Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1–17:27

How often have you taken advantage of a last minute travel deal?

Today, it may feel good not to know where you will travel until the very last minute; it allows you to discover some new, exotic destination at a great rate. In the ancient Near Eastern mind, however, that same sense of journeying without knowing the destination borders on the absurd. To journey in search of an undisclosed place, as later rabbinic commentators emphasize ad absurdum, positions such a seeker as a madman. After all, if you do not where you are going, the route is filled with endless obstacles and surprises. But in stressing just how outlandish a decision Abram makes, the rabbis are drawing our attention back to the remarkable text in Torah: God commands Abram to relocate and take leave — "Go forth form your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. Sometimes these transformations begin with taking that first step into the unknown.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is connected to Abram's moment of calling. "Go forth!" "Leave Chaldea!" James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) describes Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of this episode: "Philo says something happens: 'opening [its] eye from the depth of sleep,' the soul suddenly becomes aware of God's presence. At that point God will say to the soul, as He Said to Abraham, 'Leave Chaldea!' – that is, leave your old way of thinking, in which the human senses are considered to be the only form of perception, and proceed on to a new way of thinking and, ultimately, to the Promised Land of knowing God." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

"Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20)

What does it take to pursue justice in an unjust world? I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who commented that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." Dr. King's message, as is so often the case, was inspired by a shared theology that emanated from the Hebrew Bible, and is plainly apparent in Parashat Shoftim.

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts an unsettled landscape with a road leading in the direction of a distant city. In fact, these hills are in Marin and the city skyline belongs to present-day San Francisco. Because of topographic similarities and the prominent role Jewish immigrants played in San Francisco's history, many Bay Area Jews view the city as our "American Jerusalem" and the region as our Promised Land. It's worth noting, however, that contrary to many claims, San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city is not a latter day iteration of Parashat Shoftim's city of refuge prescription. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtchananHow does empathy resonate with you?

American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once remarked that, "Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy'."

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a riff on Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, a famous painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. The art historian Malcolm Andrews describes Wanderer as a representation of "the gulf...between the human and the vast world of nature." In our version, the gulf is not so much between humanity and the rest of nature (although that dichotomy is central to the Hebrew Bible), but a gulf between one particular wanderer and the land he has been called to, but will never know. Here, Moses surveys the Holy Land from afar. "Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan." (Deuteronomy 3:27) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tisha B'av: A Meaningful Fast

By the numbers, fewer and fewer non-Orthodox Jews are fasting for Tisha B'Av. Some even argue that we shouldn't fast! We hope to provide you with an opportunity to reconnect with the meaning and power of the Ninth of Av.

On Monday, July 31, please join CBS and Makor Or for a moving evening of meditation, reflection, and what Rabbi Glazer describes as "the sacred theater of Lamentations." Return on Tuesday, August 1, to discover the value of marking Tisha B'Av in community.

Tisha B'av At-A-Glance:
The fast begins at 8:19 p.m. on Monday, July 31, and ends on Tuesday, August 1, at 8:45 p.m.
Monday, July 31: Makor Or Meditation, 7–8 p.m., Makom Sholom
Monday, July 31: Tisha B’Av service, 8–9:30 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av morning service, 7–9 a.m., Gronowski Family Chapel
Tuesday, August 1: Tisha B'Av evening service, 6–7 p.m., Gronowski Family Chapel


20110805_Rand1Av Writing to us from Jerusalem, where he is currently teaching and studying, Rabbi Glazer shares the following insight about honoring and observing Tisha B'Av.

I’ve been thinking recently of an inconsolable child, one that I discovered in an astonishing text I've been teaching this summer.

Lamentations, the core biblical text recited on the floor during the 9th of Av, recounts the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples and presents the divine need for consolation. The God of the biblical Lamentations is either the wailing Daughter of Zion or the fallen God of War. But in the late medieval Spanish commentary called Zohar Hadash, the text I have been teaching, it is an inconsolable child who is wailing. Wandering through the ruins of Jerusalem, we run into these orphaned children sifting through the ashes of Jerusalem and crying out:

"Every day we approach Mother’s bed, but we do not find Her there. We ask after Her — no one heeds us. We ask after Her bed – overturned. We ask after Her throne – collapsed. We ask Her palaces – they swear they know nothing of Her whereabouts. We ask the dust – not footprints there."

