Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Princess Leah

When Star Wars premiered in 1977, my mother was thrilled. The name Leah wasn't exactly popular when she grew up, in 1950's America, and the proper Hebrew pronunciation Leia was absolutely unheard-of. But here came an instant pop-culture icon: Princess Leia, diplomat, spy, rebel. And she was portrayed by Eddie Fisher's daughter. Now my Zeidy and Bubby seemed amazingly prescient! (Remind me to tell you about my Uncle Moishy...)
Carrie-Fisher-as-Princess-Leia-in-travels-in-transmedia-David-kirkpatricks-blog.-jpgLook, she even covers her hair? How frum is that!
However, this didn't solve the problem of the Torah's portrayal of Leia/ Leah. She seems to be constantly overshadowed by her younger sister Rachel. Even though Leah bears Jacob 7 of his 13 children, she never seems to get her due.
This is particularly striking when it comes to their respective passings. Rachel's tragic death is described in painstaking, breathtaking detail in Gen. 35, and then Jacob retells the story in this week's portion, Parashat Vaychi. Both Samuel and Jeremiah refer to it in their prophecies.
Leah gets five anticlimactic words (four in Hebrew): "and there I buried Leah."
But let's look at that line in context--namely, Jacob's last words (literally). Jacob is adjuring his sons to bury him in his ancestral plot in Hebron (Gen. 49:30-32):
In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which is before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite for a possession of a burying-place. There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave that is therein, which was purchased from the children of Heth.
Notice that Jacob speaks of the other burials in the third person, "they buried," despite the fact that he was presumably present at Abraham's and definitely participated in Isaac's ("And he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob," 35:29). Leah's death is personal, even more so than that of Isaac.
The Midrashic chronology Seder Olam Rabbah (Ch. II) highlights this by noting that Leah and Jacob's marriage lasted for 22 years--a crucial length of time in Jacob's life. He spends 22 years away from his father and 22 years away from Joseph. And, according to this tradition, Leah was 22 when they married. In fact, that would put Leah's passing a year or two before the sale of Joseph, which dovetails with the fact that Bilhah and Zilpah are referred to as "the wives of his father" at the beginning of Joseph's story.
Moreover, this simple statement has national significance, as Nahmanides points out (ad loc.):
It may very well be that "and there I buried Leah" indicates that Jacob already exercised possession of the cave. This would frustrate any claim by Esau and his sons at the funeral, claiming that the cave should be his birthright and that he deserves to be buried with his forebears--that even though he went to another land, his sons should bear him just as Jacob's sons bore him, as he desired to be buried with his holy forebears and to be united with them in burial.
Leah's presence precludes Esau's burial there. In fact, this may be seen as the first public expression of Jacob's precedence. Every other instance of Jacob's supplanting Esau occurs in private: between the two brothers, between them and their father, between him and God. However, Leah's burial in the Cave of Machpelah (Couples' Cave), which happens a decade and a half before the death of Isaac, conclusively demonstrates that only one of his sons is destined to be his heir and the bearer of the legacy of Abraham.
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. The one thing we know about Leah before her marriage is that she had "eyes of refinement" (Gen. 29:17). As Isaiah (47:1-2) makes clear, the only place for a woman of delicacy and refinement is on the throne. In fact, various Midrashic sources (e.g. Gen. Rabbah, Vayera) identify her father Laban as none other than Kemuel, Lord of Aram. Which would make Leah a princess.
In any case, for forty years, Leah safeguards the field in Hebron which is the first property acquired by the Hebrews in the land of Canaan, guaranteeing that it is Jacob's progeny (hers and her sister's) which will have sovereignty in the land.
This is the ultimate distinction between Leah and Rachel. Rachel is buried on the way to Bethlehem, on the way back from Israel's first exile, symbolizing that the Jewish people will always return to their land. But Leah is buried in Hebron, the city which symbolizes Jewish sovereignty. When the Israelites first return almost two centuries later to survey the land and conquer it, Hebron is the first stop (Num 13:22). When David, the shepherd from Bethlehem, is first crowned, he rules from Hebron.
This is the legacy of Leah our Mother.

Friday, November 14, 2014

One Mean Aramean

Laban,who appears for the first time in this weekend's, Torah portion is an intriguing figure. Unlike Patriarchal antagonists Pharaoh, Abimelech and Esau, we never hear the refrain "He will kill me" concerning Laban. He seems nice. However, in the Haggadah, Laban is presented as our arch-nemesis. On Passover, we would expect Pharaoh to be the Big Bad, but apparently he plays second fiddle while Memphis burns. We read:
Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our patriarch Jacob. For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot it all, as it is said (Deut. 26:5), "My father was lost to an Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous."
This is stunning. Pharaoh murders thousands and enslaves millions, but Laban surpasses him for thought crimes?
However, we must bear in mind that the Haggadah is a Midrashic work. In the Midrash, Laban is merely one name for a nigh-immortal character who plagues the Jews repeatedly. You may know him by a different name.
Balaam is Laban, as it says (Deut. 26:5), "My father was lost to an Aramean;" because he sought to eradicate Israel, he is called an Aramean. (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayetze 13)
Now, at least, we enter the same ballpark. Balaam also has bad intentions, but he actually does some damage, as Moses states: (Num. 31:16): "Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD." This plague kills 24,000.
Still, tragic as that event is, can it really compare to the centuries of slavery and genocide courtesy of the Pharaohs?
Interestingly, the Midrash does connect Pharaoh to Balaam's execratory consulting business.
Said R. Hiya b. Abba, quoting R. Simai: "There were part of that council, Balaam, Job and Jethro. Balaam, who counseled, was killed; Job, who was silent, was sentenced to suffering; Jethro, who fled, merited to have grandchildren sit on the Supreme Court." (Talmud, Sota 11a)

The Rabbis taught: "Pharaoh had three counselors, and when he contracted leprosy, he asked the physicians what would cure him. Balaam counseled him to take Jews, slaughter them, and shower in their blood, thereby curing himself." (Midrash Ha-gadol, Exod. 2:23)
These two legends describe the bookends of Egyptian slavery, from the initial "Come, let's deal wisely with them" (Exod. 1:10) to the gruesome finale (2:23), "But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God." Immediately afterwards, God appears to Moses and sends him to Egypt to redeem his people.
Now let's look at that line from the Haggadah again. "For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot it all." Who are "only the males"? This may refer to the baby boys Pharaoh orders cast into the Nile, but those are mentioned later in the Haggadah as "the boys," not "the males." "The males" is usually a term applied to men, those who would be combatants in war (cf. Num. 31:7, Deut. 20:13). In fact, in the verse cited above (Exod. 1:10), Pharaoh identifies the threat in the following way: "Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country." In the previous verse, he explains why he is concerned: the Israelites are "atzum mimenu," "mightier than we." In Numbers 22, King Balak of Moab, Balaam's other royal client, expresses the exact same concern, "atzum hu mimeni," "it is mightier than I." He too speaks of the Israelite threat in military terms: "Perhaps I will be able to strike it and drive it out of the land... Perhaps I will be able to wage war against it and drive it out."
However, Balaam-Laban takes this national-security threat and recasts it as an existential, eschatological fight. After he fails to curse the Israelites and is fired by Balak, he says: "Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me counsel you of what this people will do to your people in the end of days" (ibid. 24:14). If Moab does not destroy Israel, they will be destroyed by them. It is the same approach he used with Pharaoh: Egypt can survive the Hebrew threat only if the Nile turns red with their blood. It is genocide or suicide.
In this light, Laban-Balaam is indeed worse than Pharaoh or Balak. He seeks "to uproot it all," "to eradicate Israel." The king is merely the tool, the means to carry out this plan. It is Laban-Balaam who recasts the military/ national-security threat as an existential clash of peoples, nations and faiths.
These are dangerous times in the Middle East. We have to be vigilant against the forces of Pharaoh. But the true threat is the counsel of Laban, inflaming and inciting all-out war.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Salem for Sale

