Nitzavim / VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30

American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once duly remarked: "One's philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes... and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility."

Life is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in Parashat Nitzavim. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year. As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, which belies a deeper calling to responsibility.

Reading Parashat VaYelekh, we consider another kind of responsibility – that of memory. As we struggle moment to moment in our over-programmed lives to continuously remember a present called consciousness, we should heed the words of English artist and critic John Berger, who once observed that "the camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other god has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget."

Parashat VaYelekh reminds us to never forget the exemplary life of Moses, who reaches his 120th year fully active (even in his short-lived retirement!). Among his final acts recounted here, Moses announces the transition in leadership to Joshua and also concludes the writing of the Torah scroll, now entrusted to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

Additionally, he explains that every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot, the entire people of Israel are commanded to "gather" together in the Jerusalem Temple in a rite that comes to be known as the mitzvah of hak’hel. The gathering is a sacred moment of communal assembly, one during which those present hear the king read from the Torah scroll. Yet alongside this injunction to gather and read together, there is the acknowledgement that the Israelites will inevitably turn away from their covenant with the divine. When this turning happens, they will experience an eclipse of the divine face, as it were, even though the words of Torah will never be forgotten.

Judaism is both a day-to-day spiritual practice as well as a legacy project never to be forgotten – our challenge is how to strike the appropriate balance amidst our overly-surveyed lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 31:18 ("And I will hide My face on that day…"). In his book, God and the Big Bang, Daniel C. Matt points out that "according to the mystics, [the Hebrew word for 'universe,' olam], derives from the same root as ‘hiding,’ he’lem." Matt describes our relationship with God as a "cosmic game of hide-and-seek," and asserts that "divine energy pervades all material existence." Here, an atom, the basic building block of matter, is seen partially obscured by a scrim or some substance. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

"What Is Talmud Study?" Chapter Two

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study is back, meeting each Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants are studying the fourth chapter of Tractate Shabbat using the Adin Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud. If you don’t have a copy, bring a tablet or laptop so that you can use the free online version.

Henry is contributing regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus providing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions with a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. Chapter Two of his exploration appears below.

You can read "CHAPTER ONE: In which a simple question proves not so simple" by clicking here.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter Two: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself. (Have you read Tristram Shandy? If not, you really should. Poor Tristram becomes quite familiar with this sort of thing.)

As I discussed last week, the Written Torah consists of Torah, Prophets, and Writings – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. We know that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple all of the books of the Tanakh existed in written form. We have the physical examples that were discovered at Qumran on the Dead Sea. Some people believe that the entire Tanakh is the precise word of God. If we accept this (and even if we don’t), how did the word of God come to be written down?

Writing and Jewish law (halacha) are connected from the beginning within the Tanakh. The first mitzvot to be revealed are the Ten Commandments. These come in two drafts. The first, written by "the Hand of God," doesn’t make it to us intact. The one that we actually get to read from is inscribed into stone by Moses.

There are a number of lessons about writing in the Jewish tradition that we can learn from this story:
1) Use of the written word is an attribute that we share with the Divine.
2) Our written texts, physically produced by human hands, are sufficiently similar to those produced by the Divine "Hand" that they can have the full authority of the words of the Divine.
3) The written word can partake of the same permanence – that is, the same perfection – as the word of the Divine received directly.

The Written Law has the virtues of permanence and fixity. Appearing in the written text, it provides a certainty on which the believer can base their confidence that the will of God can be known, followed, and be made a source of constant support.

These virtues can also become weaknesses, however. Permanence is the extreme of orthodoxy. Humanity is ever shifting in location, social mores, technology, artistry, and even temperament. As long as the Law remains at the center of human concerns, permanence works in its favor. But, if the law becomes dislodged from that center even slightly, that permanence is transformed into a weakness.

If the Law requires a physicality, it is always threatened. The first set of tablets is smashed. The people remain without the benefit of the Law until a second set of tablets can be carved for them. Dependence on fixity of physical permanence stifles the preservation of the Law through memory. When the Law enters memory through repeated reading or through memorization of an oral text, it enters the mesh of human memory and, like the human mind as a whole, becomes malleable.

In the First Temple period, both sets of tablets lie in the Ark. They are not brought forth. We never hear of the reading of the Law until the reign of Hezekiah, when a lost scroll (generally assumed to be the Book of Deuteronomy) is rediscovered during the renovation of the Temple. It becomes clear from the aftermath of the reading of that scroll that the Israelites (Judahites) had forgotten most of what Moses had taught. The quality of Jewish faith in the First Temple period seems thin to us now. It appears to be a brittle monotheism lacking all of the intellectual ferment that we associate with the Jewish mind.

The nations of Israel and Judah come under dire threat in the eras of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The coming of a new or renewed faith among Jacob’s children starts to become visible. Writing and the technology of writing plays a part in this change.

Next week, we'll find hints of an explanation of the ties that bind the Written Law to the Oral Law.

READ CHAPTER THREE: In which God uses his words and Abraham uses sharp objects.
Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany

VaYelekh -- Deuteronomy 31:1 – 30

facebook_coverdesign_vayelekhA remarkable conversation between two Jewish luminaries took place a few years ago, when neuroscientist Eric Kandel (b. 1929) and survivor-activist Elie Wiesel (1928- 2016) – both Nobel Laureates – reflected on memory and forgetting. Wiesel reminded us that we must never forget, while Kandel taught that the best way to do this is by remaining active, social, and creative into your golden years.