I hear the wailing of the real Children of Israel in Zohar Hadash who are crying, "We are the orphans, without Father or Mother! We cast our eyes upon the walls of our Mother’s house, but it is destroyed, and we can’t find Her…" No longer servants or children, we are all now orphans. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, we orphans bang our heads against a wall that is also wailing. We are like children crying out, "Mommy, Mommy, wall, wall!"

My words here echo Zohar Hadash's imagined barbed missives, sent back and forth by Babylonian Jewry to Israeli Jewry, each challenging the other's authenticity and attacking the "bad faith" of the other Jewish population. In choosing not to leave the diaspora of Babylon, you should weep for yourselves, not the Temple you never frequented, quips the Israeli community. You chose your fate because your self-concern overrides your concern for the Temple and the Holy Land. The response of Babylonian Jewry from the depths of diaspora comes later on, when they finally have enough courage to respond to their Israeli brethren:

"It is fitting that you cry, and it befits you to eulogize and mourn when you see Mother’s sanctuaries destroyed, the place of Her bed upended in mourning. She is absent, having flown away from you, leaving you unaware of Her whereabouts. You might say She is with us in exile, dwelling among us. If so, we should rejoice, for indeed the prophet Ezekiel saw Her here with all Her legions. But actually for this we must weep and eulogize, like jackals and desert ostriches. She has been banished from Her chambers and we are in exile. She comes to us in bitterness and sees us daily in all our afflictions, with all the statues and decrees they impose upon us constantly. But She cannot remove these scourges from us, nor all the ordeals that we suffer."

So we, as diaspora Jews, join the orphans of Jerusalem as jackals and desert ostriches, deeply devoid of any possible consolation in the current ruins of a Jerusalem that is tearing the Jewish people apart — it just makes you wanna cry! And that's precisely why you should join us on Tisha B'Av — that's the point of a real dirge!

As we enter this Tisha B’Av 5777, let's all listen more deeply to the caterwauling concatenation of the inconsolable child. Let us never forget that as a community of orphans we continue mourning the emptiness of our collective authenticity – this wandering and weeping within us all, wailing these words, "Mommy, mommy, wall, wall!" as a naive child. Nevertheless, the child presses on, searching for his divine mother, long gone from the wall, so all that remains is his inconsolable wailing.

Yonder is your consolation coming, O orphaned ones...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Archie Rand, "Av," 1993, Oil and enamel on canvas

Report From Dublin

Rabbi Glazer recently participated in Philosophizing Monotheism, a conference at the National University of Ireland, Dublin. On his return to the States, he shared the inspiring report below.



The wonderful conference was the culmination of an ongoing relationship I have been cultivating with a group of Israeli academics. I've done so with a few intentions in mind.

Ireland2Firstly, I aim to increase the intellectual and spiritual exchange between Israeli and Diaspora scholars that has been challenged recently by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, especially the arm of the movement that calls for an academic boycott of Israel. Secondly, it is essential that we collaborate across our Jewish spheres on academic projects that will shape the future thinking of Judaism and monotheisms more broadly. Thirdly, to further the awareness and integration of these collaborations, I hope to publish and disseminate gleanings from the ongoing exchanges taking place in Israel, Europe, and America.

Aside from having the gift of focused time to present, listen, reflect, question, and dialogue with each other for uninterrupted hours on end, this was a unique meeting of scholars and philosophers of religion from many walks of life, all sharing a passion for what I call Critical Judaism and Critical Religion. To be able to interrogate the core of our respective monotheistic religions in freedom without fear of persecution is a relatively recent modern phenomenon. On the one hand, this gathering recalled the medieval, magical moments of Convivencia during a golden age of Spain (if not the one usually spoken of), when philosophers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were in constant fruitful exchange and allowed each other's theological thinking to challenge, influence, and inspire each other. On the other hand, as Irish philosopher Dermot Moran commented, my theological investigations (which coincide with his research on Dionysius and Don Scotus) put me in the good company of Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza and Giordano Bruno, both of whom were excommunicated for their heresies from their modern communities. Alas, today we live in a very different world. Such accusations of heresy would demand a kind of caring and religious literacy that seems to be rapidly dissolving, especially in the religious spheres of America.

Ireland1Over these days we were blessed to spend together, I came to realize the gift of scholarly exchange from my vantage point as a scholar-rabbi, especially with Israeli colleagues, living both in Israel and in the European Diaspora. They all equally appreciated my perspective, especially when it turned to questions of the future of religious institutions and applications of critical thinking. The quality of conversation and the feeling that our reflections about God, the world, and humanity matter could not be more urgent and inspiring. At this juncture, being in Ireland, presenting in English, and thinking through all the layers of monotheisms, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, mysticism, Hasidism, and its abiding influence on the big questions in philosophy of religion like ethics, justice, cosmotheism, conversion, and doubt will continue to resonate with all of us as we part ways. After a year of planning, we all experienced a light that only appears when scholars from across religious and philosophical boundaries come together in free exchange.