The past ten days have been quite difficult ones for Jerusalemites. A week-and-a-half ago, a terrorist plowed his car into a crowd waiting for the light rail at Ammunition Hill, immediately killing a three-month-old baby in her grandfather's arms. Four days later, another young soul, an Ecuadoran convert who had emigrated to Israel after discovering her family's Jewish roots, succumbed to her wounds from that horrific attack. Three days after that, Rabbi Yehudah Glick, activist for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, was shot in an attempted assassination. This is merely the culmination of months of unrest in the capital, leading us to ask: what can make Jerusalem whole (shalem) again?
In fact, Shalem (Salem) is the first name used for Jerusalem, according to Jewish tradition (Onkelos et al.), in a verse from this morning's Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (Gen. 14:18): "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine, and he was a priest of the Supreme God."
0522melchezidek0010Melchizedek according to the Orthodox. I didn't say which Orthodox.
However, this is not the only Salem in the Torah. Later in the book of Genesis (33:18), we read (following Rashbam's rendering): "And Jacob came to Salem, city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan Aram, and he encamped before the city."
So we have Salem as an alternative name for two cities which figure prominently in Jewish history: Jerusalem and Shechem (modern-day Nablus). Indeed, the root shalem yield two important terms in biblical Hebrew: shallem (to pay) and, of course, shalom (peace).
This represents some heavy foreshadowing. Immediately after describing Jacob's arrival in "Salem, city of Shechem," the Torah notes (v. 19): "And he purchased the plot of land where he pitched his tent from the hands of the children of Hamor, patriarch of Shechem, for a hundred pieces of silver." After the taking of Dinah, Hamor and his son have this to say to the citizens of Shechem: "These men are shelemim with us. Let them dwell in the land, and they will trade therein. The land is wide enough for them" (34:21). Now, shelemim here may be taken as "Salemites" or "amenable," but what is clear that this quality indicates that despite the outrage over what has happened to Dinah, her family will forget it all for the right price.
What else is for sale in Shechem-Salem? The story of the sale of Joseph, just a few years later, begins with Jacob's fateful proclamation (Gen. 37:13), "Aren't your brothers shepherding in Shechem? Go, and I will send you to them." The climax of that crime is Judah's famous question (vv. 26-27): "What profit is there in killing our brother and covering his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites..."
Centuries later, in Shechem once again, the scion of Joseph, Jeroboam, poses a challenge to the scion of Judah, Rehoboam (I Kings 12:4): "Your father was a hard master. Lighten the harsh labor demands and heavy taxes that your father imposed on us. Then we will be your loyal subjects." Rehoboam response is, unsurprisingly: shallem, pay up. “My father laid heavy burdens on you, but I’m going to make them even heavier! My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions!” (v. 14) And so the other tribes desert the Davidic dynasty (and murder the man whom Rehoboam sends to collect his super-sized taxes). You would think Rehoboam, a native of Jerusalem, would know better than to head to Shechem for his coronation, considering how badly it ended for the first man who tried to buy the throne of Israel there, Abimelech (Judges 9).

In Shechem-Salem, it's all about the almighty shekel. And it always ends badly.
But Jerusalem-Salem is supposed to be a different place. It is the city of peace, but that peace is not based on getting a piece of the action. Isaiah speaks eloquently of this time after time. "Rise from the dust, Jerusalem, sit in a place of honor... You were sold for nothing, and it is not with money that you will be redeemed" (52:2-3). With what, then? "I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterwards, you will be known as the city of righteousness, faithful town. Zion will be reclaimed with justice, and its returnees with righteousness" (ibid. 1:26-27).
It is no coincidence that the king of Salem is named Melchizedek (nor that the first to carry the full title "king of Jerusalem," in the time of Joshua, is Adonizedek). Tzedek (righteousness) is the only currency valid in Jerusalem. It is the only way to make the city whole.
That is why Melchizedek's meeting with Abram interrupts another royal-patriarchal meeting, that of Abram with King Bera of Sodom. Abram famously declares (14:21-23), "Give me the souls, but take the possessions for yourself... I will not take a thread or a bootstrap or anything of yours, lest you say: 'I enriched Abram.'" This comes immediately after his encounter with Melchizedek, as if to say that this priestly king, representing the City of Completion, left an impression on Abram. Decades later, of course, God himself will teach Abram another important lesson in Jerusalem, on Mt. Moriah: that He does not desire blood payment, but the pursuit of righteousness and justice.
The torrential rains of this weekend may have doused the fires in Jerusalem momentarily, but a permanent solution can only be achieved when we realize that this Salem is not for sale. It is only through justice that we can make peace here.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Molester Rabbi Mad Libs

Talking about sex crimes in an insular religious community is hard. That is why I offer you today a handy form for dealing with the latest rabbinical sex-criminal story. Just fill in the biographical and geographical details, and you're ready to go!

The Jewish community of __________ was shocked to learn today that respected local Rabbi __________ has been implicated in a sex crime.
"We're so shocked to hear this," said one community member. "And it's so totally unprecedented!"
Local police said they are investigating the allegations of __________, against Rabbi __________including putting his __________ on the __________ of unsuspecting community members who came to him for guidance and counseling.
"We're flabbergasted, gobsmacked and dumbfounded," said the head of the rabbinical council of __________. "There was no way any of us could have seen this coming. I mean, there were allegations of sexual and professional impropriety, and we gave them all the weight that we would any such accusations coming from women, children, non-Jews or non-religious Jews, all of whose testimony is deemed inadmissible by the Torah. Perhaps there had been some transgression of Jewish law, but certainly a man who violates what he spends his entire career exhorting others to follow would not dare commit a crime! I mean, in this case, he did, but did I mention how awestruck, dumbstruck and thunderstruck we are? And it's so totally unprecedented!"
However, some in the community cautioned against premature adjudication. "Let's not rush to judgment," said longtime supporter __________. "Let's wait until after arrest, indictment, trial, conviction, sentencing, appeal and the civil suit to discuss this issue. At that point, I will remind you that a) Rabbi __________ has paid his debt to society; b) no one really knows what went on behind closed doors except Rabbi __________, the complainant and any electronic recording devices present; c) you apparently haven't heard of the Jewish concept of repentance. Look, he once gave a sermon I really liked. Could such a man commit such a crime? It just doesn't add up. And it's so totally unprecedented!"
Others argued that the failure was systemic. "We must face the grim reality and an issue which haunts our community," opined one observer. "It's high time our schools, synagogues and communities face the real problem: insufficient Internet connectivity. Surely if Rabbi __________ had access streaming high-definition pornography, this heinous crime would never have been committed." Other likely culprits identified were bible criticism, leftist media, female rabbis and the gays.
Jewish leaders across the greater __________ area were particularly alarmed. "I am extremely concerned about what this means for our community," said __________. "Wait, what does he wear on his head? Well, that's not my style of headgear. I'm not surprised that a practitioner of that type of Judaism would do such a foul thing. Even though it's so totally unprecedented."
Rabbi __________ has been suspended while the investigation continues. While this community digests its shock, everyone agrees on one thing: there is absolutely nothing to be learnt from this experience.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ashura Ashira

So Ashura was last month, a big Muslim fast day, which many compare to Yom Kippur, Tzom heAsor (the fast of the Tenth). But this is when Muslims fast to commemorate (at least according to Sunnis) the Splitting of the Sea. This is based on a tradition that Muhammad observed the Jews of Medinah fasting on this day and thought it was a good idea to memorialize the defeat of Pharaoh and salvation of the Israelites in this way. Now, Jews don't fast on the seventh day of Passover, when we commemorate the Split, nowadays. But the Talmud (Pesahim 68b) cites R. Eliezer's view that fasting is a viable option for holidays, and the prooftext is how the Torah talks about... the seventh day of Passover.
For it was taught, R. Eliezer said: A man has nought else [to do] on a Festival save either to eat and drink or to sit and study. R. Joshua said: Divide it: [devote] half of it to eating and drinking, and half of it to the study hall. Now R. Johanan said thereon: Both deduce it from the same verse. One verse says, '[Six days thou shalt eat unleavened bread: and on the seventh day] shall be a a solemn assembly to the Lord thy God' (Deut. XVI, 8), whereas another verse says, 'On the eighth day there shall be a solemn assembly unto you' (Num. XXIX, 35): R. Eliezer holds: [That means] either entirely to God or entirely to you; while R. Joshua holds, Divide it: [Devote] half to God and half to yourselves.

Friday, August 1, 2014

All the way to Gaza

And the Avvim who dwelt in villages all the way to Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came forth out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their stead. (Deut. 2:23)
This verse is a striking one in the middle of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Devarim. Moses is giving a recap of the conquest of the East Bank, explaining why the Israelites avoided conflict with some nations and engaged others: the former were cousins to the Jews, part of the Abrahamic covenant, and so protected by God; the latter were Amorites, one of the seven nations whose lands Israel was to inherit.
However, this verse interrupts the flow. The previous ones discuss the rightful inheritances of the descendants of Esau and Lot, Abraham's grandson and nephew respectively; in the next one, Moses relates God's words to him, "Behold I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land." The discussion is exclusively about the nations residing on the East Bank of the Jordan; why does the Torah suddenly throw in this random detail about the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast of the Promised Land--literally on the other side of the country?
The fact is that this phrase, "all the way to Gaza ('ad 'Azza)" is quite a momentous one. The previous time it appears, in the beginning of the Torah, it defines the furthest extreme of Canaanite expansion (Gen. 10:18-19):

And afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as you come to Gerar, all the way to Gaza.
So, we have the Canaanites moving south, along the coast, from Sidon (still a major port city in Lebanon). But our verse speaks of two other peoples: the Avvim and the Caphtorim.
We don't know the who of the Avvim, but we know the whence: they came from the east. That much is clear from their appearances in chapters 17-19 of II Kings, where their city is one of the early conquests of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in modern-day Iraq or Iran. Their migration westward is indicated by the fact that a city in the land given to the tribe of Benjamin, stretching from Jericho to Jerusalem, is called "The Avvim" (Josh. 18:23).
So we have Semites coming westward "all the way to Gaza," Phoenicians coming southward "all the way to Gaza"--but that is not who's in possession in Moses' time. It's now the Caphtorim. Where do they come from? Once again, we turn to the global genealogy of Gen. 10, where the Torah clearly states that the Caphtorim are of Egyptian origin. That would be yet another invading force, this time from the southwest, through the Sinai (or possibly just sailing up the coast).
Gaza is the nexus, the fulcrum, the crucible of empires--not only in Canaanite times, but for the Israelites as well.
So Joshua struck all the country of the hills, and of the South, and of the lowland, and of the slopes, and all their kings... And Joshua struck them from Kadesh Barnea all the way to Gaza... And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel. (Josh. 10:40-42)
Joshua first sets out from Kadesh Barnea as one of the Scouts, only completing his mission and making it "all the way to Gaza" 45 years later.
Similarly, the verse says of Solomon (I Kings 4:24; 5:4 in Tanakh):
For he had dominion over all the region on this side of the river, from Tiphsah all the way to Gaza, over all the kings on this side of the river: and he had peace on all sides round about him.
Indeed, the effusive praise for King Hezekiah, the Davidic heir whose righteousness made him a candidate for Messiah (according to the Talmud) concludes (II Kings 18:8): "He struck the Philistines all the way to Gaza, and the borders thereof, from the tower of the watchmen to the fortified city."

