to deal with issues like accidental killing, killing in war, killing to protect others and other situations. The need for witnesses are mandatory to result in capital punishment.

Source for the laws for humans to establish a judicial system to deal with issues of human aggression.

Eli Munk: Attributes the absolute value of all people. This extends to those who are punished for crimes.

The question is: What gives the ‘state’ the right to execute a person? ‘if all people

Excellent web references on this:

Rabbeinu Gershom (French rabbi 14th century) When one murders the image of God is expunged from a person by his act of murder.
R. Kunei (?) ( late 13th century) The judge is made in the image of God – vested by God with the task of seeking out the blood of the murder. Judge is the agent of God and takes the responsibility.

Wrestling with the contradiction in this issue.

Verse 7 – Be fertile and increase...

Rashi – a disturbing Talmudic interpretation –
Previously this text was given it was a blessing. Now it is a mitzvah.

Compares those who do not have children is equivalent to ‘shedding blood’
Having children is a mitzvah – a law.

Hekdesh – Talmudic interpretation based on the juxtaposition of verses in the text.

A definite challenge to modern thinking and choices to have children or not.

Jana points out that it is positioned next to ‘humans in God’s image’ and therfore allows for a more positive interpretation using this same method.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

On Suicide - Source Text Genesis 9:5

Torah Study 6/6 led by Rabbi Sarah Wolf

Source text dealing with the topic of suicide.
Genesis 9:5

"And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.”
9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Rashi – clarifies this to include all forms of suicide including those that do not shed blood.
There is no prohibition of suicide in Talmud.

Exceptions in the Bible: Saul ‘falls on his sword’ before he could be killed by others. In Daniel - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego throw themselves into the fire to avoid profanation of God’s name.

This is the start of setting up the Noahkite laws of basic human behavior.
It is a human job to set up a system of justice to control their behavior.

Talmudic commentary there is a conflict of opinions – but clearly there is a worry about people harming themselves.
Three ‘sins’ where you can break halacha ‘law’ to save a life: Idolatry, Rape, Murder

Questions: IF one takes their own life – How does God get satisfaction?

What does it mean? What is the punishment? The harm is to the family and community not to the person who commits suicide.

Definition of suicide: Rambam and Schulchan Aruch - make it difficult to rule almost anything a suicide – this is for the sake of the living to allow the Jewish rituals of mourning.

Difference between Suicide and Martyrdom.

Traifa - Person who has an organ failing - “on death’s door” - in Sanhedrin has discussion on when a person is dying – you are not allowed to help this person die. However, a person who is ‘traifa’ is not liable for crimes no longer fully living – not fully there.

Talmudic story: Rabbi who was on his death bed but cannot die because his students were praying for him to live. The Rabbi’s Servant broke a pot to distract them from their prayer. In that moment the Rabbi dies.

Assisted Suicide – modern interpretation – after end of verse – R. Yakov Metlinburg: 2 words for person ‘Adam’ Kills with knowledge vs ‘Ish’ with mercy - 2 different terms – for vengeance to the victim vs for good of victim. There is a difference based on the motivation.

Story: If a King says kill that person or you will be killed. - Can’t decide whose life is more important.
Another story: 2 people in desert with only enough water for one – the decision is to save one life.
Should take care of self and not let both die.

Prolonging Life – there are also arguments against undue prolonging of life.

Case of when Animals kill people – the animal is to be put to death and no one is to eat the meat.

Rambam – beast that kills a man – flesh cannot be used as a punishment to the owner. It is not punishment to the animal.
He interprets verse – from the hand of animal require reckoning – when a person uses an animal to kill a person.

Summary: - about the preservation of life and reminding us of how precious life is. A reminder that our life is not entirely ours.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

D. Saperstein on Jewish Social Justice and Political Decisions

David Saperstein speaks to Beth Am on 5/30/2009
The Jewish Social Justice Agenda

How the Jewish tradition should be use in contemporary political debates?