I am grateful as well as for my training at the Center for the Study of Religions at University of Toronto, which really paved the way for this kind of exchange. One of the most remarkable moments for me came in reuniting with a colleague from graduate studies at the Center for the Study of Religions, Mahdi Tourage, (an Iranian refugee to Canada in 1986) to see how decades later we both remained attuned to so many parallel theological concerns in our respective traditions of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms. It was both inspiring and alarming that Mahdi's courageous paper could only be accepted at a forum like this one given that his insightful, critical thinking remains on the margins of the Islamic academe. Ironically, as we discussed this situation at length, he shared with me the struggle that even renowned Jewish scholars of Islam like Aaron Hughes experience with their remarkable critical scholarship, most recently, with Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity. Clearly, the more opportunities there are to normalize and disseminate this kind of critical discourse on the philosophy of religions, especially in Islam, the better the world is poised to enable the evolution of monotheisms.

Gathered outside the conference center in the top photo (left to right) are: Ward Blanton (University of Kent), Itzhak Benyamini (University of Haifa), Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, Dermot Moran (University College Dublin), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Mahdi Tourage (University of Western Ontario), Raphael Zagury-Orly (Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), and Joseph Cohen (University College Dublin). Elad Lapidot (Humboldt Universitat, Berlin) and Maureen Junker-Kenny (Trinity College, Dublin) participated, but were already off to other conferences by the time of this photograph.

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.

Tzav – Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

Facebook_CoverDesign_TzavLeviticus is a challenging book to absorb. On one hand, many observant Jews the world over consider the Priestly tradition (as articulated throughout Leviticus) to be obsessed with time-conditioned commands that are far removed from our lived experience today. On the other hand, thanks to the biased scholarship of Julius Wellhausen, critical readers of the Hebrew Bible have unquestioningly inherited a negative view of the Priestly Code, regarding it as a theology that tends towards denaturalization and abstracts the natural conditions and motives of the actual life of the people in the land of Canaan. Thankfully, in her book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen Davis argues that the opposite is the case – namely, that Leviticus articulates a theologically profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order.

So what then is the relationship between obedience and commandedness [t'zivui] and how does it affect our relationship to sacral duties [mitzvot]?

From hearing the calling to obeying the command [tzav], Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's sons all receive the divine command regarding their duties as priests [kohanim] to make offerings [qorbanot] in the Sanctuary. The fire on the altar must be kept burning at all times, so as to completely consume: the ascent offering [‘olah]; veins of fat from the peace offering [shelamim]; sin offering [hatat]; guilt offering [asham]; and the handful taken from the meal offering [minha]. The priests are permitted to eat the meat of the sin and guilt offerings, as well as the remainder of the meal offering. The peace offering is offered by the one who brought it, with sections apportioned to the priest. Consumption of the holy meat offerings are to be eaten by a person for whom it is ritually appropriate, in a designated place and time. Initiation into the priesthood for Aaron and his sons takes place over the seven day retreat in the sanctuary compound.

What makes this profound vision of the complex interdependency of the created order real is the degree to which human beings responsibly participate in that order.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s artwork is inspired by the following instruction: "An earthenware vessel in which [the sin offering] is cooked shall be broken..." (Leviticus 6:21) 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

Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Facebook_CoverDesign_ParashatVayikraIt was recently reported that some Bible teachers at a Californian Christian seminary cited the lack of recycling bins on campus as a pure expression of their faith – namely, that by using up resources as quickly as possible, they were hastening the coming of the Lord and the New Creation. With the rise of Jewish start-ups like Urban Adamah and Wilderness Torah, it appears as though a swath of the Bay Area Jewish community is taking a very different tack. How can such diverse reading communities justify their reading of the Hebrew Bible as authentic?

Ellen Davis argued in her agrarian reading of the Bible, that "when the biblical codes are reread in light of the contemporary agrarian writers, it is evident that Torah is setting human life in the larger context that Aldo Leopold once termed 'the land community,' arguing that we may understand our situation differently, and more realistically by extending the boundaries of ethical consideration 'to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land'."