Gaza has been the farthest extent of at least four ancient empires, and its symbolism has not been diminished over four millennia. The fates of nations are decided in Gaza, and the decisions Israelis, Palestinians and the world must make now are fateful ones. We must call on the bravery of Joshua, the wisdom of Solomon and the piety of Hezekiah to find a solution that brings justice, peace and truth all the way to Gaza.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


Marwan Kawasmeh (sometimes spelled Qawasmeh) and Amar Abu-Isa, Hamas members, from Hebron.
Learn those names. They're the prime suspects in the brutal murders of three Israeli teens, who were finally discovered and buried yesterday.

Learn those names, because in all the posts and comments and articles, I hardly ever see them. I see Barack Obama. I see Mahmoud Abbas. I see Gaza (even though Hebron's on the West Bank). I see, most of all, them--"their entire society." "We must wipe them out." "We must destroy them." A lot of anger and frustration, but hardly ever directed at the murderers. Why is that?

I have to ask: do we want Kawasmeh and Abu-Isa found and brought to justice? Or do we want to keep raging against the other "them"?

You know what, don't tell me. I'm having enough trouble sleeping as it is.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Bring back our boys--it really is that simple.
Of course, my feed has been flooded for the past 24 hours with a dozen other distractions, e.g.:
  • But not through negotiations, because we don't negotiate with terrorists.
  • But make sure to teach the kidnappers and their supporters a "lesson" too.
  • But first let's shut off all electricity and water to the Palestinians--and shut down their hospitals too!
  • But don't forget to share the alleged picture of sweets distributed in Gaza--because they're not looking forward to a trade of prisoners, but just to torture!
  • But first protest Obama's silence, because when Kerry speaks, that doesn't represent America. Oh, but Canada's run by a conservative, so his representative's statement does count.
  • But first make sure you have his mother's middle name, because how can Hashem understand you otherwise?
  • But let's make a cool graphic representing these bahurim as eight-year-olds, because that's more poignant.
  • But first let's condemn the international media for not covering the story, or not covering it enough, or using the term "settler." 
  • But let's berate the leftists for not caring about Israelis on the West Bank--wait, what's this? 
I would say we should get our priorities straight, but there's only one issue at stake. I trust the professionals to do their job, and I pray to God to help them. That's really all there is to say.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Hump Day

This Saturday is hump day. No, the calendar has not been re-jiggered to redefine a week; the last people who did that ended up being sent to the guillotine.
I'm referring instead to the seven-week period of counting between Passover and Shavuot, Sefirat haOmer. For the first 24 days, we are closer to the Exodus; for the last 24 days, we are closer to the Giving of the Torah. But Day 25, the fourth day of the fourth week, is smack in the middle. This year, it's the Sabbath when we read Parashat Behar, the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus (OK, 25:1-26:2), which famously starts with the unique verse, "Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying."
The Kabbalists associated certain attributes with each day of the Omer, and the twenty-fifth is netzah of netzah. Netzah is the Kabbalistic trait associated with Moses, and the root has many meanings in Scripture, from victory to eternity to conductorship (orchestra, not train).
The connection of Behar to Sefirat haOmer is quite strong, as the former also revolves around a count of seven cycles of seven, in its case leading to the jubilee year. 49 is clearly an important number in the Torah and of the Torah.
It is thus not surprising that the Talmuds relate this verse to Moses' experience on Sinai (Psalms 12):
Lord's sayings are pure sayings, like silver refined in a furnace, purified seven times over.
However, there is a difference between the approach of the Babylonian Talmud and the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud. The former states (Rosh Hashana 21b), citing Rab and Samuel:
Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world, and all were given to Moses save one, as it says, "Yet you have made him but little lower than God."
The latter (Sanhedrin 4:2) records:
Rabbi Yanai said: “If the Torah were given cut and dried, no one could withstand it! What is the reason? ‘LORD spoke to Moses.’ He said before Him: ‘Master of the World, tell me: what is the Halakha?’ He said to him: ‘Follow the majority' (Ex. 23:2)—if most vote for acquittal, he is innocent; if most vote for conviction, he is guilty. Indeed, the Torah may be expounded forty-nine ways to defile, and forty-nine ways to purify."
According to the BT, the number forty-nine represents a linear progression through successive gates, ultimately reflecting the limits of humanity. According to the JT, there are 49 sets of parallel approaches, allowing Halakha to respond (democratically) to the changing demands of society around it.
On this day, it behooves us to embrace the netzah of Torah--the battle, the timelessness, the symphony.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Yom haNaxmaut

Another Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) has come and gone. The flags have been folded, the barbecues have been extinguished, the fireworks have been fired. We, as a nation, are now done commemorating the events of 1948, and we can go get our miniature lambs ready for Lil’ Passover. (I could explain that, but I don’t think it would help.)
Except, of course, that a week from now one out of five Israelis will be celebrating Nakba Day. This is the day that many Arabs and Muslims mark as the anniversary of the catastrophe of Israel’s founding. So Nakba Day and Yom HaAtzmaut both commemorate the events of 14-15 May, 1948, but from two very different points of view.
After all, there can be no overlap between the two. Even if there are Jews who fast and mourn on Yom HaAtzmaut, seeing the day as an expression of defiance of God’s will (or unbridled jingoism), and even if there are non-Jewish Israelis, Christian, Druze, Bedouin and even some Muslims, who celebrate Israel’s independence, there’s still nothing shared between the two experiences. The establishment of the State of Israel is either triumph or tragedy, mandate or massacre, redemptive rapture or racist ruin, joy or genocide. The Middle East, after all, is where Venn diagrams go to die.
Well, the funny thing about Yom HaAtzmaut is that it falls exactly two weeks after the final day of Passover in Israel. The Midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, ed. Mandelbaum, Appendix 2) notes something interesting about the holiday: the Torah never tells us to rejoice during this holiday. The phrase “And you shall rejoice on your holiday” is applied to both Shavuot and Sukkot in Deut. 15, but never to Passover. It even explains that this is the reason we abbreviate our celebratory Hallel prayer during most of the festival.
Why is joy not mentioned there? Because the Egyptians died during it. Thus, you find that all through the seven days of Sukkot, we recite Hallel, but on Passover we recite Hallel only on the first day and night because, as Samuel explained (Proverbs 24:17), “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”
So on Passover, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, we limit our joy because the Egyptians, AKA the bad guys, died.
In fact, if we look at the other holidays that celebrate our victories over bad guys, we find a similar reluctance to rejoice in the fall of the wicked. As bloody as the Scroll of Esther is, it clearly contrasts the dispensation of Ahasuerus (Esther 8:11), “to destroy, to kill and to annihilate all the soldiers of every people and country who distress them, children and women, and their booty to plunder,” with the fulfillment: “the Jews gathered to send forth their hands upon those who sought evil against them” (9:2). It is “men” whom they kill, “and they did not send forth their hands upon the plunder.” Why is there no Hallel on Purim? “Its reading is its Hallel” (Talmud, Arakhin 10b) Of course, nowadays we fast on the day that the battle took place, 13 Adar.
Hanukka has eight full days of Hallel, but what is interesting here is that our rabbinic sources ignore the military victories in the Book of Maccabees, instead speaking of the miracle of oil. Hanukka is followed by a major fast day as well. It is reinterpreted in Megillat Taanit as a three-day fast reflecting our complex relationship with Greek culture.
So in our victories over Persia, Greece and Egypt, we recognize the complexity of our battles for survival and for independence. We realize the humanity of the other side. Can we not do that today?
Now, I’m not calling for fueling our Independence Day barbecues with burning Israeli flags. But does it really need to be a zero-sum game? Are we incapable of recognizing the real suffering of the other side? Is the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem a worse opponent than Pharaoh? Was Arafat worse than Haman? Is Abu Mazen worse than Antiochus?
I know what you’re saying: keep dreaming. There’ll be thunderstorms in Jerusalem on Independence Day before that happens.
Well, at the moment, it’s raining, with thunder and lightning, in the Holy Land. At least that’s something we can all get behind.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Not so fast

When I was in junior high lo these many years ago, our principal propounded an interesting theory. This yeshiva had many issues with the modern State of Israel, and the rabbi claimed that the Zionists had devised a plot with their holiday schedule to undermine traditional vernal Judaism. They set Yom HaShoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in the last week of Nisan, the month of Passover, one in which we eschew public morning, while they put Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) in the first week of Iyar, a month defined by its mourning practices.