What is proper or improper within political debate?

What does our tradition tell us?

Jacob Neusner (the Isaac Asimov of Jewish scholars) books on Jewish scholarship. Prolific writer - bibliography.

Neusner is critical of reform movement’s claim regarding the position on Rowe v Wade ( and other positions on Jewish tradition ) Do not claim that the Jewish tradition justifies the position on abortion. It is okay for it to be your position but don’t claim that the “Jewish tradition” is the basis of that position. Similar relating to the position on gay marriage.

Must study what the texts say about an issue and see if there are any specific commentaries on the issue.
If you can’t find anything relating to the issue then don’t claim it is the “Jewish” position. Don’t claim that it is within the interpretation of Jewish law.

Problematic with what he says because it doesn’t recognize any official evolution of the Jewish position or further interpretation. There are limits to how you interpret the official position of Judaism from the texts.

Jewish tradition can support different views. Minority opinions are recorded and CAN become an official position. Problem in interpretation and varying opinions in religion and in law as well.

Neusner is critical that the reform and conservative movement are making statements that are not based on text.

When leaders claim this do they say it is “the Jewish position” or “a Jewish position”. Using “a” makes it a weaker argument but more accurate. Different positions can be represented by the actual Jewish position so there are really multiple positions on any issue.

When making our mind on an issue want to be able to say that they go to the text to make decisions. Do they really do this? Try to be intellectually open and honest, but it is influenced by experiences. We can’t base opinions strictly on one source. It is based on all range of experiences including our Jewish study and experience. (Can find justification for a wide range of positions within Jewish traditions in different sides of issues.)

“never lie or distort a position in testimony before a congressional office… if you do they will never trust you again…”

Another approach that is sometimes used is to decide what you want and then find the text to back it up. Not suggested as a proper method - totally biased.

Proper method is to go with an open mind (blank slate) and then go to the text and look at the responsa literature and all the interpretations and then make decisions. But it really doesn’t happen this way. “Blank Slate” methodology is very difficult.

Hard not to influence your decisions from all factors of your background and identity, both Jewish and not Jewish.

Important to go to the texts, but you CAN find justification of almost anything in the text.
So it is difficult to use this as a method.

Abortion issues: both sides use the same text to justify their position: “Choose life…”

Right methodology:
Jewish law comes from Torah, from God, a covenant, a contract. A contract binding only when people agree and when it is enforceable. Those Jews at Sinai agreed. Jews are born into the covenant and must reaffirm when they reach majority. (Bnai Mitzvah – they officially accept the commandments) Who wasn’t at Sinai? Everyone else.

What does it mean to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah? That they agree to accept the laws.

Big problem with limiting it to Jewish law:

  • No concept that the covenant is binding on non-Jews.
  • No universal norms in Torah.
  • Noahkite covenant – 7 moral laws binding on all people. What applies to everyone.
  • Rule for the sake of “peace in the community” is another law that applies to all people. Community relations – started over 2000 years ago.
  • Universal law comes from interpretation –
1. dignity of humans
2. equality of all people
3. belief in perfectibility – we can make it better (not perfect but working toward that)
Normative Christianity vs Normative Judaism - different views - we believe in our obligation as humans to work toward a better world.
4. Trust relation with God. Share God’s love with others. Tzedakkah to all people.
5. Rule of Law – all people are accountable. – Universal Law.
6. Pursuit of Peace
7. Pursuit of Justice
8. Belief in freedom of choice. Freedom of thought. Ability to understand the difference in good and evil in the choices we make.

God is not ordained for the human invention.
Need to evaluate issues by these universal laws that help direct our actions to do the best we can.