That is the challenge being posed to us as we enter into the Book of Leviticus [Vayikra]. It describes in great details the laws of offerings, whether meal or animal, which include: (1) Ascent offering [‘olah] — wholly raised up in ascent to the divine by fire atop the altar; (2) Meal offering [minha] — prepared of fine flour, olive oil, and frankincense; (3) Peace offering [shelamim] — animal burned on the altar, with parts given to the priest and other meat eaten by the one bringing the offering; (4) Sin offering [hatat] — brought to atone for transgressions committed in error by the high priest, the entire community, the king, or any Israelite; (5) Guilt offering [asham] — brought by one who has misappropriated property of the sanctuary or is in doubt of transgression.

The namesake of this third book of the Pentateuch is a calling to extend the boundaries of ethical consideration to all sentient beings as a blessing.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration shows the skull of a bull – an ascent offering, or ‘olah. Parashat Vayikra includes detailed laws regarding cattle sacrifices. The Hebrew word for a sacrificial offering is korban, the root of which means "to be close to someone/thing." Most contemporary readers of the Tanakh are removed from the act of slaughter, making it difficult for them to appreciate that the killing and burning of korbanot were not merely (brutal) means of atonement; they were essential parts of a sensual, celebratory communion with the Divine (that concluded, appropriately, with a meal). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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

Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1-17:27

facebook_coverdesign_lechlechaWe move from the displacement associated with the Tower of Babel at the end of last week’s reading to even deeper displacement this week as the Torah introduces us to the journey of Abram and Sarai.

Their leaving home can be thought of as the setting of a tripwire, a process of setting in motion dramatic change. The challenge of starting out on a new venture — which is not limited to physical relocation — is perennial. We are constantly setting the tripwire of change; nothing in life is permanent.

Little surprise then that the Hebrew Bible has no sense of place permanence – the ancestral house or furniture can not be assumed. Instead of such a legacy, God commands Abram to take leave — "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1).

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. The next covenant, this one of circumcision, is enacted by Abraham upon himself and his son, Isaac, while Hagar is banished with Ishmael. In leaving home and beginning this new venture that comes to be known as Judaism, Abram becomes Abraham ("father of multitudes") and Sarai becomes Sarah ("princess"). And so the journey continues...

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the vision Abram had following his defeat of King Chedorlaomer. "After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, 'Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.'" (Genesis 15:1) Here, we see a shield form on a yellow field. The shape of the shield and its markings – at once ocular and solar – are based on designs archaeologists associate with ancient Mesopotamia. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'et'hanan -- Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaEtHananWhat is empathy to you?

German philosopher Theodor Lipps (1851–1914) often reflected on the quality of empathy, or Einfühlung, seeing it as a key to understanding our aesthetic experiences as well as the primary basis for recognizing each other as thinking, acting creatures. Lipps contends that empathy explains the felt immediacy of our aesthetic appreciation of objects. Because we unconciously project our interior states onto the external objects we encounter, we will perceive an object as beautiful if our internal experiences are positive and as ugly if our internal state is negative.

Such oscillation of our empathic experiences resonates with Moses’ proclamation – one that elicits positive empathy — that there is no religion without ethics. Sinai was an encounter with the divine (theophany) that was sealed into the communal heart through Exodus, while this legacy moment in Deuteronomy is designed to be didactic, to emphasize the implications of the Sinai encounter in the communal mind.

In studying Mosaic law, we engender a positive empathy to spiritual practice. This process is a critical marker of Jewish identity that emerges from the Hebrew Bible. More than mere intellectual study, Torah study is a contemplative commitment whereby, in repeatedly encountering and pondering these laws, we are awakened to a newfound awareness, whether through affixing the mezuzah to every passageway, donning tefillin to connect head- to heart-filled action (6:8-9; 11:18-20), affixing tzitzit to our four-cornered garments (22:12), as well as reaching out to the needy (15:8).

No book has had as lasting an impact on the evolution of monotheism within Western civilization as Deuteronomy, and no statement has shaped Jewish consciousness as much as the Shema (6:4). This quintessential Jewish prayer — "Hear, O Israel! YHVH is our God, YHVH alone." — continues to resonate with positive empathy, not only as our final words as we pass onto the next world, but in this world, right here, right now.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the description of the theophany at Sinai in Parashat Va'et'hanan: "And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness." (Deuteronomy 4:11) This foundational episode of our religion is fundamentally impossible to depict – it is incomprehensibly grand and stupefying – but perhaps this hybrid supernova-eye imagery captures something of the moment's profound awe. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Tisha B'Av

"Goin’ to leave this Broke-down Palace
On my hands and my knees I will roll roll roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time - in my time - I will roll roll roll.
"

Why bother fasting on Tisha B’Av?