This is the most extreme expression of a common canard: fasting in Nisan is inconsistent with the Jewish tradition, so how can you put a day of mourning in the last week of Nisan?

Except, of course, that long before 1953, when the State of Israel established Yom HaShoa, there was a day of fasting in the middle of the final week of Nisan. That dates back to the 40's--not the 1940s, the 740s.
These are the days on which we fast according to the Torah; whoever fasts on them must not eat or drink until evening: on the first of Nisan, Aaron's sons died; on the tenth of Nisan, Miriam died and the Well vanished; on the twenty-sixth, Joshua son of Nun died. (Halakhot Gedolot, ch. 18, p. 232)
This 8th-century Gaonic source is echoed by the early prayer books of Amram Gaon (Order of Fasts) and Mahzor Vitri (ch. 271). The Kol Bo (ch. 63) concurs, but records the date of Joshua's death as the 28th. So, somewhere between the 26th and the 28th of Nisan, there was a strong custom to fast; somewhere between the 26th and the 28th of Nisan, we have Yom HaShoa. Yet we can't mark this day--because of the added mourning customs we've tacked on during this period after the Crusades 350 years later?!

Well, maybe these days were once observed, but surely the decisive compendium of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, wouldn't mention--oh, never mind, it's quoted verbatim in OH 580:2.

OK, let's put aside the technical halakhic question (I'm not aware of anyone who actually fasts on this day anyway). Can the yahrtzeit of Joshua shed any light on Yom HaShoa? I believe it can. Quite simply, Joshua (along with Caleb) is the survivor of the worst generational holocaust in Jewish history. Out of about 600,000 able-bodied men who leave Egypt, only two enter the land. This catastrophe is caused by the propaganda and demagoguery of ten men, the Spies, who break the will of the people in the name of preserving the Chosen Race. For forty years, the Israelites must pay the heavy price of this historic mistake. Finally, once they enter the land, as we read on the first day of Passover (Joshua 5:4), "This is the reason Joshua circumcised them: all the people who came out of Egypt, who were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt." Normally, it is the father who circumcises, but the generation that entered Israel was an orphan generation; Joshua had to foster a fatherless people.

Upon entering the Land of Israel, I wonder if there were any great thinkers who opined that this tragedy was necessary, that only a catastrophe as vast as the death of 603,548 men would allow God to give us such a great gift. If so, they would have been immediately recognized as fools. God promised the Land to Israel on their way out of Egypt, and the holocaust in the desert only served to delay it.

So why do people insist on putting Yom HaShoa and Yom HaAtzmaut on two opposite sides of the scales of theodicy? As my rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was wont to say, if God offered us such a deal, it would be morally repugnant to consider it. The Holocaust must be evaluated on its own terms, not least of which because so many others aside from Jews were slaughtered in it as well. It must be discussed, knowing that it can never be fully explained or understood. Adding it to the list of Jewish tragedies on Tisha beAv, when neither schools nor yeshivot are in session, hardly fits the bill.

I think that the yartzheit of Joshua, who buried more than half a million of his kinsmen, friends and countrymen, is a particularly opportune time. Maybe some other day would be more appropriate. But the vagaries of the Jewish calendar should not be an excuse for ignoring the Holocaust and the profound questions it raises.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

My sister is really hot

So says the Bible. In fact, we read it over Passover, in the Song of Songs (AKA Song of Solomon):
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride... How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine... You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. (4:9-12)
I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride...
Listen! My beloved is knocking:“Open to me, my sister, my darling...” (5:1-2)
Now, you might be thinking, "But SoS is an allegory!" True enough; no one thinks that the unnamed female protagonist (let's call her She) actually has two fawns (7:4) or grape clusters (7:8) strapped to her chest. However, the author does choose to use "sister" as a synonym for "beloved."

A few more hints in the text flesh out the picture. 1:6 states: "My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!" So she has maternal brothers, but apparently no maternal sister, as in 6:9: "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, unique to her mother, flawless to her that bore her." She says of the male protagonist, "O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother's breasts! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me." In other words, if they shared a mother and not just a father, their kisses would be innocent and familial; but since they do not, their interactions are erotic and romantic.

The unusual configuration of Torah readings this year (which won't recur until 2035) means that we read SoS on the Sabbath between the regular portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. They have quite a different view of sororal love, respectively:
You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father's daughter or your mother's daughter, whether born at home or born abroad... You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. (Lev. 18:9, 11)
If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a hesed, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister's nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment. (20:7)
This seems pretty clear and unambiguous (if not redundant), except of course for the use of the word hesed, usually translated as kindness (or lovingkindness, but not that type of loving), but here carrying some pejorative connotation. Granted, it's a bit jarring to slip SoS between these two passages. But maybe it's a cultural thing; after all, sibling marriages were common in ancient Egypt and other societies. Certainly, the Jewish nation, founded by Abraham and Sarah, would never--
Abraham said, "I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father's house, I said to her, 'This is the hesed you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'" (Gen. 20:11-13)
OK, OK, but that's because of the vagaries of matrilineal descent in Jewish law. Certainly we would never countenance marrying one's full sister, unless--
Come and hear! Why did not Adam marry his daughter?So that Cain should marry his sister, as it is written, "For I said, the world shall be built up by hesed" (Psalms 89:3). But otherwise, she would have been forbidden? Once, however that it was permitted, it remained so. (Sanhedrin 58b)
Well, sure, historically, but once we get past Abraham, Jews start marrying their cousins, like decent folk, not their sis--
"And they took Dinah from the house of Shechem" (34:26)... R. Huna says: she was saying, "But I, where can I take my shame?" (II Sam. 13:13), until Simeon vowed to her that he would marry her. Thus it says, "The sons of Simeon were... and Saul the son of a Canaanite woman" (46:10) Dinah was the “Canaanite woman,” because her behavior was like that of the Canaanites, says R. Judah. (Gen. Rabbah 80:11).
That would be Simeon, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, marrying his full sister Dinah. And fathering a kid with her. Hmmm...
Now, my point with all of this is not to advocate on behalf of incest. It is to point out how complex sexual morality is. We usually assume that the answer to the question "What is the Torah's view on sleeping with one's sister?" is pretty straightforward. It certainly is halakhically (see Shabbat 145b); but when the question is how we think about it, the path gets a little winding and muddy.

That's why it so galls me when people trot out a simplistic view of human sexuality through the lens of the Torah, as David Benkof did in his piece last week. While I respect his personal choices, his portrayal of the Torah's view on the matter leads him to portray the Midrashic idea of Adam being created as a Siamese hermaphrodite as the simple meaning of the text (see Berakhot 61a). Furthermore, it leads him to invoke one reading of 2:24 as the model for marriage, even though the rest of Genesis depicts many other variations on this theme. Then he adds to this the anatomical argument, even though such an approach would lend far more legitimacy to polyandry than to polygamy.

The Jewish concept of sexuality, like so many other things, has evolved over time. We should not pretend that we are still in Eden. Instead, we should use the halakhic tools at our disposal to welcome all who wish to study and pray with us. It's hesed, you know.
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lucky number seven

Poor 7oP. The Seventh Day of Passover seems to get no respect, despite its being a bona fide biblical holiday. It has no special custom, command or ceremony all its own. Compare this to the end of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret; the Talmud (Sukka 48a) already enumerates six special traits of the day in Temple times, to which another half-dozen have been added in the two millennia since. Meanwhile, 7oP remains forlorn, a sort of Anticlimaxodus.
True, tradition tells us (specifically, R. Hanina bar Papa in Talmud Sota 12b) that the 21st of Nisan was the day of the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the subsequent Song of the Sea. But this sequel to the Ten Plagues feels a bit underwhelming: once again, the Israelites face hardened-heart Pharaoh; once again, Moses raises his staff; once again, God performs a miracle; once again, the Israelites are spared and the Egyptians are smitten (but not in a good way). However, since we celebrate at the Seder as freemen, it's hard to muster up much emotion about Pharaoh 2.0. Instead, he seems to fit into the familiar pattern of "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."

But I would like to argue that the events of the Seventh Day are in fact vital and integral to our Passover experience. A week ago, Eylon Aslan-Levy posted "The Ten Plagues and the Ethics of Modern Warfare," in which he argues that "For Moses, the Death of the Firstborn was the nuclear option." I have a number of issues with the piece, but first and foremost, I am dismayed by the portrayal of the Slaying of the Firstborn as some sort of weapon of mass destruction, introducing lethal force into the equation for the first time.