Look at Jewish tradition and lift those values up to offer to all people. Not that it is binding on non- Jews, rather that it offers guidelines based on universal laws as well. The Jewish arguments should be heard as an inspiration or as a ‘prophetic voice’ and a ‘moral voice’ to add to and influence the opinions and decisions that are made.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

R. Thal on Canonization of Hebrew Bible

R. Lenny Thal - 5/30 Torah Study – Beth Am
“Whenever you study Torah you have to have a good time!”

Canonization of the Hebrew Bible

Documentary hypothesis - the Bible was codified either in 450 or 444 BCE
Ezra and his disciples collated the narratives from approximately 4 to 500 years.
There were four major documents: JEP&D

web reference:
* J: a writer who used JHWH as the "unpronounceable name of God." It is often translated as Jehovah.
* E: a writer who used Elohim as the divine name
* D: the author of the book of Deuteronomy
* P: a writer who added material of major interest to the priesthood
* R: a redactor who shaped the contributions of J, E, P and D together in the present Torah.

Canon – Why Canon? What does it mean? literal meaning – Measure Rod / Reed

Exodus 24:3-7: Follow Moses’ return from Mt Sinai – people hear and agree to the terms. Reflection on what Moses learned.

620 BCE. – Deuteronomy Dated
2nd Kings 23:1-3 ‘what needed to be accepted’ The scroll found by Jeremiah in the Temple and read at just the time when reform needed! Began a major period of reform. However it was just 30 years later that the Temple was destroyed.

Ezra decided that the people needed “a constitution” which was created at the Watergate ( this one created one the modern one destroyed one)

Nehemiah 8:1-8 – Another documentation of when the people gathered and heard Torah and accepted it. It was read and translated and explained (“by people with teeth breaking names!”) by Ezra and his scribes.

Apocrypha (difference between Hebrew Apocrypha and Catholics’ Apocrypha – Hebrew it is separate from Bible / Catholic is it part of the Bible)
(word apocrypha means hidden or secret)

It includes such books as Judith, Macabees, Susannah …
If it is ‘apocryphal’ then it may not have happened but it does tell a truth!

Pseudepigraphia – a collection of writings by unknowns – but had some influence.
Includes the Life of Adam & Eve, Apocalypse of Moses - other documents
Prophetic section: No real historical record of when it was canonized.
Clues: 300-275 BCE OR 175 BCE – based on the end of the ‘minor prophets’ (minor because short not unimportant) Known from Talmud reference that there are no more prophets after Zechariah.

Malachi reports that Elijah will come at end of days.
Ecclesiastes – documented by the grandson of Ben Sirach

The Writings section: Again not certain of timing when the writings were collected and codified.
Prologue – 125BCE – 1st century BCE Philo – study of laws and the psalms
Ref: “Knowledge and piety increased”
Other clues from the New Testament – Matthew and Luke reference to the psalms.
Josephus 90-95 BCE wrote 22 books in the Bible – now there are 24 (or 39 depending on how you count) a clue that this was canonized later.

Song of Songs was included after the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

Historically the end of the 1st century was not a good time for the Jews. Mishnah and Midrashim were being written. Time of the Macabee and Barkova revolts had a huge impact on the way Judaism would evolve. Pharacies – the antecedents of modern Judaism attempted to democratize Judaism.

Interpretations were documented and ‘legal fictions’ created to help with this interpretation.

Book of Susannah: story of 2 elders who are infatuated with Susannah and are voyeurs watching her bathe in the garden. They are caught and put on trial and the both tell different version. They are put to death for perjury as their stories didn’t match.

Book of Tobit: Story of a pious Jew and marriage (Shtar). The Saducies reject it and the Katubbah is created as a marriage contract.

Ecclesiastes: Greek in tone. Included by the Saducies as they highlight the last passage that emphasizes that ‘this is the whole matter’ and seize the importance of this verse and attribute it to Solomon.

Esther: Problematic – no mention of God, Esther does many things not in line with the law… but included based on public pressure – the feast already celebrated at that time.

Contrast book of Esther to book of Judith – Judith was the opposite of Esther – completely loyal and brave – Why Judith not included may be based on a small detail which was not in line with the Saducies doctrine!

Not sure when completed – probably after 200 CE and before 300 CE.