Broke-down Palace was first performed here, in San Francisco, on August 18, 1970, at the Fillmore West, appearing in the number six spot in the first (acoustic) set.

There is a moving anecdote about Broke-down Palace involving the American novelist and Merry Prankster, Ken Kesey. Kesey was renowned for appearing somewhat confused and disjointed, mixed in with his moments of genius, particularly as he reflected upon the death of his son. Kesey’s son died in a tragic accident, when the high school wrestling team's van drove off a cliff during a snow storm. Not long after his son's death, Kesey was invited to see the Grateful Dead play a gig somewhere on the West Coast. During the second set, the whole band turned to him and began playing Broke-down Palace. With tears in his eyes, Kesey later explained that it wasn't until that moment that he really understood the truly transcendent purpose of art, as he put it: "All my life I thought art was this [he stuck a fist in the air]. But at that moment I realized that art was really this [he made a hugging motion]."

So I ask again, why bother fasting on Tisha B’Av?

Many progressives with utopian aspirations feel that there is no longer any reason to fast. After all, who really wants to rebuild another "Broke-down Palace"? And of course, there is the modern State of Israel.

But think again! Expand your spiritual horizons and join us this coming Saturday evening at CBS, starting at 7:45 p.m., for reflection and meditation in Makom Shalom with Makor Or as we prepare the heart to enter into the sacred theater of Lamentations, which we will read at 8:50 p.m.

The Book of Lamentations itself is a singular work of genius in the Hebrew Bible. While it appears to be a standard template from the genre of Near Eastern laments, or kinnot, precious little of the focus is actually on the Temple cult itself. Here’s the rub — Tisha B’av and Lamentations beckon us to be present in our spiritual lives to degradation, poverty, homelessness, shame, anger, and rupture from God. And to top it off, there is the unmitigated audacity of the Sages (of blessed memory) in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (20:5), who suggested but a few hundred years after the Second Temple’s destruction that the possibility of rebirth and creativity actually emerges from the ashes of destruction! The birthday of the Messiah is also purported to take place on Tisha B’Av! And then there is the fact that "Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day" is six days later — aka Tu B’Av! And how do we reconcile the teaching of Rabbi Aha in the name of Rabbi Yohanan who suggests that Israel "produced many more righteous people in its destruction than when it was built up"?

Tisha B'Av is a time for us to look deeper inside our hearts, acknowledge the brokenness, and to sing along with the Montreal bard:

"There is a crack, a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in!"

Only after you have experienced the catastrophe can the song then be sung:

"In my time - in my time - I will roll roll roll..."

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Behar -- Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

CoverDesign_Behar_FacebookCycles are enticing, entrancing, and mesmerizing. The American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) once remarked: "We might possess every technological resource... but if our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be ‘revolutionary’ but not transformative."

The seven transformative cycles that appear in biblical literature -- and feature prominently in this week's parsha -- 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.

Now consider for a moment all of the people involved in getting a piece of produce you enjoy into your hand to eat. Where was it grown, and by whom? Farmers, truck drivers, storekeepers, men and women -- imagine how hard they are working to support themselves and their families. Now consider all the ways in which this divine cycling has supported the creation of this fruit by creating fertile soil, clouds and rainwater, energy from sunshine, air. The key is to recognize and be mindful of our interconnectedness with all sentient beings of creation; only then are we called upon to elevate it and make it holy.

The whole purpose of creation is to recognize our complete embeddedness in all created sentient beings with those lines of filiation running most directly through our own awareness of these transformative cycles that embrace us.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is a simple celebration of the Jubilee year, a radical and remarkable concept deserving of more attention. Although the Jubilee (or Yovel, meaning ram's horn, which was traditionally sounded to proclaim the Jubilee's start) hasn't been observed by Jews for ages -- our rabbis ruled that Jubilee can not be observed as long as so many of us are living in diaspora -- there is much wisdom in the practice of radical release and rest. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Kezayit (An Olive's Worth): What's In A Name? (Or What's With Orev?)

CoverDesign2_RavenNow and again, someone asks me why I sign my CBS emails with a two-part first name: Christopher Orev. Fair question.

