Behar / Bechukotai – Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

Facebook_CoverDesign_Behar-Bechukotai"Sowing the seed,
my hand is one with the earth.
…Hungry and trusting,
my mind is one with the earth.
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth.

Wendell Berry’s poem "Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer" asks us to consider how the farmer is like the farm. Similarly, the strong language of covenantal prohibition in Leviticus calls on each of us as conscious consumers to draw boundaries around how we use and transform the natural world.

Transformative cycles of seven in biblical literature, in general, and here in Leviticus, in particular, recall the grandeur of creation that continues its unfolding revelation daily. That revelation is taking place every seventh year for the Sabbatical year, when all work on the land ceases so that its fruit is free for the taking, for both human and animal kingdoms.

Seven Sabbatical cycles (forty-nine years) culminate in a fiftieth year, crowned as the Jubilee year, on which work on all land ceases, all indentured servants are freed, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land of Israel that have been sold will then revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury conclude the reading of Behar.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in everything, including all other sentient beings. Lines of filiation run most directly through our own awareness of the transformative cycles that embrace us. If a human intelligence of the earth and sensitivity to its needs is one that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace, then perhaps Wendell Berry’s "mad" farmer is not so mad after all!

It is also illuminating to consider our network of intimate relationships and cycles in the context of charity. If you still haven’t had a conversation with a Mormon, try talking about tithing. Observant Mormons unflinchingly give ten percent of their pre-tax dollars to the church. And Jews? Not so consistent – perhaps this is why Jewish institutions continue to struggle as they do all across America. Why is it that a Mormon feels more commanded than a Jew to fulfill a biblical precept?

Earning material well-being is a necessity for the survival of civilization. But how often do we linger in the passionate embrace of the culture that is the fruit of our labors? Wisdom comes with an ability to both earn and enjoy.

In Parashat Bechukotai, the Israelites are promised that if the commandments are kept, they will enjoy the material prosperity they have rightly earned in addition to dwelling securely in the Holy Land. Conversely, should this covenant be abandoned or abrogated, there is a harsh rebuke, coupled with a warning of exile, persecution, and other manifestations of evil. Here, in Bechukotai, we also encounter a variety of pledges made as divine offerings, as well as the aforementioned spiritual practice of setting aside a tenth (tithing) of firstlings and first fruits.

True wisdom then comes from earning material well-being through civilization as well as the passionate embrace of culture so that we may enjoy in sharing this well-being with others. The understanding that in giving, you receive more than you give could not be more true or urgent today.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork depicts the arrival of the Jubilee year. Because the Jewish day begins at nightfall, the land is shown scattering rays of Jubilee joy at dusk. "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you..." (Leviticus 25:10) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tazria / Metzora – Leviticus 12:1-15:33

Facebook_CoverDesign_Tazria-MetzoraDebate still abounds as to how best translate the key terms tumah and taharah — signatures of Leviticus (see, for example, Chapter 12). Purity and impurity? Ritual fitness or exclusion? Death and rebirth? I continue to return to the inspired translation of theologian Rachel Adler, who teaches that tumah and taharah are best rendered as "a way of learning how to die and be reborn."

In Parashat Metzora, we encounter the moment where Miriam stokes the masses to revolt against the leadership of her brother, Moses, through the sin of slander. Some of our rabbinic interpretation suggests that the signs of the metzora really describe a person caught in a state of unpreparedness or inappropriateness for ritual engagement, a person who has not yet learned "how to die and be reborn."

But the spiritual malaise of tzara’at is not limited to one’s person; it can also spread to one’s home, as manifest by dark red or green patches on the walls. This disease is at once spiritual and physical because it leads to exclusion and is associated with strife and dissension that are often the natural fall-out of hate speech.

Tzara’at takes different forms today, including irate e-mails, bullying texts, and harassing phone messages, but the outcome is largely the same — exclusion, strife, and dissension. Our task is to find ways of returning to our relationships, especially in society, ready to re-engage fairly and wholly with others after we have purged ourselves of our disruptive and destructive patterns, able to return to that unsullied core of the soul within each and every one of us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: In These Are The Words, Rabbi Arthur Green writes that the ritual defilements that Leviticus is preoccupied with all stem from "improper contact with the portals of birth and death, the limits of life as we know it." This week's illustration is meant to call to mind a sensuous plume of smoke – the sacrificial offering – but was created using the documented action of subatomic particles in a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) bubble chamber – itself a beautiful artifact of our species' ongoing attempts to learn more about the origins and limits of life. 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

Our Talmud Shiur Resumes

TractateShabbatHenry Hollander, leader of our CBS Talmud shiur (study or lesson), wants to learn with you. Talmud study returns next Tuesday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m. in the Main Meeting Room. Participants will begin 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.