The fact is that in their first appearance before Pharaoh (Ex. 5:3), Moses and Aaron already use threatening language: "And they said, 'The God of the Hebrews has met with us: let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.'" As the Plagues strike Egypt, it's very hard to imagine that there were no casualties from the week-long lack of drinking water, the invasion by wild animals, the death by pestilence of all domesticated animals and a raging plague of boils (a disease which causes limbs to fall off; see Talmud Ketubot 20b).

Still, let's assume that the first six were nonlethal. That still brings us to unlucky number seven, flaming hail. The Torah is explicit about this one (Ex. 9:19-25):
For upon every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die. He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses. And he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field... And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
So Egyptians were dying; more importantly, their animals and slaves were dying for their masters' disbelief. That is equally true of the Slaying of the Firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (11:5)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. (12:29)
Pharaoh, the cause of all this, does not die; all other firstborn of Egypt, including slaves and animals, do.
It may be convenient for us to think of the Slaying of the Firstborn as a powerfully destructive and indiscriminate weapon, but this plague is very personal, as we read in the Haggada: God Himself does the killing. It is not modern ethical warfare; it is ancient tribal warfare, in which Egypt is bad and Israel is good, and no other distinction is relevant. To contend that "Moses took every reasonable step to shield civilians from their leadership’s callousness and indifference to their plight" is laughable.
That is why we need the Seventh Day of Passover. The final chapter of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, shows us an evolving ethic. This time, it is not Egyptian slaves or civilians who suffer, but Pharaoh's war machine (Ex. 14:28): "And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them." As the Psalmist puts it (136:15), "And He hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, for His kindness is everlasting."

In fact, in the Talmud (Megilla 10b), we find:
For the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. And R. Johanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse, "And one came not near the other all the night" (Ex. 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?"
Once we can distinguish between the good Egyptians and the bad Egyptians, we can distinguish between the good and the bad within each Egyptian. Once we can identify the villains, we can have compassion for the enemy. That is the most provocative idea of Passover, and we can only embrace it once we are safely on the other side, on the Seventh Day.

Hag sameah.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

No Private Passover Parties

Where will you be in 21 years? That's the next time we'll do what we did yesterday, reading the portion of Aharei Mot (Lev. 16-18) on Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath preceding Passover. It gives us a chance to examine one of the most unusual mitzvot in the Torah: the prohibition of external slaughter (shehutei hutz).
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the Tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. (Lev. 17:3-4)
Jews of the Exodus generation were not getting their fresh beef from Postville, Iowa; every domesticated animal had to be slaughtered before God.

This restriction is loosened once the Jews cross the Jordan, as described in Deut., ch. 12 and Talmud Zevahim, ch. 14; in the Promised Land, sheep, goats and cattle may be slaughtered just for a barbecue. Moreover, if one does want to make it into an offering, that can be done on private altar, a bama. Only when the sacrificial service is centralized does it become forbidden to bring offerings in one's own backyard.

However, there is one exception: the paschal lamb/ kid.
You are not allowed to sacrifice the passover in any of your towns which the Lord your God is giving you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt. (Deut. 16:5-6)
This leads to one of the most unusual disputes among the ban-counters. Maimonides famously lists all 613 commandments in his Sefer HaMitzvot, and the Sefer HaHinukh expands on them. There is only one mitzva which Maimonides omits but the Hinukh counts (#487): the prohibition to slaughter the passover privately. Maimonides does include the law in Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Passover 1:3), but he apparently views it as a historical footnote, not an everlasting command, as the bama has been categorically forbidden since the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Hinukh disagrees, and he is not alone; 500 years before Maimonides, the Gaonic list of commandments, Halakhot Gedolot, includes this prohibition as one of the 613 as well. Why?

In fact, it is quite bizarre that the passover, of all offerings, must not be sacrificed in one's backyard. After all, the original passover in Egypt (which Shabbat HaGadol commemorates) is commanded in the following way in Exodus 12: "They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house" (v. 3) and "Draw out, and take you a lamb, according to your families, and slaughter the passover" (21). If there's any offering that would belong on a private, family bama, it seems like it would be the passover!

Let's return to Aharei Mot. While in the desert, the Israelites are compelled to bring their animals to the Sanctuary. Whatever one's tribal or familial or socioeconomic status, everyone has to come to this central location. This creates a certain social cohesiveness in the nation of former slaves, a cohesiveness which they had lost in Egypt. True, Goshen had a higher population of Israelites than the other regions of Egypt (a remnant of Joseph's era), but the Hebrew slaves for the most part lived among their Egyptian masters. (That, after all, is why God needs to "pass over" the Jewish houses when He smites the Egyptian homes.)  Thus, this carnivorous centralization serves an important purpose.

But how is it possible to do so after crossing the Jordan? Trekking from Dan or Beersheba to Jerusalem for shawarma is impracticable. Nevertheless, there is one occasion upon which all Israel can come together: the annual observance of Passover. Everyone must come to God's chosen place to offer the passover, and this gives them the opportunity to feel the Exodus experience.

This is fundamentally different from the paschal service in Egypt; at that time, it was more important to establish the concept of independence and autonomy in the nuclear family, an idea which their masters had tried to eradicate. But for every subsequent Passover, the issue is commemoration. We need to feel the experience of forging a nation, to symbolically gather around one fire and become one people. That is why the story we tell at the Seder does not conclude with our departure from Egypt, but includes the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In fact, the famous poem Dayenu ends with the building of God's chosen house--the one place which is irrevocably and unfailingly the focus of our service. No matter our geographical or historical distance from the Temple, every Jewish soul turns to it.

Let's remember this Passover to keep our doors and our hearts open to all those who are in need. After all, we're all in this together.

Friday, April 4, 2014

And a leper shall lead them

The Torah is known as the Five Books of Moses, and with good reason. The most common verse is "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying," which appears seventy times in the Torah (specifically, in three of the five), introducing mitzvot. But Moses is not the only one to be tagged, as we read a few weeks ago, "And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying" (Lev. 10:8).
In that passage, God explains that Aaron and his sons have a special job in assisting Moses--not just Temple service, but le-horot, to guide, teach, instruct and issue rulings for the Israelites, "in order to distinguish between the holy and the mundane, and between the impure and the pure." Le-horot is the infinitive of Torah, and the text goes on to list a half-dozen torot, rules of purity and impurity as they relate to all stages of life and all living creatures. In each case, the passage is introduced with "And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying"--with two exceptions.
As my friend Hillel Deutsch asked last week on Facebook, "The yoledet, however, is introduced via command to Moshe only. (Vayikra 12:1) Why?" The laws of the yoledet, the child-bearer, are indeed addressed only to Moses, which is strange. After all, the new mother is supposed to bring an offering and present it to the priest; Aaron and his sons are part of her purification process.
Even more bizarre is the beginning (Lev. 14:1) of this week's portion, Metzora, which details the purification process of the leper, in which nearly every action is taken by the priest. This too is addressed to Moses only, even though Aaron is cc'ed on the process for declaring a person to be a metzora in the first place. Why should he be excluded here?
Also on Facebook, Yosef Weiner suggested: "Some kind of reference/reprimand to him after the whole not-giving-his-son-a-brit story?" In other words, perhaps Moses is excluded in the first instance because the passage of the child-bearer includes the positive command of circumcision, "And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised." This is a brief restatement of the Abrahamic covenant of Gen. 17, which Moses famously ignores on his way down to Egypt (Ex. 4:24-26).
At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.
Thus, there is a reason for Moses to receive the passage of the yoledet alone; he has unique experience with the consequences of ignoring the covenant, and this is no time to hide behind his brother.
But what about metzora? What personal experience does Moses have with that? Actually, it's in the same chapter (vv. 5-7):
Said the Lord, “So that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous as snow. "Now put it back into your cloak,” He said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 2:1) famously expounds that the torah of the metzora (Lev. 14:2)  is the torah of the motzi shem ra, the slanderer. In fact, Moses' leprous episode is very similar to that of his older sister Miriam in Num. 12. Both express doubt about the trustworthiness of God's chosen, both incur God's wrath, both become "leprous as snow," and in both cases Aaron's advocacy saves them. But not before a seven-day quarantine session, as required for the metzora: Miriam's quarantine is explicit in the verse, but Moses' is explicit only in the Midrash, which states that he spends an entire week at Horeb, by the Burning Bush (Lev. Rabba, Shemini 11). In any case, it is clear why Moses receives the passage of purifying the metzora alone; he is the one familiar with this punishment for evil speech.
Is there any lesson in all this for us? I would like to suggest that the message is actually quite profound. If there's anyone who could claim diplomatic immunity, it's Moses, who is literally on a mission from God. Liberating the Israelite slaves from Egypt is sort of a big deal, as I understand. Yet God takes the time to take Moses to task for two personal mistakes and puts the Exodus on hold. Why? Because if Moses can't put his own house in order before assuming the leadership of Israel, there is really no point to his mission.
It's quite a contrast to the news of the week: one former mayor of Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been convicted of bribery, along with his predecessor, who ascended to the office of Prime Minister of Israel. These are two very different men, but they clearly shared a belief that they were above the law. One can't help but think of Isaiah's words (1:23): "Your rulers are faithless, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows." That's not the Mosaic model. God doesn't give a free pass to the leaders; He demands that they follow the laws they're handing down to everyone else.
There is some comfort, though. (We don't call them isaiads, after all.) Isaiah, himself of royal blood (Megilla 15a) goes on to promise in the name of God: "Then I will give you good judges again and wise counselors like you used to have. Then Jerusalem will again be called the Home of Justice and the Faithful City." It can't come soon enough.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hillel: Before the Sandwich

