Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt once remarked: "Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core."

How do we discern the difference between hypocrisy and evil? And then how do we confront evil in life? For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good so as to live with hypocrisy-free integrity.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration of defaced wheatpaste posters on an urban wall is inspired by Deuteronomy 25:19: "...you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget!" This biblical injunction is the basis for three of the 613 mitzvot: Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites; Wipe out the descendants of Amalek; Do not forget Amalek's atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert. If you’re an art aficionado and this portrayal of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the portrait is a wild-haired riff on one of Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s famous self portraits. 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.

Pinhas -- Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pinhas"No matter how small a religion is, there will always be people within it who find some reason to break away and make it even smaller, a process that, of necessity, ultimately means conflict."

This comment was offered by Reza Aslan, controversial sociologist of religion and host of Believer.

So do we accept that belief as manifested in world religions is, for Aslan, mostly equivalent to zealotry – the shadow side of every religion? The claws of zealotry pierce the heart of religion once its spirit has been relegated to the oppression of others via a blinkered way of seeing the divine totality in lived life.

The zealotry of Pinhas is rewarded with a brit shalom (covenant of peace) and the priesthood after he publicly spears Zimri, the Simeonite prince, and his paramour, Cozbi, the Midianite princess. Following a census of the people, Moses divides the Land of Israel by lottery among the Israelite tribes, and then transitions leadership to Joshua, who will lead the people into the Promised Land. Rightful inheritance for women is championed by the five daughters of Zelophehad, who petition Moses for justice.

Commitment to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue is also important. While it is important to remain vigilant "to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land," recall how the dangers of "anti-fundamentalism" are lurking just around that corner. As American Jews, it is our democratic responsibility to be "holding elected officials, religious leaders, and political pundits accountable" as a most "important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society."

The challenge remains, of course – how to imagine a world where humans will evolve through its religions, enabling a world where zealotry against the other dissolves into a brit shalom, a devotional responsibility for others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is an abstract depiction of the five daughters of Zelophehad. "The daughters of Zelophehad...stood before Moses and before Eleazar the kohen and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting." (Numbers 27:1–2) These sisters are often championed as proto-feminists because they "opened the future for all women." Here, their five figures emerge from the ground – going against the grain. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

Eleanor Roosevelt (b.1884) was one of the most outspoken women on human rights and women's issues in the White House during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, her husband.

This week, in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings:

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24:5).

In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve God as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for God, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Balaam's faithful and unfairly castigated donkey at the moment she sees the angel. "The she-donkey saw the angel of the Lord stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field." (Numbers 22:23) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

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.

Ki Tetzei -- Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Facebook_CoverDesign_KiTetzeiHow do we react to evil when we confront it in our lives?

For modern people, it has become habit to dissect evil into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils whereas murder and lying are examples of moral evils. From the Torah’s perspective, there are those inevitable moments when we confront moral evil of the most radical kind. The symbol of greater moral evil and the need for its effacement – Amalek — serves as the strong conclusion to this week’s Parashat Ki Tetzei reading, yet this awareness of evil also permeates the 74 other laws (of the 613) recorded here that deal with lesser evils.

Lesser evils all focus on the most granular of human interactions, including: eating on the job, proper treatment of a debtor, the prohibition of charging interest on loans, dealing with wayward children, returning lost objects, sending away the mother bird before taking her birdlings, and erecting safety fences around the roof of one’s home. The greater evils emerge on the battlefield, so that the whole notion of whether war is obligatory or optional is also an emergent issue in our sacred text.

While pragmatism is important, Judaism teaches that there is little sense in compromise when it comes to accepting moral evil – rather every seeker is enjoined to always be moving toward the just and the good.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration captures the fear that permeates much of the parsha. "...all Israel will listen and fear." (Deuteronomy 21:21) Our ancestors stoned to death wayward children and cut off the hand of a woman who inadvertently touched the "private parts" of a man other her husband – their moral code was clearly a corporeally enforced one. Fortunately, this violence would be reconsidered and tempered by the rabbis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Web_Chen_9177The passion for truth behind the Torah’s pursuit of justice could not be stated any clearer than Moses' instruction: "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20).

So, as we read in Parashat Shoftim about the primacy of justice, I think of philosopher John Rawls' definition of the concept in his work Law of Peoples (1999). Rawls is important as a thinker because he challenged philosophers to really begin to consider different models of global justice, eliciting questions like: Should global inequality be morally troubling? How might we lean towards a less unjust world?

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

There is no Shabbat handout artwork this week. Christopher Orev Reiger is unplugging in the mountains.

Simona Lewis' Bat Mitzvah

SimonaLewis

SimonaLewis

Hello. My name is Simona Lewis. I’m an eighth grader at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. My interests include hanging out with my friends, dancing, playing and creating computer games, and spending time with my family. This coming Shabbat, September 10, I will become a bat mitzvah.