As we struggle moment to moment in our over-programmed lives to continuously remember a present called consciousness, we should heed the words of these luminaries: "Keep the past alive in you, and actively use it to create a better future."

This week’s reading of Parashat VaYelekh reminds us to never forget the exemplary life of Moses, who reaches his 120th year fully active (even in his short-lived retirement!). Among his final acts recounted here, Moses announces the transition in leadership to Joshua and also concludes the writing of the Torah scroll, now entrusted to the Levites for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant.

Additionally, he explains that every seven years, during the festival of Sukkot, the entire people of Israel are commanded to "gather" together in the Jerusalem Temple in a rite that comes to be known as the mitzvah of hak’hel. The gathering is a sacred moment of communal assembly, one during which those present hear the king read from the Torah scroll. Yet alongside this injunction to gather and read together, there is the acknowledgement that the Israelites will inevitably turn away from their covenant with the divine. When this turning happens, they will experience an eclipse of the divine face, as it were, even though the words of Torah will never be forgotten.

Judaism is both a day-to-day spiritual practice as well as a legacy project never to be forgotten – our challenge is how to strike the appropriate balance.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by Deuteronomy 31:16–17: "And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them..." The image can be interpreted in many different ways, but it was informed by specific and rather literal thinking. Having worked for almost a decade in the neuroscience lab of Paul Greengard, who shared the Nobel Prize with Eric Kandel, I was thinking of the electric thicket of neurons and synapses contained in each of our brains, and how physiological changes to these cells can lead to perceptual deficiencies (e.g., hidden faces). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Nitzavim -- Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

facebook_coverdesign_nitzavimLife is a series of choices. And sometimes having to make choices may not serve us well, even if it appears that each choice in the series seems perfectly well suited to serving our concerns. In such cases, philosophers will say we encounter a "dynamic choice" problem. When there are too many choices spread out over time, how do you navigate them all? Too often, we see the results of poor choices include self-destructive or addictive behavior and dangerous environmental ruination.

I suggest that Torah has its own pragmatic dynamic choice theory which shines through in this week's parsha. As Moses makes clear: "It is not in the heavens… neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:12-14). Moses is reinforcing the practical nature of Torah and its pragmatic application to a life well lived as he reaches his 120th year.

As Moses gets ready to transition leadership responsibilities to Joshua, he concludes writing the teachings of Torah in an actual scroll, which is then placed for safekeeping in the Ark of the Covenant. This Torah scroll is meant to be read by the king at a gathering in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem every seventh year (during the festival of Sukkot and the first year of the Shmita cycle). The concern for continuity shines through in the pragmatic dynamic choice theory of Torah, lest its song be forgotten by the next generation.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Deuteronomy 30:3: "Then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you." Our Jewish experience of exile, or galut, fundamentally shapes our national and corporate identity and imagination. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): Mistaking Cupid For A Cherub

cupid-valentine_10This week, elementary schools and drug stores across the United States are filled with red and pink decorations and illustrations of a fat, winged baby with a bow and arrow. This portrayal of Cupid, the Greco-Roman god of desire (or, according to medieval Christians, "the demon of fornication"), was popularized by Greek artists during the Hellenisitic period, over 2,000 years ago. Ancient vintage notwithstanding, the depiction remains the most common one today.

Pop quiz time! Do you call that chubby, winking Cupid a cherub or a putto? Or perhaps you believe the two are the same?

If you're like most people, you identify this "cute" Cupid as a cherub, or think that a cherub and putto are equivalent. But most people are wrong, at least technically speaking. (If we want to get really technical, a fat, winged Cupid is a particular type of putto called an amorino.)

So what exactly is a putto, and what does any of this have to do with Judaism? According to Wikipedia, a putto is "a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged." Putto is just the singular of the more familiar putti. Erstwhile art history students should recognize the latter term (as well as this celebrated ceiling fresco by Andrea Mantegna, which features a number of putti doing their putti thing).

Importantly, in the context of Jewish theology, a putto is most definitely NOT a cherub! Cherubs (or cherubim) are much more exciting and mysterious than the baby-faced, winged chubsters most of us have in mind when we describe someone as "cherubic." Cherubim figure prominently in Jewish angelology -- although, as with all things Jewish, there is much disagreement about what exactly they are. In Genesis, two cherubim guard the path to the Tree of Life, but these guards aren't described in detail; we're told only that they're armed with flaming swords. The prophet Ezekiel, however, describes cherubim much more vividly.

CoverDesign_Terumah"Every one had four faces: the first face was the face of an ox, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. ... The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it."

Ezekiel's astonishing, even frightening vision is generally dismissed by modern rationalists as the product of an addled mind, but there is symbolic and philosophical value in appreciating cherubim as terrible agents of G-d. Jewish mystics understood this. Perhaps recalling the fiery exchange of Ezekiel's cherubim, they came to prioritize the charged space between the sculpted cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (described in this week's parsha) as a kind of spiritual singularity. This week's Shabbat handout artwork (pictured just above) is an abstract depiction of that creatively and spiritually charged space.

So it's your call. When you hear the word cherub, you can think of a butterball who shoots you in the butt with an arrow and giggles sweetly. Or you can ponder chimeric manifestations of a sublime and terrible force. While we acknowledge that the latter won't sell Valentine's Day cards, we think one is a lot more interesting than the other.

Image credit: Top, Cupid emoticon by Symbols & Emoticons; Bottom, Christopher Orev Reiger, for CBS