One of the great features of Jewish leap-years is that the advent of Passover allows us to ignore those two perplexing portions of the Torah, Tazria and Metzora, which deal mostly with tzaraat, leprosy. Of course, there are a few other topics we could discuss in those sections, like the defilement of childbirth, or menstruation, or gonorrhea-- Wait, where are you going? Let's talk about Hillel!
Hillel is the man who rescues Passover in the last decades before the Common Era. When the elders don't know how to prepare for a Saturday night Seder, it is Hillel who teaches them what to do (Tosefta, Pesahim 4:13). When others cannot figure out what to do with lamb meat, flat bread and salad, he invents the shawarma (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 115a).
Leaning on the left side, Thor? This is why we can't have pagan gods at our Seder.
Leaning on the right side, Thor? This is why we can't have pagan gods at our Seder. Just follow the redhead. I hear she's Jewish.
In fact, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim 6:1), Hillel makes aliyah in order to explain Passover to all the sabras:
Hillel went up from Babylonia because of three matters. The verse says, "He is pure" (Lev. 13:37). Does this mean that if the symptoms disappear, he does not need the priest? No, for the verse continues, "The priest shall declare him pure." But what if a priest said "pure" to one who was really impure, does he thereby become pure? No, for the verse says, "He is pure; the priest shall declare him pure." For this Hillel went up from Babylonia.
One verse says (Deut. 16:2), "You shall slaughter the passover for the Lord, flock or herd," but another says (Ex. 12:5), "From the sheep or the goats you shall take them." How is this? The festival offering can come from either, but the passover can only come from the flock.
One verse says (Deut. 16:8), "You shall eat matzot for six days," and another says (Ex. 12:15), "Seven days shall you eat matzot." How is this? Six days of the new crop, seven days of the old crop.
Hillel expounded, and his conclusions were confirmed. He went up to Israel and it was accepted as law.
Hillel not only provides practical Passover direction for his contemporaries, he also resolves their textual difficulties: the passover lamb or goat is for dessert (i.e. afikoman), but the main course can be beef; matzot can be made throughout the week from the old flour, but the new flour cannot be used until day two, when the Omer is offered.
But one of these things is not like the others. The first matter Hillel comes to teach is about the purification... of tzaraat. This plague is catching like... like... Anyway, here we go again with the Hansen's disease.
Now you will never get this song out of your head.
Now you will never get this song out of your head.
Wait, what was so pressing about this verse concerning tzaraat? There is no contradiction per se, just a redundancy. Was this a widespread problem in Second Temple times? Moreover, if the exegetes were so exercised about the use of "He is pure" and "The priest shall declare him pure," what about the verse which appears earlier (11), "The priest shall declare him impure... he is impure." Isn't that just as superfluous?
It doesn't seem that Hillel's first exegesis is really about tzaraat; far more significantly, it demonstrates his halakhic approach. When approaching the inverse verse, "The priest shall declare him impure... he is impure," one might be tempted to say that impurity can be assigned on one of two bases: objective reality (he is impure) or subjective considerations (he has been declared impure). After all, forbidding a given act or item on halakhic grounds is temptingly easy for any decisor. Even if something is technically permissible, there are always a handful of ancillary reasons to prohibit.
However, Hillel's first lesson is the verse which disproves this approach: "He is pure; the priest shall declare him pure." When he is pure, the priest must declare him so; this is a sacred duty. Ultimately, Hillel and his followers gain a reputation of being generally lenient (unlike the generally stringent approach of his colleague Shammai), but the Mishna devotes an entire chapter (Eduyot 5) to listing the exceptions to this rule. Hillel is not lenient for the sake of being lenient; he is lenient because that is what the objective facts require. The solutions he finds for the observance of Passover reflect the fact that his first and foremost dictum is "He is pure; the priest shall declare him pure."
As we approach Passover, it's worth remembering what the Talmud says (Eruvin 6b):
The halakha is always in agreement with Beit Hillel, but he who wishes to act in agreement with the ruling of Beit Shammai may do so, and he who wishes to act according to the view of Beit Hillel may do so; he, however, who adopts the more lenient rulings of Beit Shammai and the more lenient rulings of Beit Hillel is a wicked man, while of the man who adopts the restrictions of Beit Shammai and the restrictions of Beit Hillel, Scripture says (Eccl. 2:14): "But the fool walks in darkness."

Monday, February 17, 2014


I have a confession to make: I don't really live in Jerusalem anymore. Yes, on social media I'm known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem, but for the past three years I've lived in the West Bank town of Maale Adumim. How close is Maale Adumim to municipal Jerusalem? So close that a 4 1/2 square-mile area known as E1 is all that's needed to fill in the gap. That's why it's so hotly contested.
Right now, there's a protest going on at E1, which you may have heard of under its media-friendly name, Mevaseret Adumim. That makes it sound like my hometown, or like the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone next door, home of SodaStream, where we all shop. (What, are you gonna go to Co-op at the mall? Have you seen how much their tomatoes are? THAT should be illegal under international law!)
This protest is being well-attended by the leading lights of the political right: members of Knesset, deputy ministers, officials and rabbis. Our mayor sent all forty thousand of us Adumites an invitation on Facebook.
But I declined. Yes, I know full well that the E1 Plan dates back to none other than Yitzhak Rabin, in those glory days between Oslo I and II. I also know that it doesn't technically slice the Palestinian part of the West Bank in two, as a road which we might build one day could go around the entire Greater Jerusalem (now featuring Maale Adumim!). But it does mean embracing East Jerusalem in a great Israeli bear hug, only increasing the awkwardness of the situation in which the 250,000 Arabs living there are citizens of an Israeli city (Jerusalem) but of a Palestinian state. OK, not a state. What are we calling it nowadays? An entity?
The essential question is the following: how much do we believe in the two-state solution endorsed by our last three prime ministers? (Yes, Ehud Barak was the last prime minister not to do so, at the turn of the century.) And if we don't believe in two states for two peoples, what is our solution to the fundamental injustice of a permanent underclass under Israeli control?
Speaking of SodaStream, I was struck by the triumphalism of my/ our putative supporters. A Facebook group called "I support Scarlett Johansson against the haters" gets 30,000 likes, dwarfing the 17,000 likes on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement page? Well, that settles it. Clearly, Israeli policy is unimpeachable, because people liked a pretty girl on our side. Not that I know what our policy precisely is. Maybe our prime minister is waiting for his second decade in office to reveal that tidbit.
I know, I'm a settler myself; I should just shut up. What possible reason could I have for seeking defined, internationally-recognized borders for the Jewish state and the annexation of the town I live in? Instead, I should join Israeli and Jews worldwide in obsessing over the latest imagined slight from the Obama administration, the egregiousness of the boycott-sanction-divestment movement, the outrageous statements of Palestinian Authority officials. To do otherwise would be self-hating.
Perhaps the real question is this: where do we see ourselves in fifty years? If we're planning for a recognizable Jewish, democratic Israel to still exist, we need to start making some tough, long-term decisions.
Unless Scarlett is the Messiah...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Don't call me Orthodox