In day-to-day life, I prioritize my given, secular name, Christopher. In this respect, I'm like most Jewish Americans. My patronymic Hebrew name, Orev ben Avraham Avinu v' Sarah Imanu, is known by very few people and used by fewer still, generally reserved for use in a ritual context.

So why, then, do I insist on writing Christopher Orev? Because my Hebrew name is very important to me, and I feel it should appear in formal correspondence, especially in a Jewish context. Because the name itself is unusual, however, I'm often asked what it means. Not long ago, Rabbi Glazer suggested that I share the origin of the name on the CBS blog in the hopes that a handful of readers might find my explanation of interest.

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Those well-versed in Tanakh might worry that I've chosen Orev in some misguided tribute to one of the two Midianite chieftains killed in Shoftim 7:25. But, no, the ill-fated Midianite is not my namesake.

Because Orev means 'raven,' some friends of mine have assumed that my choice stems from my fondness for natural history and especially for reviled and misunderstood species. I am fascinated and excited by ravens, but that partiality isn't my principal motivation, either. Instead, I chose Orev because of the raven's mysterious role in the story of Noah.

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. He sent out the raven, and it kept going and returning until the drying of the waters from upon the earth. And he sent out the dove from him to see whether the water had subsided from the face of the ground." (Bereshit 8:6-8).

Where did the raven go?

Contemporary biblical critics contend that the raven's disappearance is evidence of the biblical narrative's many sources. According to these scholars, when the stories of Torah were first edited and assembled, scribes often included details from differing accounts (rather than choosing between them). By this reckoning, one of the ancient riffs on the flood story had it that a raven was released while another, slightly different version of the tale assigned the recon flight to a dove. The two versions were simply spliced together so that Noah released the raven and then the dove.

The literary, analytical, and rational inclinations of this particular Torah reader make me appreciative of such striking examples of narrative juxtaposition and mythmaking. But while I appreciate our sacred text through a decidedly non-supernatural lens, I also invest Torah with much social and mystical power. These two, very different approaches to Torah — one universalist and secular, the other specific and traditional — place me in a grey zone of contemporary Jewish identity, but I consider this balancing act (this push-pull or hybrid position) to be the very essence of the Conservative movement’s philosophy.

But what does this have to do with my name? Back to Noah’s raven; what became of it? There are a number of traditional drashs that explain the raven's disappearance, but I view the stray bird as an analog of my Jewish neshamah (soul). This particular orev "flew the coop," so to speak, for a few generations, but has at last come back to the ark (through the covenant of conversion).

I find a satisfying etymological riff on this interpretation in the Hebrew name itself, עורב. Ayin means "eye," Vav means "and," Resh means "beginning" or "head," and Beit means "house" or "home." Orev, therefore, can be read as "eye and head home," an oblique reference to the raven's "seeing" his way home. Likewise, my neshamah has turned anew (or returned) to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.

Another gratifying etymological connection has been made between orev and erev, meaning 'evening' or 'dusk.' Both words are comprised of the same letters, and Hebrew linguists believe that the word orev was derived from erev, a reference to the raven's dark plumage. If so, the raven’s name is born of the gloaming, my favorite time of day, one electric with magic and possibility, and ideal for sustained rumination.

But the etymology can be (and is) taken one step further. Ervuv is the Hebrew word for 'mixture' and, just as day mixes with night at erev, some rabbis point out that, although it is officially deemed treif, the raven is the only bird species to split the difference on the Mishnah's four kashrut qualities; it possesses two kosher attributes and two treif attributes, and is therefore a "mixed" creature.

This mixture angle is also important to me. When I emerged from the mikveh, I was a new Jew. If you had asked me then if I stood at Sinai, I would have confidently replied, ‘Yes.' Yes, at least, with respect to metaphysics and psychology...but my personal history is not that of Hebrew school, kugel, or Camp Ramah. My Gentile past informs my Jewish identity in unexpected, generally positive ways, but the individual ger, like the individual shul, will never please klal Yisrael. Because I am actively engaged in the Jewish community (across the denominational, political, and theological spectrums), my very "Jewishness" is sometimes challenged. Some fellow Jews review my attributes and deem me kosher; others say I'm treif. I'd be fibbing were I to claim that this limbo doesn't trouble me, but I also recognize that it provides me with a special opportunity to examine questions of identity. I will be wholly Jewish and yet I will be "the stranger that sojourns among" my fellow Jews. The name I have chosen embodies two themes that are important to me: my (re)turn to Jewish peoplehood and also the peculiar/particular Jewish identity of the ger.