As the shiur prepares to resume after a brief break, Henry has decided to contribute regular blog posts that explore the Talmud, thus allowing members of the community who can not participate in the Tuesday night sessions to appreciate a taste of the wonder and complexity the Talmud offers. The first of these appears below.

* * * * *
What is Talmud Study?

Chapter One: In which a simple question proves not so simple.

What is Talmud study? Talmud study is distinct from other types of Jewish text study. It is an investigation of the Oral Torah rather than the Written Torah. What does that mean?

Written Torah is the Tanakh – Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, also known as The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. Tanakh is the combined canonized text of the Jewish Bible (alternatively known as Mikra or the Hebrew Bible, but never the deeply offensive "Old Testament.") When we listen to a rabbi’s sermon or study Parsha HaShavua (the weekly Torah portion) we are studying the Written Torah directly. If we read Rashi, Nachmanides, Nechama Leibowitz, or Aviva Zornberg, we are reading Oral Torah commentaries on the Written Torah.

Every Jewish text that has appeared after the texts canonized in the Written Torah is the Oral Torah. The Written Torah mixes narrative and legal material freely. These types of thought diverged into more specialized discussions in the oral lore that began as soon as the Written Torah was revealed. These separate threads are referred to as aggadah (Rabbinic literature) and halacha (Jewish Law). Aggadah develops into a body of texts referred to broadly as the midrash. Midrash includes Pirek de Rebbe Eliezer, Midrash Rabbah, the Mekhiltas, Sifre, and others. These works comment directly and closely on Tanakh. Midrash is often said to be an effort to fill in the vast open spaces in Biblical narrative left open by the Tanakh’s laconic style, and this is certainly true. Midrash is quirky and explosively imaginative. Over time, the midrash has taken on the role of a canonized text, but its direct origins are in rabbinic sermons of the first and second centuries. As printed books, these works are organized to show how they directly depend on and relate to the structure of Written Torah.

The Zohar, the central mystical text of Judaism and the seed out of which much of subsequent Jewish mysticism grows, is also organized as a commentary on the Five Books of Moses. While the Zohar flies as far as the mind will let it, it always returns to the end of the day to the Written Torah like a homing pigeon.

But the Talmud is not organized around the Written Torah. It is organized as a commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the body of text that emerged out of the oral discussions of the halacha. (Besides the Mishnah, vital but less central early halachic texts are the Tosefta and the various small traditions recorded in Baraitot.) Mishnah is an explication of how one should go about the practical details of observing the halachot (laws) that we find in the Tanakh.

We also refer to these laws at the 613 mitzvot. Some mitzvot seem clear, such as "Thous Shalt Not Kill." Others, such as "A Jealous Husband Must Take His Wife to the Priests and Not Put Oil on Her Meal Offering," are a bit more opaque. Like all rules, Biblical law often seems much more easily understood in theory than in practice.

The Mishnah speaks in its own voice. Even though it derives its subject and meaning from an aspect of the Tanakh it does not quote from Tanakh nor is it organized around the structure of the Tanakh.

Mishnah is the central element of Talmud. Talmud includes the Mishnah and a later, vastly larger, text referred to as the Gemara. The Gemara purports to be a commentary on the Mishnah. (When we open a page of Talmud, we see much more on the page, but that's a subject for another day.) The Mishnah is an organized and thorough effort to make obeying the will of God a practical possibility. It is also an assertion that the human relationship with the Divine functions as a result of the probing human intellect at work.

Where does this come from? How true is the last assertion above? And what is Talmud study?

Next week, I will discuss the origins of the Mishnah and the "writtenness" of the Written Torah.

READ CHAPTER TWO: In which Talmud study will be explained without a single reference to the Talmud itself.

Image credit: A photograph of the title page of Tractate Shabbat in a 1865 printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Julius Sittenfeld, Germany