I pity the members of the press who try to cover the Jewish world, especially that corner of it known as Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Jew has rarely, if ever, been seen in the wild. Orthodoxy is coupled with modifiers or replaced with euphemisms: ultra, modern, fervent, centrist, yeshivish, observant, open, traditional, orthoprax, conservadox. Then we start getting ornithological: are you right-wing MO (modern Orthodox) or left-wing MO, right-wing yeshivish or left-wing yeshivish? And speaking of yeshivish, which yeshiva? And if you want to even start talking about Hasidim, you're going to need extensive sects education.
We used to have a catch-all term: frum (pronounced not like "from", but to rhyme with Things That Make You Go Hmmm...), but since there aren't that many Yiddish speakers left, "Orthodox" has become the default term in the Western world. Thus, for example, when the Pew Research Center published its report on Jewish Americans, this was the picture they presented:
So why we should we care about taxonomy? It helps us understand why Orthodoxy tends to react so strongly to any activism on its left flank, while ignoring or endorsing activism on its right.
You see, Orthodoxy is the most right-leaning stream of Judaism recognized by most Western demographers. For this reason, moderates and even liberals are loathe to alienate anyone on the right. After all, Orthodoxy's claim to fame abroad is being the right flank of Judaism, and if someone's frummer than Orthodoxy, that identity will be lost. Meanwhile, whenever any one dares to stick a toe over "the line" to the left, there's a ready-made answer: hey, buddy, go to the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. -- you're ruining our brand.
But here in Israel, we've gotten over that. According to our Central Bureau of Statistics, 43% of Israeli Jews are secular, 9% are haredi, and the remaining 48% are somewhere between masorti (traditional) and dati (religious): 23% the former, 10% the latter, and 15% smack in the middle. These five groups do not parallel the five groups identified by Pew, e.g. Orthodox is a denomination, while dati is a declaration.
Now, for a long time, dati was thought of in political terms, as a short descriptor for Tziyoni dati (religious Zionist) or dati leumi (nationalist religious). But we are now in the era of post-Zionism and post-denominationalism, and dati is just what it says it is.
Etymologically, dat is a Persian term for "law," found a dozen times in the Aramaic of Daniel and Ezra, and more than twenty times in the book of the month, the Scroll of Esther. Follow it through Esther, and you'll find that it is used for all sorts of things: statutes, rituals, decrees, customs, mores. There is the dat of drinking, the dat of women, the study of dat, the dat of the king, the dat of the Jews. It's very difficult to find one word in English to encompass all that, so let's not try. Honestly, of all terms, why go with Orthodox, which literally means "right-thinking"? You can call it dati olami if you prefer, making it universal or worldly, which is the dictionary definition of "catholic." I would much prefer to have been labelled a catholic Jew.
The advantage of being dati is that one no longer feels the need to hew to the right. Demographically, economically, socially, politically, the haredi are a distinct community, and they are not confused with the dati. It doesn't stop us from praying in the same synagogues, in which the bulk of the congregants may in fact be masorti.
Ultimately, as many of my social-media friends have pointed out (shout out, Jeff!), the dati abroad must choose a side. There is a neoharedi movement afoot, which constantly obsesses over heresy, homosexuality and hysteria (in its original sense of "bitches be crazy").  You may have heard of some of their more egregious statements, from declaring war on gays to classifying most of their fellow Orthodox as idolaters; from classifying tefillin on women as worth dying for to calling for shooting the prime minister; from condemning efforts to free agunot to defending child molesters. This movement is not like the paleoharedi movement; it sounds reasonable, uses big words and may be led by folks with advanced secular degrees and active social-media accounts. But it's ultimately the same daat-Torah jazz--that's daat, not dat, the idea that the Torah must be protected and refined through great minds before it can be presented to the masses. If ever a movement deserved to be called orthodox, it's this one. They are welcome to the label.
As for me, don't call me Orthodox. I'm dati, and there's nothing else I'd rather be.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Union Jacked

Let's talk about the United Kingdom--no, not the one with the scones and Beefeaters (sorry, I'm eating breakfast). Here in the Holy Land we had a United Kingdom three millennia ago, featuring such famous kings as David and Solomon, the lions of Judah. But it was Saul, the wolf of Benjamin, who actually united the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

This is in keeping with Benjamin's image throughout the Torah. Joseph is reconciled with the Judah and his brothers by their shared desire to protect young Benjamin. As for the tribe, we see the first hint of its unifying force in this week's Torah portion, Tetzaveh, as interpreted by the Jerusalem Talmud. The Torah states that the High Priest (I'd prefer Prime Minister, but whatever) wears an onyx on each shoulder of his vestments:
Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six of their names on one stone and the names of the remaining six on the other.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 7:4) states:
Said Rabbi Johanan: "Benjamin was split: 'Ben' on one and 'Jamin' on the other."
Said Rabbi Zebida: "Indeed! Does it say: their six names? No, it says, 'six of their names'--part of their names, not all of their names."
So Benjamin is quite literally the uniter; you need to put the two stones together to read his name. This is true not only in rocks, but in dirt as well: once the Israelites cross the Jordan, Benjamin receives the critical territory in the center of the country, bridging Judah in the south, Joseph in the north, Gad in the east and Dan in the west.

In fact, Saul is neither the first nor the last of the wolf pack to unite the tribes. The period of the Judges begins in earnest with Benjamite Ehud ben Gera and his successor Shamgar ben Anat, ushering in an unequaled eighty-year Pax Judicia. Similarly, the post-exilic period is ushered in by Benjamites Mordecai and Esther (whose family tree shares many names with Saul's), who institute Purim, a new holiday to be celebrated, quite literally, by Jews far and near. In fact, Mordecai is the first person to be labelled "the Jew" even though his paternal line does not go back to Judah.

Thus, we see that Benjamin symbolizes unity and unification. The lone son of Jacob to be born in the Holy Land, the lone son to be innocent of sin in the Joseph episode (as well as any other wrongdoing, according to Talmud Shabbat 55b) fathers the tribe which creates the United Kingdom of Israel and later sticks with Judah when the Ten Tribes split off.

That's what makes the episode of the Concubine of Gibeah so shocking. The Book of Judges ends with the story of this brutal gang rape and murder. The Israelites want the perpetrators, from the Benjamite town of Gibeah, to be brought to justice (Jud. 20:11-14):
So all the men of Israel gathered together at the city as allies. The tribes of Israel sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “How could such a wicked thing take place? Now, hand over the miscreants in Gibeah so we can execute them and purge Israel of wickedness.” But the Benjamites refused to listen to their Israelite brothers. The Benjamites came from their cities and assembled at Gibeah to make war against the Israelites.
Benjamin is a unifying force here as well, but not for good. They go from being a tribe of Israel to an enemy of Israel, all in the name of sticking up for Gibeah. In the ensuing civil war, tens of thousands are killed on both sides, and Benjamin is almost exterminated.

This shows us the limits of ahdut, unity. Yes, the Jewish people have survived for millennia by sticking together. However, that value cannot undermine our basic commitment to justice. Clearly, the Benjamites of Judges 20 thought that the abuse of one woman was a trifling issue, to be ignored for the good of the whole. But covering up episodes of sexual violence does not preserve a society; it rots it from within. Justice, even for one individual, is the concern of the entire society. Without it, what is the purpose of a nation's survival at all?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You never forget your first

It's true what they say. It's been a quarter-century, but I still feel intimately connected to my first. I was preparing to become a bar mitzva, and my father felt that to become a man in the eyes of the Jewish world, I needed to make my first conquest: Sukka.
The height of Venetian fashion, in a fetching Daniel Bomberg typeset.
Sukka (rhymes with looka) is a Talmudic tractate which discusses Sukkot, the most important Jewish holiday most people have never heard of. Sukkot is light on the histrionics and historicity; instead, quite literally, it's "the time of our rejoicing." Sukka deals with the festival's three central mitzvot: a) chilling in a flora-roofed shelter; b) singing and dancing with the fruit and fronds of the Four Species; c) holding an OG House (of God) Party. Sukka has a great balance of lore and law, of history and hermeneutics. It's not one of those twiggy treatises that's an easy layn for those looking to seal the deal quickly, nor is it one of those intractable tractates that endlessly ponders arcana. Sukka, quite simply, has it all.

I bring this all up not only because of my own quadranscentennial, but because myriads of enthusiastic Talmudists will begin studying Sukka tomorrow, as part of the Daf Yomi system. The idea behind Daf Yomi (not to be confused with Daft Yomi, which involves silently studying Talmud while wearing metallic headgear) is shockingly simple: one folio, one double-sided page, every day of the year. Using this method, it takes about 7 1/2 years to study every tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (with some extras). This ancient practice dates back to the Coolidge administration, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland first noticed that many tractates were sadly neglected. Yeshivot kept coming back to the same few chapters in the same few treatises, leaving huge expanses of the Sea of Talmud uncharted and unknown. R. Shapiro, launching the project at a conference in Vienna, believed that Daf Yomi would unite and edify world Jewry, saving tractates like Sukka from obscurity.

But has it worked? On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Jews participate in Daf Yomi at some point; on the other hand, if the point was to broaden the exposure of yeshiva students to obscure material, it has been an abject failure. Daf Yomi became so popular that it is viewed by the yeshiva elite as balebatish, fine for the common folk who only have an hour or so to dedicate to daily Talmud study, but not for the full-time scholars.

So let's review what we expect from a yeshiva curriculum. Scripture? Good luck even finding a volume of the Prophets or Hagiographa; as for the Pentateuch, that's for Sabbath sermonizing, not serious study. Halakha? Don't be silly; that's kid stuff, relegated to a half-hour of independent study before breakfast or supper. Even a rabbinical student preparing for ordination has no reason to open two out of four volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, and on each of the handful of subjects he'll be tested on, he'll only need to know a few dozen chapters out of the remaining 1,100. Philosophy? Most of it is probably heresy, so let's look at only a few pre-approved books; more than an hour a day will certainly mess with your mind.
Essentially, yeshivot, which are supposed to be institutions of higher Jewish learning, ignore three-quarters of Jewish writing. But what about the Talmud? That's their bread and butter, right?