My parsha is Shoftim, which means judges. In this parsha, Moses tells the Israelites about different rules about appointing judges and how to have a just society. He explains the requirements to be a judge, the rules about the cities of refuge, as well as the requirements a king must have if the Israelites choose to appoint one. Parashat Shoftim also includes the famous commandment, "Tzedek tzedek tirdof," or, "Justice, justice you shall pursue."

I would like to thank my parents for always being there for me and helping me prepare for this big day in my life. I would also like to thank Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel for her support and for helping me learn how to read and chant Torah and haftarah, as well as helping me write my drash. I would also like to thank my brother and sister for encouraging me and listening to me practice countless times. Lastly, I would like to thank The Brandeis School of San Francisco and the Congregation Beth Sholom community for celebrating this milestone in my life with me and my family.

Please note that Simona's bat mitzvah will take place at Camp Newman on Saturday, September 10, but that she will observe a tefillinbat mitzvah at CBS this Thursday, September 8, during morning minyan (7 a.m.).

Pinhas -- Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Facebook_CoverDesign_PinhasRobert Byrd (b. 1917) once remarked: "To the American people I say, awaken to what is happening. It is the duty of each citizen to be vigilant, to protect liberty, to speak out, left and right and disagree lest be trampled underfoot by misguided zealotry and extreme partisanship."

Zealotry can be uncovered everywhere in our age, from politics to sport, and so surely it is also the shadow side of every religion. The claws of zealotry pierce the heart of religion once its spirit has been relegated to the oppression of others via a blinkered way of seeing the divine totality in lived life.

The zealotry of Pinhas is rewarded with a brit shalom (covenant of peace) and the priesthood after he publicly spears Zimri, the Simeonite prince, and his paramour, Cozbi, the Midianite princess. Following a census of the people, Moses divides the Land of Israel by lottery among the Israelite tribes, and then transitions leadership to Joshua, who will lead the people into the Promised Land. Rightful inheritance for women is championed by the five daughters of Tzelafchad, who petition Moses for justice.

Commitment to reaching out in good will through intentional interreligious dialogue is also important. While it is important to remain vigilant "to insist on freedom of religion and freedom from religion for everyone in the land," recall how the dangers of "anti-fundamentalism" are lurking just around that corner. As American Jews, it is our democratic responsibility to be "holding elected officials, religious leaders, and political pundits accountable" as a most "important way to take citizenship seriously and model for the world the best of what participatory democracy can look like in a very diverse society."

The challenge remains, of course – how to imagine a world where humans will evolve through its religions, enabling a world where zealotry against the other dissolves into a brit shalom, a devotional responsibility for others.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork riffs on the popular propaganda posters of artist Shepard Fairey. Here, we see the Israelite Pinhas, who brutally murders another Israelite and his Midianite lover to express his disgust for their violation of G-d's directives. Here, one side of Pinhas' face is rendered in reds and browns and the other in shades of blue and grey. His anger is apparent on both sides, but our read of the man is colored by, well, the color. Hero or fanatic? Freedom fighter or terrorist? In a time of increased political and ideological fractiousness, it often seems as though the "facts" have become less important than the filters through which we view them. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Balak -- Numbers 22:2 - 25:9

Facebook_CoverDesign_Balak2"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (Numbers 24: 5).

Renowned Italian author, Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once tellingly remarked, "I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it." So how do we react each time we enter into our sacred spaces of worship and re-read and re-cite the renowned opening verse above?

These are the words recited this week in Parashat Balak from the prophet Balaam, who was commissioned to curse the people of Israel by Balak, the king of Moab and the Israelites' arch enemy. On the way to curse the Israelite encampments, Balaam is berated by his donkey, which sees an angel sent to obstruct their passage. After Balaam's eyes are opened to the angelic emissary, his attempts at cursing the Israelites are subverted into blessings.

How do we move along this path to the Promised Land when we feel blocked from all sides? In marked contrast to Amalek’s violent work of chaos that "happens to attack randomly on the way" (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Jewish response of "blotting out Amalek" is actually about embracing life – it is a call to live purposefully with ethical objectives and just values in an unjust world. Thus, the commandment in Parashat Balak to conquer the seven nations, for example, is actually a commandment to spiritually control and reorient our emotions – including anger, hatred, and revenge. It is a commandment to transform these emotions with divine focus.

When we serve the divine as Jacob, we shield the Divine within our lives from the intrusion of evil or negative thoughts and from an animalistic consciousness. When we serve G-d as Israel, we make our lives into a "sanctuary" for G-d, enhancing our divine consciousness by identifying with ethical values and dreams for this world.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork shows Balaam blessing the Israelites as cloaked figures look on (maybe his Moabite patrons?). The illustration was drawn with bold lines, loose handling, and close cropping to increase energy and tension, hopefully conveying something of the prophet's enthusiasm – the word comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, meaning 'possessed by a god.' Only one eye is open and Balaam's mouth is agape, a literal take on the text: "The word of Balaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye." (Numbers 24:3); "The Lord placed something into Balaam's mouth." (Numbers 23:5). Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.