Not quite. See, the Talmud has multiple components. There's the Mishna, the original second-century composition. Then we have the Gemara from a few centuries later, which uses the Mishna as a jumping off-point for discussions of law and lore, in the form of the earlier and more concise Jerusalem Talmud and the later and more comprehensive Babylonian Talmud. Neither the Mishna nor the Jerusalem Talmud are touched in yeshivot, leaving only the Babylonian Talmud, which covers only 33 1/3 (stay weird, Tamid) of the original 60 Mishnaic tractates. So, this quadrant of Jewish thought, further halved both quantitatively and qualitatively, is the overwhelming majority of the yeshiva curriculum. Stunning.

However, that would only be relevant if yeshivot embraced Daf Yomi or some other system that would aim to circumnavigate the Talmud of Babylon. They don't. Most have cycles of their own, which revolve around the six tractates that deal with mostly theoretical cases of torts, business, marriage and divorce. In summertime (zeman kayitz), when the livin' is easy, you might find a yeshiva studying Mo'ed, the division of the Talmud dealing with the Sabbath and festivals, which is chock-full of relevant Jewish law. But Mo'ed ain't ready for prime time.

That's how I got my heart broken, almost eight years after I first made Sukka's acquaintance. I was 19, fresh from my Israeli yeshiva and back in New York, ready to conquer the world. I had spent the previous five years going back and forth between Kiddushin and Ketubot, and I was ready for something fresh and new. I had my seat right in front of one of the leading Talmudic minds of the time, an alumnus of my Israeli yeshiva, known for his inquisitiveness and intellect. And what was on the curriculum that year, breaking all precedent? My beloved Sukka! Finally, a chance to delve deep into the treatise I'd encountered shallowly as a callow youth. The rabbi strode in on day one, a bemused expression on his face, and opened his lecture with "So we're learning Sukka this year." Pause. "That's in Mo'ed." There's your laughline! Ha ha, you've been great, he's here all semester, please tip your shtender.

When I decided to transfer out of this class (and apparently others shared this inclination), a veteran student pulled me aside to set me straight. "It's not his fault, y'know. I mean, it's Sukka."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the remarkably uninformed graduates that yeshivot are putting out these days. It's not their fault that only a tiny corner of Jewish thought is deemed worthy of study. But it is our fault if we let that ignorance set the agenda for all of us.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Home pagancy test

OK, maybe I oversold this. It's not a test of paganism, but of heresy. At least according to the neoharedim who daily tell us that you just can't be a good Jew unless you believe that the text of the Torah doesn't and has never changed. This is not the first time that I've addressed the issue, but it's relevant because of this week's Torah portion, Teruma. Teruma describes (most of) the vessels and the structure of the Tabernacle, with one shining (shiny?) example being the Menorah. This is the same one featured prominently in the Emblem of the State of Israel, not to be confused with the one we light on Hanukka, which is technically a hanukkia (with an extra set of branches). In fact, the Temple Institute has a new Menorah all set to go.
 Now, I'm not here to tell you that Maimonides would say that they made it wrong--although he would (see Menahot 3:7), and he even drew a picture of what it should look like.
Source: Wikipedia, from Kafih's edition of Perush Hamishnayot, 1967
Source: Wikipedia, from Kafih's edition of Perush Hamishnayot, 1967
No, I'd like to talk about the text of the command to make the Menora, which will be read in the second or third reading this Shabbat--depends on your Humash. What depends on your Torah scroll is what the sixth word of the Menora passage will be: תעשה or תיעשה? A minor difference? Certainly; it doesn't even change the pronunciation of the word "tei-aseh." But the presence or absence of that letter yud, that literal iota, is significant. Remember, Maimonides says that a one-letter difference is enough to invalidate a Torah scroll (Laws of Torah Scrolls 7:11). Still, it's more than that. Centuries after Moses' Tabernacle, Solomon builds his Temple in Jerusalem, featuring ten Menorahs.
He made ten gold candelabras according to the specifications for them and placed them in the temple, five on the south side and five on the north. (II Chronicles 4:7; cf. I Kings 7:49)
Where does he get this idea? Commentators attribute this to the extra yud, the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
So, too it says concerning the Menorah, "teiaseh ha-menorah," with a yud, and this is why Solomon makes ten candelabras, for it is inconceivable that the Torah would command to make one Menorah and Solomon would then make ten. (Rabbeinu Bahya, Ex. 25:10) I have seen copies examined by the scholars of Tiberias, and fifteen of their elders testified that they inspected every word and every dot three times, every plene and every defective, and a yud is written in the word teiaseh. However, this is not what I found in the French, Spanish and English scrolls. And the ancients expounded that the additional yud alludes to the ten candelabra made by Solomon. (Ibn Ezra, Ex. 25:31)
These two medieval Spanish exegetes refer to the same Midrash, which is not known to us. R. Bahya b. Asher does not seem to be aware of any variation; ibn Ezra, who lived earlier but was far more well-traveled, seems well aware of this issue. Maimonides is not conflicted at all: his Yemenite Torah text has no yud. What does yours have? And which Torah do you have, the authentic Mosaic one or the corrupted one? The theological and philosophical questions of how we relate to the Bible are complex and convoluted. But a good place to start is the realization that there is only one One. Everything else is commentary.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Sinai lie

My rebbe lied to me. I don't know if he was merely passing along what he'd been told or if he made a deliberate choice not to share truths that might shatter our young minds. (That's the reason they taught us the orbital model of the atom, right? Or were our science books just really out of date?)
If you received a traditional Jewish education, you were probably taught the same thing: the Israelites leave Egypt on the 15th of the first month (NIssan), and they spend the next seven weeks learning that in the desert, the food is terrible, but the portions are small. (Luckily, this had no lasting ill effects on the Jewish psyche.) Then, on the fiftieth day, the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), they receive the Torah. This is why we still count 49 days after Passover nowadays and celebrate the fiftieth day as Shavuot.
Yeah, not so much. Consider this verse from the end of this week's Torah portion (Exodus 24:16):
And the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
As the Talmud (Yoma 4b) explains:
Rabbi Akiva concurs with the view of Rabbi Jose, that the Torah was given to Israel on the seventh of the month.
Now, there is a dissenting view that the Torah was given on the sixth (Talmud, Shabbat 86b-88a), but we follow the first view (with its halakhic implications). Ah, you might say, forget the date, the important thing is the day, the fiftieth day after the Exodus. Well, according to that same passage, there's no argument that the Torah was given on Saturday, or that the Exodus took place on a Thursday. So according to everyone, the Torah was given on Day 51. (Of course, if we want to eschew the Midrashic path and just look at the textual evidence, it seems that it wasn't the sixth or seventh day of Sivan that God spoke to the the people, but rather the third, cf. Exodus 19:11-16.) Are we commemorating the wrong day?
This problem has been noted by various commentators, including the Torah Temima (on the cited verse) and Magen Avraham (OH 494), but it's not the only one that arises as we consider what Sinai was. We say that the Torah was given there, but what does that mean? Was Moses truly surprised by all of the bad (or good) things that happened over the next forty years, as detailed in the Torah that he had already received? Perhaps it's only the commandments that Moses received? But so many of those commandments are linked to events that occur later!
OK, let's just stick to the Ten Commandments. That's pretty cut-and-dried, right? They even have a fancy name, the Decalogue. We can unequivocally say that those Ten Commandments were given by God to Israel in the first week of Sivan, after seven weeks of wandering, and you can read them verbatim in Ex. 20:2-13. Well, actually there's a different version in Deut. 5. And the first time we mention the Decalogue, it's ten very different commandments in Exodus 34.
Very well. Whatever those Ten Commandments were, God gave them to Israel at Sinai directly, and ever since--wait, I mean God was going to give them directly, but the people panicked (Ex. 20:14-17) and asked Moses to transmit the message. Or they heard the first two, and then they had Moses transmit the rest. One of those three, anyway.
Fine, it was God or Moses or both of them who spoke to the people of Israel, 600,000 men strong, and gave them--I mean, "about six hundred thousand" (Ex. 12:37). And after the war with Amalek, and the Golden Calf plague, and the killing of "about three thousand" directly by Moses and the Levites (ibid. 32:28), there were left... 603,550 (38:26)--the exact same number to be counted the next year, after the construction of the Tabernacle, even though the 22,000 (or 22,300) Levites were excluded (Num. 1:46). Even though 600,000 able-bodied men was a level achieved by the modern state of Israel only in 1967.
Is Sinai historical? No, nor is it supposed to be, as the Torah is not meant to be a history book. But does it belong to the realm of myth, metaphor or mnemohistory? No; at least, I don't believe so. Sinai is not history; Sinai is a happening. It is an integral part of the Jewish people, as is evidenced by the Bible itself and all that comes after it. Sinai is continually referenced in Scripture, as are the Patriarchs and the Exodus. There are miracles intertwined in those events, but they take place in a world recognizable to us, unlike Eden, the Deluge and the Tower of Babel. Recognizing Sinai as a real event, an occurrence, a happening is essential to our Jewish identity. The details have been and will continue to be debated for a long time. But that doesn't change or challenge our identity as souls who stood at Sinai.